Sunday, August 26, 2018

Blessed Are The Poor In Spirit

Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit
Aug. 25/26    Matthew 4: 23-25, 5: 1-3

Recently in an online forum, a former Navy flight instructor recounted teaching his pilots about maintaining a disciplined focus while flying their aircrafts. “It’s relatively easy,” he said, “to develop” what he calls “spatial disorientation.”[1] In other words, the loss of intense focus could result in the pilots flying upside down and not even know it. And if you were to do a quick Google search, you can read reports of pilots who met unfortunate death because they were “upside down” and never knew it. This week we are beginning a new sermon called “Blessed: Finding the Good Life.” It’s based on the first of Jesus’ teachings in what is known as the Sermon on the Mount, a group of eight sayings known as “The Beatitudes,” or words of blessing. And we get the sense that these beatitudes are Jesus’ effort to lead us out of potential spiritual disorientation and into true victorious, Kingdom living. Would you read with me?

The other day I sent my mom a text message asking if she had made it safely home. She had left our beach house earlier that day and I was surprised that she hadn’t called yet. She quickly responded and said, “Well, we missed our exit and it’s pushed our arrival back a few hours.” I came to find out later that mom had pulled a fast one on me and was completely joking and was still on the right course, but it was a good reminder that it’s easy to miss our signs. We all know that interstate zombie feeling. You set the cruise, get into deep thought, and before you know it, every town looks the same and you end up missing the all-important landmark.

Well, there’s something similar happening to the crowd that day when Jesus begins to teach. There’s something about the crowd that has become “zombie-like,” or “normalized” and it catches Jesus’ attention. He’s called a group of people to be his disciples, which simply means he’s called them to believe, to follow and to obey him. They’ve been invited into a new way of life, a different way of life, but even in the early stages of that new discipleship life, there’s a dangerous expectancy, a dangerous normalcy settling in. And this is important for us to hear. As Jesus heals and ministers, everything around him begins to grow. His fame grows, the crowd increases, and people are receiving miraculous healings. Every indicator of success is on an upward trajectory. But yet Jesus’ response is telling. Instead of celebrating, instead of continuing what has been wildly successful, he begins to walk up the mountain, leaving the crowd behind, and inviting the disciples to follow him.

Now, Jesus never says this, but I believe Jesus’ motivation is to protect these young disciples from spiritual disorientation, which is very real. In a similar story from the Gospel of John, Jesus makes the sobering statement that the crowds are growing, but not because they want Jesus, but because they want what offers. It’s Jesus who is our biggest need, not what Jesus gives us. So could it be that Jesus doesn’t want the disciples to falsely attribute “blessedness” to the wild success they’ve just witnessed? Could it be that Jesus wants the disciples to know that life doesn’t always look like this, and in order to be a disciple, you have to learn to navigate this world differently? Could it be that Jesus is trying to shield his disciples from flying the plane upside down? The great devotional writer Oswald Chambers writes, “This is how the Holy Spirit works in the heart of a disciple. The teaching of Jesus Christ comes with astonishing discomfort to begin with, because it is out of all proportion to our natural way of looking at things, but Jesus puts in a new sense of proportion, and slowly we form our way of walking and our conversation on the line of His precepts.”[2] This is the goal Jesus has when he gives us the beatitudes.

At the heart of this passage is Jesus’ concern with how we perceive God’s favor and God’s activity. Quite simply, this is what he means by the Kingdom of God. When he says things like, “The Kingdom of God is at hand,” Jesus means something very specific. He means that God’s reign has been opened up to us, that God’s active role in our world is here, and the good life, he offers is meant to be ours right now. Now, if we were to define the “good life” by almost every other measure, it would look like this: good health, a fat wallet, a good job, a nice family, very little challenges in life. Never overworked. Never stressed out. And we know this is true because these are the things that dominate our attention, our time and our money. And so the danger is that we begin to associate God’s blessing and favor with those who have those things and assume that those who don’t have those things are somehow missing out on God’s best.

And so Jesus, knowing that the Kingdom of God doesn’t always equal good health and great jobs and a perfect life, calls his disciples up the mountain and essentially says, “Let me tell you where you can find God’s kingdom activity in this world.” And then he goes and begins to pronounce blessings in head-scratching ways. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he says, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

That statement alone should shock us. And if it doesn’t, it should at least give us reason to pause because anything associated with the word “poor” doesn’t tend to conjure up images of blessedness and God’s presence.  Admittedly, if most of us weighed the desire to be poor or rich, we wouldn’t think twice. We would choose to be rich because poor is not a virtue in our culture. Poor is not a standard to live up to. In our culture, rich is a word of access. Being rich grants us access to stuff, to opportunities, to a life we think we can control and manipulate, to great doctors and great restaurants and great lifestyles. Being poor doesn’t allow for any of that. But in God’s economy, according to Jesus, mind you, it is the poor who are most accessible to God’s kingdom, because it is the poor above all who stand in need of what God does.

