Sunday, September 30, 2018

Blessed Are the Pure In Heart

Blessed Are the Pure In Heart
Matthew 5: 1-8, Matthew 18: 1-5

            Well, I hope you enjoyed the break from our normal weekend routine last Sunday. It’s good to get out of normal patterns from time to time. When things become normal, we run the risk of missing out on divine surprise. And so changing it up a bit, like an outdoor service, can help us see and experience God differently. And that’s what we’re going to talk about today, how to see God as we continue in our sermon series called “Blessed: Finding the Good Life.” Would you read with me?

            In 2008, musician George Strait released a song called, “I Saw God Today.” Anybody ever hear it? In this song he sings about average, every day scenarios, things we see all the time…flowers poking through the ground, a young couple holding hands, a new baby staring back at him through the hospital glass…but this day, he sees those every occurrences in a different light. I saw God today, says the song. Somehow in that flower, in the joy of a couple and in the cry of a newborn, this man saw the good and gracious activity of God. And then he recognizes his problem. I've been to church. I've read the book. I know He's here, but I don't look near as often as I should. In other words, even though God is all around, he doesn’t see God as much as he’d like.

            I don’t know if you’ve heard that song, but I guarantee most of us would like to see more of God in our daily lives. Would you agree with that? We go to church, we read the book, we do our things, and yet we still have those days when we struggle to understand how God was a part of what we’ve done. From time to time we’ll ask the question, “How did you see God today,” and we’ll stammer and struggle because we know God was somehow there, with us all along, but we can’t put our finger on just how it was we saw God. And we need to see God. When we see God, our lives make sense. When we see God, we have hope. When we see God, we know we can make it through those difficult days because we’re not alone.  Seeing God changes our perspective of the entire world.  We need to see God!

            Thankfully for us, Jesus fully understands that need. And even more so, he demonstrates the value of seeing God in our daily lives. It’s his ability to see God’s presence that allows him to love the difficult people, to press on in the midst of adversity and to be patient with people as they learn what it means to be a disciple. And Jesus wants the same for us.  Jesus wants us to be able to go to bed at night knowing we saw God today. So how do we begin to see more of God in our daily lives? How do we begin to notice more of what God is up to in our little corner of the universe? Well, Jesus gives us the answer: We need to have pure heart. A pure heart, says Jesus, leads to the beautiful blessing of being able to see God. That’s the promise we have. Now if only we could get there… If only our hearts could be pure, then we’d see more of God.

Purity is defined by Merriam-Webster by the phrase “not mixed.” And that’s a good way to describe what Jesus is referring to. When something is pure, it’s not mixed with anything else. It’s clean. Without contamination. In reference to our hearts, that’s the vision Jesus lays forth: a heart that is not contaminated or mixed with anything outside of God’s good will. So…that’s all we have to do. Make sure our hearts aren’t contaminated.

Now, I’m going to be completely honest with you. I’m not sure how a person becomes more pure. But it has to be possible. It would be harsh and irresponsible of Jesus to give us an impossible vision for life. But it sure feels like it at times. I’ve heard lots of teachings about purity, lots of serious sermons about purity, but they always leave me disappointed. When I was in high school, sexual purity was a big deal. And all the rage to curb our youthful minds was something called a purity ring. Ever hear of one of those? Well, a purity ring was meant to be a tangible sign of a commitment made to remain sexually pure until marriage. The hope was that every time a 16-year old boy or girl would look at their ring, they would think about their commitment. But most of the time, it had the opposite effect. It actually made the teenager think more about the funny business they promised not to do! Those old purity rings might have helped control the body, but they couldn’t change the heart! And that’s always been our problem.

Our heart, the realm of our motives and passions and thoughts (that’s what was meant in the Bible) has always been our most challenging arena to control. We can avoid the fried foods, but we can’t convince ourselves it doesn’t look good! Even the first disciples struggled with this. They worried about the same things we do, things like success and reputation and greatness. And one day, they just spilled their guts and asked Jesus, “So, who do you think will be the greatest?” Saying that out loud makes me want to laugh. Here is the greatest person who has ever lived, the very Son of God, and they’re worried about being great? They are witnessing miracles and healings before their very eyes, but what are they preoccupied with? Their own path to greatness! Talk about not seeing God! And that’s why Jesus points them to the children.

