EYES TO SEE
2 Peter 1:16-21
Jane Shelton, CRE; February 23, 2020
First Presbyterian Valdosta
When I read this Matthew scripture, I couldn’t help but chuckle at Peter. I could identify with Peter. The one who would be eager to show hospitality for this person I’m with, this person that I love. Wanting to give Jesus something that I thought would be important to the moment, or in this case, a monument to remember the moment, the location of this special event. Yes, I can just see the wheels turning in Peter’s mind, and the excitement he was experiencing!
Peter, in his hospitality and excitement, offers to make three dwellings, one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah, but God had other plans.
Like Peter, I’m one of those who gets so caught up in wanting to do something special, that I sometimes miss what God is telling me to do.
I like to think that as I’ve gotten older, that I am better able to recognize when I am doing something that I think is a good idea from something that God thinks is a good idea, or perhaps I’ve learned to take just a moment to ponder or pray or meditate to see which direction God may be pointing me to go, even when it is a direction in which I am not comfortable.
As Jesus takes Peter, James and John up the high mountain, just the three of them alone, it has been only six days since Jesus has begun to reveal that he is destined to go into Jerusalem, be killed and raised on the third day.
It has only been six days since Peter’s response was to rebuke him for saying so, as he responds to Jesus, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”
It is heart wrenching to hear this transaction between Jesus and his beloved disciple Peter.
Would any of us have acted differently if our best friend had told us such a thing?
Perhaps it is this very incident that leads Jesus to take Peter with him to the mountain.
And the humor in this moment is when Peter offers to build three dwellings at the moment that Jesus has become transfigured before him. The moment that Elijah and Moses appears. I mean these were not just your everyday events that Peter must have been used to.
I just have this picture in my head of these four men, Jesus, James, John and Peter standing at the top of this mountain, and Peter just talking away when he looks up and sees Jesus face shining like the sun. Jesus clothes have become dazzling white. And then, if that’s not enough to get your attention, here appears Moses and Elijah who begin a conversation with Jesus!
What a jaw-dropping, remarkable and unforgettable moment. Perhaps you might even want to hear what they are having a conversation about.
And yet Peter’s response to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here.”
“It is good for us to be here?” You think?! Does he think that Jesus doesn’t know that? Does he think Jesus didn’t know that when he brought him to the top of the mountain in the first place?
I mean, I can just see James and John rolling their eyes as they stand stunned before what is unfolding before them with Peter’s remarks.
And while Peter is still rambling on about how it might be a good idea to build these three dwellings, God decides to get Peter’s attention.
God, comes in a bright cloud and overshadows them.
And to really get Peter’s attention, God speaks from the cloud, and says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
Basically, God tells Peter to shut up and listen! We’ve all met those people in our lives that just go on and on, and we get the point in the first sentence but they just go on and on and on.
There it is, those three very important words, LISTEN TO HIM! Peter, stop your rambling, stop your “I think this is a good idea to build dwellings,” and listen to what Jesus is telling you. Just stop, and listen.
As God speaks from the cloud, Peter, James and John fall to the ground as they are overcome by fear, and then what happens…..Jesus comes to them, ….and this is my favorite part of the story, ….out of compassion, ….Jesus comes and touches them. He touches them.
I’m sure they thought they were about to be swallowed up by the great cloud, but Jesus tells them, “Get up, and do not be afraid.”
It is not until God comes on the scene that he is able to get the attention of Peter. Peter so consumed with things of the world that he has not been able to see the divine in Jesus.
Jesus transfiguration affirms his divinity, yet it also begins to give the disciples eyes to see God’s light in the chaos that is to come.
We hear growing up, “Jesus died for our sins so we can be saved, so our sins can be forgiven,” but Jesus’ death on the cross shows us so much more.
It’s not just about us, in fact it is in the chaos…Jesus death, the disciples’ loss of a friend, a mentor, a leader…and through the resurrection….they are able to see the light of God.
