The Back Story

(sermon 2/1719)

g-violin3This fine violin was made in Cremona in 1654. Or was it?

Luke 6:17-26
He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

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George and I had a couple of friends over for dinner the other night, and at one point in the evening, George invited them into his workshop for a tour, and to show them some of his work in progress. This was actually a pretty big deal – it was the first time since he got here – and it was pretty rare even before that – that he invited someone into the inner sanctum, the “holy of holies,” as it were, of his workshop – where even a coffee cup set on the wrong surface, or a stray oily fingerprint on the wrong piece of wood could cause nightmares in the precision of his woodwork and finishing. As he was showing some of his work, he explained that he never makes instruments that look brand new, pristine; rather, he did a number of things to artificially antique it. But this couldn’t just be done willy-nilly, just randomly scratching and denting the violin; it has to be very carefully, artistically thought out to look like the actual wear that a one- or two-hundred year old violin would be likely to have. Edges have to be worn smooth where the violin would have rubbed on its case or was hung on a peg, while other edges in more protected areas need to stay sharper and crisper. Scratches might be made on the belly of the instrument where over the years, the bow may have scraped the wood surface. Small pockmarks will be made where the strings would have poked the wood while it was being restrung. Varnish will be rubbed off the high points, and where the stubble on someone’s cheek rubbed against it. Fake dirt, in different layers and colors, will be added in the right nooks and crannies in just the right way. To do all that, George has to create a “back story” for the instrument; an imagined life and history for it, that will help guide how to antique it believably. In short, the violin that he creates doesn’t just make beautiful music; it’s also being crafted to frame a particular story.

The writers of the four gospels actually did the same sort of thing, framing their particular version of Jesus’ life story in such a way to emphasize and tell a particular story. We have an excellent illustration of this in today’s gospel text – this part of Jesus’ teaching the multitudes that we call the Beatitudes. We can read about the same basic event in both Matthew and Luke. Most of the story is the same, but some of the details in the two versions are different, and in those differences we can see the equally valid, but still slightly different, back story that the author wanted to put forward.

Matthew’s gospel strongly emphasizes the divinity, the eternal royalty, if you will, of Jesus, and he emphasizes a more spiritual way of understanding the faith. This is Matthew’s back story. So to emphasize these points that Matthew thinks are important, when you read this story in his gospel Jesus climbs a mountain and sits on its top, almost like he’s sitting on a throne, while the people all gather around and below him to hear his royal decrees. Luke certainly agrees that Jesus is divine Lord, but throughout his gospel, his emphasis – his back story – is to stress Jesus’ oneness and solidarity with humanity, especially the poor and suffering. So as you heard, in Luke’s version of this story, Jesus doesn’t climb a mountain – he literally “comes down” to the people, and stands there in their midst, in a level place and on an equal footing, as one of them, to give them his message. And where Matthew’s Jesus blesses “the poor in spirit,” Luke’s Jesus blesses the plain old “poor.” Matthew’s Jesus blesses “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness;” Luke’s blesses “those who are hungry now.”

Well, it’s Luke’s Jesus whose words we’re considering today, so what do we make out of his words here? In this passage, Jesus says that the blessed people in this world are the poor, the hungry, the grieving, the hated and despised, the oppressed and persecuted. In other words, all the “losers” in this world. And if that isn’t enough, Jesus puts and even sharper point on things by warning the wealthy and comfortable – “Woe” to them, he says. Enjoy it now while you can; your day is coming.

Jesus’ words here are at the core of the understanding that the church has come to call God’s “preferential option for the poor.”

To be honest, that makes me squirm, because I know that by at least any reasonable global economic standard, I fit into the wealthy and comfortable category – the “woe to you” category. And so do you. So – is Jesus saying that God cares bout the so-called “losers,” and not us?

I think I understand this passage a little better after having two children. Any of you with at least two children will get it, too. You love all of your children equally. But at any given time, one on them might need a little bit more attention, a little more help, a little more grace, than the other. Not because you love one more than the other, but specifically because you love them both the same, and you want the same good outcome for them both. There will be times where your love will be expressed differently. So no, I don’t think that God loves the losers and hates everyone else.

To be honest, though, none of us is ever completely outside the “loser” status. We try to put our best face on things so other people think we have our acts together. We look happy when inside, we might be in deep pain. We try to appear popular and well-liked, while inside we might feel estranged, unloved by others and unloved by ourselves. ON the surface, we might make it look like everything’s going great, but really, we’re feeling the pain of being discriminated against, made second-class, based on the color of our skin color; or our appearance; or the body parts or the number of chromosomes we happened to be born with; or the person we love; or the accent in our voices or where we live. While not diminishing the seriousness of those suffering far worse than us, and not ignoring Jesus’ warning to the rich, this is part of the good news for us embedded in Jesus’ words: we’re losers, too, and because of that, the words of hope that Jesus offers here are words of hope and good news for us, too.

But back to those who are indeed suffering more than us, who Jesus called blessed: some people have used these words to say that these people will inherit the kingdom of God someday. They’ll be filled someday. They’ll laugh, and know justice, someday. That it really isn’t their place to question, or complain, or try to do anything to improve their lot in life now because it’s just their God-ordained place in the world, and they’ll eventually get the reward they deserve – someday.

But what if Jesus meant something a little different from – or at least, something in addition to that? What if part of Jesus’ intention, and part of Luke’s back story, is that part of what Jesus was saying was:

  • “Blessed are you who are poor, because you’re waiting for help is over – I’m establishing a church, a group of people, and blessing them with the needed resources, and I’m sending them out to make sure that your basic needs are met, now.”
  • “Blessed are you who are hungry, because I’m sending the church out to feed you, now.”
  • “Blessed are you who weep, because I’m sending the church out to comfort you, now.”
  • “Blessed are you who are hated or suffering injustice, because I’m sending the church out to teach love and compassion, and to work for equity and justice, now.”

Part of the good news for us in Jesus’ words here are that we’re blessed because we’re losers too, in our own ways. But another part of the good news for us is that we’re also blessed because Jesus has made us partners in bringing a bit more of the kingdom of God into the lives of hurting people in the here and now. That’s an incredible thing. An exciting thing. A real blessing, to be entrusted with that.

Maybe that’s what Jesus was saying here. Maybe that’s part of Luke’s back story. If it is, then whether it’s played on a violin or otherwise, it should be music to our ears.

Thanks be to God.

Blessed

blessed-tattoo-39

(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.

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

 

eastry_church_ghost_picture

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.