Category Archives: Worship

A Holy Calling – Sermon on 2 Timothy 1:1-14

September 25, 2016
Watch a video of this sermon here.

I don’t think I ever really knew what fear was until I became a mother. Suddenly becoming responsible for another human being’s life made me extremely aware of all the ways a tiny life could be put in danger. Parents want to protect our children – these amazing, beautiful, vulnerable little beings who are completely dependent on us – from anything that might hurt them. The responsibility for their safety and wellbeing can be overwhelming, especially when we see threats all around us in the world. Parenting can be a scary thing.

The Apostle Paul knew this feeling all too well, even though we have no evidence that he fathered any children of his own. Paul’s concern was for the spiritual safety and wellbeing of those who had come to faith in Jesus Christ through his own ministry, and for the young churches they formed. He was worried about the possibility they might be led astray by false teaching, or become discouraged when their faith was tested. He fretted over their ability to withstand persecution. And so, to encourage these fledgling churches and their leaders, Paul wrote letters to them.

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God according to the promise of the life that is in Christ Jesus,
To Timothy, my beloved child:
Grace, mercy, and peace
from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.

I thank God whom I serve, as did my ancestors, with a clear conscience, as I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. As I remember your tears, I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well. 

For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.

Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher,  which is why I suffer as I do.

But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me. Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.  By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you. – 2 Timothy 1:1-14

It was customary in the first century for letters to begin with a standard greeting and prayer of gratitude and blessing: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. This letter’s prayer of gratitude describes the faith history of Timothy’s own family: I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, it dwells in you.

Do you remember a grandparent sharing faith with you when you were young? These days, because extended families are scattered and children may only see grandparents a few times each year, the church often helps fill the role of grandparent, sharing stories and examples of faith from generation to generation. This is why we make a point, during the baptism of every child, to ask the congregation

“Will you, as members of the Church of Jesus Christ, and representatives of that Church wherever they encounter it in the world, do your part, by word and deed with love and prayer, to guide and nurture these children, encouraging them to know and follow Christ and caring for them as Christ’s own?”

And the congregation answers with gusto every time, “With God’s help, we will.”

But the church, like a grandparent, only plays a supporting role in training up children in the way they should go (Proverbs 22:6) Parents are the first and best examples of faithful living, the first and best teachers of faith in children’s lives.

It’s in the home that children first learn how to say prayers at bedtime or before meals. It’s in those daily surprise conversations – you know, the ones that start with a deep theological question like, “Mommy, where does God sleep?” or “Why does God make mosquitoes?” – that children learn what their parents believe about God, the world God created, and their place in it. This is how we pass on faith from generation to generation.

The letter to Timothy goes on to explain why this is so important, as it lays out the key truth of this passage.

For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.

In other words, because of the important role that Timothy’s mother and grandmother played in his growing faith, Timothy is to fan into flame the gift of faith that fuels his present ministry. “Paul’s reminder to Timothy to boldly cultivate and embrace his own current calling and ministry is because of, on account of, and rooted in the reality of Timothy’s initial exposure to the faith within the context of his family.”[1]

This is important for us, as well. Somewhere along the line, people got the idea that it would be better to expect the “religious professionals” to take on the full responsibility of raising up children in the way they should go. Parents lost confidence in their own ability to share faith with their children. Better to let the seminary-trained pastor do that job, they thought.

And this has been a great loss, not only to the children, but to their parents. It doesn’t take a seminary degree to teach children that God loves them, or to show God’s love by the way we interact with our own families. You cannot measure the joy of watching your own child come to faith through daily prayers and conversations about Jesus, and reading scripture together as a family. The home is where the priesthood of all believers begins its ministry.

So, rekindle the gift of God that is in you, and take heart! Parents, you do not need to be afraid, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” (v 7)

“To ‘rekindle the gift’ means to stir up the grace and faith and love that we have received, and we stir them up by putting them in to practice. … Our call is … to forgive as we have been forgiven, and to love as we have been loved.” (J. Peter Holmes, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 4, 137-138)

Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God,  who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher,  which is why I suffer as I do.

