Sunday, February 23, 2014

“EMPATHY: “Can You Feel the Pain?”

A Sermon Based Upon Matthew 5:4;  Matthew 9: 18-26
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
7th Sunday of Epiphany, February 23, 2014

"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Mat 5:4 NRS)

Eric Metaxas’ recent Biography, “Bonhoeffer”, retells the story of the German Lutheran pastor who opposed Hitler, was eventually imprisoned and finally was executed in April 1945, one day before the war was over.

In the time when Nazism was growing in Germany, sometime in 1933, Bonhoeffer visited one of the places Hitler wanted to close down, the Bethel Community, a community on the Northeast side of Berlin completely dedicated to the infirmed and the disabled.   It was a whole town with schools, churches, farms, factories, shops and housing for nurses which were all build around several hospitals and care facilities, including orphanages for the abandoned.  This was the kind of place Hitler called ‘useless’ and the people it cared for as being ‘unworthy of life’ because they were a constant drain (called ‘eaters’) on society.   In contrast, Bonhoeffer saw it as a place ‘where the gospel was made visible’, and as he later wrote his grandmother, it is a place ‘where the weak and helpless are cared for’ and these most defenseless people reveal how ‘defenseless’ and ‘needy’ we all are, no matter how healthy we seem to be (From Bonhoeffer, by Eric Metaxas, Thomas Nelson, 2010, p 184.).

Adolf Hitler was unable to feel the pain of other people.   He wanted to build a society based on ‘power’, success and the rule of the strongest with total disregard for the weak.  He also had no time for those who showed any kind of empathy or sympathy for others.  Most of those Germans who opposed Hitler, ‘mourned’ over the direction the nation was going, but unfortunately, the majority who placed Hitler into power, lost their capacity to ‘mourn’ until it was too late, only to be regained the hard way--through war, bloodshed, and agonizing defeat.    

Blessed are those who mourn…..” does not seem to be the right way to begin a message of ‘good news’.  In today’s ‘feel good’ culture, taking time to mourn seems more like a liability, or a handicap itself, rather than an asset or a strength we should gain or glorify.  How can Jesus call those who mourn, who lose, who suffer, who must grieve for themselves or for others---how can Jesus call those ‘who mourn’ to ‘blessed’ by God? 

‘THOSE WHO MOURN’ MEANS EVERYONE
First of all, we will never understand Jesus’ words if we are holding out a ‘false’ belief or hopeful ‘illusion’ that life is fair, that all’s right with the world, or that this world as it should be.   Ever since the gate of the Garden of Eden swung shut, nothing in this world is as it should be.   And if we are honest with ourselves we all know this deep down.   Life is not always good.  The way of the world is seldom fair.  Injustice is all around us.  Evil grows and growls in every corner of our world, even in the most sacred of places, including the church.   I often remind people that the first place Jesus cast out a demon was at church (or in a synagogue).   The first document written in the Bible was a letter from Paul to a church that was falling apart due to all kinds of problems.   In fact, most every document in the New Testament was written to deal with misunderstandings, falsehoods, and struggle in the churches to be and do rightly in the world.   Never, anywhere, except in the first chapter of Genesis or perhaps on the last page of Revelation, with its vision of Heaven does God, nor can we, call the world ‘good’.   Even Jesus in his own human flesh said, “Don’t call me good, no one is good but the Father in Heaven!”  The point being--that pure, unadulterated, and absolute goodness is impossible to have or hold on to in this world that is still broken and dominated by sin, Satan, and death.  

People who understand ‘how’ life is, really is, will mourn.   Blessings can still come to us in life, but there is no other way that ‘blessings’ can come to us, except through this ‘veil of tears.’   We cannot escape coming to grips with our shared human brokenness and vulnerability.   Some will try to deny or delay facing this human reality, but it will be at their own peril.   Remember the fellow in Jesus’ parable in Luke who attempted to isolate and insulate himself to the pain of the world by building bigger and better barns?  He did this but lost his own soul.  In the same way, unless we discover the ‘blessing---that comes when we mourn, and even through sharing the pain of others, we too can lose our own souls. 

