Sunday, February 26th – Sermon on Matthew 17(1-9)

You can listen to this sermon here.

Matthew 17:1-9
1 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said. “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Come, Holy Spirit, our souls inspire, and lighten us with your celestial fire. For if you are with us then nothing else matters. And if you are not with us, then nothing else matters. We pray this in the name of your beloved. Amen.[1]

Well, it was family movie night again. Disney’s Tangled this week. That’s the one about Rapunzel and her long hair. Rapunzel who was taken from her royal parents, the King and Queen, when she was a young child and held in a high tower away from the world by Mother Gothel. Mother Gothel, who only want Rapunzel for her hair and its ability to keep Mother Gothel young and beautiful forever.

Rapunzel’s parents are obviously distraught and grief-stricken. Every year on Rapunzel’s birth day, the whole town releases lanterns into the evening sky  – this beautiful but also brutal memory of the long lost princess. This symbol of memorial but also a sliver of hope. Rapunzel grows up in this tower, watching those lanterns in the sky every year on her birthday, never knowing who she really is – the long lost princess. Never knowing that those lanterns of light were for her. The film is of course filled with the tension of will she or won’t she be released from the prison tower and reunited with her parents.

My son, Elliot, is the kind of kid who he feels that tension, that uncertainty with his whole body. In fact, about three quarters of the way through the movie, with a hesitant fear and trembling in his voice and tears right on the edge of dropping to his cheeks, he asks the question we all ask – what’s gonna happen? When is she going to be with her parents again? Mom, Dad, can we just fast-forward to the part of where she sees her parents again?

And what do you do? We wrap him up in our arms and we say, “Honey, it’s gonna be okay. It’s gonna be okay.”

But this weekend, as we comforted our child, I had a moment where I wondered – am I telling the truth? It’s gonna be okay. Is that true? I mean, sure, for the movie, of course it’s true. But on a bigger level – am I lying to my child?

Later, I remembered that this is the exact question that Peter Berger, a professor of sociology and religion, asks. Berger describes a child crying out in terror in the middle of the night, having had a nightmare. What does the mother do? She gets up, she rushes down to the child’s room, she sits on the bed and she holds that child as close as she can, and she says, “Oh honey, don’t be afraid. Everything is alright.”

And Berger asks, “Is she lying to the child? Does she not know what kind of world we live in? Does she not know that both of them will die? How dare she say everything is alright!”

No, says Berger, she’s not lying. She’s confessing her faith. That despite it all, she and her child are floating on a sea of grace.[2]

I’ve start to wonder if this odd story of Jesus’ transfiguration, which comes about three fourths into the story, is the gospel writer’s way of putting his arm around the reader and saying, “Honey, do not be afraid. Everything is gonna be okay.”

Why do I think that?

Because everything is not okay.

Not yet anyways.

Liturgically, we’ve leapt off the mountain top of the sermon on the mount from the past few weeks and landed down about 12 chapters later here on another mountain top. The mountain of Jesus’ transfiguration. This incredible story of light bursting forth from Jesus in the presence of Moses and Elijah who have been dead for quite some time, and Peter, James, and John who are just stunned by the whole thing. And then this moment of God surrounding them all in a bright cloud, and speaking once again the promise we heard at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my Son, my beloved. With him, I am well pleased. Listen to him.”

It is this unbelievable story that defies explanation but begs for meaning and understanding. Taken in isolation and on its own, all it seems like is a pretty cool magic trick that leaves our hearts and our hands empty. But taken in context, it just might be our very salvation. And what’s the context? Everything is not okay.