We live in a world where some are ashamed of the gospel. It isn’t cool or hip to stand up for Jesus. This is where the faith that surrounds our children in the community of the church is so important. This is a place where it is safe, where standing up for Jesus is affirmed. This is the place where children learn how to tell the story of Jesus and learn to live into their own calling as followers of Christ. This is where we learn how to keep the promises made on our behalf at our baptism – to renounce sin, to believe in Jesus, to live our faith each day in ways that others see the light of Christ through us.

The letter continues, “for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me.  Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.  By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.

Because we know whom we have believed and to whom we have committed everything, and we trust him to be faithful, we can continue to live by the power of the Holy Spirit, who lives in us. Following sound teaching and staying connected to the family of God, we guard the good deposit of faith that has been entrusted to us, and we teach our children how to do that, too.

We have each been called to a holy purpose, just as Paul and Timothy were. We have each been given a family of faith to help us remember key truths and avoid being drawn away into false doctrines. It is this family of faith that helps us guard the good deposit of faith we have been given.

And faith is a gift – we cannot manufacture it on our own, we cannot create faith by ourselves. We can only exercise the faith we’ve been given, to strengthen it and deepen it as it grows within us.

We each have been called with a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus. We each have been given the faith to answer that call. It is good to remember that, to reaffirm our call from time to time.

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, developed a prayer for use in services for the Renewal of the believer’s Covenant with God. Wesley didn’t claim to have written the prayer. He adapted it from other sources, and no one knows who actually wrote the first version of it.

Even though the words of the original covenant prayer are lost, they are thought to be reflected in the Directions for Renewing our Covenant with God which Wesley issued as a pamphlet in 1780. These directions were intended for services to be held regularly in the church, usually around the time of the New Year.

But what better time to renew our covenant with God than on a day when we have witnessed two families enter into that covenant on behalf of their children? So hear the words John Wesley used to introduce this Covenant Prayer back in 1755.

“…Christ has many services to be done. Some are easy, others are difficult. Some bring honor, others bring reproach. Some are suitable to our natural inclinations and temporal interests, others are contrary to both… Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ, who strengthens us.” And so I invite you to join me, as we renew our covenant with God together.

WESLEYAN COVENANT PRAYER

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.
Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3036

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wesley_Covenant_Prayer

Clothed in Christ – Sermon on Colossians 3:12-17

July 31, 2016
View a video of this sermon here. 

Did you ever play “Dress Up” when you were little? Maybe you dressed up as a superhero, or you put on your parents’ clothes to play a game of make-believe, pretending you were all grown up. Maybe you put on a costume for Halloween, or to act out your part in the Christmas pageant. Whatever you put on, it gave you permission to be someone different for a short time, to pretend you had more power or grace or holiness than you actually possessed. You could be someone new.

A couple of years ago, I listened to an interview with one of the actors from Downton Abbey. She described how putting on those amazing period costumes affected her. Her posture changed, even the way she spoke suddenly became more refined. Wearing the costume automatically put her into the character she was portraying. Putting on the dress made her into someone new.

Maybe this is why Paul chooses to use clothing as a metaphor in his letter to the Colossians. Paul writes about taking off the old self and clothing ourselves in the new life in Christ. Colossians 3:1-11 tells us to strip away everything from our lives that is not of God, so that we can put on the new self, the self that is constantly being restored to bear the image of God. In that process, Paul tells us, there is no longer any identity that matters, except for Christ, who is all and in all.

But, even though the assigned reading for today ends there, Paul does not! He goes on to describe what we are to put on, once we have stripped away all the sinfulness and self-centeredness, and have given ourselves over completely to become followers of Jesus Christ.

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.  And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. – Colossians 3:12-17

This taking off the old and putting on the new that Paul describes is the essence of following Jesus. We renounce sin in all its forms and repent of our old, broken way of living for ourselves. Then we turn away from that life and toward the new life in Christ that is filled with grace and peace. We begin living for God, and in the process, we become more and more like Christ.

