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“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, saying:
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.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” 
– Matthew 5:1-12

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Our scripture reading for today is one of the best-known and best-loved passages in the Bible.  It is also probably one of the most misinterpreted, mis-used and/or completely ignored passages in the Bible.  So I’d like to spend some time with it today, really digging into the meaning of Jesus’ words. I want to start out taking a look at the context of Jesus’ teaching, and then look at what these words might mean to us personally, and finally what they might mean to the church as the body of Christ.

So starting with context.  The Beatitudes, as these verses are called, are part of a much longer teaching known as the Sermon on the Mount, and the entire sermon is found in Matthew chapters 5-7.  So it’s a pretty long teaching. The Beatitudes are the opening section of that teaching.

In terms of location, Jesus taught these words on a mountainside overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

beat6These photos show what the mountain looks like today.  Of course back in Jesus’ day the top of the mountain would not have been flattened, and there would be no church there.

beat4But you can still get a feel for what it was like.  It’s a breathtakingly beautiful spot.  I mention this because so many Bible movies show Jesus and the disciples trudging over brown landscape, rocks, and dust, and there are parts of southern Israel that look like that, but not Galilee.  The region of Galilee is one of the most naturally beautiful places on earth.

beat3So this is where Jesus and the disciples went – surrounded by beauty.  In a way this would have been for them kind of like going on a retreat to Jumonville would be for us, a way of getting away from the everyday and spending some time – I was going to say ‘in the word’, but with the Word in this case.

Matthew says very specifically “when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain” where the disciples came to him. So Matthew seems to imply that Jesus was speaking mostly to the disciples, probably not just the Twelve, but to people who were already following him.  As the Sermon on the Mount progresses, a crowd builds, so by the end of the sermon in chapter 7 Matthew says “a large crowd” was astonished at Jesus’ teaching.  And then at the beginning of chapter 8 Jesus goes back down the mountain, and Matthew says even larger crowds (plural) were at the foot of the mountain waiting for Jesus.

I’m going to come back to the significance of these crowds in a moment, but for now I’d like to dig into the text.  One side note first on the Beatitudes, especially for those of us who have heard teaching on this passage before. There’s a common pitfall, I think, with the Beatitudes, and that is to take the characteristics Jesus describes as “blessed” and make them into personal goals. We are not supposed to try to make ourselves mournful, or meek, or poor in spirit, and so on.  What Jesus is saying here is if you find yourself  in these situations, if you hunger for righteousness, if you are grieving (and so on), then count yourself blessed. Not go try to make yourself blessed.

So having said that, let’s dig into these Beatitudes.

First off Jesus repeats the word “blessed” at the beginning of every sentence. In Hebrew literature, this kind of repetition is meant to build, one upon the other. Not that there are levels of blessedness, but that taken together as a whole the blessing becomes magnified. And the Greek word here for blessing goes beyond mere happiness and implies transcendent joy.

So the first group of people Jesus calls ‘blessed’ are the poor in spirit.  This has absolutely nothing to do with economic poverty.  The phrase ‘poor in spirit’ is a concept in Greek that is not directly translatable into English. In Greek the phrase refers to a person who is humble about his or her own abilities, someone who recognizes their need for other people. The exact opposite of poor in spirit is illustrated in just about every Clint Eastwood movie I’ve ever seen.  You know, at the end of the movie, after killing the bad guys and saving the town, Clint rides off into the sunset alone.  He leaves the town behind, he leaves the woman behind, he leaves the cute little kid behind. He doesn’t need anybody. His entire life is bootstrapped. This is the total opposite of what it means to be poor in spirit. A person who is poor in spirit knows they need others, and knows they need God.  Blessed are the poor in spirit, Jesus says – because theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Next Jesus says “blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted”.  The word for comfort here in Greek is parakaleo.  If you were here last week you’ll remember this is the same word Paul uses in I Corinthians 10 when he says, “I appeal to you brothers and sisters that there be no divisions among you…” The word translated “I appeal to you…” is parakaleo. The literal translation is ‘to call alongside’ or ‘to draw (a person) to one’s side’.  So if you mourn, if you are grieving, Jesus says you are blessed, because God will draw you to His side.

Next Jesus says blessed are the meek – the gentle, the considerate. This does not mean weak but rather strong with flexibility. Jesus says the meek are blessed because they will inherit the earth.

