Monday, November 21, 2011

Unexpected Saints


Unexpected Saints – Matthew 5:1=12, Revelation 7:9-17 “Gives self away”

In this time of instant communication we can be friends with anyone, anytime. We can follow the instant musing of – what’s his name – you know, that young guy who married and cheated on Demi Moore – now he has a tv series – oh yeah- how could I forget – Ashton Kutcher – you can friend and follow him. He’s made a career, it seems, at being the guy who will give you a glimpse of how the other half – other 1%? – lives.

We can live in our imaginations; we can invest our interest in other people, famous people. Marketers use our curiosity to drive us to their sites, like cattle, we are commodities. Watch and discuss Dancing with the Stars, American Idol, or whatever is the newest fad! Of course these celebrities are not in our world; of course we hope we are smarter than the marketers.

So how do we speak of saints in such a world? How do we speak of holiness when we are distracted and focused in commerce and media, bombarded by cultural and political and economic forces that would have us live in the here and now – only in the here and now, responding to whims, playing the game? How do think of ourselves as servants of God when we struggle with health issues, with decisions about family and life itself. What quality of life, of faith, of hope, of perseverance, links us with the ones who have gone before?

Jesus says: Blessed are you. He uses the truly ancient concept that God looks with love and honor upon those who follow him. To be blessed means there is a connection – between us and God. To bless something is to give it a sacred meaning. To bless a meal is to say that what you are doing is a holy thing. To bless a person, means that God’s holiness is to penetrate their very core and to make them holy. Jesus is not playing around when he pronounces, “Blessed are you.” He is offering a great gift. He is offering to his listeners a way of life by which they will be the blessed of God – the holy ones, the sanctified, the saints.

I gather from our lessons there are three elements to this saint-making process of God.

1. Set-apartness

2. Going through tribulation for the sake of that set-apartness.

3. Trusting God in midst of it all.

The first may be the hardest – to be blessed, to be a saint, to be sanctified – means to be set apart. It means to stand away from the shallow ways identity is shaped for us – to find our deepest identity, not in the nation, not in the culture, not in our education, not in our obligations, not even in our family – but to find our core identity in being a child of God.

To know, in our hearts, that we have a different call to life – I would almost describe it as to put the best old-fashioned values at the center of our lives. Listen – the best old fashioned values, like honoring the family into which you were born, and the family which you choose to create. Like serving in the greater world, not blindly, but seeking wisdom, honoring differences and respecting those who differ. Honoring the body through restraint and prudence. Sharing the wealth. Truly caring for your neighbor.

Say we ask what is needed in our neighborhood – and it’s afterschool programming. We can set ourselves apart, and live out our identity as servants, not just takers.

Second. Understand that being set-apart will be challenging. The forces of this world do not like those who don’t conform. The forces of this world will work against our seeking to serve– it can be as dramatic as ‘I don’t forgive and won’t forget what happened/didn’t happen’– it can be as subtle as the ‘I don’t want to go and help today!’ issue. Perhaps to be poor in spirit means not to carry grudges, not to remember past wrongs, and re-commit to the good of the community.

The forces of resistance are subtle, are seductive, and are everywhere – in the distractions of television, the internet and get rich quick, get healthy now, take care of yourself first. Mourn quickly and get back to work. Work a lot, hover over the children, and get priorities right – school, sports, family and then, maybe, sometimes, faith.

If our identity calls us to serve our neighbors – our real life neighbors – and our method of dong that is afterschool programming – then the subtle resistance is in the message – “someone else can lead, help, deal with it.” It is in saying “I’m tired of hearing about it already.” It is in wondering – when did I sign up for this – for this active service, for this getting out of myself?

That bring us back to the core question of our lives – whom do we trust? From where will we take our direction? From the society around us? From our own self-monitor (which is usually conditioned by those very same outside forces?) From a higher power – and where do we find that? Jesus calls those who are his sheep to listen to his voice. That’s key – it’s the voice of the Shepherd, found in our Scriptures. We trust our God.

Those who are blessed are set apart, and will know resistance, even persecution, but they will find their trust in God rewarded. They will be comforted, receive mercy, know God, be recognized as children of God. They will be part of the kingdom.

What is does it mean to take being a saint seriously in our time? Again and again, we are called to an older, realer form of life. More like the life of past generations – of the generations that built and nurtured this community into life.

Life that is lived in relationship with those around us – not with the media stars or escapist fiction – life that recognizes our deepest investment is our loved ones, our community and our faith. The promises that Jesus holds out in the list of blessings are not just for others – not just for those who have passed away, or those who are especially great in faith – for the Mother Theresas and the great reformers. These are promises for you and me, for everyday people, living everyday lives trying everyday projects – with extraordinary awareness.

We have been called out to be servants, set apart for his work – we must recognize that there will be ordeals, will be resistance, will be frustrations – and we trust and claim the promises that God offers.


