Sunday, February 2nd, 2014 – Sermon on Matthew 5:1-12

Matthew 5:1-12

1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

When I was a child, maybe 6 or 7 years old, I can distinctly remember playing in the kitchen, while my mother sat at the kitchen counter reading the paper. My mother, having developed a bit of headache, stood up and got two pills of Advil. But for some reason she didn’t take them right away. She simply placed them on the counter and continued reading. Well, after about 20 minutes or so, she got a little hungry. So she stood up and grab a bag of M&Ms from the pantry. She sat down, poured the bag out on the counter, and continued reading and snacking. It wasn’t long before I hear my mother say, “Yech!” as she spit out two pieces of chewed up Advil. You see, M&Ms and Advil have a similar shape and size, but the sweet, melt-in-your-mouth chocolate of an M&M is nothing like the bitter, sickly taste of raw, uncoated Advil.

The reason I say this is because the people listening to Jesus gives these infamous beatitudes, during his sermon on the mount, have a similar experience. You see, “beatitudes” were a common form of speech back then. A beatitude is a blessing or announcement of God’s favor spoken in a particular way. “Beatitudes are short, two-part affirmations that sum up common knowledge about the good life.”[1] For example, we might say, “Blessed are those who study hard and get good grades for their future will be bright.” Or “Blessed are those who avoid red meat for they will avoid heart disease.”

People knew what a beatitude was. They knew its shape and size. And so when they sat down on that hillside with Jesus to listen to his list of beatitudes, they thought they were reaching for that sweet, melt-in-your-mouth beatitude. But what they got instead was the bitter and sick tasting beatitude. They were similar in shape and size, but at their core, very different.

“Blessed are…the poor in spirit.”

“Blessed are…those who mourn.”

“Blessed are…the meek.”

“Blessed are…those who are persecuted.”

Yech! Who is Jesus kidding? These are people we do out best to avoid becoming, not people we view as particularly blessed by God. They knew who was blessed by God. They had heard it for years.  It was the rich. It was the wealthy. It was those who were popular. It was all the things that you wanted to attain and achieve. Those were the people God blessed, because they had the good life. But these people? The poor in spirit, mournful, and meek, and persecuted? These are the people the world views as pitiful. And yet Jesus claims them as blessed. And so to hear these particular beatitudes from Jesus would have been shocking, to say the least. A little like biting into a painkiller, when you were expecting a chocolaty treat.

The thing is, these beatitudes don’t seem to shock us anymore. Perhaps because they have been neutralized by overuse in the church. They’ve become something we are more likely to have stitched onto a banner or a throw pillow than we are to have transform our life and our values.

And if anything, Jesus’ beatitudes can seem like church homework. You know, if you want to be blessed, then you better make sure you are poor in spirit, meek, mournful and persecuted. Like this is Jesus’ to-do list in order for Christians to be blessed. It is so easy for us to take anything that Jesus says as something you have to do in order to be considered valuable to God. We love to achieve things, don’t we? We don’t want something for free, because then it isn’t worth anything.

But here is the thing – Jesus’ isn’t describing something. He is performing something. He is not describing blessed people; he is actually performing a blessing on the people he is describing. He is saying, “Those of you who have lost hope…God bless you. You are beloved. Those of you who are suffering the loss of a loved one, you belong to God and to us and you are invaluable. Those of you who have given up so much for others’ sake, God’s face shines on you every day. Those of you who have been beaten and abused for standing up for what you believe in, you are precious in God’s sight.

I mean, what if Jesus isn’t telling us how to be blessed. What if he is just blessing. Just throwing blessings around like they are free. Because they are free. And here he is blessing those who so often don’t ever hear a blessing in their life.