Clothe yourself with Christ’s attributes of humility and gentleness, forgiveness and love, Paul tells us. As we consciously begin to wear these attributes, we may find that they don’t fit very well at first. They won’t fit at all if we try to put them on without first taking off the pride and anger, the lying and the fear that marked our old life.

For Christ’s goodness to live in us and fit us well, we must strip off everything that connects us to sin. Then, and only then, will the characteristics of Christ-likeness begin to fit. As they become more and more a part of our thinking and speaking and doing, we find that something else happens. Putting on these external behaviors does something to our internal spirit.

“Let Christ’s peace rule in your hearts,” Paul writes. What began as an outward change of behavior now becomes and inward change of heart. The peace of Christ begins to take over the way we think and behave, ruling not only our hearts, but also our actions.

It is important to remember that all of the Christ-like characteristics we are to put on are social ones. We are connected to one another, and as Christ’s body, we are sent into the world to connect with others, as well.

Kenneth Sehested writes, “There is more than functional purpose for being clothed with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bearing with one another, forgiving each other, binding us to each other – such work is not for the faint of heart. This is not conflict-avoidance advice. … This is about what to do when bare-knuckled emotional brawls break out.”[1]

Because they will. People whose lives are connected by a common purpose, as we are in the church, are bound to come into conflict with each other from time to time. The question isn’t whether, but how will we respond to that conflict when it arises.

When you avoid me because you are angry or disagree with me, it does damage, not only to the Body of Christ to which we both belong, but also to your witness to the world that is watching. When I confront you with anger or abusive language, it does damage, not only to the body of Christ to which we both belong, but also to my witness to a world that is always looking to see what makes us different because we follow Christ Jesus.

That’s why Paul puts one Christ-like virtue ahead of all the others. “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony,” he writes. Even when we disagree, as we sometimes will, speaking the truth in love will keep us in harmony with one another, and keep our witness to the rest of the world intact.

Paul goes on to say, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” This change of heart, this movement from clothing ourselves in Christ to finding inward peace, happens when we immerse ourselves in the Word of God.

John W. Coakley writes, “The texts of the Bible … are not to be treated as objects to be understood, containers of ideas to be questioned or debated, rather, they are to be taken into oneself through the whole shape of daily life.”[2] The author of Hebrews puts it another way: “The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). And in his second letter to Timothy, Paul writes, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). When Christ’s word dwells in us richly, our lives bubble up in worship and praise, and we are filled to the brim with thanksgiving.

Giving God thanks and praise is the one thing you can do that will set you apart from the rest of the world. Because the rest of the world is busy trying to be self-sufficient, instead of God-dependent. The rest of the world is busy paying attention to its physical desires instead of seeking the Kingdom of God. The rest of the world is obsessed with hatred and fear, with anger and lies, instead of the love, peace, and truth that Christ offers to all who will call on his name and turn their lives over to him.

Three times in two verses, Paul reminds us to be thankful, to have gratitude in our hearts, to give God our thanks and praise in everything we do. The word for thanksgiving is Eucharist, a word we closely associate with worship. We don’t know if the early church was already using this word to mean Communion, as we use it now, but it’s helpful to remember that we call it Eucharist because the solemn rite we follow in this sacrament always begins with something called the Great Thanksgiving.

Paul tells us that, having put off the old sinful self, and having put on Christ, our hearts are transformed by Christ’s peace as we take God’s Word into ourselves. The only response we can offer to such a great gift is our continual thanks and praise. Our lives become lives of worship, so that everything we do or think or say is done in the name of Jesus, even as we give thanks to God through Christ.


A church was looking for a new pastor, and the District Superintendent (DS) sat down with church leaders to talk about what they wanted to see in this new person. “Someone who can attract young families,” they said. This made sense, because the church had been in decline for many years, and the congregation was aging. So the DS asked them, “what is it about your church that young families would find attractive now?”

They looked at each other, then at the floor.
“Well, what attracted you to this church when you first started to come here?” the DS asked encouragingly.

“It’s the fellowship. This is where I can see my friends every week, and we can catch up with each other’s lives,” one woman replied. “It’s where I get a sense of belonging, where my friendships were formed.”