We could be talking about finances here, but we’re not. When Jesus talks about being “poor in spirit,” he’s not talking about a financial condition or social situation, he’s talking about a spiritual reality, a state of the soul. One writer calls it “spiritual poverty.” That’s what it means to be poor in spirit. And who are the poor in spirit? All of us. The poor in spirit are not just the poor guys and gals in the valley praying for more miracles. The poor in spirit are also those faithful disciples who have helped bring about some of those miracles. And Jesus isn’t about to let them forget it. This is what makes the Sermon on the Mount so revolutionary. Jesus announces the availability of God’s activity, to a bunch of spiritually destitute people: to The know-it-all Pharisees who are certain that they know exactly how to interpret God’s word, to the fisherman who has no idea what Jesus means to drop his or her net to “catch people,” to the random person in the crowd who can’t tell the difference between Peter and Paul.

And this is good news. In fact, this is better than good news; this is great news. Because with this first “beatitude,” this statement of blessing, Jesus announces to the entire world that the Kingdom of God is now open for business for all. To all who are worried that they’ll never have enough faith to please God, the Kingdom of God is for you. To all who think they fully understand God, the modern day Pharisees, the Kingdom of God is for you. To the spiritually puffed up and arrogant, who might be the most spiritually deprived of all, the Kingdom of God is opened to you. To all who aren’t even sure they want to believe, or if there is something to believe, the Kingdom of God has even been opened to you. And to all who can’t believe there are people in this world who don’t believe, the Kingdom is opened up even to you.

In his loving way, Jesus means to tell us that, whether we know it or not, we are all a people of spiritual poverty, a people “poor in spirit.” And how can we disagree? When we stand before Jesus, the only one who isn’t poor in spirit, the only one who truly sees with the eyes of God, we find ourselves a bit like Adam and Eve:  spiritually naked, our true heart condition revealed. And that’s uncomfortable. No one likes to be naked. No one likes to be found out. But when Jesus is the standard, we just don’t have the resources to convince ourselves that we are better than we actually are. And in most cases, that humility would be enough to take our ball and go home. But this spiritual reality is not enough for God to throw in the towel and keep the good life of the Kingdom to himself.  No, in a great reversal of “the way it’s always been done,” the Lord of the Kingdom plunges himself right in the midst of a spiritually diverse and destitute people and says, “I have come that they may have the good life.” And all we can do is receive what God wants to give.

The good life, friends, isn’t about having stuff, working hard, having strong relationships or even enjoying life. I know Solomon said something about that, but Solomon isn’t Jesus. Those things are good, but they aren’t quite what Jesus has in mind by the blessed life. The good life is the confident assurance that even though God peers into the depths of our hearts and rightly diagnoses our spiritual health as “poor,” he embraces us nonetheless and still offers us what only He can give. You could make another argument if you’d like, but THAT is truly the blessed life.

So how can you live into that this week? I won’t give you a spiel about trying harder or being more faithful- those things will happen supernaturally as we allow the Holy Spirit to grow us. Rather, your job is to radically believe that God’s Kingdom has been opened up to you, the poor in spirit, and that everything that is God’s Kingdom (the fruit of the Spirit, victory over sin, joyful life) is meant to be yours if you so desire.  Amen.

[2] Studies On the Sermon On the Mount, Oswald Chambers

Monday, August 6, 2018

FOCUS: Dismantling Racism

Aug. 4/5, 2019          Dismantling Racism
Galatians 3: 23-29

            This week we’re concluding our sermon series on Five Areas of Focus that can change the world. I hope you’ve been inspired by this series, and the ways in which we’ve lived it out. We’ve taken some time to think through what it means to be in ministry with the poor, to develop principled Christian leaders, to create renewal and revival, and to work toward global health. And these are all faithful ways we can live out of our faith. But we have one last area of focus that needs to be addressed, a conversation that’s as old as time, and a conversation that’s dominated the headlines over the last several years, and that’s the area of dismantling racism. (Before I read the Scripture, I invited us into a time of humility and vulnerability by showing a brief Peanuts comic strip) I invite you to read with me…