God’s light shows the way through the chaos, those dark moments in our lives when we don’t know how we will possibly survive. It allows us to see beyond ourselves, beyond our pain and loss and fear, so that we can be present with God. So that we see the light within us to help others through their chaos.
If we become so focused on ourselves, how can we show others the light when we are looking inward instead of shining outward into the world?
We don’t need a monument. God’s Holy Ground is where he meets us, wherever we are, all we have to do is stop and listen. See the light of God.
God gave us his Son, Jesus, the Light of God in human form. A light to build the early church. Jesus shined the light outward to the disciples so we would know how we are to live, how we are to have compassion and help one another, love one another. Jesus showed them how to meet with people, gather with people, share with people, heal people.
Do we have eyes to see through the chaos?
Just as the disciples had to learn to live without Jesus’ bodily presence, so do we.
Transfiguration invites us to live in the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Cor. 4:6)
As the light shines in our hearts, God is made real every day. He is made real to those around us.
God prepares us in transcendent encounters of our lives to endure the world around us, the world of the cross, the world that has the ability to break us. Yet this world is never beyond God’s redemption.
God gets our attention so that our eyes are open.
Encounters on mountaintops with blinding lights may happen for some, but for most, they happen in the ordinary moments of our lives. Ordinary moments at home with our family, at work with our employees and co-workers, classrooms, packing and delivering meals for Break Bread, Pub Theology, the Father Daughter Dance, the Bun Run and in other church activities.
Ordinary moments can happen anywhere we make a space for the Holy to be present.
Like Peter, it was when I was consumed by my thoughts for what needed to be done, that my eyes were opened.
On that Saturday morning on my way to the art center with Dick, it was all about me and the chaos in my life. “I can’t do this,” I remember saying to Dick as I laid out all the reasons as to why I needed to drop my CRE class.
After all, Dick had just had bypass surgery in December, and now in April my sister was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. I needed to take care of them, I didn’t have time to finish my CRE class, and I was sure that I certainly could not preach, so what the heck was I doing in this CRE class anyway.
I had just wanted to learn all I could about God and Jesus and the Bible, but I had people to take care, a business to run, children and grandchildren. Surely this CRE path was not the path that I was supposed to be on.
Yet in that art center, God showed me the light and opened my eyes.
It wasn’t about me and the chaos of my life. In that simple photograph of the sandaled foot, that simple 8 x 10 black and white photograph that got my attention was a scripture. I was curious enough to pull out my cellphone and look up Romans 10:14-15, “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
I remember the exact spot where the photograph hung on the wall to this day, because that became Holy Ground for me.
God’s light allowed me to see that it wasn’t about me. It’s about doing the work that Jesus started, the work his disciples continued, and the work we are to carry on.
Peter tells his listeners, “We did not follow a myth, but we ourselves heard the voice come from heaven. So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning rises in our hearts. You must understand,” Peter continues, ”no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”
In Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, “Learning to Walk in the Dark,” she refers to a prayer in The Book of Common Prayer:
‘Look down, O Lord, from your heavenly throne, and illumine this night with your celestial brightness; that by night as by day your people may glorify your holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.’
She writes, ‘this prayer recognizes a kind of light that transcends both wave and particle. It can illumine the night without turning on the lights, becoming apparent to those who have learned to rely on senses other than sight to show them what is real.’
She goes on to write about a young French boy, Jacques Lusseyran, who loses his sight in a freak scuffle. Later, when coming to terms with his blindness, he wrote,
‘I had completely lost sight in both my eyes; I could not see the light of the world anymore. Yet the light was still there. Its source was not obliterated. I felt it gushing forth every moment and brimming over; I felt how it wanted to spread out over the world. I had only to receive it. It was unavoidably there. It was all there, and I found again its movements and shades, that is, its colors, which I had loved so passionately a few weeks before. This was something entirely new, you understand, all the more so since it contradicted everything that those who have eyes believe. The source of light is not in the outer world. We believe that it is only because of a common delusion. The light dwells where life also dwells: within ourselves.”
