Monday, January 31, 2011

Admiring Instructions, Fearful Implications

I’m not sure when it was that the signs started popping up in our neighborhood. Perhaps two or three years ago, Grayson was still in a stroller. I began to notice in my evening walks one summer through our neighborhood that there were more and more plastic signs in front of houses which said, “We believe in the ten commandments.” And there right there, like their own little personalized tablets from Mt. Sinai, pressed in blue ink onto plastic yardsigns were the commandments given to Moses from the book of Exodus. I was intrigued, at first, and thought, well, okay, good to know. Nice for you to affirm that as I’m walking in front of your house with my child in a stroller you will not kill me, or covet my stroller (as I am your neighbor and all…). With each evening’s walk more signs seemed to be popping up first here and then there like dandelions in August. I wasn’t sure who was giving them out, a local church? A neighbor? It was theologically intriguing, but puzzling all the same. But what was even more puzzling was that in almost every house I surveyed often right next to these ten commandment proclamations, there stood a few feet away, maybe to the right or the left another sign, the sign which identified the security system that protected the house, or in a few cases even a third sign that reminded people that “no tresspassers” were allowed on the property. And so I couldn’t help but feel that perhaps these yard declarations of faith might be less about proclamation of hope, and more about defensive statements of fear. Less about claiming their desire for unity and more about holding brothers and sisters at arm’s length. Hard to say, really, but something to chew on this morning. Especially on this morning when we study what has been understood by theologians to be Matthew’s attempt to connect Jesus to Moses. The sermon on the mount being claimed as the new ten commandments. Not to replace, but to fulfill.

This week, I had a brilliant idea. I thought, as I pondered this Moses-Jesus connection what would it mean for me to name my faith. And, also start a trend in the yard sign movement in our Crown Colony neighborhood. What if I called 1800-yard-signs and ordered my statement of faith. What would I say? What if I posted the Beatitudes on a big sign in my yard? But then I quickly realized that if I wanted to be true to the intent I’d have to really act on it, so there’d have to be another sign, maybe a sign welcoming people into my home, where the door stood open to embrace anyone who came. And the ability to offer to offer shelter to anyone who asked, and the grace to listen to others without reservation or hesitation, and the willingness to be persecuted for what I believed. Could I ever be that brave? Would it be na├»ve? I think, if nothing else, it could be a theological science test of sorts. For what would it mean for our nation, for our world, to be saturated in proclamations of the coming community of God rather than restricted by a list of “thou shalt nots?”

As a little aside, I actually did spend a little time googling this week, in my nerdy quest to follow this theological yard sign hypothesis and found that my brilliant beatitudes yard sign idea had alas, already been patented, patented by those same people who make the ten commandments signs, but whereas the ten commandments sign google search yields 56,800 options to adorn your home, the beatitudes only yield 19,800. So what, a ration of about, roughly, five to one? I still don’t entirely understand why the beatitudes are given such short shrift in the yard art business? Perhaps because if we really followed them it might be too revolutionary.

Many of us know the beatitudes, if Jeopardy named it as a category, we could probably clear the board, right? [“Alex, I’ll take beatitudes for $800, please...who are the pure in spirit?”] Some of us have them cross-stitched on pillows, or calligraphied in frames in our homes. They are that beautiful, and that poignant, and that meaningful. But I confess that sometimes even while I have memorized them and can recite them by rote, that perhaps I forget their radical message. And if I do that, I wonder if perhaps you do too.

The Sermon on the Mount occurs in the fifth chapter of the book of Matthew. It happens immediately after the calling of just four of the disciples, and so those who climbed up that mountain to hear Jesus could have been anyone, and if we consider the scriptures alive and moving work than it could be any of us today. The sermon is one of Jesus’s first teachings, an inauguration of sorts, and for his first homily, I’d say he picked a doozy. Jesus was speaking in a way familiar to his listeners, those who would have been steeped in the ways of Jewish wisdom traditions. Jesus spoke here as the devout priests and leaders who had gone before him did. A beatitude, or a makarism as it is called in the Greek is an interesting way to use language which was very familiar to those who lived two thousand year ago. And there are ways in which it has been confused in translation for readers of our time. Beatitudes were spoken not as commandments or as entrance requirements but as reminders and blessings for a world in transition. People didn’t have to be persecuted to receive a blessing, people didn’t have to mourn to be welcomed in the kingdom of heaven. These were not rules for being disciples. To understand fully what they were we must remember that the audience to whom Jesus spoke were living in a land occupied by Roman oppressors. Those in power were elite imperialists who had no use for the common masses. The common people who followed Jesus were hungry for a new way to live, and for a realm of justice, and the craved redemption from oppression. The beatitudes offered them words of comfort and hope. The beatitudes said, “I know, my beloved community, I know what you face, and I promise it won’t always be this way. I offer you a new vision of how our world can be if God is at the heart.”
We need to remember as we read through these axioms that the translation of the word “blessed” or “happy”, do not hold as their opposite the word “unhappy.” Instead, the opposite of “blessed” would be “cursed.” And so just as surely as Jesus was offering a word of hope to those downtrodden and hungry, he also, in a not too subtle way was making a political statement about how different the nature of God’s kingdom is. In God’s reign the hungry will be fed, the last will be first, the poor will be wealthy, those picked last for the dodgeball team will be the captains. It is radically different from the realm in which those with power rule with an iron hand and where those with might sneer at those whose voices cry out for justice.