Since Jesus’ sermon on the mount, things have only gone downhill. As one scholar has put it, “Jesus has been labeled a blasphemer, accused of demon possession, doubted by his friend and colleague in kingdom work John the Baptist, rejected by his hometown to the point that he stopped doing ministry there, resisted by the very people he came to serve and save, and is the subject of murder plots that will, of course, finally be successful.”[3] Things just aren’t going as we imagined. In fact, just a few verses earlier, Jesus has just told his disciples that he would soon suffer and be crucified and raised from the dead and that they too are called to take up their cross and follow him. This was so off the plowed path that the disciples saw for their life that Peter stood up to Jesus and proclaimed, “God forbid this from ever happening to you.”

You can almost hear the reader wonder: what’s gonna happen? When’s Jesus gonna be raised from the dead? Mom, Dad, can we just skip ahead to that part?

 Everything is not okay.

Because of this stark contrast between what has been happening down the mountain and what happens up the mountain, some scholars are led to believe that this transfiguration story is misplaced. Sort of like an ancient spoiler alert to the end of the story, this passage, some say, was originally a resurrection story that belongs somewhere after Easter, and that it had somehow been mistakenly placed too early in the gospel.

But preacher and theologian Tom Long suggests while that may be true, that it doesn’t matter. Sure, the placement of this story could be historically inaccurate, but theologically, the placement of this story is spot on. That right in the midst of this dark and dreary world, when things don’t seem to be going as planned, Jesus shines with the glory of God and we are reminded of who Jesus really is.

In this beautiful and spooky collision of light but also clouds we are reminded of those claiming and identity defining words spoken over Jesus in his baptism – This is my Son, my beloved; with him I am well pleased.

Just as the darkness of death looms and the doubts of whether Jesus really is the one we’ve been waiting for darken the minds of the disciples (us included), we get to peak through the keyhole of the locked door to the future, to see who Jesus really is. Is Jesus a failed Messiah? Did we back the wrong horse? No, this really is my Son, the voice from the cloud says. Listen to him.

At the moment when Jesus and his life is the most disfigured from what we imagined it would be, Jesus is transfigured before our eyes so that we might not forget who he has been since the beginning. In the midst of what looks like suffering and death, this is a gripping promise of hope. Oh honey, don’t be afraid. Everything is alright, Jesus whispers to his disciples.

But there’s more. If in Jesus’ transfiguration we see who he really is, perhaps we see ourselves and others for real too. This story suddenly becomes just as much about the reader as it is about Jesus. You see, Matthew’s community was in the middle of living through its own crisis. They were likely a group of Jewish Christians who have just been kicked out of their home synagogue, their home church, for believing in this suffering Messiah named Jesus. People whose lives have just been turned up side-down and who are figuring out how to live into this new reality. People who need to see themselves not based on their present circumstance, but to be seen as they were from the very beginning and as they will be in God’s future – as God’s beloved. Made in the image of God. Full of light.

Oh honey, don’t be afraid. Everything is alright, Matthew whispers to his readers.

When your life is falling apart, do you ever need a reminder of who you really are? Who you are beneath everything else. Do you ever wish those around, those whose lives are living breathing collateral damage of whatever mess is happening in your life, do you ever wish they could see you that way too? Who you really are, who you’ve always been since the beginning? And who you hope to be in the future?

A couple of years ago, I heard a story about two kids, Charlie and David, who were not getting along at school. In fact, Charlie and David used to be friends, but now Charlie was bullying David at school. Typically, what happens in this situation is that Charlie is punished for such unacceptable behavior and acting out. But this particular school was trying a new approach to these situations. It’s called Restorative Conferencing. Both parties are brought together along with their parents in for a conference about what has happened. Each person shares the problem as they see it and the effect it has had on them. Together they decide on a consequence for the youth.

But before that happens there is this crucial step that I just marvel at. The mediator asks the group to acknowledge that the problem and the problem story is not the whole story. In this particular situation, the mediator asked this question, “Is this who Charlie has always been? Has this always been his story – being a bully?” And as soon as that question was asked, something soften in David’s mother, who’d known Charlie for a long time. With a heartfelt sigh, she said, “No, that’s not who Charlie has always been. From the very beginning, I’ve known Charlie to be a loving, kind friend to my son, David. Not a bully.” And suddenly, in that moment, Charlie was transfigured in her eyes. Seen for who he has always been since the beginning and not for who he was in that moment. From there, the mediator asked the groups, including Charlie, which story they would like to live out of going forward.