Lusseyran shared one of his greatest discoveries was how the light he saw changed with his inner condition. When he was sad or afraid, the light decreased at once. Sometimes it went out altogether, leaving him deeply and truly blind. Yet, when he was joyful and attentive, it returned as strong as ever. He learned very quickly that the best way to see the inner light and remain in its presence was to love.
When Claude Monet painted his famous water lilies, he used the light to reflect their beauty, moving his easel through the garden to capture the light so he could see more clearly.
In our Contemplative Photography class this past summer, we learned how light reflects into the camera lens to reveal God’s beauty we might miss with our eyes.
In this life we can’t save ourselves from suffering, and we can’t shield ourselves from the light of God that sheds hope in the darkest moments of our lives. Jesus will come to us, he will touch us, and he will say, get up and do not be afraid.
We do not need a monument or a church building to find God. God will find us in our homes, in our work places, sharing a meal with someone, leaning over the bedside of someone we care for, sharing through social media and live stream, and yes, maybe even in a church pew.
God finds us when we are broken and when we have joy in our hearts.
God is present in suffering and sacrifice and in the promise and potential of our lives.
Are our eyes open to see the light? Are our eyes open to experience God’s Holy Ground…wherever we are?
*Cover Art “Icon of Transfiguration” by Aliksandar via Wikimedia Commons, used by permission
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 16, 2020
6th Sunday after Epiphany
Psalm 119:1-8; Matthew 5:21-37
In today’s portion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus plays the role of Rabbi. Because he recognizes that being faithful to God takes more than following the Ten Commandments verbatim, Jesus boldly takes the old law and helps the people hear it anew. Jesus engages with the text and makes it applicable to the culture of 1st Century Palestine.
In his classic work, Christian Doctrine, Shirley Guthrie notes that being a student of the Bible can be riddled with danger. To read the Bible properly, Guthrie wrote, we must read it with the intention of learning “who God is and how we may live faithfully in God’s presence.” Furthermore, when we encounter difficult passages it is wise to examine other passages that might throw more light on the question at hand. In other words, we must listen to the “total witness of scripture, not just selected passages that support what we already think and want to hear. When anyone argues that ‘the Bible says’ this or that, it is important to ask, ‘Is that all the Bible says…?’”[i]
Engaging God’s word—wrestling with the text in new ways—the practice is as old as Scripture itself. Take the Jewish Midrash, for example. Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig explains that the ancient practice of Midrash offers a commentary, generally on the Torah. In this type of preaching, rabbis allow themselves creative license to help explain the story.[ii] The Midrash offers a way of examining Scripture that moves beyond the literal sense of the text, examines it from various sides, and fills in the gaps, all in an effort to penetrate its deepest meaning. You likely noticed that I chose The Message translation for this morning’s gospel reading. I did so because, much like a midrash, Eugene Peterson takes creative license to help us understand the story afresh.
When it comes to other styles of preaching, once upon a time, expository messages were all the rage—sermons that took on specific texts and interpreted them verse by verse. Extemporaneous preaching came into vogue in the 19th century, with the preacher saturating himself with details beforehand and then delivering the message without the use of notes. Topical sermons present a specific theme and then examines it using a variety of biblical references. I have a friend who prefers this style although she acknowledges that it sometimes feels like preaching “The Gospel According to Hallmark.”
More recently, narrative sermons that rely on stories to tell THE STORY have become popular. One way of using narrative preaching is to tell the story using a 1st person monologue. The most creative monologue I ever heard was on the character of Jonah, told from the perspective of a fly that got stuck on Jonah’s shoulder after he was vomited up on the beach. With one wing stuck in the muck, the fly tried just as desperately to get away from Jonah as Jonah had tried to get away from God. The incredible monologue made the story come alive—for people of all ages.
While preaching and teaching styles have changed from generation to generation, so have music styles. When it comes to choosing worship music, I enjoy variety. At our First Friday Contemplative Services, for example, as an offering of prayer, we sing Taizé pieces from the hymnal or short choruses I write to be accompanied by guitar. For Sunday morning worship, tried and true traditional hymns are chosen as well as contemporary pieces that are played on the piano—often as the middle hymn.