Next Jesus says blessed are the ones who hunger and thirst for righteousness. In other words, people who long for and deeply desire righteousness. The word ‘righteousness’ has kind of gotten a bad rep in recent years, so we could substitute the word ‘justice’, if we define justice as an attribute of God, not as something we see on Law & Order. Jesus says those who hunger and thirst for what God says is right are blessed because they will be completely and totally satisfied by God.

Next Jesus says blessed are the merciful – people who are compassionate, who have empathy – because they will themselves receive mercy.

Next Jesus says blessed are the pure in heart – again, a difficult phrase to translate, but – literally, free from dirt; figuratively, free from wrong. Impurity and evil cannot exist where God is – just like darkness cannot exist where light is. So blessed are the pure in heart because they will be able to stand in God’s presence; “they shall see God”.

Next Jesus says blessed are the peacemakers. Literal translation peace-maker.  Someone who is able and willing to build friendly relationships between people. (Try that on Facebook!)  Jesus says peacemakers will be called children of God – because God himself makes peace between fallen humanity and heaven, so when we make peace we are being like God.  We are being God’s children.

Next Jesus says blessed are those who are persecuted – expelled, harassed, oppressed – for doing what God requires. Not for doing something wrong, but for doing what is right.  I’ve seen this kind of thing a lot in workplace politics – where standing up for what’s right can sometimes even cost a person their job.  Blessed are you, Jesus says, when people shut you out for doing what God has asked you to do; yours is the kingdom of heaven.

And last, Jesus says blessed are you when others reproach you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil against you falsely because of your loyalty to Jesus. Jesus says “rejoice and exult! For your reward is great in heaven” because they treated the prophets the same way.

So if we find ourselves in any of these situations, we are blessed. God knows what we are living through, and God will bless each of us beyond our ability to describe.

The Beatitudes are words of comfort for each of us.  But they’re also more than that.  There’s also what Jesus’ words have to say to us as a church, as the local body of believers in Jesus Christ in this community.

Remember a moment ago I mentioned I would come back to the question of who Jesus was talking to on the mountain.  Usually when Jesus went up a mountain it was to get away from the crowds. His public teaching was usually – not always, but usually – either in the cities and towns, or near shore of the Sea of Galilee, where there are natural ampitheaters.  Even so, after Jesus went up the mountain, a crowd managed to find him, and by the end of the sermon “a large crowd” had gathered.  But in chapter 5, where we began, Jesus is clearly speaking to ‘his disciples’, that is, his followers – not just the twelve, but a group of people who already believed in Jesus and were following him.

So as Jesus begins to speak the different blessings, he does not actually say ‘blessed are you’ when these things happen. He says, ‘blessed are they’.  Of course these blessings do apply to us, to the disciples, to believers – but in the moment Jesus is pointing the disciples’ attention away from themselves and onto others.  And I think what Jesus is doing, at least in part, is describing to the disciples what kinds of people will make up God’s kingdom – the kinds of people the disciples are to go look for as they go out into the world in Jesus’ name. Charles Simeon, the great British preacher and contemporary of John Wesley, said this in his introduction to the Sermon on the Mount: “[Jesus’] design in this sermon was to open to [the disciples] the nature of that kingdom which he had… announced as about to be established, and to rescue the moral law from [the] false glosses which the Pharisees had put [on] it.” (Expository Outlines, Vol 11)

Or to put it another way, the Sermon on the Mount is to be the church’s game plan.

The prophet Isaiah said, in a verse that Jesus quoted: “The spirit of the Lord… is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;  to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor… to comfort all who mourn…” (Isaiah 61:1-2, edited)

King David wrote: “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD rescues them from them all.” (Psalm 34:18-19)

Throughout scripture, both Old and New Testament talk about God’s love for the hurting and the oppressed, and God commands the people of God to do the same.

Looking at this from a practical standpoint, it’s interesting to contrast the Beatitudes with today’s advice on church growth.  If you’ve ever read books on church growth, so many of them say things like “find the leaders in your community” or “create an attractive worship experience” or “take a poll to determine the community’s perceived needs”. And there are a gazillion magazine articles out there like “7 Keys to Church Growth” or “10 Church Growth Strategies”. One even said “44 Church Growth Strategies”!