Children hold a special place in God’s heart, and they hold a special place in our hearts, as well. If we would identify any group of people as pure, it would be the children. It doesn’t mean they’re flawless- they aren’t. It doesn’t mean their mistake-free- they aren’t! But it does mean that their hearts are usually pointed in beautiful direction. You could almost say children “see” the world differently. With two young girls, I have the opportunity to watch this in action every day. And I’m never disappointed! They live with awe and wonder. The smallest bug catches their attention like it’s the coolest thing in the world. And they could play with that thing all day! Or what about delight? I look out the window and complain about the rain; they look out and with big eyes ask, “Can I jump in that awesome puddle? Then there’s the matter of trust. They get hungry, they get tired, they have real needs, but they honestly believe that someone who loves them will provide for their every need. Children see the world differently because their hearts are in a certain posture. And posture has a lot to do with purity.

I remember a particular evening in Zimbabwe when I became a child again, when I regained something God never meant for me to lose. Bob and I happened to go outside and look up at the night sky… and we were stunned. We had never seen anything like it. Without the presence of ambient light, the southern sky lit up the country in sheer beauty, and we just sat there for 45 minutes, hardly able to speak. I was able to see so clearly that night because I was in the right place at the right time, but I was also in the right posture. My mind, my heart, my will had no other place to be, no other thing to do, no other worry to consider, and for the first time in a long time, I was simply able to be and I saw.

You see, the biggest hindrance to our struggle with purity is not the seemingly impossible nature of it, or the seemingly impossible vision Jesus gives us, but ourselves. We are the biggest hindrances to our own purity, because we think we can make ourselves pure. So we put on purity rings. We avoid certain places. We try harder and harder. But as valiant as those efforts are, they just don’t work. In fact, they usually work like a bad mirror and show us more imperfections. And if we feel imperfect, we’ll always strive to prove we’re not. And if we’re preoccupied with proving ourselves, we’ll not see God. If we feel unlovable, we’ll spend all of our time trying to convince others that we can be lovable, and we’ll not see God. If we are convinced we’re unimportant, we start to occupy our time with proving our importance to the world, and maybe to ourselves. And if we’re so busy trying to convince ourselves that we’re important, we’ll miss out on grace. Grace is the gift that opens us up to purity of heart. We can’t make ourselves pure; but we can respond to God’s initiative. That’s how we become pure.

This is why Jesus tells us to look at the children. They’re not perfect, but they usually know how to be led. Every Easter, I watch my girls try to find their well-hidden baskets filled with all sorts of goodies. And they start out with so much confidence. So they look up and down, behind every curtain and every shelf, and as the time passes (and still no baskets), you can almost hear the “adult” coming out of them: “I don’t have time for this; I have places to be; I have important stuff to do. I need to find this thing now!”  And then when they’re about ready to give up, they stop, look at us and ask to play at game called “hot and cold.” If they go in the right direction, we tell them “hot.” If they go in the wrong direction, we tell them “cold.” And eventually, they “see.” They find what they’ve been looking for. And most of the time, those well-hidden baskets were right under their noses.

Most of the time, God is right in front of us. But we can’t see because we don’t have the right posture. We can’t go back to our childhood days, but we can learn from their beautiful way of life. That’s how we become pure. Purity of heart happens as we commit to an unhurried way of life, because only outside of the flurry of activity do we have the time and capacity to let God show us what we need to see about ourselves. An unhurried life gives God permission to tell us if we’re “hot” or “cold.” Purity of heart happens when we find ourselves “letting go.” We must let go of our efforts and needs to “fix” things- ourselves, the world, others and instead let God “fix” us, let God sanctify us. We’ll “see” differently when this happens. And like my children on Easter morning, we’ll eventually enjoy purity of heart, not because we “find it”, not because we look longer or put all the right pieces together, but because we let God lead us along the way. This is the promise God has for you. You can’t change your heart. But God can. And when you let God change your heart, you will see. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Amen.