So, in the eyes of Jesus, it is not about living up to some expectation that makes you blessed, it just the sheer act of receiving a blessing that makes you blessed. Which is the hardest part of a blessing, actually. While we want to achieve a blessing by being a certain way, Jesus simply gives us a blessing to receive exactly as we are. And the hardest part about a blessing is receiving it.[2]

And I think it is so hard to receive because it is so rare. We don’t offer blessings anymore. I mean, how often do you see anyone being publicly blessed anymore? But the more often we do them, perhaps the easier they will be to receive.

I think it is the same way with prayer. Confession: I am not very comfortable with public prayer. I’m just not. But then there is Ron Barth. Many of you know Ron. Ron is a retired pastor who is a member here at Aurora. He is not around much these days, as he is out pastoring a church in Wyoming for a couple of months. But one thing I love about Ron is, without a doubt, he will grab my hands and start praying out loud, in public, no matter where we are. I have prayed with him in the lobby of his apartment building. With people walking by! I have prayed with him in a booth at The Kernel. At a coffee shop. On the phone. I mean this guy is a praying machine. And I love him for it. But the hardest part is receiving it. And I can joke that I am embarrassed that other people might see us, but really, I think it is because it is so intimate and personal. That he is praying with and for me. Right then and there.

It is one thing for someone to say that they will pray for you. It is an entirely different thing for them to hold your hands right then and there and pray with you. It is one thing to hear that all people are loved by God, but it is an entirely different thing to have someone place their hand on your head and mark a blessing on you.

It doesn’t describe you as blessed. It actually blesses you. And that is the first thing Jesus does before he starts his ministry here in the gospel of Matthew. He blesses people. People who society would not considered blessed. “(Jesus) is demonstrating once again that God regularly and relentlessly shows up just where we least expect God to be in order to give to us freely what we can neither earn nor achieve: blessedness.”[3]

If the hardest part of a blessing is receiving it, I can’t help but wonder, what part of you struggles to receive a blessing? What part of you believes that there is part of you that doesn’t deserve this? Part of you that thinks you are too broken to be considered blessed. Perhaps it would sound like: Blessed are you who lose your temper with your kids. Blessed are you who feel terribly inadequate when it comes to tax season. Blessed are you who are lonely on Friday night. Blessed are you whose marriage is in ruins. Blessed are you who are sick of being a caregiver. Blessed are you who struggle to forgive.

Friend,I don’t know what you carry with you as you come to worship this morning. But you are worthy of blessing.

Nadia Bolz-Weber is a pastor in Denver, CO. She grew up in a really conservative church. She remembers a lot of rules: no smoking, no drinking, no dancing, no boys and girls in the same swimming pool, no musical instruments in the church, no women as pastors. And Nadia rebelled. She got tattoos and became an alcoholic, and experimented with drugs and sex, and other self-destructive behaviors. But, eventually, she got clean and sober, and realized she had calling from God to be a pastor for her people. The people who often didn’t feel welcomed in church. She decided to go to seminary. But first, she had to tell her parents. And she was scared. She didn’t want them to shame her and throw bible verses at her about how women couldn’t be pastors. But she gathered up the courage and she told them. And as soon as she did, her father stood up and grabbed his bible. And he opened it to the book of Esther. Esther is a Jewish woman who knows she supposed to do this thing for God, but she is scared and doesn’t know if she can do it. And as Nadia’s father read this part of the story, he paused on this verse, “You were born for such a day as this.” And then he closed the Bible and prayed a blessing over his daughter. Nadia says this about that moment: “You need a blessing to go and do what you’re going to do and to be who God is calling you to be. And the fact that my blessing came from my Church of Christ parents is one of the most profound gifts in my lifetime.”

You need a blessing to go and do what you’re going to do and to be who God is calling you to be. What if we became a blessing culture? What if we became a church that blesses people to go and do what God has called them to do? What if you tried to incorporate blessing into your life? Perhaps as parents, you blessed your children before you sent them off to school each day or before you tucked them in at night. Or perhaps you bless your spouse or partner before you left the house for the day. Or what if you blessed your friend after having lunch together? What if we were bold enough to offer a blessing to someone. So that they might receive it. And be blessed by it.