As I working through this sermon back in December of 2013, around the 1st anniversary of the tragic murder of children in Newton, Connecticut, there was another tragic shooting at a school in Colorado, only blocks away from Columbine High School, and not far away from the terror at the Aurora movie theater.  If you look behind all these shootings what you will find is not just a bunch of psychologically deranged youth, but you will also see youth, families, and a society that, for whatever reason, are dealing with pains in life for which they do not have the resources to bear them.   Without the spiritual resources, without learning how to ‘mourn’ in constructive ways, people will find destructive ways to turn pain, anger, hurt and suffering back on to others.    As one Law Enforcement Officer said recently, it’s not just ‘evil’ out there but it is a “particular” kind of evil, where children who have been too well insulated from the realities of life, must eventually face them, but do not know how.  The tragedies we are seeing today come from a society that no longer knows how to find God’s ‘blessing’ in the midst of acknowledging and sharing human pain.   When we are unable feel or share our pain we can’t find God’s blessing, and we soon start to feel ‘cursed’.

BLESSED ARE THOSE WHO MOURN?
Notice also, the most bizarre part of this saying from Jesus which calls those who mourn “blessed’ by God.   Can we find any good in the midst of human pain and loss?   We better, and we must, because we will all suffer loss and pain in this world, but we don’t have to end up cursing the darkness

In May of 1995, the actor and director Christopher Reeve was thrown from a horse in a bizarre riding accident that paralyzed him from the neck down.   As an accomplished sailor, pilot, and avid outdoorsman, a respected actor, and a vibrant father, at the age of forty-two was confined to a wheel chair and a ventilator.  Reeve faced the probability that he would never again enjoy the things that had given his life so much richness and meaning.  It was, in his words, a totally arbitrary accident, a mere “instant of humiliation and embarrassment.”  He was, in many ways a man of ‘super’ sorrow.

But with a ‘super’ spirit of courage, his perseverance overcame his pessimism and, with the support of people who loved him, Reeve soldiered on and began the arduous task of rebuilding his life.   With patience and good humor, he made the adjustments his body demanded of him, coming to terms with both the physical and psychological challenges his disability posed.  He returned to work and was involved in a number of movie and theatrical projects.  He became a tireless advocate on behalf of victims of crippling accidents such as his, and created a foundation to advance research in the field of spinal cord injury and push for a cure.   Having endured what might embitter others, Reeve believed his accident gave him a deeper appreciation for his family.  As he once observed, before his death, his marriage was strengthened, his time with his children became richer, and be began noticing the little joys of life that he had long taken for granted.  The task of his life was not grieve over what he had lost, but to consider the kind of life he could have for himself, but what kind of life could he build to be a benefit to others  (As told in “What Jesus Meant”, by Erik Kolbell, p. 44). 

Fortunately, most of us have not had a terrible accident like Christopher Reeve, but the task of having to come to grips with what we lose in life, is “an irreducible, irreplaceable” (Kolbell, p. 44) and inescapable piece of human life.  As a Charlotte Pastor once said, “We are born losers” whether we choose to be or not.  We may not lose a loved one in a great tragedy like 9/11, nor have an accident as severe as Christopher Reeve, but we will fully lose those we love and we finally lose our own lives. As Job mourned his own situation: "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return there; the LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD" (Job 1:21 NRS).    

But before we try to understand the ‘blessing’ that still can come to us, even in midst of pain and loss, we need to more fully understand the kind ‘loss’ Jesus meant---not only the one we feel.  The ‘mourning’ Jesus acknowledged here was not merely a grieving or ‘letting go’ of the life or love people have had, but it was a greater, more desperate ‘mourning’ over what these people never had, because they were poor, because they were numbered among the forgotten, the neglected, and the lowest part of their society.   The people “who heard Jesus gladly” (as Scripture says in Mark 6.20, & 12.37) were never were rich in any worldly way.   They hung on to Jesus words because they had nothing else to hold on to.  They were not the people who were going to ‘lose’ everything, but they were the people who never had anything, at least if you measured their lives by material or political standards of the world.   The common folk Jesus addressed had nowhere to turn but to God.  Most of them, like the woman with the blood problem, or this man whose child was dying, or the lepers, the prostitutes, or other outcasts, were already ‘mourning’ their lives because so much made their lives miserable each and every day, leaving them with no chance of success and little chance of survival.   Dare we imagine this kind of poverty, these kinds of illnesses, or the continual suffering and struggle those people faced?   One wonders, “How could they ever feel blessed” without so much of what we take for granted?  