Monday, September 17, 2018

Blessed Are Those Who Hunger and Thirst For Righteousness

Blessed Are Those Who Hunger and Thirst For Righteousness
Matthew 5: 1-6, Romans 6: 12-23

Today we are continuing our sermon series called “Blessed: Finding the Good Life.” Over the past few weeks we’ve explored the varied ways the Kingdom of God opens up to those who are poor in spirit, to those who mourn, and to those who are meek. Today we look at the topic of righteousness. Would you read with me?

There’s a popular story that’s made the rounds over the years. I’ve heard it a few different ways, and I’ll share it as best as I know how. A grandfather and his grandson are sitting around the fire, talking about all sorts of things in the world. After awhile, the grandson looks up and says, “Grandpa, you’ve often said that two wolves live inside of us, a good one and an evil one. Well, I’m curious. Which wolf wins?” The grandfather thought for a second, smiled and said very simply, “Whichever one you feed the most.”

I’ve always appreciated the simplicity of that story. It might sound like a story that takes a complex issue – good and evil- and reduces it to something a bit too simplistic, like the choices we make. But in essence, that’s how Jesus teaches us to do faith. In our Christian language, we don’t talk about two wolves living inside of us, but we do talk about two natures- the flesh nature (who we are without Jesus). Those are the things we do and the behaviors we exhibit when the influence of Jesus is ignored and suppressed. And we also talk about the spiritual nature (who we are because of Jesus). This is the life that yields to the will of Jesus and seeks to have God’s way permeate everything. Those are the two competing hungers we face in our depths every day. And whichever hunger we feed has something to do with the way we experience God’s blessing.

For the first time in Matthew 5, we finally reach a beatitude that makes sense. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, says Jesus, for they will be filled. The first three beatitudes- Poor in spirit, mourning and meekness -don’t sound like terms of endearment, let alone words that lead to blessing, but this one does. Hungering and thirsting for righteousness sounds like something you’d hear in church, doesn’t it? It just has a “churchy” feel to it. But of course this, is Jesus teaching us, so we need to dig a little deeper beneath the surface and ask exactly, What does it mean to be righteous? Because all along we get the sense that Jesus is viewing the world through a lens that is different that what we’re used to. And that might actually be a good thing.

Righteousness doesn’t have a great reputation in our culture. Sometimes we hear that word and we bristle. It’s hard to pull righteousness apart from self-righteousness because all too often that’s what we’ve done with this word: we’ve made it something repulsive. I heard an interview this week with a mom who said that her grown adult children had walked away from the faith because of Christians who confused righteousness with God’s approval to be judgmental and hypocritical. And I get that. It saddens me, but I get it. If that’s all righteousness is (tearing others down so that I feel better about myself), then I don’t want anything to do with it! But Jesus is in the business of redeeming what we get wrong and misunderstand. Somehow Jesus can take the topic of mourning and call it blessing. Somehow Jesus can spin the word “meekness” and make it strong. So we get the sneaky suspicion that when Jesus talks about righteousness, he wants to clear up something up.

Maybe a helpful way to get to the heart of righteousness is to look at a group of people who really got in Jesus’ craw- the Pharisees. The Pharisees were the religious superpowers of the day. If anyone was righteous in those days, it was the Pharisees. They spent their waking moments pouring over the Scriptures- they knew them better than anyone else. If they entered a Bible trivia game, they would wipe the floor with us. But Jesus had something interesting to say to his disciples about the Pharisees: unless your righteousness exceeds that of the super religious of the day, you’ll never taste the goodness of God’s kingdom. (Matt. 5: 20) Wow. Can you imagine Jesus saying, “Unless your righteousness is greater than the tv preacher you watch, or the person who never misses Bible study, or your favorite Christian author, then you’ll never see the Kingdom? That’s pretty bold, isn’t it? Maybe even a bit concerning. So what point was Jesus trying to make?