I just heard a study where elementary school teachers were told that the names of children in their class who were gifted and advanced. Regardless of whether they actually were or not. By the end of the year, those students were scoring off the charts. The students became what the teacher believed them to be. What if the same is true about blessing? What if we start seeing all people as blessed by God and maybe that is exactly what they will become. Blessed.

Now, I don’t expect us to do something like this if we’ve never practiced it. So we are going to practice it here. Turn to someone near you, and mark the sign of the cross on their forehead, and say to them, “God bless you and keep you.”

See, I was right. You are worthy of blessing. Amen.


An Unpreached Sermon on Modern Day John the Baptists – Matthew 4:12-23

Matthew 4:12-23
12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15 “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16 the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” 17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. 23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve been hearing a lot about John the Baptist. Two weeks ago, John was the one who baptized Jesus in the Jordan. Last week, John was the one who pointed to Jesus, proclaiming, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”

And then we hear this opening line in our Gospel: now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested.

The temptation is to skip over this verse, isn’t it? To get to the rest of the story. Oh, okay, so after John has been arrested, Jesus went to Galilee. But we can’t skip over it. I mean, this is John we are talking about here. John, the one who baptized Jesus. The one who points us to Jesus, saying, “Here, here is the one we’ve been waiting for.” We’ve come to know John in the past couple of weeks. And now he’s been arrested? Don’t we want to know why?

Well, if you remember, John’s been going around preaching a provocative sermon. A short sermon. But a provocative one. “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven has come near.” To speak about a new kingdom is to speak about a new king. And that can do only one thing: threaten the current king. King Herod. And King Herod was a brutal king. Brutal to his people. He learned it from his father, Herod the Great. Herod the Great, according to Matthew, is the one who tried to have baby Jesus killed. And now King Herod Antipas is just as cruel and brutal. And for John to preach that another kingdom is coming, is to say that Herod’s kingdom will not last. Its days are numbered. John’s sermon is speaking truth to power. He is saying, “Your time is up, Herod. You won’t last. There is a greater kingdom that is coming, and it isn’t yours. It’s God’s. And God’s kingdom will look nothing like yours.” And so John gets arrested for it. In a couple of chapters we will learn that he never gets out of jail. He is beheaded by King Herod.

That’s what we do to people who speak the truth to power, isn’t it? We throw them in prison. We silence them. All we have to do is look at people like Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning and Edward Snowden to see how our own country still does this. Chelsea Manning is a US Army solider who leaked video of US troops gunning down a group of unarmed civilians (which included two children and two Reuters’ journalists) in Iraq. Manning also leaked the Afghanistan War Diary and Iraq War Logs that revealed truths about other instances of civilian casualties, contractor abuse, and reports of torture, which were classified and not being investigated. Why was it classified? So the American people wouldn’t know about it, perhaps. And now, she is serving a 35-year prison sentence.

Edward Snowden leaked National Security Agency files about our government’s spying program– information that has revealed the government’s widespread spying on its own citizens and other countries. Apparently the worst of the information has yet to be revealed. As a result, Edward Snowden has had his U.S. passport revoked and is considered a fugitive who is on the run. He can’t come home. Nothing good here awaits him.

Have any of you been to the airport in the past couple of years? Do you remember that message that comes over the intercom about every 10 minutes or so? It says that if you see anything suspicious, tell someone, right? We tell our children that if they see someone doing something wrong, then tell an adult, right? But apparently that doesn’t apply to the most powerful government in the world. Manning saw that the US military was disrespecting the sanctity of human life, and he told someone. Snowden saw that the US government was doing some suspicious activity, and he told someone. And now both are consider traitors and enemies of the state.