Do we have room in our own ‘blessed’ and busy lives to mourn with people who live in and under such conditions today?  While the top 20 percent of the world’s population have more than 80 percent of the world’s total income and live in unparalleled luxury, the bottom 20 percent of the world’s population try to survive on less than 1.5 percent of the world’s income and are condemned to live lives characterized by cycles of deprivation and despair.   Because most people in this world cannot access their ‘fair share’ of the world’s income, many, in desperation, sell their labor for chickenfeed.  More than 250 million children in the world work for as little as 25 cents a day.   As a last resort, many even have to sell their bodies.  More than a million children are forced into prostitution every year.   Millions of children under the age of 15 are developing HIV and dying of AIDS, and more than 25,000 people die unnecessarily from easily preventable causes every day of every week of every year (As cited in Dave Andrews, Plan Be,  Authentic Media,  United Kingdom, pp 16-17, 2008).   Recently, I read that New York City, right here in America, has over 22,000 homeless children scattered in the over 460 homeless shelters across the city.  The poverty of the world is rushing in on us too, even in a wealthy country where the rich get richer, but the poor only get poorer, where good jobs are getting harder to find, and people are finding it more difficult to make a living wage even working two jobs at minimum wage.

But while there is much to mourn and grieve over, not everyone mourns or feels the pain of the current state of the world.  Not everyone knows the ‘blessing’ of understanding, feeling for, and desiring to answer the pain others feel and experience.   Most of us only acknowledge what we feel, see, hear, and experience for ourselves, and this mostly depends upon where we ‘stand’ in the world.   Are we with the top 20 percent who are ‘well fed’ and ‘laugh’ as Luke 6.25 says, so that we ‘rejoice with those who rejoice’ (Romans 12.15), or can we identify with the other 80 percent of the population---those bottom 20 percent---who go hungry, who don’t know where the next meal will come from, and who cry and worry themselves to sleep (Luke6.25)---can we ‘weep’ and ‘mourn’ with those who mourn?  Do we see any blessing in ‘mourning’ with those who mourn and grieve?  Can we, who are numbered among the most ‘blessed’, find any ‘good’ reason to feel the pain and mourn with those who suffer around us?

Perhaps the most important “blessings” that come from mourning our own losses in life, is that we learn to feel the pain of others and most importantly, we learn to feel the ‘pain’ of God.   In mourning not only for ourselves, but for others, we learn to mourn and weep over the sin of the world, which includes mourning over our own sin, that in its worst form is the sin of not caring.   Two times in Scripture we see Jesus weeping, and both times he was not weeping for himself, but for others.   In one text Jesus wept over the death of his friend Lazarus, but in another text, he wept over the entire city of Jerusalem because it was unable to realize its own need to return to God.   When we lose the ability to sorrow over sin, especially our own sin, we lose part of our humanity.  As someone has said, “Hell is not to care anymore.”   To put it another way, the unending pain of Hell the Bible portrays, is like the state a person reaches when the only pain they feel is their own; and now, this pain never lets up because that person has become unable to feel the pain of God or share the pain of others.  “On the American Frontier,” J. Ellsworth Kalas writes, “(Methodists) used to have a ‘mourners bench’, which was placed in front near the pulpit, where persons publically ‘mourned’ and expressed sorrow over their own shortcomings,” but he adds, “that would be a hard sell in our feel-good culture!”  (From a sermon “The Happy Mourners” by J. Ellsworth Kalas, in Beatitudes from the Back Side, Abingdon Press, 2008, p. 28).   In a society like ours---a society that because of its great wealth becomes lost in pleasurable feelings while it tirelessly works to insulate itself and its children from the painful realities of life, such a society, can finally lose the sensitivity that makes us most human: our ability to feel, to care, and to mourn over what brings hurt and pain to ourselves and others around us.  We must never take this positive side of ‘mourning’ lightly.  We must never cease to feel the pain in the heart of God.

THE COMFORT ONLY GOD GIVES
Jesus gives one reason to seek the God’s blessing that comes from being able to mourn.  But it’s not what you might think. There is certainly no ‘blessing’ in the pain, loss, and mourning people experience in this life.  There is also no blessing in the sin, the brokenness, the injustice or the darkness that still curses our world.   No, Jesus does not find any hidden ‘blessing’ in the terrible condition we find ourselves in, nor in the terrible condition of the world around us.  No, the only way ‘blessing’ can come to those who mourn is because we or they ‘will be comforted’ by God.  Only God can give comfort to those who lose everything, and only God can make up for what most people will never have of the material blessings in this life?  Only God is big enough to comfort hurts like ours—and hurts that still fill our world---because only God can give a comfort that the comforts of this world can never give!   But how does God give this kind of comfort?  How ‘will’ God bring ‘comfort’ to world that still suffers too much?   

