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December 2013
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"What is so Blessed about the Beatitudes?" Matthew 5:1-12


One of my favorite lines in Monty Python’s movie “Life with Brian” has a scene from the Sermon on the Mount among people in the back of the crowd struggling to hear.  They are arguing and bickering with each other while Jesus is speaking and one man asks what Jesus is saying.  “I think he said, ‘Blessed are the cheese makers.”

“The cheese makers, what’s so blessed about the cheese makers?” a woman asks.

Her husband responds with exasperation, “Its not meant to be taken literally.  He is referring to the manufacture of diary products in general.”


There is a great deal in the entire Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5 to 7 of Matthew, which will guide us for a few weeks) that we may wonder if we are supposed to take it literally.  How about these well known passages:


“Turn the other cheek.”  

“If your eye causes you to sin pluck it out.”

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter heaven.” 


We may read these and wonder if Jesus really meant for us to take this literally.  We might be more comfortable with blessing cheese makers than dealing with these difficult teachings.  Theologians have struggled with the Sermon on the Mount for ages.  During the Reformation, Martin Luther thought these teachings were impossible ideals that God wanted us to strive for even though we could never reach them.  The Mennonites, on the other hand, saw these teachings as the core of Christianity and based their philosophy of nonviolence on the Sermon on the Mount. 


Here is a case where I think it is more important to look at the style of Jesus rather than a solely philosophical look.  Jesus is a master at delivering unconventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom wants to uphold the status quo and keep order.  That is what makes it conventional, right?  Jesus delivers unconventional wisdom, because he aims to challenge the status quo of all types.  So he says things that at first seem to be impossible, shocking, upside down or crazy – until you really think about and realize he might just be on to something.


Think for a minute about the conventional wisdom in our society and you will notice that it is completely opposite from what Jesus has to say in the Beatitudes.  Instead of blessed are the poor in spirit, conventional wisdom says, “Put on a happy face.”  There are hundreds of books out there telling us to be positive, that there are laws of attraction in the universe that will bring positive things to us when we think positively.  Only a small handful of books council us to pay attention when we feel poor in spirit.  These times could be invitations to explore our inner world and face into the existential crisis of life. 


Conventional wisdom does not tell us to take time to mourn our losses.  Move on get over it!  We pay lip service to stages of grief, but they are often presented as a nice line up of hurdles that we jump over in logical progression so we can get back to normal.  Sure you should grieve a little bit, but if it goes on to long it is treated as a pathology. 


The meek and merciful are not lifted up as the ideals of society.  Instead we are told things like, “Nice guys finish last.”  How could we possibly think the meek will inherit the earth?  We all know the race goes to the swift, you have to seize the day.  Don’t retreat, reload.  Don’t get too caught up in mercy, because what goes around comes around.  People get what they deserve. 


Peacemakers may get holidays named after them…after they are shot down.  Many inner cities have a Martin Luther King Boulevard, too often dotted with pawn shops, liquor stores, abandoned buildings and crack houses.  But if you want to know who is blessed, take a look at the Defense budget, not the school budget.   


So what is so blessed about the Beatitudes?  Blessings come when we are close to God.  We think we are closest to God when everything is going well, when we are happy, successful and in charge of life.  But Jesus says that we are more likely to be closer to God when we experience human vulnerability – when are spirits are poor, when we mourn, feel powerless, when we really hunger and thirst for meaning, when we try to be pure in heart, but find out how impure we really can be, when we take on the difficult work of peacemaking, or get persecuted.  Truly in these difficult moments we come closer to knowing the real presence of God. 


I have found this to be true in my life.  I have many successes.  I set school records in track in high school, was president of many clubs (including Future Farmers of America), had academic honors including a 4.0 for my recent Masters degree in psychology at Marist.  It may help my self-esteem, but none of this brought me closer to God.  In fact it might lead me to think I can manage pretty well on my own.

I have come to know God through my struggles, through tragic losses and economic hardship.  I learned of God’s love for me while undergoing several surgeries and the pain of divorce.  God became more real to me as I learned that I cannot control things and I have to let go.  Working with people who are homeless and trying to help people struggling with addiction teach me patience, mercy and compassion.  I have come to know God in my trials, failures, tragedies and hubris. 


So when is it that I am truly blessed?  Paul is right again (darn him) that it is good to give thanks in all things, because we never know which moments will truly bring us closer to God.  Through the Beatitudes Jesus reminds us to keep our eyes open at the most unlikely times, because that is when we might find the true reality of God’s love.

"Star of Wonder" Matthew 2:1-12, Isaiah 60:1-6

StarsThe stars were brighter when I was a boy.  I’m certain of it.  I was out on a clear, cold night last week and Jeanne said, “Look there is Orion” and I remembered nights after the first moon landing, studying charts and memorizing constellations by day, and keeping a list of what I found.  We a field trip to the Iowa State University Observatory, looking at the rings of Saturn and the big, gassy Horseshoe Nebula.  I heard Carl Sagan speak live, and then the word “billions” really meant something to me.  I was still young enough look up in the sky and start counting.  Star gazing from an Iowa farm, with unlimited horizons, dry air, no lights of cities or pollution for miles was spectacular.  The Milky Way looked like a river of lights across the sky, and I remember seeing seven meteors streaking in one night.  I would look up and wonder when we would find life from other planets.  Would everything make more sense when they came?  Or would we have to wait; perhaps our little planet was the most advanced.  Who knows?!