All of these may contain some interesting tips; but not one church growth strategy I’ve ever seen says “go out and look for the humble, and the meek, the ones who are grieving, and the oppressed, and the ones who show mercy, and the ones who don’t compromise what they know is right, and the ones who build bridges between people, and the ones who are willing to suffer for doing God’s will. Go find these people and tell them God blesses them, and tell them God’s kingdom is at hand, and don’t bother counting how many show up on Sunday.” Sounds crazy, yes? But in the first few hundred years after Jesus, believers did these things and the faith spread like wildfire throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Europe.

And if any of this sounds vaguely political – it is, but in not the way we expect.  As one pastor and author wrote recently, the problem with both the Christian Right and the Christian Left is that they reduce the word “Christian” to an adjective. God does not serve any worldly power.  To live as a Christian is to live under the reign and rule of Christ. And this is revolutionary, in fact (as the author put it) the only truly revolutionary politics the world has ever seen. And he adds, “The church doesn’t need to enforce this revolution, the church only needs to live it.” (Brian Zahnd, http://www.evangelicalsforsocialaction.org/faith-and-public-life/the-jesus-revolution/)

After Jesus came back down the mountain he went out and showed the disciples how this plan works in real life.  So we see him reaching out to people like the Samaritan woman at the well – who was rejected by her own people but whose heart was open to God – or the Roman centurion with the ill slave, who wasn’t even Jewish, but who had faith like no-one else.

So this is Jesus’ game plan. Go. Find the people who are grieving, the people who are victims of injustice, the people who the world overlooks because they’re too small or too unimportant, the people who long for righteousness, the compassionate ones, the people who are looking for God’s way and don’t care what the cost is. Find them, welcome them in God’s name, and invite them to be with us.

How do we do this? Start with prayer.  The opportunities will come.  In fact if I know this church at all, some of the opportunities are already here. Pray for God’s leading and keep an eye out for the opportunities.

Each one of us here, in some way, knows what it is to be blessed by God in the places where we are weak or where we’ve been hurt. Each one of us at one time or another has found ourselves described in one (or more) of the Beatitudes. We have received God’s comfort, and now it’s our turn to offer God’s comfort to others – blessing them and welcoming them in Jesus’ name. Let’s go for it. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican), Pittsburgh, 1/29/17

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“Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”– Isaiah 58:12 (the scripture lesson for the day is Isaiah chapter 58 complete)

I can’t think of a more appropriate scripture for where we find ourselves today! In our neighborhoods and in our churches, every day we see around us old buildings that are crumbling, old churches (many of them closed or made into bars), old neighborhoods where houses have been abandoned and the grass grows tall.

In our reading from Isaiah today God calls us to be ‘restorers of the breach’. This is an old battle term from back in the day when cities were surrounded by walls. An attacking army would try to create a breach or a break in the wall so they could get in and pillage the town.  “Repairers of the breach rebuild what the enemy had destroyed. And God is calling us to rebuild what our enemy has destroyed: to be “restorers of streets to live in. To make our neighborhoods and our churches places of welcome, and safe havens for the hurting and for those in need.

With these thoughts in mind I’d like to tell a true-life story by way of illustration. It’s the story of an old mill town.  There are many old mill towns in our area, and every mill town is unique in its own way, but all of them share some things in common: rapid growth, a few decades of prosperity, rapid decline, abandonment by the industry, stagnation and decay.  At which point every mill town and every neighborhood has to make a decision: will it live, or will it die?

The story I’d like to share today is the story of Aliquippa. It’s a town across the Ohio River from Ambridge in Beaver County, probably best known for being the hometown of Mike Ditka, Tony Dorsett, and Henry Mancini. As part of my ministry training I spent a year there volunteering at a coffeehouse café ministry, and I got to know a little bit about Aliquippa’s history.

Aliquippa started out as a farming village. In the 1800s it became an important stop on the railway line between Pittsburgh and Ohio, which brought some business in and a little bit of growth. About the same time a park was built on the banks of the Ohio River near the train station, sort of a 19th century version of an amusement park, with rides and picnic areas and a bandstand – a great place for families to get away for the day.

With the exception of the train station and the park’s office, all of that was wiped out when the steel mill came. J&L Steel changed the face of Aliquippa.  Aliquippa became a city – rich and prosperous – a shopping destination with department stores and movie theatres. A true rags-to-riches story.

But there was another side to that story.  J&L Steel essentially re-designed the town.  They forced a creek that fed into the Ohio River underground and built the new main street on top of it. To this day whenever there’s heavy rain the underground pipes overflow and the main street floods.  (That was my introduction to Aliquippa– my first day volunteering was shoveling muck out of the basement of a building on the main street.)