I don’t think there is any pain, hurt or grieving in this life that is worse that a parent who loses a child.  Unfortunately, many parents have had to experience such a painful loss, but few have been able to express it like the Christian philosopher, Nicholas Wolterstorff.  He wrote about his grief in Lament for a Son, after his son Erick was killed in a mountain climbing accident.   Several years after the loss, Wolterstorff noticed that the wound was no longer ‘raw’ but it hadn’t disappeared.  But he is quick to add, that he doesn’t mind the grief as much, because, he says, “If he (Eric) was worth loving, he is worth grieving over….”   Then, he makes this conclusion, “Grief is the testimony to the worth of the one loved….Every lament is a love song.”

“How strange is this,” comments Pastor James Howell, “that through the darkest moments of grief and pain, people can often recount an unmistakable sense of God’s presence?”  God’s loving, caring presence is seldom fully disclosed when everything is going fine and great, but God is known most fully when we encounter the pain and the darkness! “Through the prism of my tears, I have seen a suffering God,” Wolterstorff expressed how he found God’s comfort in his pain (This was told in James Howell’s, The Beatitudes for Today, 2006, p. 42).  It wasn’t that God took his pain and mourning away, but this Father came to realize that God shared His pain of loss, and this brought him comfort.  Coping, dealing with loss comes from the life-changing experiences of eternal love----the love a Father has for his son, and the love that God has for us.  

“When things go well, “ William Barclay wrote, “it is possible to live for years on the surface of things; but when sorrow comes a person is driven to the deep things of life, and , if he or she accepts it aright, a new strength and beauty enter into his or her soul.” (Wm. Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, p. 88). Out of a sense of love, God’s love, love now, and love for eternity, we find the source of all comfort.   Isn’t this the ‘love’ Paul spoke of in his conclusion to his second letter to the Corinthians, when he wrote: “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word” (2Th 2:16-17 NRS)?

Because God loves us and gives ‘eternal comfort’ to us through his ‘grace’, we can mourn our loses and we can endure them.  And because God’s comforts and transforms us, we can mourn with and comfort others with the comfort we have received.  We can only live out these words, “Blessed are those who mourn..” because we know the God who is the source of all comfort.  Amen.   

Sunday, February 16, 2014

SURRENDER: Give God All Your Heart

A Sermon Based Upon Matthew 5:3; 6: 19-21
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
6th Sunday of Epiphany, February 16th, 2014

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Mat 5:3 NRS)

Several years ago, on a winter Sunday morning, our small congregation arrived at church to discover we had no heat.   The furnace had malfunctioned.  I’ve been in churches where this happened before, and sometimes we had to cancel services and go home.  But this church was different.   We all went to the basement, put out chairs and huddled together to worship in closer quarters.    I enjoyed this, because it shifted things around.  People who normally set on the back row often found themselves sitting closer to the front. 

One particular man, who normally sat at the very back of the church, was now sitting up front and right close to me as I preached.   I really don’t remember what I preached on that particular Sunday, and it probably didn’t matter.  After the sermon he came to me with something on his mind and since the preacher was up close and personal, he thought he would put a question he hoped I couldn’t answer.   “Preacher,” he said, “These words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount don’t have anything to do with the real world, do they?”  “God doesn’t really expect us to live this way, does he?”  I could tell that for some reason, he wanted me to say, “Well, of course not!”  

But the question that man was asking was on the right track.  He really had read his Bible and was paying close attention, for certainly, these words in this “Sermon” are not how we normally approach life, nor how we think about what we want to attain in life.   These words in the Beatitudes are from another world.    As Bible scholars will tell you, they are the real words of Jesus because no one in his right mind would make this stuff up.  These ‘be-attitudes’ which will be ‘fleshed-out’ in rest of this Sermon on the Mount, present to us a world that is very different than out own.  How can it be a blessing to be ‘poor’, even if only spiritually poor, as Matthew qualifies?  How can grieving people who are in mourning find comfort?  Can the meek who seem to be weak inherit or gain anything in this dog eat dog world?  Ridiculous it sounds!  One of most gifted American writers of the 20th century, Kurt Vonnegut,  claimed to be an atheist most of the time, but he admired Jesus’ Beatitudes.   In his book, “Man Without A Country”,  Vonnegut expressed our uneasiness with these  words.  He writes: “For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes (Matthew 5).  But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings.  And of course, that's Moses, not Jesus. I haven't heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere.  "Blessed are the merciful" in a courtroom? "Blessed are the peacemakers" in the Pentagon? Give me a break!” (As quoted by http://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/1119459-a-man-without-a-country).

