Sunday, January 29, 2017

Broken and Blessed: Matthew 5:1-12 - Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

1When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then 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. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (NRSV)
W. Leechburg steel mill.  Photo by author.
To me, there is no word in the Christian vocabulary that is more confusing than the word blessed.

Anytime I hear the word, I can’t help but think of the people we all know who send letters at Christmas boasting of how much God has “blessed” them: with career success, dream vacations, flashy new cars, bigger houses, perfect children, et cetera…  No one fails, no one gets sick, no one dies, no one worries about money—and if it just so happens that there is adversity, they practically dance right through it

Then you can’t help but think, “why am I not so blessed?  What have I done that God is withholding or taking away his blessing?

Consider this: if anyone who ever walked the earth should be blessed, it would be Jesus—and for obvious reasons: he’s God’s Son.  He’s without sin.  He loves and does good to everyone.  God ought to have blessed him with power, riches, and fame the likes of which the world has never seen.  But Jesus carries a cross instead.  His cross equals the sum of everything we fear and dread: failure, helplessness, defeat; evil and death. 

I should point out that the heroes of the Old and New Testaments were hardly “blessed.”  John the Baptist is imprisoned and later executed; the prophets and apostles were persecuted and suffered much the same fate.

But if you listen to what Jesus says today:
 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

If you were to sum it all up, Jesus says “blessed are those who aren’t blessed.  Blessed are those who need blessing.

At the end of the day, I think we need to redefine the word “blessing,” because according to Jesus, blessing is not synonymous with personal perfection and prosperity.  It’s not a reward for strong, iron-clad faith that never questions or doubts. It’s not a quick and easy to life’s most terrible problems.

God blesses when you cannot bless yourself; when you can’t pull yourself up by the bootstraps.  God blesses when you can’t put a smile on your face and act as though everything’s wonderful when it is most certainly not. 

God blesses when the burdens of life become so terrible that your faith literally crumbles under the weight. 

God blesses when you have sinned so terribly and there’s nothing you can do to change what you’ve done and make everything right. 

God blesses when you lose everything you’d built your life upon, and the world turns its back on you.

God blesses when you are walking dead.

Make no mistake—you die every day.  But you are blessed, because Jesus dies with you—so that you may rise to new life in him.

But first, you must die to the false belief that God rewards faith and good works with prosperity and answered prayers.  You must die to the false belief that you can handle things on your own.  You must die to your refusal to accept the things you cannot change. 

God takes all the bad stuff you did and all the bad things that happened to you, and makes you a new creation.  You rise with faith to see God’s hands opened in blessing in ways you never noticed before or never thought possible.  God’s blessing gets you back up on your feet again, and takes you in a new direction. 

As a disciple of Jesus, you become a blessing.  Not only do you give blessing, you also find blessing because you’re heart is pure and not self-serving.  You make peace.  You experience the presence of Christ as you give yourself away as bread for the hungry.  And when you are persecuted and hated, or you are suffering and dying, you can rejoice—trusting that Jesus is in it with you.

It is most certainly true that there’s more than enough death happening all around us.  If it’s not loved ones lost, we know death as poverty and unemployment; addiction and mental illness, violence and greed, and the bitter divisions tearing our society apart.  Yet Jesus is in the midst of it all, eager to bless; ready to heal; and mighty to save.

Blessed are you, child of God.  Blessed you will be. 

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Redemptive Conflict: 1 Corinthians 1:10-18 - Third Sunday after Epiphany

10Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. 11For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 12What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” 13Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16(I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

18For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (NRSV)

Chances are, if you’ve worked anywhere other than an office building, particularly in an industrial setting, you’ve seen one of these.  There’s a great big one at the entrance to the Vandergrift steel mill.

Behold: the church version…

This is hardly an easy subject to talk about, but churches are the perfect breeding ground for conflict, and the reason why is remarkably simple: churches are made up of people.  Different people—living different lives, with differing gifts and differing needs.
Everyone who walks through the door is a sinner.  Sinners make mistakes.  Sinners hurt other people, both intentionally and unintentionally. 