I grew up in a time when star gazing and optimism went together, we had broken the bounds of gravity and our little planet, soon James T.Kirk of the Starship Enterprise to boldly go where no one had been before.  The aliens were friendly, like ET, intelligent and helpful, maybe curious, not like all the aliens today that want to use our chest cavity as a birthing pod or eat us.  The best and brightest were shooting for the billions of stars, not just figuring out how to make billions of dollars on Wall Street.  Jiminy Cricket sang, “When you wish upon a star…”


I don’t know if its more carbon in the atmosphere, or living closer to major cities in the East Coast, or just that my childhood senses were more vivid, but the stars don’t seem as bright. 


All this comes to mind as I think about the Three Kings following yonder star to the Christ child.  Reading the old story again that we act out each year, I noticed a couple of new things that fascinated me that I missed before.  First, it is amazing to me that these Eastern Magi, apparently non-Jewish astrologers, are the ones who see the message that the messiah is born?  How did that get into the Bible?  As a young Evangelical, I learned that believing in astrology and looking at your horoscope was an idolatrous sin.  You could go to Hell for that. I did a Bible word search for the word astrology and you know how many verses I found?  None.  There are 46 verses that refer to stars, many of them about the promise to Abraham and Sarah that their offspring will be as numerous as the stars.  (They still have a few quadrillion births to go.)  But often the star is associated with prophecy of God doing a new thing.  God announces changes in the heavens.  Especially intruging to me is this passage in Job 38, where God answers Job in a long discourse, and spends a few verses questioning him about the constellations in the skies:


31 “Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades,
    or loose the cords of Orion?
32 Can you lead forth the Mazzaroth in their season,
    or can you guide the Bear with its children?
33 Do you know the ordinances of the heavens?
    Can you establish their rule on the earth?


The writer of Job anticipates that his Jewish audience will know their constellations.  They look to the night skies without any knowledge of Copernicus, and assume that the light of the stars move past them by the hand of God. Therefore any major changes in the skies must be a message from God. 


This brings me to my second surprise.  When the three Magi first come to Jerusalem, apparently the star is not giving them the precise GPS location of the newborn king, because they go to Herod and ask “Where is the baby?”  The must have assumed that this newborn was Herod’s son.  That is how it works right?  The first born son of the current king becomes the next king.  But it soon becomes apparent that none of Herod’s wives have recently given birth – very awkward! 


If the star’s sign is true, that the messiah has been born, that the one who will rule as the good shepherd and bring peace has come, shouldn’t that mean that everyone should be rejoicing and beginning the search to go find this infant?  He should be living in the palace like the next Dalai Lama. This should be exciting news, right?  But it also means that the house of Herod will fall, because there are no babies there.  For Herod, it is a star of fear, the harbinger of a shift in power.  And here is something I missed.  Matthew says all of Jerusalem is afraid too.  Not all Jews are afraid, but all of the city of Jerusalem, which is the seat of power, the place where Roman rule is administered.  If Jerusalem were a good and just city, and Roman rule was great, there would be no need of Messiahs to be born.  Matthew is telling us that the people see the bright star and hear the Magi, and they are all afraid, because their commitments are to Herod and the status quo.


Who could be afraid of a sign in the stars?  Ask Copernicus.  Ask Galileo.  Shifts that come from the heavens can be very threatening.  Copernicus and the Magi deliver the same message.  You are not the center of the Universe.  I wonder if Herod ever searched the night sky and suddenly felt very small and insignificant. 


What would Herod have thought if he had known that the Magi’s star was light years away, that what he was perceiving was so distant that light traveling fast and furious at 186,000 miles per second, was reaching him years later, and by the time he saw the star it was long gone to another part of the heavens.  Would he have then realized the petty and small nature of his schemes and plans? 


What do you see when you gaze up at a starry night sky and contemplate the vast space and countless lights?  Like the Psalmist, do you ask, “What is a human, O God, that you would be mindful of us.”  Like Job, when I am all hot under the collar about how unfair and unjust life is, I look to the constellations and wonder what I really know.  Star gazing is a form of communion.  It calls us out of our small concerns and into a bigger universe, to a state of awe and wonder.  The appearance of the Magi call me to move in a journey from fear to trust, a trust that if I let go of my own status quo, that the way of Jesus will lead me to the true nature of God and the universe.  It calls me away from my cynicism that things never change, to an awareness that new stars can appear on the horizon.  It calls us to a journey, like the Magi, to sing “Star of wonder, star of light, star of royal beauty bright…Guide us to thy perfect light.” 


Guide us, O God, in this New Year, toward the light of Jesus that it may shine in us.