Contemporary music, in its early years, garnered lots of followers. It had more than its share of critics, too. The criticisms often concerned its lack of theological depth and its focus on individualism. My friend Heather who is a chaplain and accomplished musician calls those years the era of “Jesus is my Boyfriend Music.” Thankfully though, this style of music has greatly improved.
Of course, historically, the Psalter was the original hymn book of the Hebrew people. Instead of reading them or reciting them, the people sang them. Psalms flowed through their spiritual blood in ways that, sadly, have become foreign to us. So, in an effort to bring new life to an old practice, this morning I’ve asked Donna and Kinney for assistance. Please turn your attention to the inset in your bulletin underneath the sermon title. To start us off, Kinney will sing the refrain twice and then we will join him to sing it twice. Thereafter, we will read the parts responsively and sing the refrain where noted. Let us sing a new-old song unto the Lord.
The Word of God[iii]
Refrain: Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path. (Sing twice.)
Oh, how I love your law! All the day long it is in my mind.
Your commandment has made me wiser than my enemies, and it is always with me.
I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your decrees are my study.
I am wiser than the elders, because I observe your commandments. [Refrain]
I refrain my feet from every evil way, that I may keep your word.
I do not shrink from your judgments, because you yourself have taught me.
How sweet are your words to my taste! They are sweeter than honey to my mouth.
Through your commandments I gain understanding; therefore I hate every lying way.
Your word is a lantern to my feet and a light upon my path. [Refrain]
Whether with words or music, our ways of communicating the message of God’s love are ever-changing—or at least they should be! Down through the ages, biblical interpretations have changed; sermon styles have changed; music has changed, too.
In the February newsletter, I wrote an article about our upcoming Lenten practice—something that will require change. From Ash Wednesday through Maundy Thursday, instead of the usual Wednesday night program and catered meal, we will meet for Wednesday Welcome Table from 6:00 to 7:00 p.m. In the style of what new church developers are calling “dinner church,” we will share food prepared by individuals and/or teams who create something healthy and delicious for us to enjoy. Wednesday Welcome Table will begin with a short prayer. Then, as Donna plays contemporary hymns or other arrangements, we will fill our plates—to overflowing—I daresay. Once everyone is seated, we will examine Scripture and other inspiring readings. We will sing songs accompanied by guitar or other instruments. Finally, we will conclude with the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday and with Holy Communion on the remaining evenings of Lent.
To be relevant in each generation, the church is invited to bravely consider new ways of being the church in and for the world. The Wednesday Welcome Table is one such new way—one such experiment—if you will. And here is a personal invitation from your pastor. Even if you never attend our Wednesday programs, come at least once. That way, when we complete our Lenten practice, you can help assess the results. If dinner church does not make enough of a positive impact to continue, we will chalk it up to a good experience, bless it, and let it go. If it holds promise, however, we may consider adopting the model—or portions of it—when we return from our summer break in August.
With all the courage we can muster, let us look to Rabbi Jesus for how to take the old and help people experience it anew. Who knows what we might learn by stepping out in faith to try new ways of exploring Scripture? Who knows what we might learn by teaming up to make healthy, delicious foods that appeal to a wider range of people? Who knows what we might learn by including more contemporary songs in a worship setting? Who knows?
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] Shirley Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 10-13.
[ii] Jana Childers, ed., Birthing the Sermon, 185.
[iii] Adapted from Psalm 119: 97-105.
*Cover Art by James Tissot via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
Salt & Light
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 9, 2020
5th Sunday after Epiphany
Isaiah 58:1-9a; Matthew 5:13-20
It seems that Isaiah is dealing with a real conundrum. Imagine a preacher/prophet who’s leading a congregation and every Sabbath he looks out and sees a full house—standing room only—every modern-day preacher’s dream. Now imagine that the people are praying and fasting and calling on God. It couldn’t get any better than this, right? Well, evidently that is not the case for God is quite distressed at the people’s shenanigans. Yes, they’re crying out to God, fasting and praying, but they’re doing it for their own selfish motives. While their religion looks tasty from the outside, it’s really a recipe for a rotten life—lacking flavor, lacking purpose.