Well, the Pharisees weren’t necessarily bad people. I want you to hear that. In fact, they got a lot of things right. They remind me a lot of old-time church people who used to say, “I don’t smoke, drink or chew or run with those who do.” Certainly, it’s better to not do those things than to do them, but those things don’t equate to righteousness. Likewise, the Pharisees were people who studied the word. They knew it inside and out. That’s a good thing. And they strived to live out every letter of the law. That’s a good thing. They prayed and taught others to pray. Those are good things. But what they got wrong was huge: the law became their god, their hunger, instead of the One the law points to. For instance, one day they attacked Jesus for healing a man on the Sabbath. Now remember, keeping the Sabbath is a commandment. We’re not supposed to break it. So they attacked Jesus for healing a man because it wasn’t the right day! That’s absurd! Their commitment to upholding the rules was more important than following the Savior who was healing the wounded in their midst. And in doing so, they missed out on what God was doing before their very eyes!

      Having the knowledge is an honorable characteristic, and it’s part of what it means to be righteous. Remember, Jesus didn’t say the Pharisees had no righteousness, only that the Kingdom of God is experienced when we surpass their righteousness. And here’s how I interpret that: Righteousness is about seeing the world the way God sees it and wanting for the world what God wants. That’s what righteousness is about. Righteousness flows out of God’s love for the world, and righteousness seeks to have all things be just the way they were meant to be. But that type of living doesn’t just happen. We don’t just wake up and experience righteousness. We must strive for it. We must hunger for it. We must pursue it.

Righteousness is what you and I were created for, but we lost this pursuit in the Garden. Righteousness was never something we had to strive for, something we had to hunger for; it was the ONLY way we knew. And it was good. In the Garden, all was right. All was righteous. Relationships were exactly as they were meant to be. Adam and Eve were the perfect complements to one another, seeking the best for each other, making certain the other had what the other needed to live fully. And our relationship with God was perfect, fully satisfying, with nothing in between. All was right in the world, the way it was meant to be. All things were in right relation to one another. But once sin entered the picture, righteousness became one option among many. And it has plenty of competition in our hearts.

When we pursue righteousness, we seek to live above that competition. When we hunger for righteousness, what we are saying is that we yearn for God’s way to prevail in all things, so that all things may be made right in our world. But here’s the challenge with that. The privilege of defining what is right and wrong is not ours; it is forever God’s ordained privilege. And in some cases, we’re ok with that. How many of you believe it is right that the hungry are fed and the homeless find shelter? We have strong biblical evidence that God desires the best for those folks. But how about this? How many of you believe it’s right to forgive instead of seek retribution? Ouch. And so because of this, sometimes we don’t want it. Sometimes we suffer form what Robert Louis Stevenson once called “the malady of not wanting.” Here are some reasons we sometimes tell God, “Thanks, but no thanks” to a righteous pursuit.  

Fear. We fear that God won’t provide or give us what we need. Wounds. We don’t like to be wounded or taken advantage of. Self-fulfillment. We tend to value our own fulfillment over others. A certain understanding of justice. We often want to see people get what we think they deserve instead of the grace none of us deserve. Control. If we do things God’s way, that means we’re not doing things OUR way. And let’s call it like it is: We often avoid righteousness because it’s hard. It’s easier to ignore the wrongs of the world than to set out and do something about them. But deep within our soul, we know that Jesus is right about righteousness.

One of the most important stories of the Bible is our story for next week, the Good Samaritan. When we read this story, we know that there is something infinitely more satisfying to the person who offers mercy as opposed to those who do not. And I have a feeling that when we read this story, we read it with the hope that we are like the Good Samaritan, the one who in essence says, “This is not the best thing for me right now, but it is the best thing for you. And so I’ll stop what I’m doing to help you get what you need. That is righteousness.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, says Jesus, for they will be filled. They will be filled because righteousness finds the purest form of fulfillment in witnessing God’s reign take root in this world. Nothing else satisfies! The world is a far better place when the compasses of our hearts face upward and outward; when we love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength, and when we truly love others the way we love ourselves. This is the good life, the blessed life, and the very reason Paul says we should become slaves to righteousness. But this is not easy; nor is it natural. It is something we must yearn for and ask the Lord to do in us. What is it you hunger and thirst for today? If you long to pursue the righteous life, you’ll never have a boring day. And knowing where to start is always a challenge. But maybe the best word I can give you is prayer. The pursuit of righteousness must be a life lived in prayer. And so I want to leave you with a prayer of St. Francis, which is a prayer for all those who hunger and thirst for the world to be made right again:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy. 