            Last August I had the privilege of officiating at my cousin’s wedding. It was held in a beautiful Virginia winery in a little town known as Kilmarnock. And even though there was a threat of rain, there were no raindrops. But it was awfully muggy. The mugginess didn’t stop us from having fun though. We danced the night away, celebrated all the goodness of life and genuinely enjoyed the joining together of two people. When I was able to catch a break, I stopped to fill my cup of water and looked around, and what I saw was a beautiful sight: a diverse crowd, filled with different cultures and different races singing, dancing and celebrating together. I took out my phone and snapped a few pictures because I thought, “This is what the Kingdom of God looks like. This is how things are supposed to be.” And it filled my soul. It was not lost on me, however, that earlier that very day, just 2 ½ hours away in Charlottesville, a different kind of gathering was happening. It wasn’t one of celebration, but one of anger and hatred and fear. And at the end of the day, because of an angry man who drove his car into a group of protestors, a young woman had lost her life. In that juxtaposed moment, between the reality of what is and the promise of what will be, I knew I could no longer stand on the sidelines of this conversation about race.

            Friends, this is the reality of our current culture. Whether we’re ready or not, the conversation about racism is here. It’s all over the place! And I believe Jesus has invited us to respond. Like any important conversation, talking about racism has the potential to touch our deepest nerves. For some, there are hopes of a better world, a dream of what could be. For others, there are emotions that look like fear and anger, even rage; others experience grief and confusion. I’ve watched people embrace this conversation and say, “Tell me more.” But I’ve also seen others take up a defensive posture, and refuse to acknowledge this growing tension. This is one of the reasons I’m preaching from a posture of sitting today. Sitting down is one of the way we can dismantle defensive tones and mindsets.

To be quite honest, I don’t know how you’ve respond to the issue of racism, nor do I know how you’re responding today, but I know that we as the people of God have to address it. Because if we don’t respond, we’ll be leaving the world to form their own responses. And that’s a dangerous and scary proposition. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. So if we remain silent and let the world do our thinking, then we have no one to blame but ourselves. So what I’d like to do today is share with you a little bit of my personal journey. It’s the only journey I know, and although this is deeply personal, I believe I can offer something worthwhile to the dream of dismantling racism.

Most of you know that I grew up in a small village outside of a town very much like Blairsville. Arriving in this area was a lot like coming home. Good folks. Small town feel. But very little diversity. Over 95% (this is probably too small of a percentage) of my school was white. I can count on one hand the number of students who would not have identified as white in my senior class. That’s the only world I had ever known. And so like make people, I grew up with the naïve assumption that racism wasn’t an issue for us. My argument sounded like this: Racism isn’t a problem because we don’t have any Black people or Latino people. So how could we possibly be racist? For me, racism was a city thing, a southern thing, a radical thing. Out of sight, out of mind. Racism was just a word in a larger vocabulary that meant very little to me. But then one day I had a conversation that stuck a pin in my comfortable bubble.

            I was home on Christmas break, spending some time with a former employer. He would often call me when he needed a helping hand, and every year he would give me a nice Christmas bonus. He was one of the hardest-working men I had ever known. I was 25, he was 70 and he could outwork me any day. I had spent time around his kitchen table, eating home cooked meals. And they were good! He was a leader in his church. He never missed a Sunday, knew his Bible, and made sure to help out wherever was necessary. He wasn’t the warmest man around, but he was nice enough, and the more time I spent with him, the more I respected him. But on this particular day, something was different. He started to ask me my thoughts on the next presidential election (it was 2007) and we talked about the differences between a fellow by the name of John McCain and a senator from Illinois by the name of Barack Obama. After the conversation was over, I started to make my way to the car, when my friend made one last casual remark: “Brett,” he said, “Don’t worry. If that guy gets elected, there are still enough people like me around. We’ll take care of it.”

            I got in my car that day, and my insides began to churn. For the first time in my life, racism had shown up at my front door. My little world was thrown into a tailspin, and whatever assumptions I had were shattered by words my friend thought would comfort me. My friend was trying to tell me that people like him would always ensure people like me would be just fine. But instead of comfort his words angered and confused me. This wasn’t a news anchor reporting on an inner city shooting. This wasn’t a drug deal gone awry. Those were the only pictures of racism I had at the time. No, this was someone I respected uncovering a reality I didn’t believe existed in my corner of the world. But here it was, right under my nose, embedded in people I knew and loved. On that day, racism became more than a word to me; it put on flesh and became real. And that’s when my journey with racism began.