The DS thought for a moment, then said, “Yes, and these days, people who are under the age of 35 with children can get that same sense of belonging and friendship building at their kids’ soccer games, or other sports activities. They build friendships with other parents whose kids are involved in the same things their kids are involved in. They don’t need church for ‘fellowship,’” the DS said. “What else?”

“Well, church is where I get involved in helping other people. We work at the food pantry or take a meal to the homeless shelter, and I get a lot of satisfaction out of that,” said one man.

“Yes, and people who are under the age of 35 do those things, too. They just don’t need a church to help them do it. They are very involved in social justice issues, but they work through secular organizations to get that same satisfaction,” the DS told them. “What else?”

The room was silent. Someone coughed.

Finally, the DS said, “What’s the one thing that church has to offer that soccer teams and social agencies often don’t? … Anyone?”

Still no answer.

“Okay, look at it this way. What difference has being part of this church made to your faith? How has following Jesus Christ, as a member of this congregation, changed your life?”

“Oh pastor,” one man grumbled, “You don’t want to go there. That’s getting too personal!”

“Well,” the DS answered, “it’s the one thing you have going for you that other social groups and service groups don’t. The one thing the church can claim as its own is Jesus, and if you can’t identify how Jesus has changed your life, what makes you think anyone else would be attracted to your church?”


Sometimes it’s the people in the pews who need Jesus the most.

When we put on Christ, we look different, we act differently, we speak differently, because we not only wear Christ on the outside, we are filled with Christ from the inside. And it shows. People notice. They become curious, and want to know why our lives are different from theirs, why we have peace and joy in abundance, whatever the circumstances are, why we aren’t greedy like everyone else, why we aren’t consumed with lust, why we aren’t angry all the time, why we don’t resort to slander and gossip and foul language.

If no one is noticing how your life is different from theirs, why is that? If no one is asking you how you have such peace, why is that? If no one is remarking about the joy you always show, why aren’t they? If no one can see Christ in you, ask yourself why.

Could it be that you haven’t really been changed, that you have not ever experienced the transformation Christ offers to all who will call him Lord? Is it possible that the person who needs Jesus most is you?

If you are like the person who comes to church to see your friends, but Christ hasn’t changed your life and made you new, maybe it’s time for you to strip off the old you and clothe yourself in Jesus Christ.

If you come to church for the satisfaction of serving others, maybe it’s time for you to strip off the old you and clothe yourself in Jesus Christ.

If you talk one way at church, but your language at home and at work is laced with criticism and slander and abusive talk, maybe it’s time for you to cast off the old you and clothe yourself “with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” Maybe it’s time for you to start bearing with your sisters and brothers in Christ, and if you have a complaint against another, forgive each other, just as the Lord has forgiven you.

“Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.  And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

[1] Kenneth Sehested, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1, 160.

[2] John W. Coakley, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, 162.

Gluten free Communion bread that the congregation kinda liked

i have been testing various gluten-free recipes over the past year, and each has received mixed reviews from the congregation. The Hawaiian style loaf was moist and sweet, but very crumbly, and crumbs on the carpet at my feet made some parishioners pretty uncomfortable. I’m not sure if they stepped gingerly around the crumbs to avoid making a mess for the custodian, or they were just being careful not to step on Jesus.

During Lent, we went with a soft cracker kind of bread that was very easy to make (half an hour from start to finish) and tasted good, but was a bit too chewy for some folks. At least it didn’t crumble onto the floor, since I scored the loaf before baking and then cut it into half inch squares. When I did an informal survey, asking for feedback on these two recipes, I got three different kinds of responses (not counting the “I don’t understand why we all have to get gluten free if there are only a few people who need it” answers). Great.

This month, I finally hit on a recipe that most people, even the gluten free critics, said was worth repeating. So I offer it to you here. Continue reading

Peonies worshiping after rain

 
We had a tremendous thunderstorm yesterday. Sheets of rain blew down the street, and we wondered if we should go to the basement. Instead, we stood on the front porch, marveling at the power of the storm. When the storm had passed, there was an inch and a half in the rain gauge and the peonies in the back yard were lying smashed to the ground. I went from bush to bush, lifting and shaking the heavy blooms in hopes they would right themselves.