The first thing it seems Jesus wants desperately to offer in these twelve short verses is spiritual bread for the journey, and assurance that even in the most difficult times there is hope. Jesus must have looked out over his meager band of followers and seen those who were mourning, or poor in spirit, or meek, or yearning for something more and known that they needed a reminder of what God wanted for them. But just as surely as Jesus offered hope, his words also rang with revolutionary zeal. What he said was this: we must make the kingdom of heaven here on earth, even if we are reviled and persecuted, even if we are seen as daydreamers and unrealistic fools. Even if we put beatitudes signs in our yards and open our hearts and minds to all without reservation or hesitation.

In 1964 the artist Sister Mary Corita was asked to submit a piece of art to the New York World’s fair and the piece she created was filled with vibrant color and said, “On a mountain, Christ said these words, the Beatitudes. Ever since then men [sic] have said these words to each other each time with different gestures. Said yes, this is how it should be. This is the way to be happy.” And then she used the bold colors of yellow, and orange, and cobalt, and magenta and added the words of peacemakers and prophets throughout time: Anne Frank and Dag Hammarskjold, Albert Einstein and John F. Kennedy to name a few.

And so what brave gesture will we use to make the world more congruent with the vision Jesus offered on that mountain? How brave can we afford to be and how revolutionary? Perhaps, simply, we start in our own lives.

Brendan Freeman, a Trappist monk from Iowa, says this, “[The Beatitudes] draw our hearts out of themselves into a new way of understanding our lives…they are deliberately incomplete. They await the inclusion of our lives. Each person fills in the blank spaces with the details of his or her own life situation.”

Perhaps, we walk this journey step by step by first rediscovering the beatitudes in a new way, having them spoken with different voices and in different translations. Hearing them as a rallying call to be more true in our discipleship. Listening for the nuances of the language, and being ready to live out the truth of their meaning.

This week I read Eugene Peterson’s version of the beatitudes in The Message, a contemporary version of the Bible. And while I had read bits of The Message before, I’m not sure I had ever read the fifth chapter of Matthew before. And I was startled into newness as the beatitudes issued forth with a new translation. Let me share them with you now:
You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and God’s rule. You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you. You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought. You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat. You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for. You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world. You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete and fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family. You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom. Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak likes about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable.

Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book Gospel Medicine, says this, “Much of the power of the Beatitudes depends on where you are sitting when you hear them. They sound different from on top than they do underneath. They sound different up front than they do in back. Upon front with the religiously satisfied and self-assured, they sound pretty confrontational…but way in the back, with the victims, the dreamers, the pushovers and the fools, the Beatitudes sound completely different…They are the same words in every place, of course. It is just the ears that change.”

This morning may you embrace the Beatitudes anew as you embark on the ministry that Christ calls you to do. May you hear with new ears the promises of the coming reign of God. And let there be no mistake, we are the ones who are called to make that world a reality.


Sunday, January 23, 2011

Breaking Light--Sermon 1/23/11

I’m sure I was introduced to the poetry of Emily Dickinson earlier than my junior year of high school, but it was in that year, that Ms. Longtine piqued my interest by reciting Dickinson’s poems with such ardor and passion that despite my fellow 11th grade friends’ snickers and whispers, I was transported. She has remained one of my favorite poets. Her writing is as fragile and as sensitive as she was. She who never worked a regular job her entire life. She who never married and lived as a recluse in many ways. She who wrote thousands of poems alone in the bedroom of her father’s house showing them to hardly anyone until they were discovered on scraps of paper after her death. Her whole life has been shrouded in secrecy, and she never referred to anyone by name in her poems. But her biographers have of late pieced together the story of a crucial even in her life.

It is believed that when she was 28, when her father was a congressman in Washington, that she stopped on the way from the capital to her home in Massachusetts to visit family friends in Philadelphia. There, apparently, she met and fell in love with a man who was to dominate her thoughts for many years. But this love story is a tragic one. For he was unattainable. He was married, and he had a family. And therefore, both being noble during those Victorian times, they prohibited themselves from being together.

Dickinson returned home, having been awakened to love, but aware that this love could never be hers and penned one of her first poems, scratching her grief and depression into these words:
Will there really be a ‘morning’?
Is there such a thing as ‘day’?
Could I see it from the mountains
If I were as tall as they?