I realize we don’t know the whole story, but might the Edward Snowdens and the Chelsea Mannings of the world be our John the Baptists? Might they be the one’s who are pointing and preparing the way of Jesus. Just how the ways of Herod weren’t the ways of the kingdom of God, the current ways of the United States aren’t the ways of the kingdom of God. They’re just trying to speak the truth. These two men are pushing for a new way of being. They cannot stand by and stick with the status quo. They are attempting to announce a new way of being that perhaps might be more about respect for humanity, than loyalty to one’s country. That might be more about caring for the least of us.

I don’t know about you, but I sense that our kingdom has a limited number of days. I don’t know how long. And I don’t mean that America is going away, I just mean that this idea that we are the greatest and the most powerful nation in the world… it just doesn’t work. Because when you become too powerful, you start needing to hide the ways you maintain your power. And so the days of us being the greatest and most powerful nation are numbered, I think. And while that can be scary, I think it is hopeful. Because then something new is coming. A new way of being. And maybe it can look more like the kingdom of heaven.

Okay, so John’s been arrested for preaching the message, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Now, watch what Jesus does. He moves to a new region and he starts to preach. Listen to his sermon: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near!”

Isn’t that incredible. I mean it is the exact same sermon that John preached! Which means Jesus must have really loved John and his message. He thought it was such a great sermon he couldn’t help but preach it. I mean, that’s what us preachers do all the time. We echo our favorite preachers. In my preaching there are people that I reference all the time. Some of my favorite preachers. Alan Storey from South Africa. Barbara Brown Taylor. Thomas Long. Their words are so well said and so truthful that I can’t get away from them.

The same is true for Jesus and John. Jesus must have really loved John, because he copies John’s sermon word for word. And remember where John’s words got him? A prison sentence. And ultimately a death sentence. And now Jesus is preaching the same words. That’s brave. And we know where they will land Jesus, don’t we. It must have been a message that was worth dying for. Your days are number, Herod. There is a new kingdom on its way.

So what does this new kingdom look like? As those of you who just started studying the Gospel of Matthew know, the author Matthew doesn’t give a lot of details in his writing. Which means that the details that he does give us must be important. And I just want to lift up and wonder with you about one detail that is in the story today.

Jesus is walking by the sea of Galilee and he sees Simon Peter and Andrew casting their nets, because they are fishermen. He calls out to them saying, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” They drop their nets and follow. Then Jesus comes upon John and James who are mending their nets. And he called to them. They dropped everything and follow.

Why do you think Matthew gives us the detail that Simon Peter and Andrew were casting their nets and James and John were mending their nets? Matthew doesn’t give a lot of details but he gives these details. Why? The only thing I can think of is that if Simon Peter and Andrew live in a small town like Capernaum with James and John, and they all are fishermen, then their all relying on the same fish in the sea to catch and then to sell in the market place. And if Simon Peter and Andrew are casting their nets, while James and John are mending theirs, then Simon and Andrew are winning. They have the advantage. But then Jesus calls Simon and Andrew and James and John to be his followers. Jesus takes those who are in competition with each other, and brings them together. He takes people who were divided by competition and bring them together. Around the same goal. I will make you fishers of people. It’s about people. God’s kingdom has at it’s center not power, not profit, but people. That’s what John the Baptist did. He made it about people, not power. That’s what Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden did. It’s about people. What’s the impact of our actions on people?

There is a new kingdom that is coming. And it is the kingdom of God. And all other kingdoms will fall to this kingdom. And it is a kingdom that calls us to be united as people. Not united as a church, or faith, or country, but united as a human race. And it is a kingdom where no one is in competition with anyone else anymore. Where we are free to stop competing. Where we need not spy on one another. Where we need not beat each other down. Where we lift each other up as brothers and sisters. As beloved children of God. God is calling us together to bring about this kingdom. It’s risky business. It is a hard message to proclaim. It comes with cost…I mean, you just might get arrested. Or killed. Just ask John. Or Chelsea. Or Edward. Or Jesus. But it is God’s work. May we have the courage to participate in it.