This morning, the peonies were still bowed down in a posture of worship. They  may stay that way. Today, may I also remain in an attitude of worship, bowed before my Maker in awe and reverence. May I keep in mind throughout this day that God is God, and I am not. Thanks be to God for rain-soaked peonies.

Trinity Sunday Year B

Nobody really gets the Trinity, do they?  Understanding how God can be three distinct Persons, yet One – we just can’t quite explain it. The minute we try, we find ourselves spouting unintentional heresy. 

But we can experience God’s interrelational personhood, and lots of folks will tell you it’s this interrelationality that matters. The community of the Godhead invites us all into that shared relationship, that love. I’m beginning to think this is what “God is love” really means.

In worship today, we honored our high school graduates and sent them off as apostles to their next season of discipleship. We celebrated the good news that the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, to which our congregation belongs, had a productive and Spirit-filled meeting this week. And we sang a lot. We heard the Word of the Lord. We prayed, and recited the Nicene Creed. 

We embraced, if only for a moment, the ambiguity that surrounds our idea of Trinity. We leaned a little further than we have before into the paradox of a God who is One, yet Three. 

And Love showed up. 

Instant Response: A Biblical Mash-Up

Traditionally, the response in worship to a reading from the Old Testament is the recitation or singing of a psalm. So it’s no surprise when the psalm chosen for a given Sunday reflects the Old Testament reading in some way. But what happens when you realize that a good chunk of the psalm for the third Sunday in Lent fits into an abridged version of the Ten Commandments, the text for the day? This litany, that’s what.

LITANY from Exodus 20 and Psalm 19

LEADER:
God spoke from the mountain and said: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”

PEOPLE:
The precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart.

LEADER:
“You shall not make for yourself an idol.”

PEOPLE:
The commandment of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eyes.

LEADER:
“You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.”

PEOPLE:
The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul.

LEADER:
“Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.”

PEOPLE:
The decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple.

LEADER:
“Honor your father and your mother.”

PEOPLE:
The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever.

LEADER:
“You shall not murder.”

PEOPLE:
The ordinances of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.

LEADER:
“You shall not commit adultery.”

PEOPLE:
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.

LEADER:
“You shall not steal.”

PEOPLE:
Moreover by your commands is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.

LEADER:
“You shall not bear false witness.”

PEOPLE:
But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults.

LEADER:
“You shall not covet … anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

PEOPLE:
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.

ALL: Almighty God, write your law upon our hearts.

Blessed – Sermon on Matthew 5:1-12

All Saints Sunday A November 2, 2014

As the disciples followed Jesus up the Mount of Olives, after leaving the Temple where he had silenced the Pharisees and Sadducees, I wonder if any of them were remembering another mountain, only a couple of years before, where Jesus had also climbed to a place where he could teach them. As much as we’d like to follow them, and hear what Jesus has to say, we’re going to take an All Saints detour today. But it isn’t so much a detour as a flashback to that earlier sermon on that other mountain.

In movies, flashbacks give us necessary background and character development. They take us back to an earlier event that helps explain how we got to this point in the story. This week, we’re flashing back from the final sermon Jesus will preach in Matthew’s story, to the very beginning of his ministry, to that familiar passage we now call The Sermon on the Mount. In this first and longest sermon from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus lays out the foundation for his entire ministry. Just as in chapter 24, where we would be reading if we stayed on track, Jesus climbs up on a mountain with his disciples nearby, and other followers listening behind them. Then, Jesus sits down to speak, showing his authority as a reliable teacher of God’s ways. But instead of words about the last days, which we will hear over the next few weeks, let us go back to that first sermon, and hear words of blessing.