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive, 
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, 
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Blessed Are Those Who Mourn

Blessed Are Those Who Mourn

            Last week we began our new sermon series on the Beatitudes called “Blessed: Finding the Good Life,” and we spent our time together looking at what it means to be poor in spirit. Today we look at a topic that most of us would rather avoid if we could…the topic of mourning. But at the same time, we remember the Jesus’ promise of comfort to those who experience loss. Would you read with me…

Well, football season is officially here, which means only one thing: Pittsburgh Dad fans will soon be laughing until they cry! Any Pittsburgh Dad fans in the room? Now, I don’t know if you’d ever heard of Pittsburgh Dad, but let me tell you- his online videos will have you rolling on the floor with laughter. Pittsburgh Dad loves, no, bleeds all things Pittsburgh (Primanti sandwiches, Stiller football, the word “yinz.). He’s black and gold through and through, and he’s not afraid to poke some fun at our Pittsburgh cultural and quirkiness! Well, earlier this summer “Pittsburgh Dad” decided to take his family out for a nice dinner to Pizza Hut. Everyone got in the car and they drove to their favorite Pizza Hut location…only to find that it had been converted into an office building. And Pittsburgh Dad couldn’t believe it! His favorite pizza joint had been shut down! But he was not to be deterred. So he went to the next town, only to find the same situation: no more Pizza Hut. All night long, they drove around, looking for a Pizza Hut, but all they could find were offices, apartment complexes, abandoned buildings and parking lots where the old Pizza Hut’s once stood. Pittsburgh Dad was beside himself! His old childhood places were no longer there.

 If there’s one thing we know is true of our world, it’s that nothing ever stays the same. No matter how hard we try, we just can’t keep things the way they are. But we certainly try, don’t we? And sometimes we try with all our might! We try to reenact holiday traditions from our childhood, because they meant so much to us back then…but somehow, no matter what we do, they’re just not the same. We travel back to our old stomping grounds expecting to see those old familiar places and people… only to find out they’re no longer there. We grow up, move out, get married, move on…and all along we can’t shake the feeling like we’re losing something we cherish deep within.

My old seminary professor was fond of saying, “we just keep losing things.” It’s just part of what it means to be human. We lose our health, our jobs, our memories, our traditions, our marriages, our dreams, our loved ones. And try as we might, we can’t stop those things from happening. Sometimes our losses are due to the choices we’ve made; sometimes they’re simply the result of circumstances that just happen. But regardless of why our losses happen, they hurt and they hurt all the way to the heart. It’s no wonder, then, that Jesus feels the need to speak up and comfort a hurting world wounded by the reality of loss.

“Blessed are those who mourn,” says Jesus, “for they will be comforted.” Those are definitely soothing words for us to hear, yet I’ve always found this beatitude to be a bit strange for disciples. Mourning doesn’t quite point to the victorious life you’d expect from Jesus, sort of like last week’s word to the poor in spirit. We would expect Jesus to lead us out of suffering instead of through it. But for some reason, that’s just not the way Jesus goes about his business of blessing.

That’s probably why the early disciples were so confused at first. They jumped at the promise of a new life and a new opportunity, (who wouldn’t?) but then Jesus started mentioning things like crosses and sorrow, and it didn’t add up. Every time Jesus spoke of a cross, they scratched their heads. Every time he mentioned suffering and death, they tried to convince him that another plan would be far more successful. Every time he said something like, “Your sorrow will turn to joy,” I imagine they silently wondered, “Why can’t you just give us the joy and leave out the sorrow?”

If we had a dime for every time that question was asked, we’d be rich. Those questions are as old as the world, and still as fresh as they ever were… because sorrow just doesn’t make sense. We weren’t created to suffer; it wasn’t in God’s original design for us to lose what we value. But it’s become a part of our human story, and when we experience those moments of losing, it cuts to the heart. It hurts when someone walks away, or when the project we’ve worked so hard for comes crashing down. The pain is raw and frustrating when we’re told we’re no longer necessary, or the job comes to an end, or the doctor says, “There’s nothing more we can do.”  And more often than not we’re left feeling vulnerable, empty and all out of sorts with emotions we didn’t even know existed.