Maybe that’s what it looks like to live out the Transfiguration. Perhaps as Christians, we are called to live this life with Transfiguration lenses. Ones that let you see yourself and others as they were in the beginning and as they really are today, and as they will be in the end – as God’s beloved. Made in the image of God. Full of light.

I don’t know if you are on a mountain top moment of life right now or if you are in the valley of despair or on some incline or decline in-between. But I think this transfiguration story is for us all and we are to carry it with us. In the eyes of God, there is more to you and everyone else, more to your life and the lives of every person than the present circumstances. Whether you can see it or not, you are a child of God, beloved and held in the arms of God, surrounded by a cloud of grace. Full of light.

Do not be afraid. Everything is gonna be okay.

Is this a lie? No. I don’t believe it is. Amen.

__________

[1] This is a prayer that Barbara Brown Taylor regularly prays before preaching.

[2] As told by Tom Long, here: http://www.luthersem.edu/celebration/archives.aspx?m=6158

[3] Tom Long, Whispering the Lyrics, pg. 26.

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Sunday, February 12, 2017 -Sermon on Deuteronomy 30 and Matthew 5

You can listen to this sermon here.

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

Matthew 5:21-37
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder’; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. 27 “You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. 31 “It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. 33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be “Yes, Yes’ or “No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

Well, happy Valentine’s day week. Nothing screams love and affection quite like a gospel reading about lust, adultery, and divorce. But maybe that’s okay – Valentine’s Day isn’t everyone’s favorite holiday.

But we have our work cut out for us this morning. And we will see what we can do with that. But for now, let’s set that reading aside.

Instead, I want to engage your imaginations. I want you to imagine with me for a moment that you are a police officer and you are on the night shift. And you know, it’s Northfield, MN -things are pretty slow. But you like to hang out in the Culver’s parking lot, right there on Highway 3. You have a good view of the intersection, access to the highway in either direction. Plus, the custard flavor of the day is Chocolate Oreo Volcano. It’s a win-win.

Now, it is the middle of the night. A couple of cars come by here and there. But then you see this car coming down Woodley St. It’s a green Ford Focus and you just have this sense that something is about to happen. And as the car approaches the red light, it slows down a little bit, but then without stopping, turns right and accelerates quickly on to the highway.

“Aha!,” you think, “That car just ran a red light. They broke the law.” Plus, you figure it is a bored teenager with a new license and this is a good opportunity to teach them the rules of the road. So, you put down your Chocolate Oreo Volcano, and you quickly follow the car. Eventually, you catch up to the car right around Kwik Trip. Turn on your lights, pull the car over, and you take your time registering the license plate number. Let them sweat it out a little bit. And then as you approach the car, you can see that there are two people in the car. The driver rolls down his window, and you can tell from the size of his eyes that he’s terrified and nervous. And then you glance over at the passenger and you notice that not only is she sweating but she’s also breathing deeply, over and over again. And then as you notice the woman’s round, firm belly, you hear the driver say, “Officer, I’m sorry I rolled through the intersection back there. I looked both ways, I promise. My wife is in labor and I’m just trying to get her to the hospital.”

And now, you have a choice to make: do you either give this driver a ticket for running a red light – which is the law! – or do you let this couple go, and in fact, usher them to the hospital?

So, show of hands, who here would still give the couple a ticket for running a red light?

Who would let the couple go on to the hospital, and in fact, maybe even lead the way?

Exactly. Because while the driver did break the law, the real crime in that situation would be ticketing them and delaying these people in need. Because, what’s at the heart of the law of red light? Why do we stop? To keep us from hurting each other. That’s the heart of it. But then once you saw that the woman was in labor, in order to keep with the heart of the law, in order to not hurt the child or the mother by delaying them, the real law, the law of compassion leads you to get them to the hospital.

