Blessed

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(sermon 1/29/17)

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

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Several years ago I had to make arrangements for a wedding I was officiating. The couple really wanted to get married in our church, but some relative of the bride, and uncle, I think, was a minister in a Fundamentalist denomination, and she wanted him to have some role in the service. So I called him one morning to walk through the logistics of the service and tell him what part he could play in it. When he answered the phone I said “Hi Jim, how are you?” and he boomed back in a voice so loud I had to hold the hone away from my ear, “Oh, I’ve been blessed by the best!!!”

“Hm, well, OK, I’m glad to hear that. Listen, I was calling to talk to you about –“

“Yes sir, there’s nothin’ like wakin’ up every morning knowing you’ve been washed clean by the blood of the Lamb, brother, amen?!”

That was just the first amen; over the course of the next five minutes he peppered his speech with “amens” every five or six words, seemingly at random, in the same way that other people might say “um” or “so,” and so frequently that it lost all meaning, and all in that same booming, overly excited voice. And at the end of the conversation he repeated what he’d started with, “Yes sir, I’ve been blessed by the best!!!”

I have to admit that by the time the phone call was over, I was exhausted – and honestly, a little annoyed. Exhausted from just trying to get him to focus on what we really needed to be talking about, and annoyed because his manner of speech was just, well, annoying to me personally. In my world, normal, sane, rational people just don’t talk that way, at least not constantly. Now please understand, I’m certainly not questioning the sincerity of his faith here, or anything like that; it’s just that that manner of speaking seemed artificial, put on, over the top. And I probably shouldn’t say it, but there were several times during the call that in my head, I was thinking, “Stop. Really, just stop, or I will crawl through this phone and hit you.”

Eventually, the wedding went off just fine, and when I met him in person, Jim was a very nice At the wedding, we even joked about our differences, and I’m sure he wouldn’t be upset by my impersonation of him this morning, any more than I would be if he teased me in a similar way in one of his services. But ever since then, every time I hear the word “blessed,” I flash back to that phone call. Given this week’s gospel text, the part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that we call the Beatitudes, I thought of Jim and that phone call again.

More accurately, it made me think about just what Jesus meant when he talked about being “blessed.” I won’t get into a boring, long-winded discussion about the original Greek word used here that we translate into English as “blessed.” Suffice it to say that sometimes, it was used to mean happy, or fortunate, or well-off. But based on the way it’s used here, that can’t possibly be what he means, since by definition, if you’re poor in spirit, or mourning, or being persecuted and reviled, you aren’t happy, fortunate, or well-off, and you’d probably get mad at anyone telling you that you were.

Obviously, then, Jesus means something else when he talks about being blessed. He’s using the other meanings of this word, which is to have special favor, to have some unique standing, to be emboldened and empowered in some way. It’s only by understanding the word this way that Jesus’ words make any sense.

The great preacher David Lose once wrote that, given this meaning of Jesus’ words, to be blessed is to know that you have someone’s – in this case, God’s – unconditional regard and love. It’s to know that you aren’t, and never will be, walking alone; that God will be with you wherever you go and whatever you find yourself in the middle of.

So who was it that Jesus was talking to; who was it that he was telling God was with them? He was speaking with a group of peasants, farmers, fishermen, mostly. Nobodies, in the estimation of the movers and shakers of the time. Losers. People who had more than their fair share of being poor in spirit – worn down, beaten down by life’s circumstances; more than their fair share of mourning and grief; more than their fair share of having more powerful people pushing them down or aside and treated unjustly. And yet, these were the people that Jesus told were especially favored by God. Jesus does wrap all of it up by saying yes, their reward in heaven would be great, and beneath your current troubles you could have some consolation, some joy in that – but their real “blessing” began in this life, in the here and now. When you’re trying to live with compassion and mercy and justice toward others, even if you get beat down in the process of trying to do it, know that you are *blessed*. You have God’s promise, God’s assurance, that God will walk the walk with you – you aren’t going it alone. You’re pleasing God, and God will embolden and empower you in your efforts, even when the situation looks the darkest.