The heads of J&L Steel had similar grand ideas about social engineering.  Those of us who have read history will recall back in the early 1900s it was a fairly common belief that “science” “proved” the superiority of certain people groups and the inferiority of others. For a few decades in the 1900s this kind of thinking was not only acceptable but was considered by many to be cutting edge. And the owners of the factory wanted to be famous for making Aliquippa the model city of the future.

The City of Aliquippa’s web page describes what happened this way: “The new [town] was in every way a company town. J&L laid out the borough in a series of “plans” identified by number such as “Plan 6,” “Plan 11,” etc., and settled people from various racial and ethnic sources separately in each plan.”

Talk about a recipe for disaster! It should have been obvious to anyone with half a brain that forced segregation would prevent the town from ever coming together as a unified community.  In fact I’m sure that was part of their thinking: people who are divided against each other are easier to manage. When you visit Aliquippa today, almost 100 years later, the mills are long gone, but the Plans are still there, and so is the segregated, prejudicial mindset they inspired. It makes you want to go back in a time machine and shake these guys and say “what were you thinking?!?

The saddest part of the story is that no one at the time spoke up to say, “this isn’t right”.  It isn’t right for a company to own a city. It isn’t right when the passion for money and fame causes company bosses to control every aspect of their workers’ lives. It isn’t right when neighbors turn their backs on neighbors just because they live in the wrong ‘Plan’. Nobody spoke up against this – not the politicians, not the media (who fawned all over this idea), not the churches, and not the workers.

After a period of about 30 or 40 years of economic prosperity – just long enough for people to get used to having steady incomes and benefits and reasonably comfortable lives – J&L Steel sold out to LTV Steel. A few years and some labor-management tussles later, LTV emptied the retirement accounts, declared bankruptcy, and the mill was closed.

Again, quoting from the town’s website: “One day in the late 1980s… veteran steel workers who had lost their jobs and then their retirement benefits gathered at the railroad tunnel at the entrance of the old plant to demonstrate…. Dubbed the “Tunnel Rats”, the group of steel workers were arrested by local police for disorderly conduct. There were tears in the eyes of some of the arresting officers as they were forced to handcuff their own family members…”

I will give the churches of Aliquippa credit for this: by the time the Tunnel Rats were protesting, the churches were taking a stand for what was right. There were a number of priests and clergy arrested along with those workers.

Sadly, the money had already disappeared and there wasn’t much that could be done.  Today if you walk through Aliquippa, the mills are long gone. There’s nothing but gravel and sand on miles of property where they once stood. Many of the homes and businesses are gone – not just closed, but torn down (or burned down).  The few buildings that remain are dirty, crumbling, many of them boarded up.

All of this history – initial prosperity but without a commitment to God, a community that turned its back on God’s call to love and care for neighbors, the corporate greed, the personal greed – directly or indirectly led to segregation, questionable business practices, the failure of an industry, a cascade of small business failures and personal bankruptcy – and a city that is now more a ghost town than a place to live.

And now the people who are still there look back and ask “why?” “Why did this happen to us? This town was great once.”

Our passage from Isaiah gives God’s answer to the ‘why?’ question… and it’s not easy to hear but it needs to be heard.

Isaiah 58, verse 2:  God says the people are religious, they claim to seek after God, they act “as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness.”  In other words, they went to church every Sunday, they said their prayers, they gave their money… this was true of everybody in Aliquippa, especially back in the 1940s and 1950s. They all went to church, from owners to management to workers… they all went to church… each in their own ‘Plan’ of course. And everybody was taught their church was the true church and all the others were shaky at best. God says, “Look, you serve your own interests on your fast day and oppress all your workers.”

God isn’t fooled. And even though our part of Western PA is not the same as Aliquippa, to some degree the same issues effect all of our communities. To use Carnegie as an example for a moment, because I know Carnegie’s history best: up until a few years ago there were five Catholic churches in the one parish of Carnegie: Irish, Italian, German (which have since merged), Polish and Ukrainian (which are still with us).  And not only that, but the social developers got hold of Carnegie too and they closed off Main Street in the 1960s to make a pedestrian mall… which nobody wanted, and which almost killed the town. I’m not picking on Carnegie: these are just examples, and I’m sure we could find similar problems in all of our neighborhoods.