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.
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. 12 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)

Chunking is a term used in learning theory to describe how the human brain handles information. We tend to learn and remember better when we can compile new information into larger “chunks” because we can only handle about 7-9 pieces of information at a time. That’s why your 10-digit phone number is grouped into three segments – an area code, a local prefix, and your 4-digit personal number. Three chunks are easier to remember than 10. And it’s why your credit card number is so long – even when chunked, it’s harder to remember, both for you, and for anyone who happens to see your card while you’re using it. Another tool for remembering information is to look for repeating patterns. Patterns help us remember important learning, because they help us group small bits of information into larger chunks. The pattern of the beatitudes follows a three-part formula: First the blessing, always in present tense. Then the description of those who are blessed, and finally, the reason they are blessed.

Here we have nine beatitudes, the introduction to Jesus’ very first act of teaching. Let’s see if we can chunk them in ways that will make them easier to remember.

The first three beatitudes focus on those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, and those who are meek. Jesus begins by addressing us in our weakest, most vulnerable state. These three beatitudes seem to contradict what we think of as “blessing.” How can such negative attributes as spiritual poverty, mourning and meekness be blessed?

I once asked a friend how he was doing, and instead of the usual “fine” or “great” he smiled and said, “I am at the end of myself.” My friend had exhausted all his own resources, he had used up all his own spiritual strength. You would think this would have been cause for despair, but here he was, completely at peace, smiling as he said, “I am at the end of myself.” He knew what it is to be blessed when poor in spirit, because at the end of himself, he was finally able to depend completely on God.

Mourning is something we’ve experienced extensively in this congregation over the past year. In eight months, we have grieved the loss of six of our own saints. So much sorrow takes a toll. It drains us of energy and makes our hearts heavy. Yet, in our sorrow, God blesses us with hope, and reminds us that we have a future in Christ Jesus that the world cannot see. Our hope is in the resurrection of our Lord and Savior, and in the promise he has given us that where he is, there we may be also.

And what about meekness? We don’t often use the word “meek” in today’s society, because this world sees meekness as a liability. Meek rhymes with weak, after all, and no one wants to be seen as weak. Those who are weak don’t stand a chance in this world, where personal power is considered a premium virtue. But theologian Thomas Long writes, “’Meekness’ is not timidity or passivity but rather a patient trusting that God will act in due time, an insistence on being nonviolent even in the midst of a violent society, a contentment with the basic necessities of life even in a possession-hungry world, and taking delight in the gifts of God and the many comforts of faith (Psalm 37:3-5, 7-8 14-17).”[1]

When we are at our weakest and most vulnerable, Jesus tells us, the kingdom of heaven will be ours, we will find comfort in our sorrow, and we will inherit the earth. We may see our present condition in a negative light, but our future is filled with great promise.

The fourth beatitude starts out sounding like it might belong to this group that includes spiritual poverty, sorrow, and meekness. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst,” Jesus says. But what do they hunger and thirst for? Righteousness. And this puts the fourth beatitude in a category by itself. For those who seek righteousness will be satisfied. They will be filled. In this one promise, Jesus turns our attention away from what we lack, and toward what we eagerly seek – the righteousness of God. Though the fulfillment of this promise is still in the future, it gives us great hope. Instead of focusing on our deep need, Jesus turns our attention to God’s great provision for us.

And this brings us to the next three beatitudes. As we are filled with God’s righteousness, we are transformed into those who bring mercy, purity of heart, and peace to a broken world. If the first three beatitudes could be seen in a negative light, these next three must surely be seen in a positive way. Those who offer mercy, whose hearts are pure, who make peace in every corner of creation are given an amazing promise. They will receive mercy. They will see God. They will be called the children of God. These blessings are easy to identify as true ‘blessings’!

So we have three ‘negative’ means of blessing, a pivotal blessing, and three ‘positive’ means of blessing. Now comes the hard part.

Beatitudes eight and nine are so similar, it makes sense to chunk them together, but that doesn’t make them easier to accept. If we started out at our most vulnerable, came through a desire for righteousness to the strength of mercy, purity, and peacemaking, you’d think Jesus would be building us up for the grand finale, the blessing to top all blessings. Instead of “Blessed are those who finally attain the perfection God intended, for they shall live eternally with God in glory,” Jesus says,

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake ...”

and I don’t know about you, but those words make me pretty uncomfortable. I don’t want to be persecuted. Many people suffer persecution throughout the world because of their faith in Christ, and I pray for them daily, but I don’t want to be one of them. For example, you may have followed the story last summer of Meriam Ibrahim, the woman who was sentenced to death in Sudan because she was a Christian.