Jesus’ message to them is his message to us, too. There are going to be plenty of times that we’re trying to live in ways that please God, but we’ll end up hitting a brick wall. Times when we try to uphold God’s mercy and compassion and justice for others, and we’ll be told that it’s unrealistic and even dangerous. Times when we’ll work for peace, and we’re sneered at and told that’s an idealistic pipe dream; you can’t live like that in the real world; that it’s an angry world, and the only response we can have is to return anger for anger. Times when we’ll work to help a refugee family settle into our country and start a new life, and we’ll be told that we’re enabling our enemies; that we’re destabilizing the country because people of that religion, people from that country, supposedly pose an imminent threat to us.

The truth is, in ways large and small, if we try to really live out what Jesus lifted up in the Beatitudes, we’ll be going against what many would consider common sense, living in the “real world.” There will be times when we’ll know grief or mourning, whether because of that kind of pushback that I just mentioned, or just due to the normal difficulties and stresses we encounter in life. There will be times when we’re worn down and poor in spirit, or just poor, period. Jesus tells us that whenever any of this happens in our lives, that God lifts us up, and walks with us – in other words, that God has blessed us. Some days, that might make us feel as wild-eyed and giddy as Fundamentalist Jim. But even when it doesn’t, we’re still just as blessed.

Thanks be to God.

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Ghosts (sermon 11/2/14 – All Saints’ Sunday)

 

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After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” – Revelation 7:9-17

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When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. – Matthew 5:1-12

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They’re all around us, you know. The ghosts. Those people who were so much a part of the church, so much a part of our lives, who are gone now, but whose memory is still so very real to us. We still hear their voices, their laughter, sometimes even their complaining. Now, maybe years after they’ve died, we’ll get a whiff of their favorite after-shave, or their perfume; the smell of their favorite pipe smoke or lilacs like they used to have in their front yard, and immediately we’re back with them, so real that we feel like we could reach out and touch them. We can look at the church pew that they sat in, every Sunday for forty years, fifty years, and we can see them sitting there today, folding and creasing back the bulletin the way they always did; marking the hymns in the hymnal with extra offering envelopes. She was your favorite, or least favorite, Sunday School teacher. He always sang off-key in the choir, his big booming voice making up with passion what he lacked in talent, but he was there every Sunday, rain, shine, or snow. These incredible, wonderful, funny,  committed, and sometimes even irritating people who left such a mark on us; whose very being helped to shape us, to mold our faith to what it is today. People who will always have a warm spot in our hearts. These are our saints.

Of course, they’d probably laugh if they heard themselves described that way. But that’s probably a part of why they mean so much to us. The passage from Revelation that we heard today describes a vision where all of our saints are dwelling in heaven, in the afterlife, in the very loving presence of God. That should be a great reassurance to us, but the scriptural passage about them that I like even more is in the New Testament Book of Hebrews, where they’re called a “great cloud of witnesses,” those people who have completed their journey of faith and who are now watching us from beyond, encouraging us onward in our lives, in our own journeys.

In study after study, surveys have shown that one of the things that people want most out of life is to know that they’ll be remembered after they’re gone. That they made a difference in the lives of the people around them. Today, All Saints’ Sunday, we remember all those people who have meant so much in our lives who are part of that great cloud of witnesses. We recognize that they did indeed, matter. That they aren’t gone or forgotten. That they made a difference, a real difference in our lives and the way we understand the core of our very existence and our relationship with God.

This is a promise that we have from God, and one of the things that should give us the greatest hope. That death is not the end, it’s just a turning of the page, the beginning of a new chapter. It’s a promise from God that in time, we will be reunited with them. The Sunday School teacher. The choir member. The parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, children, dear friends. God says that they still live, they still love, and they still reach out and cheer us on. The message of All Saints’ Day is that we will all be reunited again, with them, in the very loving arms of God. And for that, we should all say

Thanks be to God.