I believe that’s one of the reasons we fear seasons of suffering. Not only are our hearts torn apart, but our reactions can be downright scary. Some of us tend to shut down and pull ourselves away from the world; others of us go around looking for someone, anyone to blame. We might turn to a substance to fill the gap, or to sex for a false sense of security. We might go back to a bad relationship, or make a rash decision without fully considering the consequences. Or we might just give up and stop believing. Why can’t we have the joy without the sorrow? There’s just too much we don’t like that bubbles to the surface of our souls when we hurt. Yet Jesus persists: Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

When Jesus speaks these words, there’s no sense that this is optional. And we know it’s true. In this world you WILL have troubles, Jesus says in John. There’s simply no other way around the troubles of this world. We can’t avoid suffering; we can’t pretend it won’t happen. We WILL go through those times. Moses went through them. Job did, too. So did Peter and Mary. But in his good and gracious way, Jesus reminds us that comfort, and not mourning, has the final say.

Richard Foster says we are never more the Church than when we identify with those who suffer.[1] And I’ve been privileged over the past few weeks to sit with a few families in their times of suffering. Make no mistake about it-- those times aren’t easy. They’re filled with tears and gut punches and tough questions, but they’re also times when God’s Kingdom breaks through in beautiful ways. I’ve watched our Parish churches shut down normal operations to prepare a meal for grieving friends; that’s a sign of Kingdom comfort. I’ve watched volunteers fix up a home for a stranger struggling with dementia, her grandchildren trying everything in their power to love her well through this disease; that’s a sign of Kingdom comfort. And I watched valiant voices speak up at an annual Overdose Awareness Vigil, a powerful way of telling those who have lost loved ones to addiction that “You are NOT alone.” That, too, is a sign of Kingdom comfort. And that’s what Jesus wants us to know.

Jesus wants us to know that when seasons of suffering spring upon us, we are closer than ever to God’s Kingdom activity. And that’s our comfort. It’s not that all of our questions will be answered…because they probably won’t. It’s not that everything will return to the way it was; it probably won’t. And it’s not that we’ll get back what we’ve lost; those chances are unlikely. But those things don’t amount to comfort. Our comfort is Christ, who doesn’t ignore or avoid suffering, but chooses instead to enter into it and bring about redemption. It is Jesus who faces death, trusting that the Father has a greater plan, and defeats what tried to subdue him. It is Jesus who travels the darkest valley, while his greatest friends deserted him, and still brings about a path of righteousness. It is Jesus who comes to the garden, that place full of despair and offers surprising hope by speaking Mary’s name.

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted,” says the Psalmist. And in the end, I’m not sure there’s a greater blessing than the presence of Jesus in our darkest hour. I won’t lie to you. I don’t understand death and suffering, and if I had my way, I would rid the world of its pain. I guess that’s why I hold on to the promise of Revelation, that one day God will make everything new. But until then, we trust that God is present, no matter the circumstances, and that seasons of suffering are fertile ground for some of God’s best redemptive activity. This is the narrative of our faith.

Our faith is not shaped by a struggle-free life; our faith is shaped by a God who hears our cries, sees our tears, understands our pain and responds by sending only God’s very best- God’s very self. And in times of mourning, nothing else will do. Only God can speak to the soul; only God can save the crushed in spirit; only God can defeat those troubling enemies that threaten to rob us of everything that makes us us. When everything in our world falls apart, when we fall apart, we’re left with God. And that’s enough. That’s our comfort. He is our comfort. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Not with a kind word, a nice gesture, or a large settlement, but with the presence of an unfailing, never changing, eternally loving God. When times of mourning approach, don’t try to avoid them. Embrace them. Travel with others through them. Go to those who suffer and be with them. And pay attention, because God’s presence and Kingdom are not far off. Amen.

[1] Richard Foster, Embracing Suffering, 30 Aug 2018