Once upon a time there was a little girl named Goldilocks, who went for a walk one day in the forest. Before long she happened upon a house. She knocked on the door, but no one answered so she walked right in. On the table there were three bowls of porridge which looked and smelled delicious to Goldilocks, who was, by then, rather hungry. So, she tasted the porridge in the first bowl but was taken aback, “Oh, this is terrible. It has no flavor at all.” Then she tasted the porridge from the second bowl. “Yuck! This porridge is too salty. Who could possibly eat this?” Finally, she tasted the last bowl of porridge and proclaimed with great delight, “Ah, this porridge is just right,” so she ate it all up.
In this adapted beginning of the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, clearly, salt matters: too little leaves a dish empty of flavor, too much makes it inedible. But just right—well, that makes all the difference in the world.
Matthew’s gospel again places us in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that begins, we noted last week, with words of blessing. Now Jesus turns to the matter at hand which is how to live into a blessed life—how to live holy lives—how to love kindness, do justice and walk humbly with God. To all those gathered around, Jesus proclaims, “You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world.” To say that believers are the salt of the earth implies that we are to bring flavor and healing to the world. To say that believers are the light of the world indicates we are to help others see a ray of hope in the midst of darkness.
In Advent Readings from Iona, I happened upon an amazing story that goes like this:
A boy lived in an isolated house on a hill. A God-forsaken place for a young man. But one thing fascinated him. Each night he would look out into the darkness and see a light. It was far away on a hilltop, but this sign of life gave him hope.
One day he decided to go in search of it. It was a long and lonely walk, and it was already dark before he reached the outskirts of a town. Tired and hungry, he knocked at the first door he came to, and explained his search for the mysterious light that had always given him hope.
“I know!” replied the woman who had answered the door. “It gives me hope as well.” And she pointed back in the direction from which he had come. There on the horizon, was a single light shining. A sign of life in the darkness. The light from his own home.[i]
You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world.
As a pastor, I wrestle with what it means for us to be salt and light for one another and for our community. Undeniably, the level of stress and dis-ease around us is skyrocketing. Listen to friends, family, coworkers, teenagers, parents, grandparents—people are anxious. What are we to do? What is the church to do?
Reflecting on this weekend, it is easy to see how we are saying yes to Christ’s invitation to be salt and light for the world. As a church with a little less than 100 active members, we went out into the community to host the 24th Annual Father Daughter Valentine Dance for 3700 people. We prayed. We baked. We carried to and fro. We blew up balloons. We greeted. We checked coats. We scanned tickets. We handed out t-shirts. We poured beverages. We set out cookies and cookies and more cookies. You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world. In addition, we hosted the First Friday Contemplative Service—a worship opportunity that draws folks from our church as well as those in our community who are Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal, Disciples of Christ, and even some who have no affiliation to a church. Together, we prayed and sang and examined Scripture and sat in silence and dined at Christ’s table. You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world. And if that is not enough, yesterday we met for Pub Theology at Georgia Beer Co. Routinely, strangers find us on Facebook or via the newspaper, and they are curious about this brave ministry the Presbyterians have dared to bring to Valdosta. This week’s discussion was on Kobe Bryant, the Halftime show, Christology, and the Coronavirus—so, as you can imagine—our conversation was lively. You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world.