The really difficult thing is, after all these years, one more problem cropped up in Aliquippa (and elsewhere), one that nobody saw coming: the loss of ability to imagine a future.  Here’s what I mean:

Aliquippa is a city with good bones. It was built solidly and well. It has natural resources and great natural beauty (if you can look past the blight). It could be rebuilt, repurposed. Someone like me with an entrepreneurial streak – when I walk down the streets I imagine the possibilities: put a preschool over here, put an animal shelter there in that abandoned building, and wow! look at that midcentury-modern bank, it’s all boarded up and just rusting away. Restore these things, and Aliquippa would become a destination again.

But when I talk like this to the people who live there, they look at me like I’m crazy. “It will never happen,” they say. And they’re right. It won’t… so long as people believe it won’t.  Because the people who live there are no longer able to imagine a future. All they see is the past. And if you ask them what kind of future they would like, what they describe sounds amazingly like the past.  The man who started and ran the Aliquippa café, after living there and working for progress for 15 years, all but despaired of getting the people of the town to hope for anything. They’re fixated on the past, on how things used to be.

God ran into this problem too, back in Moses’ day. After God liberated the people from Egypt, got them safely through the Red Sea on dry land, did away with Pharaoh’s army, and set their feet on the road to the Promised Land, Israel started complaining. They said: “We had good food to eat back in Egypt! We were ever hungry! We had comfortable houses… now all we have is tents and sand! Moses, have you brought us into this wilderness so we could die here?” God had to wait forty years for that entire generation of Israelites to die out before the people were able to imagine a different future and were ready to enter the Promised Land.

And I put it to us today: is there anything holding us back? How long is God going to have to wait for us?

God holds out hope to us. God has a future for us. God’s arms are open to us.  And in this passage from Isaiah God gives us a vision for the future and a road map to get there.  The vision and the road map each have ten points in this passage, and I could preach a sermon on each point but for now I’ll just read through them quickly.

Here’s the ten-point vision. God says:

  1. Your light shall break forth like the dawn
  2. Your healing shall spring up quickly (and haven’t we already seen healing in response to prayer? Already that’s coming true.)
  3. Your vindicator (that is, Jesus) shall go before you: leading the way, giving you the words, supplying your needs
  4. The glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. In other words, God’s got your back!
  5. You shall cry out and the Lord will answer, “here am I”
  6. The ancient ruins shall be rebuilt
  7. You shall raise up foundations for many generations
  8. You shall repair the breach, restoring what the enemy has broken or taken
  9. You shall restore the streets, make them livable again
  10. God says, “I will make you ride upon the heights and will bring your heritage.”

That’s the vision.  Ten things God promises if we will… and then God gives us ten commands.  All these things will happen if we will do the following:

  1. Work for justice
  2. Free those who are in slavery or under oppression (and under ‘oppression’ I would include but not limit this to those who are enslaved to drugs, alcohol, and other addictions)
  3. Feed the hungry
  4. Welcome the poor
  5. Cover the naked
  6. Be present to your family (that is, both family-family and church family)
  7. Stop pointing fingers at each other
  8. Stop speaking evil
  9. Satisfy the needy
  10. Honor the Sabbath

That last point – “honor the Sabbath” – is the only item on the list God gives an entire verse to. God says: “If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth… for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 58:13-14)

When Isaiah says ‘the mouth of the Lord has spoken,’ remember Genesis chapter one. When God speaks, things happen. When God says ‘light be made’ light is made. Keeping the Sabbath brings rich rewards. The mouth of the Lord has spoken.

A couple of months ago I preached about the need to rediscover the Sabbath.  In this passage Isaiah tells us why that’s so important. Human beings made in the image of God need to rest from our labors, rest from our concerns, rest from our drive to make money, rest from other peoples’ demands on our time. One day a week we and our families need to have a day that belongs to God, for our own sakes as well as to honor God. The Sabbath is a gift from God, a rich gift, and we should receive it with thanks, and honor it.

Getting back to Aliquippa for one more moment… For the past two decades the churches of Aliquippa – including that café – have been some of the greatest sources of hope in the town. The churches help in small ways most of the time. There’s not a lot of money to be had any more, so what’s done relies on God’s Spirit and human cooperation rather than cash (which is an excellent place to be). They do things like cleaning shop windows of the stores that still remain. Weed-whacking a vacant lot to make room for a playground. Starting a community garden and teaching people how to care for it. Holding collections of prom-dresses in the spring, or coats in the winter, so no-one has to go without. Opening a bike-repair shop and teaching young people how to fix bikes so they have a trade.