THERE IS NOTHING ‘GOOD’ ABOUT POVERTY
The very first thing you will notice when you consider this first Beatitude is that there is a noticeable difference between Luke’s and Matthew interpretation.  Luke has Jesus pronouncing God’s blessing on the “poor”, period (“Blessed are you who are poor….” (Lk 6.20), meaning that God’s kingdom, when it comes near, brings God’s blessing to the economically and socially poor.  But Matthew makes this a blessing upon the spiritual, morally, and emotionally poor, “the poor in spirit” (Mt. 5.3).   We know for sure that Luke meant the economically poor because right after his beatitudes he clarifies by announcing a warning or ‘woe’ upon ‘the rich’,  who have already “received” their reward in this world (Luke 6.24) and are destitute in the ‘riches’ of God.  We also know that Matthew is making a contrast between those who are poor and humble in spirit as opposed to those who are haughty and proud of themselves in their own riches.
 
What we must understand up front is that Matthew’s interpretation are not a contradiction to Luke, but a qualification, a clarification and a correction of a misunderstanding that had surfaced among God’s people early on.   Matthew wants us to know that when Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor…” Jesus is not in any way ‘blessing’ or showing his approval of economic or social poverty.  Again, Matthew wants us to understand that neither Jesus nor Luke is saying that it is a ‘blessing’ to be poor.   Poverty is not in any way good, in and of itself (Pro 24.34).  Poverty can be destructive (Pro. 10.14).  Poverty can enslave, weaken, and beat a people down so low that they can never get up.  Poverty is never the will and wish of God, but it is the result of sinful humanity or a fallen world.   Sometimes poverty is the result of the sin of human laziness (Prov 10.4) but at other times poverty is due to powers out of human control (Genesis 45: 11, Prov. 13.23).  However it comes, Matthew does not want us to misread Luke’s words, but to understand them properly as Jesus meant them.  Jesus came to ‘bless’ the poor who need most desperately to hear God’s good news  (Matt. 11.5; Luke 4.18), but Jesus did not come to bless poverty nor to declare being poor good itself.  

To help us ‘rich’ Americans understand just how bad poverty can be,  Robert Heilbroner, once asked what it would take for the average American family the live the lifestyle of the poor of the world?  He writes: “Begin by stripping the family home of its furniture.  Beds, chairs, lamps, TV sets, silverware, everything.  Leave them with a few blankets, a kitchen table, and a wooden chair.  Take the clothing bureaus and the clothes.  Each family member can keep one article of clothing, and only the head of the household is permitted a pair of shoes. In the kitchen, take all the appliances.  Leave a small bag of flour, some sugar and salt, a few moldy potatoes, a handful of onions, and a dish of dried beans.  Then, take away the meat, the canned goods, the crackers, the candy.  Next strip the bathroom, shut off the running water, and turn off the electricity in the house.  Then, take away the house itself.

But this is just the start, it doesn’t include the lack of telephone, newspapers, firefighters, hospitals, paved roads, or doctors.  It also doesn’t include the fact that the nearest school is three miles away, reachable only by foot, and consists of two classrooms.  Finally, money.  We will allow our family a cash hoard of five dollars, which will prevent the family breadwinners from experiencing the tragedy of the Iranian peasant who went blind because he could not afford the $3.94 cent he mistakenly thought he needed to receive admission to a hospital where he could have been easily cured.  This is poverty.  Blinding.”  (From “What Jesus Meant” by Erik Kolbell, p 35, 2003). 

Fortunately most of us cannot imagine what it might mean to be ‘poor’ or completely ‘impoverished’.  We should thank God for that.  God does not ‘wish’ poverty on anyone, except in a spiritual sort of way….(you knew I say that, didn’t you), except.  Except what?  What is it that Matthew was trying to clarify as the way to God’s blessing in this life and in the next?  What is this poverty of spirit that brings God’s blessing to life?
 