So, we can see that we have laws that govern our land and our life, but we have to work the law in the context of a situation in order to uphold the heart of the law. If you just apply law without any nuance to it, you could end up keeping the law but missing the heart of the law.

Our readings this morning take up the law of God and how we are called to use it. To work it. How we are called to understand it. And I think for most of us, most of us think of the law of God as this firm, steadfast thing that never changes. As if it is written in stone. I mean that’s how the 10 commandments came, right? Chiseled in stone.

But we are going to see that even God’s law needs to be worked in order to uphold the heart of God’s law. To begin, we start with Deuteronomy and Moses’ farewell speech.

In our reading, Moses is coming to the end of a very long speech. In fact, it is his last speech – the Israelites have arrived at the border of the promised land. He knows that he doesn’t get to go in with his people. He’s tired, he’s old. This is it for him.

He’s been speaking for about 25 chapters, beginning with the 10 commandments, and then he’s given commentary on what it means to live those commandments out. And now he’s coming to the end of his speech, with a strong climactic point. It is almost as if Moses is saying, “If you remember nothing about what I’ve told you, remember this. Before you head into a new land, remember this about God’s law: I have set before you life and death. Choose life – so that you and your descendants might live.

Choose life. I think from just those two words, we learn two things about God and about humanity. The first thing we learn is from that word “choose.” And what we learn is that God gives us freedom of choice. God gives us power, God shares power with us. Which is a sign of God’s love, right? Any relationship in which only one person holds all the power is an abusive relationship – and that is not the kind of relationship God has with God’s people. So God shares power. God gives us choice. Out of love for us.

The second thing we learn from the words “choose life” is that God has an opinion about our choices. God has a preference. God wants us to choose life. And clearly, life in God’s eyes is more than having a pulse. God is talking about the way we live our life. And does it bring life? Does it lead to “abundant life, extravagant life, my cup-runneth over life”[1]? And not in the sense of do you have a life of comfort, and security and power and prestige. But do we live life in a way that lets life flourishes in the world for myself or for my neighbor, or do we live life in a way that brings death and destruction for myself or for my neighbor. Let me put it this way – every time I choose fear, or dishonesty, or revenge, or resentment. Or every time I think too highly of myself or too lowly of myself, I’m not choosing a way of life that brings life, I’m choosing a way of life that brings death.

Now, is it easy to always discern what is the way of life and what is the way of death? No, it isn’t. We face incredibly difficult situations in this life, and it can be very difficult to figure out which option God longs for us to choose. But as our guide we have those words from Moses – choose life.

And this is the heart of God’s law – choosing life. The flourishing of life for God’s people. The law isn’t this burdensome command from an angry tyrannical god who just thirsts for obedience. The law is a gift from God to serve the flourishing of life in the world. But in order to keep God’s law, we have to work it, to keep asking – does this law still protect the flourishing of life or does it not?

That’s what Jesus and the rabbis would do. They would loosen and bind the law of God in order to keep the heart of it. They would loosen it, meaning making it less strict or easier. We see Jesus do that with the Sabbath Day. Remember Jesus breaks the Sabbath law in order to heal someone – he loosens the law for the sake of life. If you are that police officer, you loosen the law in order to let life flourish.

But now, in our Matthew reading, we are going to see Jesus bind the law, make it tighter, more difficult in order to keep the heart of the law.

So let’s take that idea that at the heart of God’s law is life, let’s apply that to the painful words we heard Jesus say in the Sermon on the Mount. We will see that Jesus is working the law in order that the law might serve life.