As I walk the streets of Aliquippa I begin to understood what Isaiah was talking about. To catch the vision. “the ancient ruins shall be rebuilt… you shall be repairers of the breach, restorers of streets to live in.”

And in our own towns, things are starting to happen.  In Carnegie, the church took part in the Carnegie Crawl. In Allentown, we hosted a National Night Out event for the community. In the Strip District we supported a family who lost their home in a fire. We’re making a start. And I believe God honors that.

So let’s take the next step.  I’d like to invite you to join me in making this passage from Isaiah a guiding light for our future: both the future of the church, and the future of our communities. This passage, in so many ways, is a road map to renewal. I invite you to join me in praying over this passage, asking God for specific ideas about how we can make God’s words a reality in our congregation. To ask God to encourage us with a clear understanding of the goodness of God’s vision, to open our minds and hearts to to God’s thoughts. To ask God to show us how we can do what God commands… how and where we can become repairers of the breach and restorers of streets to live in.

Does that sound like an adventure or what? Can I get an Amen?

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Hill Top United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Anglican Church (Strip), 8/21/16

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A friend posted this on Facebook today and I had to re-post it here.  It’s a blast from the past, part of the soundtrack of my young adult life. Glad to have it where I can find it and share it with friends.

Without further ado… comedian/musician/mathematician Tom Lehrer.  Enjoy.

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There are days I look at the news and shake my head wondering how on earth the message of Jesus has gotten so twisted.  Jesus taught love and peace and joy and truth… never disrespect for the dead, or abuse of women and children, or voices raised in anger, or judgmental hatred of minorities.  When I look at the Fred Phelpses of the world I can hardly blame non-religious types for thinking of religion as a mental illness.

For those who say the world would be better off without religion, defense of faith isn’t my purpose in writing today.  It’s enough to say that so much of humanity’s historical, cultural, and intellectual capital is rooted in the positive aspects of religion, that to do away with religion is essentially to saw off the tree branch we’re sitting on.

And, as so many people of various faiths have said before me, fundamentalists do not represent the majority of the faithful.

So how does fundamentalism spread?  Here’s one story that I’m sure has been repeated millions of times in one form or another.

Today I received an email from an elderly friend.  She’s a wonderful lady – matriarch of three generations, community volunteer, lifelong churchgoer.  She sent me a link to a web page and video that was troubling her.  Here is the web page it linked to — an article castigating President Obama and his choice of church attendance on Easter, with a “video” of said service.  The video looked familiar so I popped over to YouTube and discovered the so-called “Easter service” was a tiny piece of a much longer sermon filmed over five years ago.  There’s no indication it was filmed on any Easter or that the President was in attendance.

The website that published all this is a subset of One News Now, run by the American Family Association.  According to Wikipedia, the AFA is listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, citing “propagation of known falsehoods” and “demonizing propaganda”.  The AFA is, essentially, our generation’s version of the KKK.

But there’s no way my elderly friend could have known all this.  All she knows is she got an upsetting email with a video containing the n-word and she wants to know what the world is coming to.

And she wonders how people can put this stuff in print if there isn’t some grain of truth in it somewhere.

And that’s how fundamentalism spreads… not in the halls of power, not via FoxNews, not via huge bank accounts, but friend-to-friend and family member to family member, by innuendo, twisted truths, false reporting.  Deliberate misinformation sent out by an organization with its own prosperity in mind, to people who would never think to do such things. People who forward emails to their children and relatives and friends and say, “Have you seen this? Can it be true? If Mom (or Dad or Sis or Bro) thinks there might something in it, maybe there is…”

One News Now, the AFA, Focus on the Family, et al… they make their millions by sending out messages designed to incite anger and play into people’s fears.  The language of their message implies that the nation as we know it will cease to exist if immediate action isn’t taken.  (To be fair I’ve heard equal and opposite jargon from the “other side” but that’s a different story for another day.)  They call people to stand for ‘God and country’ and they define what God said (“Stand firm!”) and what supporting country means (hyper-nationalism, wrapping the cross in the flag, no abortions, no gays, no immigrants, no blacks or women in power, always looking to “get back” to a more “innocent” era).  And of course “taking a stand” really means “Send money! And send us the names and addresses of other people who will send money!”