For these reasons, churches are little different than schools, workplaces, communities, and even societies and civilizations.

But what makes church conflicts so severe is the fact that the church’s very existence is grounded on beliefs and purposes of ultimate concern.  We’re in God’s business.  The work we do and the decisions we make can impact people for eternity.  

What’s more is that the Church’s very existence puts it in conflict with the kingdom of this world.  As God’s people, we live by a different set of rules.  We hold a different set of values.  We pursue different means towards different ends. We live at the crossroads of life and death, good and evil, truth and idolatry.

This is every bit as true today as it was nearly two thousand years ago for the fledgling little baby church in the ancient city of Corinth. 

Bear in mind that Paul is writing to this church at a time when they didn’t have printed bibles, creeds, confessions, constitutions, seminaries, or governing bodies. All they really had was the fundamental Gospel of Jesus, crucified and risen, who is the Savior of the world, which spread almost exclusively by word of mouth.  They worshipped, they baptized, they celebrated the Lord’s Supper, they shared God’s love—and, they fought with each other.

In Corinth, there was no greater social currency than that of affiliation.  In other words, you were who you knew.  This determined your place on the social pecking order.  Your family ties to wealth, power, and influence determined your wealth, power, and influence. 

This is precisely why the Corinthian Christians are fighting with each other over who baptized whom.  This may sound ridiculous to us, but to them, it was a matter of utmost importance.

So what do we fight over? 

I’ve seen churches tear themselves apart over what color the new carpet’s going to be to using real bread versus host at communion. 

It was conflict that put one Lutheran Church right here and one two blocks down the road, quite probably over matters we’d consider silly.  But generations later, we’re here and they’re there!

Conflicts exist because people want to win.  They want to be in control.  They want to be seen and esteemed.  They want to corner the market on truth and righteousness, win everyone over to their side, and believe (without doubt) that God is on their side. 

There are some people who seem to just be looking for conflict.  They take at offense over every little thing that’s said; they complain about every little thing; they blame the church’s problems on everyone but themselves.

But there are also plenty of people who are conflict-averse.  These cave in and comply to the aggressive and outspoken, in order to keep the peace.  Before you know it, someone else is running the church instead of Christ.

Conflict can kill a church—but so can the lack of it.  Either way, you’re crucifying Christ, the Gospel, the neighbor, and each other by either winning a conflict or avoiding it altogether. 

Conflict is in inevitable part of human relationships.  But in Christ, it’s no longer deadly.

There is no louder expression of humanity’s conflict with God than the cross.  There, all humanity had turned against Jesus—but what does Jesus say?  Father, forgive them…

Jesus’ death ends that conflict.  Jesus’ resurrection takes that conflict and makes it redemptive.   The same holds true not only for church conflict—but for family conflicts, workplace conflicts, you name it  This is how we are strengthened in our faith and in our sense of purpose. 

As a child of God, you don’t need to relinquish your visions, your needs, your feelings, and your convictions.  Just don’t beat people over the head with them.  Take them to the cross—and invite that person you’re at odds with to meet you there too.  We’re all God’s children at the end of the day.  Human relationships are too valuable than to be disposed of the moment there’s a disagreement.  We will never be of one mind over every little thing.  But in forgiveness, patience, and reconciliation, we are all drawn closer to Jesus Christ—and made stronger in our faith and in our life together as a church.

But also know that as people of God, we are forever in conflict with the Kingdom of Man.  We need the Holy Spirit to give us courage to be at the frontlines of God’s mission in the world as God destroys the social, the economic, the political, and the religious systems that deny God’s children their humanity, their daily bread, and their God-given place in God’s family. 

So do you dare to embrace conflict for Jesus’ sake?  Will you seek it—not in order to win for yourself but to win for somebody else?  Will you endure conflict to meet Jesus in someone for whom you disagree or who offends you?  Will you face conflict as God destroys greed, competition, bigotry, and prejudice, “working love for the rest of the weary?”