So, Jesus says, “You have heard that it said, “You shall not murder’, But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.” It sounds harsh and strict but perhaps Matthew’s community was struggling with anger issues but they saw no problem with it because it’s not like their murdering anyone? Perhaps people were taking advantage of God’s law by saying, “Well, I won’t murder you but I will berate you and demean you and shame you and embarrass you publicly. But hey, I’m not killing you, so I’m still within God’s law.” It’s only facebook. It’s only twitter. Which is where bullying happens these days. Is the heart of this law that you’re allowed to bring someone right up to the brink of death, but as long as you stop there, you’re okay? Is that choosing life? No, of course not. That’s choosing death. At the heart of God’s law is the flourishing of life, and so at the heart of this law is the respect, reverence, and regard for another human being as a child of God. Jesus binds the law in this context in order to keep the heart of it.

Or Jesus says, “You have heard ‘You shall not commit adultery’ but I say to you whomever looks at a woman with lust commits adultery.” Is this to say that none of us should ever be attracted to another person who isn’t our spouse as long as we live? No, of course not. We’d have to tear out our eyes, and removes our brains. But in this context, perhaps the men of Matthew’s community thought that as long as they didn’t commit adultery, they could still whistle at the women walking by. Still comment on their body and their beauty. Still objectify them. But hey, as long as they haven’t committed adultery, they were still within God’s law. No! That’s not choosing life for your neighbor, that’s choosing death. That’s taking God’s law too literally to advantage you and to hurt another. It misses the heart of the law. It is about not only about honoring and respecting a person’s marriage, it’s about honor and respecting that person. So, Jesus binds the law in this context in order to keep the heart of it.

And then one of the hardest one of all – divorce. Is Jesus saying that God want us to stay in broken, and miserable, and painful marriages? No, I just can’t believe that. I mean, I’m not saying that God likes divorce – no one likes divorce. But this world and this life are just too complicated to draw that line in the sand to say that God would never want you to get divorced. Sometimes, I think in order to choose life for us and for others, we have to choose the end of a relationship. So, what is Jesus saying? Well, remember that back then, women were viewed as property of the men. And perhaps some of the men were just divorcing their wives at the drop of a hat. But hey, they gave them a certificate of divorce like the laws says, so….I’m still good, right? Is that the heart of this divorce law? To keep the man’s hands clean? No, of course not. Divorce meant terrible, terrible things for the wife and the children, leaving them totally vulnerable with no way to support themselves, not to mention the public shaming and pushing to the edge of society to be forgotten. The heart of this law is to value and protect the woman.

So in that context Jesus made it more difficult for divorce to happen, for the sake of life for all. We live in a different context today. And today, sometimes the best way for life for all to flourish is for there to be a divorce. Please know, I do not think Jesus is condemning modern-day divorce. He is simply asking that our decisions as disciples of Jesus be oriented around what brings about the flourishing of life to our relationships, to our community. To our world.

In closing, what are we to do with all of this? Friends, we have just a few more weeks to this season of Epiphany. And this season isn’t about remembering how Jesus began his ministry back then, it is about acknowledging how Jesus’ continues his ministry now.[2] Through you. The salt of the earth. What I take away from these readings, is that you and I, we as a y’all (if you heard the sermon last week), are invited to consider our relationships and how we are engaging in those relationships, and the rules and laws in our own life that govern those relationships. The laws of our government, the laws of our church community, and even the rules that we set up in our own life. And we are invited to put God’s law to work in those situations: are we choosing life, the flourishing of life for me and for my neighbor? It is about being a faithful disciple for the sake of life for your neighbor. Or to put it another way – what’s the most important thing that is happening in your life right now? Not what is the best thing or the worst thing, but what’s happening in your life that feels like it is the most important? And in that situation, what choices do you have? And among those choices, which ones do you think bring life and help and healing and service to the world? In the name of God, make that choice. Choose life. Amen.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor.

[2] Matthew Skinner, Sermon Brainwave.

Sunday, January 29th, 2017 – Fear and Love, A Sermon on Matthew 5:1-12

You can listen to this sermon here.

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.