Surely, there are people in our community who are looking for hope. Will they find it because of us? Will they find it among us? One woman, who was hesitant to be a part of a faith community, tells the story of why she began attending a church—a place that ultimately became essential to her life. She writes,
Once I began going to church, the age-old religious rituals marking the turning of the year deepened and gave a fuller meaning to the cycle of the seasons and my own relation to them. The year was not only divided now into winter, spring, summer, and fall but was marked by the expectation of Advent, leading up to the fulfillment of Christmas, followed by Lent, the solemn prelude to the coming of the dark anguish of Good Friday that is transformed in the glory of Easter. Birth and death and resurrection, beginnings and endings and renewals, were observed and celebrated in ceremonies whose experience made me feel I belonged—not just to a neighborhood and a place, but to a larger order of things, a universal sequence of life and death and rebirth…
Going to church, even belonging to it, did not solve life’s problems—if anything, they seemed to escalate again around that time—but it gave me a sense of living in a large context, of being a part of something greater than I could see through the tunnel vision of my personal concerns. I now looked forward to Sunday because it meant going to church; what once was strange now felt not only natural but essential.[ii]
You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world. Regarding your faith, what is essential to you? What brings you hope? Where are you nourished when your soul needs refreshment? I hope you find something you need here in the church, and I hope that by being here, you are inspired to be the hands and feet of Jesus wherever you go.
Imagine a preacher who is leading a congregation and every Sunday she looks out and sees a full house—standing room only—every preacher’s dream. Now imagine that the people are praying and fasting and singing and calling on God. It couldn’t get any better than this! As the body of Christ in this place and time, we have the ability and the privilege to point people to Jesus. And churches great and small have a part to play. Oh, we will do it differently—that’s part of the tapestry of God’s beautiful plan. But if being just right in the eyes of God is our goal—if we want to be salt—we need to taste the dish we are serving up. If we want to be light—we need to be open to new ways of sharing the gospel. It’s a tall order, but with the love of God, the example of Christ, and the strength of the Holy Spirit, the church has been equipped to fill it. Oh, that God would gaze lovingly upon First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta and proclaim, “Not too little—not too much—but just right!”
[i] Brian Woodcock & Jan Sutch Pickard, Advent Readings from Iona, December 17 reading.
[ii] Dan Wakefield in Returning, quoted in Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, 478-9.
*Cover Art “Sermon on the Mount” by Carl Heinrich Bloch via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
He Would Love First
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 2, 2020
4th Sunday after Epiphany
Micah 6:1-8; Matthew 5:1-12
By the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ ministry is in full swing. He has called his first disciples and he has trekked throughout Galilee teaching the good news of God’s kingdom breaking in. And he has demonstrated what that looks like by healing every disease and sickness among the people. It’s no wonder that quite a crowd has gathered. Noticing them, Jesus goes up the mountain, much like Moses, and begins speaking. But instead of offering the Ten Commandments, Jesus provides a new teaching—one that invites hearers to move beyond external obedience to the law toward a new way of life guided by love. Essentially, Jesus’ way of being in the world informs the question posed by the prophet Micah, “…And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”[i] To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God, well, it looks a lot like Jesus. So pay attention!
Seated on the mountain side, Jesus begins his “Sermon on the Mount” with the Beatitudes. “Makarios,” the Greek word for beatitude, can be translated happy, fortunate, privileged, favored by God, blessed. But notice the people whom Jesus claims to be blessed: the poor in spirit, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. “Really, Jesus, those are the folks you call blessed?”
If we were asked to come up with a list of people our culture considers blessed, happy, fortunate, privileged, I daresay it would highlight character traits that are very different from meekness, mercy, and poverty. Instead, steeped in the reality of the consumeristic, power-hungry machine that our society has become—the list of beatitudes for our nation in the 21st century might look more like this:
Blessed are those who have more money than God because they don’t have a care in the world; Blessed are those who are not sorry for their behavior because they do not have to ask for forgiveness or make amends; Blessed are the 24/7 news channels with their talking heads for they guide the convictions of the people; Blessed are the mean, hateful ones for they know how to get even; Blessed are the insurance and pharmaceutical companies for they hold the quality of our healthcare in their hands; Blessed are those on Instagram and Twitter who have millions of followers for they have the power to influence the world for good or for ill; Blessed are those who are angry and violent because they use fists and weapons to take care of their problems.