BUT THERE IS GREAT GOOD IN BEING POOR IN SPIRIT
Do you recall the young, rich, guy who came to Jesus asking about ‘eternal life’?   This is a story told in Mark (10.17ff), Luke (18.18ff) and Matthew (19.16ff).   The gospels say he was young, rich and powerful; a person who had everything he needed, except the promise of life in the world to come.   When Jesus told him to ‘keep the commandments’ of God, he told Jesus he had done everything necessary.  Of course he had.  Being rich and having ‘a golden spoon in his mouth’ he thought he had all the resources to do what he needed to do, so he could always get and have everything he wanted.  But this is where he was in for a very big surprise.  What Jesus told him is what no rich, self-man, or independently rich person ever wants to hear, then or now: “You lack only one thing”, Jesus says: “Go, sell what you have, and give it to the poor, and then you will have riches in heaven, and then come and follow me.”   That wealthy, powerful man, who thought he had everything already, ‘went away grieving because he was very rich’ (Matt. 19:22).   We would too.  But we must understand, says Jesus in this first Beatitude, is that what was keeping this man from God’s kingdom and from receiving God’s greatest blessing of eternal life was not simply what was in his pocketbook or in his bank account, but it was mainly and mostly what was in his heart.  This is why Jesus commanded poverty on this very rich man, and on people like him.  Jesus was not commanding poverty for the sake of poverty, nor did Jesus command poverty to take away what people have, but Jesus commanded poverty to give this man, and any one like him what they know they are missing; that is, the ‘one thing they lack’ so they can have God’s greatest blessing--a humble, caring, compassionate, and generous heart that truly trusts in God.

Last Thanksgiving, on the Evening News, there was a story about a Culinary Chef in Minnesota who gave up a salary of almost six-figures, to go into the inner city and for a very meager salary, to run a soup kitchen in a Salvation Army rescue shelter.  Why on earth would anyone leave all the comforts of a much more comfortable life, to work harder and even to earn much less?  Why would a person move down the ladder when everyone else wants to move up the ladder?  Why on earth, would someone do that?  Well, the truth is that it might have a lot less to do with ‘earth’ and a lot more to do with ‘heaven’.   When the man, Jeff Ansorge was interviewed, he gave his reason as being  ‘to get his priorities right’.   In other words he was taking this new job so that he not only could save his soul, but to help reach out to and save the souls of others.  He said he used to only make sure that he and his own family got the fruits and vegtables they needed, but now he says, he wants to be the ‘hands and feet of Jesus’ and to ‘serve them the gospel, we all need.   ( http://hennepin.kstp.com/news/news/422732-minneapolis-culinary-master-gives-six-figure-job-work-soup-kitchen )       

Jeff Ansorge understands what Jesus understood: You can be very rich and live a very poor life.  If you are living that way, then you need to have a change of heart.  In order to get what only God can give, the secret, if it is a secret, is not putting more into your heart, but it is getting everything else out.  The blessings, gifts, and treasures of God come by getting everything else out----becoming spiritually, destitute, impoverished and humble of heart.   Only by opening your heart fully, only by emptying it completely, and only by releasing all you have to God can you gain what only God can give which no one or nothing else can.   Only God can give you eternal life.   Only God can give you the blessing of what you don’t need to make you happy.  Only God can give you the ‘treasures’ that will never rust out or never corrupt you soul or your spirit.   And God can only give you these things when you give him a heart that is completely open, sincerely humble and totally empty before God.    The blessing of God can only come this way, as the poet has rightly written, “Nothing in my heart I bring, but only to the cross I cling.”  That’s the spirit of the soul that has become ‘poor’ before God.

Oseola McCarty had that kind of poverty of spirit.   Born in 1908, a black child of the segregated South, Oseola McCarty spent eighty of her ninety-one hardscrabble years laboring for others, washing, drying, and ironing the clothes of the well-to-do of her hometown of Hattiesburg, Misssissippi.  When Oseola was eleven an aunt took ill, and Oseola left school to tend to her aunt’s needs, which were considerable.  Shortly thereafter she began taking in laundry to make ends meet.  She didn’t stop until her eight-sixth year.  A woman of small stature with eyes that penetrated you with their wisdom and soothed you with her kindness, Oseola was not given to complain much about the rigors of her work, or her hard life, having to care for others more than for herself, even when she could scarcely afford it.  Living in the tiny house her uncle gave her, her quiet life revolved around her work, her friends, (she never married), and her beloved church.  She kept her Bible together with Scotch tape, she said, “so that Cornthians won’t fall out.”

When---after seventy-five years of taking in laundry for as little as two dollars a bundle---she retired, this woman who had given so much of herself away, decided to give a little more.  So in June of 1995, she wrote a check for $150,000 to create a scholarship fund at the University of Southern Mississippi---a school that once would not have accepted her because of the color of her skin.   She gave in order that deserving young people who otherwise couldn’t afford college would be given a chance to have the education she never had.  The Oseola McCarty Fund represented her life savings.   When the local news, the University, and the community took notice of what she did---how she opened her heart and held nothing back---and even the President invited her to the White House, as the newspapers headlined that “Dinner with President Is Her Reward”, they probably got it wrong.   Her reward is elsewhere.  It was somewhere in those pages she kept taping up so Corinthians wouldn’t fall out, especially in chapter 9, verse 15, of 2nd Corinthians where Paul writes, “Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!”  (Adapted from a story by Erik Kolbell in “What Jesus Meant,” pp. 38-39).