Blogger and ‘recovering fundamentalist’ blogger Jeri describes the fundamentalist subculture:

Loyalty compels separation and alienation. Paul warned the believers in Corinth about the dangers and flaws of saying “I am of Paul” or “I am of Apollos.” Yet, this is the very fabric of Fundamentalist culture. […]  We really believed our culture, our leaders, our “standards” put us a few notches above…  Alliances and divisions were (and are) numerous and complex and rock hard.

A lot of Fundamentalist preaching is mayhem and doom, as preachers try to tie people in to the sense of being part of the enlightened and godly few. Fundamentalist preaching attacks music, movies, books, people, political groups, other cultures, etc. Loyalty thrives in a culture that so clearly and frequently culls out most other people as being unfit for God’s approbation, even if they are in Christ. And yet Fundamentalism remains dead silent about its own child molesting preachers, and those who have been caught in deceptions, frauds, and embezzlement. Fundamentalism protects its key men […] it cannot admit to the gross corruption of its leaders. In a culture of loyalty, the leaders must be protected…

How to stop it?  Things that won’t work: Reason. Arguing.  Shouting. Violence.  Trying to understand where they’re coming from.  The passing of laws restricting religious activity.  Ignoring them.  Treating them like idiots. Talking down to them.  Telling them to “get with the times”.

What does work: Defeat the false gospel of power politics with the real gospel of Jesus.  “Gospel” is an ancient word meaning “good news”.  What these organizations spread is “bad news”.  Remind people who are afraid that God loves them and is still in charge. Remind people who are angry that Jesus has already won the victory over sin and death on the cross.  Remind them that real Christians “take a stand” on their knees… and have a duty to pray for enemies, perceived or real.  Pray for them.  Remind them of the depths of God’s love.  Remind them that perfect love casts out fear.  And when appropriate, remind them that Jesus’ sharpest criticisms were reserved for the religious leaders of his day… who sound amazingly like these fundamentalist leaders.  Confront the leaders with God’s truth, especially as found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew ch 5 & 6)  Remind the followers – the flock of Christ – who their real Shepherd is.

Sounds crazy in the ears of a secular society, I know.  But this is a spiritual battle.  Humans are not the measure of all things.  There is a reality beyond what our senses can perceive.  And that’s what’s needed here.  Nothing else will answer.

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Christian Associates of Southwestern PA issued a joint statement this past April on the “Preventive Services Mandate” portion of the national healthcare bill. The joint statement says, in part, that the Mandate “requires faith-based entities that provide health insurance to facilitate access to specific preventive services, even if they consider some of those services incompatible with the practice of their faith.”  It speaks of “a common commitment to the right of religious freedom” we share as Americans regardless of differences of opinion on political matters.

While it is not spelled out in the statement, the major sticking point in the Mandate is the requirement that Catholic and other faith-based charities provide abortion and contraceptive services to employees via their health insurance, which would be a clear violation of religious beliefs and practices for many people of faith.

The joint statement received extremely broad support, as shown by the signatures of leaders of the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, Kiskiminetas Presbytery, Allegheny-Scranton African Methodist Episcopal District, Pittsburgh Presbytery, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Greensburg, the Southwestern PA Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Christian Associates, United Churches of Christ, the Byzantine Catholic Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, Beaver-Butler Presbytery, Pittsburgh Baptist Association, the Orthodox Church in America, Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, and Disciples of Christ Churches.

The joint statement calls on the federal government to “broaden the religious exemption… so that both the constitutional right to the free exercise of religion… and the moral imperative of healthcare… may not be impaired.”

The full text of the joint statement and accompanying press release may be found here.

The press release having been sent in mid-April, this is not breaking news, but as it was reprinted in the June issue of The Call (the newsletter of the Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania) I wanted to mention it.  There are times when I have been critical of CASP for not taking strong stands on Biblical issues, so I am delighted to report this time they have not only taken a stand but have been the rallying point for an interdenominational statement that is all too rare among church leaders today.

 

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It is with sadness we share the news that Pope Shenouda III of Egypt’s Coptic Christian Church has passed away at the age of 88.  The story can be found here:  BBC News

Pope Shenouda III

Pope Shenouda III

Pope Shenouda was seen as a peacemaker between Christians and Muslims in Egypt, loved and respected by both.