            I’ll be the first to tell you that I don’t know how to tackle such an important conversation in 20 minutes. But yet I feel I must say something. I know I don’t have the answers to dismantling systems and mindsets that have been around longer than any of us have been alive. But I know I can do my part. That’s all any of us can do. And if we take the time to do our part, then unjust systems will eventually come crashing down. That’s what I see Jesus do in Scripture. One by one, person by person, Jesus helps people understand how they can play his or her part and in doing so, they bring forth the Kingdom of God. And so if you are interested in dismantling racism, I’d like to offer you three steps I’ve made in my life, which I hope they’ll be beneficial to you. To help us navigate these three steps, I’d to like to invite you to picture yourself entering a new home for the very first time.

*At this point, I began to show three pictures to help frame the conversation ( a door, a hallway with a mirror and a kitchen table).

            The first step any of us can take is to enter the front door. In other words, we have to decide to enter the conversation. For me, that was the first step. When I got back into my car after visiting with my friend, I had to make a decision. Would I ignore what I had just heard and pretend it didn’t happen? Or would I engage it? Would I walk away and convince myself that his thoughts weren’t reality, or would I allow my heart to wrestle with a shocking discovery? That’s a big question to ask and big conversation to consider. But it’s an absolutely necessary step. Healing doesn’t happen unless we enter the fray. Struggles cannot be overcome without meeting the struggle firsthand. I watched people make their way to an altar at church camp last week and find healing in Christ because they were finally ready to take a step and enter a larger spiritual conversation. And the same is true with racism. Racism cannot be dismantled if we are not willing to open the door and say, “I’m willing to talk.”

            Once we’re in the door, we’re ready for our next step. Once we’ve agreed to have the conversation, we’ve essentially said, “Open my eyes, that I may see.” Now we don’t have to look to hard to find ways in which racism permeates our world, but what’s frightening is discovering the ways we might’ve played a role in it. When I was first learning about the term racism, I was deeply offended. To me, a racist was someone who intentionally harmed others, someone prone to act in evil ways toward different racial groups, and I never wanted to associate with those words. I understand I’m not perfect, but I also wouldn’t characterize myself as evil. I had never used derogatory words or purposely shunned others or participated in white nationalist rallies, but over time I began to learn that racism isn’t always explicit; in more ways than I realized, it can be implicit. This is what we see when we walk through the door. We see how racism can be hidden in mindsets and embedded in systems.

I began to learn about things like bias and power, authority and opportunities, and I started to notice the awkward ways I behaved when I was around people who are different than I. And I didn’t like what I found about myself. I would walk a little faster around certain people. I would stiffen up in certain classes and walk out of the room shaking my head, denying everything my professor was trying to teach me. I would have conversations after class with people who thought like me, ready to take on any opinion that even remotely suggested I was somehow part of someone else’s problem. But the truth is, I was, and I am. And coming to that conclusion was a big step for me. I believe healthy discipleship involves the willingness to look deep inside of the soul, to pull back the veneer and see hidden realities. It’s self-awareness. And when I’ve examined myself, I’ve found mindsets and characteristics and traits that I didn’t know existed. And they needed to be brought to Jesus. Are you willing to look inside yourself? Are you willing to ask those tough questions and maybe discover some answer you won’t like? That’s part of dismantling systems like racism, but the good news is that Jesus can take those traits and crucify them, and give us new ways to live and see the world… if we’d like.

            Finally, once we’re ready to have that internal conversation, we’re ready to take one of the most important steps we will ever take: sitting down at the kitchen table and listening. I’ve had to repent of the idea that what is true of me is true of others. It’s not. My experience cannot be grafted on to somebody else’s life, nor can I expect to fully understand somebody else’s reality. That’s why, for me, the table is a place of holy work. Along with the cross, the dove and the empty tomb, I think the table is one of our forgotten spiritual symbols. Jesus does so much redemptive and restorative work around tables. The table is a place where we truly get to know someone else. It’s a place where we listen and share, where walls are brought down and bridges are built, and it’s a place where news reporters cannot distort reality. Great things happen around tables. Relationships are formed and truth is explored. And I believe it’s the place where you and I can begin to dismantle racism one at a time. It’s been around tables where I’ve learned to see what I could not see, to hear the stories others needed for me to hear, and to open my heart to the pains and dreams of others.

            So, that’s my dismantling racism journey. On this journey, I’ve made some great friends, I’ve grown in faith, and I’ve experienced God in new and fresh ways. But this journey is not over. Not for me, not for you. We’ve got work to do. Until there is no more suffering, no more injustice and no more inequality, we’ve got work to do. May God give us eyes to see, ears to hear and hearts that are full of courage and unconditional love. Amen.