About the Law

Proper 25A/Lect. 30A, October 23, 2011 – PLC, Matthew 22:34-46
‘About the Law’ – concentrating on the first half of our reading.

Jesus is at the end of his dialogues with his opponents – they have challenged him on all points of law and theology – shall we pay taxes to the emperor, who shall be married in the afterlife, what will be the place of the nation of Israel in God’s great plans. Jesus has answered with wit and wisdom and power – and astonished the crowds, and convinced those in power that he must be silenced.

By pulling together these two great scriptures from the Old Testament (Deut. and Leviticus) Jesus holds together two strands of law into one great whole of Love. Love God and Love Neighbor. He is not the first and will not be the last great teacher to do this. We hear similar exhortations from many, many traditions. So much that we think – ahh, the Golden Rule. Jesus does state it, earlier in Matthew 7 – do unto others as you would have them do to you.

My mother used to pull the Golden Rule on us. I’m sure she felt it was the best way to get some semblance of order in our big and let us say, personally diverse clan. I am between two brothers – Jimmy – 18 months older than I, and Peter, who is 3 years younger. When we were in elementary school we would get into battles – and sometimes my mother would come upon us and pull us apart – usually I was on the bottom of the pile, because they would gang upon me. “You know the Golden Rule – do unto others . . . Would you like it if Nancy hit you.” Jimmy would answer - “I can take it – so should she.”

That’s the great downfall of the Golden Rule by itself – it is really based on what one can endure, on what is expedient, on what is acceptable, what I can imagine. Its basis is loving the self – and self love can lack imagination. Self love can wear blinders. Jesus wants us to go farther – to think about the other person as a creation of God, beloved by God.

Look at the order of what Jesus says – and that will tell us all. The First commandment, and the greatest – is to Love God with all your heart, soul and mind. Love God with all the parts of you that are in the image of God. Love God with all the intellect, emotions and will you have. The word ‘love’ here is that wonderful scriptural concept of ‘agape’ – which combines affection and attention, will and action, adoration and trust.

Understand the "love" that is being called for is not emotion; it is not "liking," "getting along with," "desiring," or "feeling warm about." The "love" Jesus is talking about here is trust, loyalty, enduring devotion, being attached to. You may actually hate your neighbor, but you will still love them in the Biblical sense if you continue to act for their well-being, don't tell lies about them, and refuse to cut off your relationship with them.

Jesus goes beyond the Golden Rule when he connects it with Loving God – loving your neighbor (which can be hard, indeed) is the response to turning to God with your all. The Golden Rule is not enough, he says. First, one turns upward – acknowledging that self – which the Golden Rule depends upon – is created, loved, guided and judged by the Almighty.

In some ways he is speaking past his immediate hearers, to all those, who like us – find ourselves without law, without clear direction, without clear answers on how do we behave, how do we act, how do we love?

Loving your neighbor is good, but not enough. Jesus suggests that without love of God – a person cannot fully love their fellow human being. Turning toward God is primary – is the bedrock of any ethics, any morals, any choices made.

I said earlier that Jesus pulls together two strands – Love of God, and Love of Neighbor, but he slips in a third thread – at the end there – ‘on these hang all the law and the prophets.’ Yes, there are other laws besides the Law of loving God, the law of loving neighbor. There are particular rules established for good order, for care of each other, for protection. Now, In today’s world, we like to think anything goes – that love not only conquers all, love excuses all. Love excuses all sorts of bad behavior and injury to others. Listen to Jesus – he’s not going there. Three strands, not just two.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself and on that hangs all the law and the prophets – he does not say that by those two commandments all the law is dismissed, dissolved and moot.

The law of old – the law Jesus knew very well – was a law code that pointed out answers to questions of everyday life – what to wear, what to eat, etc. It seems strange to us, liberated as we are – that these things would ever be commanded. But remember – ‘on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets’ – on these two great commandments – hang all the decisions that we will make. We don’t have 613 little laws – but we do have the same issues of how we live, what choices we make, what elements of our environment become important.

For us today – it’s not about 613 individual prescriptions – but it is about a call to think about our lives and our choices with deliberation and concern for others.

You will hear and read much in the weeks and months to come, from your church leadership, and from people who are engaged in programs here at Peace Lutheran about ways you can act in love toward your neighbor. Some of the ways will be giving ways – giving financially to support our church budget – and giving out of special love for projects that are unique – our new doors, mailing off those Christmas child boxes, helping the Teachers Closet or K-Force. Love your neighbor through working with children at Sunday School or K-Force, through serving on your church leadership, through offering to God your voice at worship or on a service committee.

Some of you may think, in your heart, why doesn’t the church let us be – why do they ask so much? My walk with God is private, personal and not for anyone else to judge. And that is true, but as we are motivated by these words of Jesus – Love God, Love Neighbor, and with those two statements in mind - Think about your life – where else will you be as welcome to express your faith as with your church family? Where else will you find forgiveness when you fail to express love? And where else will you find the Savior, who will be your example of love incarnate?