Oh some scholar! Oh some Sailor!
Oh some Wise Men from the skies!
Please to tell a little pilgrim
Where the place called ‘morning’ lies!

Her question was not fanciful. It was real. “Will there really be a morning?” Will there come a time when light will break upon the darkness of my soul? Will I ever see the first rays of the sun?

And so in this season of Epiphany as we ponder the light of the Christ, as we ponder the meaning of light in a season of cold and darkness we do well to consider what we can learn, and where we can be led by God into light.

Have there been times in your own lives when you have asked “Will there be a morning?” Have you ever waited through the dark hours of a long night wondering if you could make it until dawn? Have you ever known a night that lasted a week, or a month, or a year? A time when hope was hollow and you had to ask whether you could even go on?

When I ask myself this question I think of a particular night in the fall of 2007, a night when I was awakened from my sleep with the hacking seal-like coughs of a six-month-old baby who lay feverish and gasping. It was my first experience of croup with a child and in that dark night I remember rushing with a crying child from steam-filled bathroom to bundling him in blankets while we stood in the cold late October air. I remember feeling so alone, and so helpless, and the darkness felt especially close. And as I walked up and down the front walk, trying to coax Grayson into taking big gulps of that night air I wanted nothing more than to see the light. For I trusted that with light things would seem clearer, life would seem more orderly. If I could simply wait for the light to break.

The scripture from the book of Matthew this morning tells a story of light breaking, and of hope coming. The story opens in a time of darkness. Jesus had just come out of his wilderness sojourn where he was tempted and alone. And word had just been received that John, the one who inspired Jesus and baptized Jesus and was kin to Jesus had been arrested. And Jesus made his way from Nazareth to the lakeside village of Capernaum. Times were hard then. The people were oppressed. Taxes had gone higher and higher, not out of necessity but to punish the people. There was a foreign government that ruled the people with an iron fist and used espionage and threats and wrongful imprisonments to harass and punish them. And a revival leader like John the Baptist had been imprisoned, never to be released again. The people were scared. It was a time of darkness.

And it was there, into that landscape, and that political situation that Jesus burst onto the scene. It was then that Jesus, he who had never spoken a word publicly, never yet soothed a broken body with his healing touch, never told a single parable about his elusive kingdom, began his ministry. In a dusty town nestled on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Capernaum. It wasn’t a big city, wasn’t a place of culture, not somewhere well-known. Just some buildings overlooking a lake, really. A place with a reputation for being un-religious, actually. Matthew tells us that Jesus went there because it was what the Old Testament predicted. Listen: People who sat in darkness have seen a great light. And for those who sat in shadows, light had dawned. And so it was, in that place of darkness light began to shine. With no fanfare, no showmanship, no triumph. In this place Jesus began his public ministry and began to invite others to join him. And these people who he asked, they weren’t the “Who’s Who” of Capernaum, they weren’t big names, they weren’t high profile kind of guys. Instead they were laborers, common folk, fishermen. And so it was into this world, into this out-of-the-way place with these everyday people that the first rays of light first shone. And that shimmer would grow, and spread, brightness that arose from a world of darkness. Morning did come. Light did break.

I have recently finished the book Home by the British historian Bill Bryson, some of you may know of his writings. He is a social historian who makes the past come alive. And in his latest book he examines the origins of domestic life, and how the common things that we take for granted came to be. As Bryson spoke of the discovery of electricity, he told a story about life in London as the war began. The Germans would bomb the city at night, and the only protection that the British had was to blacken their windows and turn out all streetlights so there were virtually no targets for the Germans to attack. The people lived in darkness and Bryson notes that more people died in auto accidents, or by mishaps that happened because of the darkness than those who were killed by the bombings themselves. The explosions would rock the city but because of the fires that the bombings could start, fires which could trap people in basements the call when bombing started was “to the roofs!” There the people of London would place themselves, one or two to a roof, protected only by tin helmets, searching for any fires that might spring up, and then stamping them out as quickly as possible, all in darkness. Winston Churchill told the story once of looking out across London and seeing all those figures, perched on the top of the buildings, anxious and tired as the first light of dawn would break over the city. And how, more often than not, as the rays of sun would pierce the horizon audible cheers would ring from roof to roof. For morning had come, and they had made it. Light again broke the darkness.

On this chilly Sunday, on this frigid morning, we again welcome the unquenchable light that breaks upon us even in the dark nights of our own souls. The one who has been called the light of all people again walks among the common folk, and invites us to follow him, to use what gifts we have in this broken world to bring more light to the darkness. Jesus invites us, just as he invited the first disciples to cast aside our nets and walk into the first pink and orange rays of the dawn. For a new day awaits. And there is work to be done. Morning has come. And Jesus calls.