It was quite the experience to wake up yesterday morning and to look at my phone and to read this headline: Refugees Detained at U.S. Airports.

And of course, my mind immediately went to our refugee family Paul, Ariat and their 7 beautiful children, who were here with us just 6 weeks ago. The refugee family we pray for every single week.

And my mind started racing with the thought about how if this were six months ago, the family that we’ve welcomed to this country because of our faith, because we felt called by Jesus to welcome the stranger, the outcast, the one in need…that family that we welcomed in the name of Jesus, would’ve likely been detained at the airport.

Now you might think that this is a moment when your preacher is engaging our politics, but no. We can play those games out there if we have to, but in here, we are one body of Christ. One family. And as your pastor, I’m asking you to let this moment to engage your faith. What does your faith have to say about this? Surely, in honor of our refugee family, we can sit with that question, for the sake of all the other refugee families seeking safety.

I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that we’ve all become gripped by fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of the other. Fear for the other. Fear of violence against us. Fear of violence from us. Fear of the government. Fear of the people. Fear. Fear. Fear. We seem to be drowning in a sea of fear.

In light of all of this, I was helped by a sermon from our friend, Alan Storey, who was here in this fall and whose videos some of us are watching on Mondays at noon. He reminded me of the inaugural words of Franklin Roosevelt, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Which are necessary and urgent words for us at this time.

Fear is our greatest enemy because the bible says that just as love casts our fear…fear casts out love. A fearful people will be a loveless people.

 You see, what fear does is it makes us forget who we are. And fear makes us forget who other people are. The moment I forget who I really am and the moment I forget who you are, I can do all sort of inhumane things in that state of forgetfulness. Driven by fear. Out of fear, I’m more likely to respond out of prejudice than principle. Out of fear, I’m more likely to be selfish than generous. Out of fear, I’m more likely to lie than be truthful. Out of fear, I’m more likely to be judgmental than accepting. I’m more likely to be violent and forceful than gentle.

Therefore, if we have one enemy that all of us needs to resist it is fear. Because fear casts out love. And we are called to be a loving people, so that we can be a fearless people.[1]

So we are living in a context of fear. And here’s the thing: the same is true for our gospel reading for today. You see, we’re so used to lifting the Beatitudes off the page and hanging them on the wall and making them look and sound beautiful that we forget the context into which these words were spoken.

To find the context, we have to go back to last week. If we look back at our reading from last week, we’ll recall the line, “When Jesus had heard that John had been arrested.” In other words, detained. And these words would’ve instilled great fear. John has been detained by King Herod. John – Jesus’ friend and mentor, the one who baptized him. And now John has been arrested and will never be set free, because King Herod will take his head.

That is the context. A context in which the powerful empire prevails and the powerless people get pulverized. It is a context of danger. Of threat. Of fear.

And that is the context into which Jesus enters his public ministry. He goes into the fear. That is the context that Jesus calls his first disciples, which tells us that perhaps this is the time for church outreach. That is the context that Jesus teaches and cures the sick and vulnerable, which tells us that perhaps this is the time we are most needed. Perhaps we were born for just such a time as this. And it is that context of fear that he delivers his sermon on the mount, beginning with the beatitudes.

Now, in the light of that context, what could the Beatitudes mean? What is Jesus doing with them? What could they mean for us today?

The first thing for us to notice is that Jesus is speaking to his disciples, and he isn’t just speaking to them. He’s not just handing out blessings on the street corner. He’s teaching them. 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.

Why do we teach? We teach to equip. To empower. We teach so that the student can go and do.

And in this moment, perhaps Jesus isn’t just blessing people, perhaps he is teaching his disciples to recognize blessedness, where others might see fear.

You see, it dawned on me that all of the people listed in the beatitudes could just as easily be fearful people.