The poverty of our spirit, living by God’s grace and nothing else, is the gateway to the Beatitudes and to the rest of the Sermon on the Mount.  The Sermon on the Mount is the fleshing out of this and all the beatitudes.   The first lesson of life Jesus gives is that until you release and give our whole heart to God, you will gain nothing eternal from God.  This is what Matthew means by being ‘poor in spirit’.   We are utterly dependent on God.   “Standing before God”, someone has said, “we are all dirt poor and butt naked(Source Unknown).   The faithful poor already know this.  You will have the opportunity to learn it too, before your life is over, like Job did when he cried out, “Naked I came into this world, and naked I will leave it” (Job 1.21).  Until we are impoverished or broken by life, the rest of us can only learn the value of spiritual poverty from the Holy Spirit.   It is the first and foremost spiritual lesson, because until we learn and live this truth, no matter how much money we have, how much education, or how much talent, we can receive none of the eternal blessings God has to give until we know come to realize just how poor we are and how unless life is, without God’s grace, goodness and love. 

BEING POOR IN SPIRIT OPENS US UP TO LIFE'S GREATEST BLESSINGS
But what will we ‘do’ with this great love?  What proves that we have the poverty of spirit, like a Jeff Ansorge, or like Osela McCarty?   The rich, young ruler, needed to give up his wealth to show that his heart was right with God, what do we need to show?    The great Danish pastor, Soren Kierkegaard, who was probably the most brilliant philosopher in human history, once shook up the Church of his day, when he told a story about the tame Geese who went to church, heard a great message about flying from the Great High Geese, but always, each and every Sunday, always ‘waddled home’.   Why didn’t the Geese fly?   They had wings covered with feathers.  They could fly anywhere they wanted.  But always, after hearing a great sermon about what they could do, what they should do, and what they were made to do, they never did it.   They always waddled home.    Not one time, though given every opportunity, did they spread their wings and fly even though they had the capability to fly anywhere in the world.   Where these real Geese?   They looked like Geese, they smelled like Geese, but they weren’t Geese any longer, says Kierkegaard, because they were just too tamed.   Then, Kierkegaard, went on to explain his parable saying that “being a true Christian is not a matter who we say we are, even if we go to church, but what we actually do or don’t do, says who we really are.”  

Christian psychotherapist, Erik Kolbell tells of a patient named Linda who came to him for counseling.  Linda was a brilliant, battle-tested young woman with a no-nonsense, close-cropped hair cut, impeccable tailored clothes, and a fierce dedication to her work.  She was one of those inspiring American success stories; born to poverty, went to school at night, landed an entry-level position in a large and prestigious investment firm, and gradually worked her way to a high salary, a second home, a generous nest egg, and also, unfortunately, a low-level depression.

In one session, as Linda and her therapist were knocking around ideas as to why she was so unhappy, she told about a dream she had the night before.  “It was a chilling, raw winter’s day,” she started.  “I was on a street in the neighborhood I grew up in, and my hands were cold.  In short order I found a clothing store, went in, and bought a pair of gloves.”  Normal enough so far, but then something strange happened.  “I left the store, started down the street again, found another store, went in, bought another pair of gloves, and put them on over the ones I was wearing.  I did this two or three times, until I could not only feel the cold, I couldn’t feel anything.”   They stopped the conversation.   In all psychodrama Linda’s unconscious (or we might say ‘conscience’) was trying to alert her to what she had lost as a result of what she had gained in life.  As her professional success carried her farther away from poverty, it also carried her farther away from the poor, and from the people she had grown up with, from the pleasures they had shared, and from the love and closeness they had with each other.   Now, her life was ‘insulated’ but cold and since she felt she had no need and no need for others, she started feeling nothing.  Because she was so far away from the pain of those who strain daily to survive, she could no longer feel anything herself.  She was literally out of touch and now her heart was calling out to rescue her from the ‘padding’ that had robbed her of her life.  (“What Jesus Meant”, p. 36-37).

What did Linda do to regain her sanity and overcome her depression?  Of her own volition, Linda went back to the old neighborhood, rekindled some friendships, involved herself in a community renewal project, and started to help support some poor children who faced the same obstacles she once faced.   She began to live more simply in her own life, and learned that living in wealth and excess was robbing her of her eternal soul.  As she gave more and more time to helping others and thinking less of what more she wanted or needed, as she stopped waddling in comfort and started to unfurl her wings and fly, she felt the gloves come off layer by layer and she became alive again.   She gained blessing by being a blessing.   By returning to live beside those who were less fortunate, she discovered what it meant to be rich toward God by living more humbly.