He was also a good friend of Bishop Mouneer Anis, head of the Anglican Church in Egypt, and through him to Anglicans worldwide. Bishop Anis wrote in his Obituary for Pope Shenouda III, “Together with all Egyptians, the Episcopal / Anglican Church of Egypt mourns the loss of Pope Shenouda III,” adding, “I was not surprised to see hundreds of thousands of people in the streets of Cairo yesterday, immediately after the announcement of the passing away of the beloved Pope, who was such an important symbol for the nation.”

His funeral is set for 21 March, and he will be buried at the monastery of St. Bishoy.

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“Then the Pharisees went and took counsel how to entangle him in his talk.  And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true, and teach the way of God truthfully, and care for no man; for you do not regard the position of men.  Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”  But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites?  Show me the money for the tax.” And they brought him a coin.  And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?”  They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  When they heard it, they marveled; and they left him and went away.
– Matthew 22:15-22

Candles

The theme for our Advent series is Hope in the Darkness, and last week we looked at how Jesus brings hope into the lives of individuals… how He gave sight to the blind, and how He can bring light to the dark places in our lives.

This week we look at what happens in human institutions when leaders put their faith in things that are not worth putting faith in.  When people trust in something other than God to fix the world’s problems, the result is always oppression and injustice.  Jesus shows us how to bring hope into this particular kind of darkness.

In the Scripture reading we just heard, we see the Herodians and Pharisees teaming up against Jesus to try to discredit Him.  By way of explanation, back in Jesus’ day the Herodians were political leaders and the Pharisees were religious leaders.  Both of these groups are portrayed negatively in Scripture.  The Herodians were supporters of King Herod, who was a Jewish puppet king in league with the Romans.  In other words, Herodians were collaborators, playing along with the enemies of the Jewish people for their own personal gain.

The Pharisees – we hear a lot of bad things about them in sermons – but what is not commonly known is that they were very popular in their day.  They had broad support of the people because, out of all the religious leaders of the time, they were the ones who taught the word of God correctly and stood for purity of faith and the Jewish way of life.  In a way they were sort of like the TV preachers of our day: strongly in favor of God and country.  Jesus criticized them, not for teaching the wrong things, but for being hypocrites… because they didn’t practice what they preached.  Many times Jesus said to His followers, “do what they tell you but don’t do what they do.”

So the Herodians and the Pharisees, by nature of being who they were, usually didn’t get along with each other.  But they were united in two things: one, they thought they had all the answers.  For the Herodians the solutions to life’s problems were found in politics.  For the Pharisees the solutions to life’s problems were found in religious practice – and by that I mean not a relationship with God but rather following a set of rules.  Neither group was looking to God for answers.

And the second thing they had in common was that they hated Jesus.  They thought He was dangerous.  And they wanted to bring Him down.  When people put their faith in things other than God, the result is always oppression and injustice.

So the Pharisees hatched a plot to trap Jesus in His words.  Getting together with the Herodians they came up to Jesus while He was teaching in the temple and said: “We know you are a man of integrity and you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth…”.  (Really?  Then why weren’t they listening to Him?)

And they ask: “is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”  From their point of view there’s no good answer to this question.  If Jesus says yes, pay the tax, he will be taking the side of the Romans  against His own people… but if He says no, don’t pay the tax, they can arrest Him.

Watch now as Jesus brings hope and light into a world of darkness.  First, He calls them on their hypocrisy.  He tells it like it is: “You hypocrites!”  And then He says, “show me the coin for paying the tax.  Whose likeness is this? And whose inscription?”

They answer “Caesar’s.”

And Jesus says, “give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”

In our day we might say, “give to Washington the things that are Washington’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  The coin bears the likeness of the head of government, and therefore ultimately it belongs to the government.  But we bear the likeness of God.  In the very first chapter of Genesis, the first page of the Bible, God says, “let us make humanity in our image, after our likeness.”  We are created in His image, and His inscription is written on our hearts.  Therefore we belong to Him.  We do not belong to the powers of this world that oppress and cause injustice.  We belong to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

And that gives us hope in the darkness: to know that we were made for something – Someone – greater than what we see around us.  The powerful people and institutions of this life are passing away — here today, gone tomorrow.  But God is forever — and we are forever — when we put our trust in the babe in the manger, the Son of God, Jesus Christ.  AMEN.

Homily for Candlelight Compline, Church of the Atonement, Carnegie PA, Saturday December 3 2011

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