On May 15, a Sudanese court sentenced Ibrahim, who was pregnant at the time, to 100 lashes and to be executed by hanging for refusing to identify herself as a Muslim. She was accused of converting to Christianity from Islam and of marrying a Christian, Daniel Wani, who is Sudanese-American. Ibrahim was raised by her Orthodox Christian mother after her Muslim father abandoned the family, and she denied ever being a Muslim and refused to renounce her faith. Her child was born while she was in prison. The couple’s other child, who was less than two years old, had to live in the prison cell with her.

International outcry led the Sudanese Supreme Court to release Ibrahim on June 23. However, security forces detained her at the airport three days later when she and her family tried to travel to the United States. The Sudanese forces accused her of using a forged passport. She lived at the American embassy in Khartoum with her family for a month before she was finally allowed to leave Sudan.[2]

That’s persecution. And while Meriam Ibrahim’s story made international news, other stories like Meriam’s go unwritten every day somewhere in the world.

But look at what Jesus says about those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness: theirs is the kingdom of heaven. This is identical to the first beatitude, and notice that Jesus doesn’t put it in future tense, but the present. Right now, both those who are poor in spirit, and those who are persecuted, receive the kingdom of heaven.

And then Jesus gets really personal. For the first time, he isn’t talking about some hypothetical “they”. Now he looks us each in the eye and says, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” Not “if” but “when” people revile and persecute you and say awful things about you because of your faith in Jesus Christ, he says,“Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Biblical scholar Earl F. Palmer notes that the Sermon on the Mount is structured much like Psalm 1. Among their common features, they both begin with blessings, and they both end with a parable. Palmer tells us that there are two Hebrew words that translate as “blessing.” One is barak, and it means to bow or stoop. This is the word used in Psalm 103, “Bless the Lord O my soul, and all that is within me.” But it’s also the word used in Numbers 6:22 – “The Lord bless you and keep you…” In this case, it means “The Lord stoop down to you.” But in Psalm 1, the word used for “blessing” is ‘ashar, which means “to find the right road.” Palmer writes, “’ashar in Psalm 1 means ‘you are on the right road when you walk not in the way of unrighteousness but in the way of the Law of God.”[3] This is the meaning of ‘ashar in the nine uses of “blessed” that we find in the beatitudes. You are on the right road when you are spiritually poor, when you are meek, when you show mercy, when you make peace, when you are persecuted for the sake of the gospel.

Rejoice, and be glad! You are on the right path! Yours is the kingdom of God!

But there’s one more thing you need to know about these beatitudes. The beatitudes aren’t a prescription, or a “how to” lesson. They aren’t commands, like the two we heard last week, to love God and love our neighbor. Jesus isn’t telling us to get busy and become poor in spirit or start mourning or get out there and make some peace. And Jesus also isn’t saying, “if you will do these things, this is what your payment will be.”

Jesus is telling us that, no matter what circumstances we experience, whether good or bad, he is with us on the right road. Things may look bleak, or they may look great, but no matter how things look, we are on the right road if we are on it with Jesus. And that road leads straight to the kingdom of God, a kingdom that is already here among us, even as we wait for its fulfillment. But to be on that road with Jesus means we have to trust him, we have to name him as Lord. we have to believe that he is the Son of God, who died to save us, who rose from the dead, and who reigns with God the Father through all eternity.

Scripture tells us that many will come from east and west, and north and south, to sit at table in the kingdom of God (Luke13:29). That table is waiting for you to claim your place at it. Will you come to this feast that Christ our Lord has prepared for you? You are blessed. The Kingdom is yours. Will you come to this Table?

[1] Thomas Long, Matthew, 49

[2] http://www.covchurch.org/news/2014/07/25/church-prepares-to-receive-sudanese-woman-who-refused-to-renounce-her-faith/#more-18121

[3] Earl F. Palmer, Feasting on the Word Year A, volume 4, 238.