Of course, as Christians we know this list is not right. Yet, in a world that seems to be spinning out of control, who wants to worship a God who blesses the poor and the persecuted? We do! We NEED to worship a God who blesses the least of these because it means that we are all included in God’s wide embrace—come what may! It means God blesses your son who can’t seem to find his place in the world. God blesses your friend who just got a diagnosis that can only be shared in a whisper. God blesses your neighbor who just lost his job and is worried about his future. God blesses you when you sit by your mother’s bedside waiting for her to draw her last breath—waiting for her to enter her eternal home. God blesses! That’s just what God does!
While the Sermon on the Mount has provided inspiration down through the ages, even for people of other faiths, like Gandhi, still most of us have difficulty getting a handle on the Beatitudes. As a result, we tend to pay them little mind. Maybe it’s because we fear what they require of us. Maybe it’s because we do not understand them. To complicate matters, an in-depth study of the beatitudes provides a host of interpretations. In recent years, liberation theologians have adopted them as proof that God prefers the poor over the rich. While there is evidence of God’s love for the poor, the outcast, the downtrodden throughout Scripture, there is also ample examples of God blessing those he loves with abundance, long life, and shalom. And when it comes to how Jesus interacts with the wealthy; it is love of wealth that he repeatedly condemns. Moreover, let us not forget the wealthy women who wrote the checks for Jesus’ ministry. Can you imagine Jesus taking their money and in the same breath, condemning them for it?
It’s so easy to fall into the trap of binary thinking, arguing that something is either this way or it is that way. It is black or it is white. It is the healthy, wealthy, and wise who are blessed, or it is the sick, poor, and foolish. Perhaps the Beatitudes can provide a new lens for us to see that Jesus does not love the down and out more than the up and coming. Jesus does not prefer the poor over the rich. Blessedness, happiness, favor—it’s pure gift—and it is for everyone. Remember the words of the Apostle Paul: Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.[ii]
With God, blessedness is not a reward for righteousness. It is sheer grace. And in the realm of God, even mourning, poverty of spirit, and meekness can reveal an inbreaking of the abundant life. If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, we may listen to a woman who is in constant prayer for a friend who has just entered hospice care. “Blessed are those who mourn.” We may have a clergy friend who yearns for his congregation to nurture new seeds of ministry so they may take root and flourish. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” We may notice the passion in the voice of our Break Bread Together Coordinator when she speaks of the 40 people a day we are currently feeding and the numerous folks who remain on the waiting list. “Blessed are the merciful.” We may give thanks for our Commissioned Ruling Elder who readily sees the good in both people and circumstances and who longs for love to grow in our midst. “Blessed are the pure in heart.”
Recently I preached a sermon entitled WWJBD? What Would John the Baptist Do? The premise of the sermon was that it is often difficult to know just what Jesus would do (harkening back to the WWJD bracelets, of course). When we are in doubt, though, we can always fall back on what John the Baptist would do. And what is that? He would point others to Jesus. This week the topic of WWJD? bracelets came up again in an email from Katharine Phelps. You see, a young 7th grader at Hahira Middle School is battling cancer, and someone is selling bracelets to raise money for her care. Elise Phelps, who has a heart of gold, was the first in line to purchase a pink HWLF bracelet—touted to be the answer to what Jesus would do. And what is that exactly? HWLF? He Would Love First.
What might “loving first” look like for those of us who happen to have adequate food, clothing, shelter, and resources? It might look like humbly listening to those weighed down by the cares of this world and then, if more than listening is required, doing whatever we can to help. It might look like moving out of our comfort zone to put the needs of vulnerable members of society before ours. It might look like taking Christ’s love out into the world in brave, new ways.
In all that he said, in all that he did, Jesus was guided by a heart overflowing with love. He came to breathe new life into the law. He came to show us how to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. And he came to teach us that whether we feel like it or not—we are blessed because we are God’s beloved. May we follow in his footsteps. May we, too, choose to love first. Amen.
[i] Micah 6:8.
[ii] Romans 8:38-39
*Cover Art “View from The Mount of Beatitudes” by Deror Avi via Wikimedia Commons; used by permission;