Fearful are the poor in spirit, for the world is cruel.
Fearful are those who mourn, for death wins everytime.
Fearful are the meek, for they get trampled on.
Fearful are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will never be filled.
Fearful are the merciful, for they will never see justice.
Fearful are the pure in heart, for everything is a threat
Fearful are the peacemakers, for war never ends.
Fearful are the those who are persecuted, for they achieve nothing.

They could be seen as fearful people. Perhaps they see themselves as fearful people.

But that’s not what Jesus’ says. Jesus says, Blessed are they. And in doing so, Jesus is teaching the disciples how to see rightly. How to see as God sees.

Now throughout the Gospel of Matthew, there is a major theme of sight and seeing. We will hear Jesus talk about the eye a lot.

We think we know how the eye works. Light comes through the pupil, it strikes the retina and generates electrical impulses to the brain and images are formed. That isn’t the way they thought the eye worked in the first century. In Jesus they thought of the eye not as a receiver of light but as a source of light. When you looked at something, they thought that light streamed from your body onto whatever it is you were looking at, so the eyes quite naturally became a metaphor, a symbol for the soul.[2]

In fact, Jesus talks about this in the sermon on the mount. Listen. He says, “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eye is healthy, your body will be full of light. And if your eye is unhealthy, your body will be full of darkness. And if the light in you is darkness, how deep is the darkness.“

Or perhaps to put it another way. The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes is healthy, if you can see the world as God does, through Jesus as deserving of mercy and kindness, justice and redemption, your body will be full of love. But if your eye is unhealthy, if you see the world not as God does, but simply as punishment and reward, your body will be full of fear.

Maybe, in this opening class lesson from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is teaching his disciples how to see. How to see and recognize blessedness. How to see that there is blessing and light in places that the world cannot see, but that God sees.

Might it be that it be that in teaching them to see blessedness among the fearful, he is also teaching them to proclaim blessedness to the fearful. And in doing so, transforming fear in love. Despair into hope. To call them blessed is to drive out their fear.

Now, let me be clear. This isn’t some ignorant sermon about how we just have to see the good in everything and we will be okay. But it is to say that Jesus’ followers were no strangers to suffering and darkness. They have been living under the boot of the Roman Empire. And Jesus is giving them a flashlight for their soul. A light, a lamp for their body. New eyes. Because if all the eye sees is darkness, then the body will be full of darkness. But Jesus seeks to correct our vision. So that we might see the world around us, our neighbors, and God anew. And in turn, to go and build our life around that and live accordingly. So that, as one preacher has said, “Rather than merely take pity on people’s losses, we are invited to enter into them. Rather than judge people’s failings, we are invited to forgive and remind them that they are blessed by God and born for more than they’ve settled for. And rather than despise weakness, we are invited to see in it the truest point of meeting between God’s children. For God reveals God’s self to us most clearly and consistently at our places of deepest need.”[3]

My friends, Jesus is trying to correct our vision. To see the world, our world that seems to be instilling so much fear… to see with kingdom eyes. That where we have been trained to see darkness, God sees blessedness and light. Because God is there. Because that is who God is. And God is teaching us to see light there too. So that we will not, in our fear, turn away from such places but rather, in our love, risk ourselves to go there too. Because that’s who we have been called to be.

May these beatitudes not be words that lull us into soft sweet comfort. But rather may each one be a corrective lens at the optometrists office, clicking into place to slowly focus our eyes on who our God really is and how God see the world.

Blessed are the pour in spirit…click.
Blessed are those who mourn…click.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…click.
Blessed are the merciful…click.
Blessed are the pure in heart…click.
Blessed are the peacemakers…click.
Blessed are those who are persecuted…click.
Blessed are you….click.

Do not be afraid.

But go, and in the name of Jesus, love bravely.

Amen.

[1] This section and this sermon are more indebted to Alan Storey than I care to admit. See: http://cmm.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/2017-01-22-ALAN.mp3

[2] Tom Long.

[3] David Lose, http://www.davidlose.net/2017/01/epiphany-4a-recognizing-blessing/