I like to go to Marshall Field’s department store in Chicago,” says, Mary Madeleva, “just to see how many things there are in the world that I do not want and do not need.”   Only God can give a gift like that, which says, “Because the Lord is my Shepherd, I already have everything I need”.    This is how you know that your heart has been is transformed by love that makes all you can be, by what you don’t have to have.   For you see, God’s plan “Be” will always be better than our own plan “A”, which ends by making us more “Arrogant, more Aggressive, more Angry, and more Apathetic”.  Only God’s plan “Be’ blesses by with what only God can give.  Which plan are you going to follow?   Amen. 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

“PLAN BE"

A Sermon Based Upon Matthew 5: 1-12
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
5th Sunday of Epiphany, February 9th, 2014

“Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: "Blessed are….             (Mat 5:2-3 NRS) "

HAVE YOU FELT BLESSED LATELY?
Do we even know what it means when someone says “I feel blessed?”  Someone is surrounded by their family having a good time together around the dinner table, and a family member says,  “We are so blessed”!    A person has just come back from the doctor and has a good report, saying “I feel blessed with good health.”   Or a person has barely escaped an accident and in relief says, “It feels so good to be alive.  It is such a blessing.”   Hopefully, we’ve all felt something like this, but what does it mean?   Is it the same kind of feeling a person has who says, “I’m feeling lucky,” or is there something more?  Is there some greater value, meaning or hope when to having God’s blessing in our lives, than simply feeling good?   This is one thing I want to talk about in the coming weeks: What does it mean to be blessed?

In its most basic sense, the idea of being “blessed” is  a sense of living a life that has God’s favor or approval.   But how do we receive this ‘blessing’ from God?   Is God’s blessing something we have to earn, or is it something that comes to us free of charge, perhaps as as a blessing of grace?  Or, is the blessing something we have to beg for, something for which we must meet certain requirements, or jump through some incredibly high hoops to obtain?   How does one gain the blessing?   This is another thing I want to address:  How do we come to feel blessed and have God’s blessing upon our lives?  

Surprisingly, we will discover, I hope, that the blessing of God is not something that comes through a direct pipeline from heaven.   You may be even more surprised to learn that the blessing of God does not always come directly from God either.   Of course, eventually and ultimately, all things come from God, as the song says, from God “all blessings flow”, but even though God is the source of all things,  this does not mean we humans in the weakness of mortal flesh can ever gain a direct line to a gain God’s blessing on our own.   My point is not to say that we have a hard time receiving God’s blessing, but to say the opposite: God’s blessing comes to us in many ways, like through a flower, a mountain top, a beloved pet, an experience of grace, or most of all, through the love of another person.  

In fact, most of God’s blessings do not come to us in any direct way, like asking or seeking for them and getting them instantly through prayer, but God’s blessings come to us in mostly indirect ways, all of which, should increase our ability to receive them, not decrease it.   Remember that other song: “Showers of Blessings”?  The word “shower” might suggest that God pours out his blessing it multiply ways, not only one way.   I realize this might sound puzzling to some of you who are in a hurry to feel blessed, or you recall Jesus’ words about prayer as asking, seeking, and knocking and receiving what you ask for, but, the truth is if receiving the blessing of God came as a direct line from God, then the potential for knowing God’s blessings would be much less, rather than more, especially since it is impossible for anyone to have a direct line to God.   To have a direct line to God, you have to be dead.

This brings me to the final point of consideration in the upcoming weeks.  I do not only want to answer what a blessing is, or share how we come to experience God’s blessing, but I also want us to think about “How we can be a blessing to others”?    I say this too, because God’s blessings are ‘tied up’ together with the blessings we give, rather than receive, and blessings we should receive, not want to receive.  In other words, you can’t feel God’s blessing until you are a blessing to others, and you can’t be a blessing to others until you know the blessing of God in your own life?   Blessings are like tying knots that holds things together.  You don’t have a true knot unless it holds together even when you pull on it.   In the same way, blessings are not real blessings unless they hold us together when life pulls on us.   And for a knot to be a true knot, it has to be wrapped up together in such a way that all the strings take pressure at the same time.   In a similar way, in the weeks of messages ahead, I want us to be pulling on many different strings of blessing, asking what blessing means, how we receive it for ourselves, and how we give to others, and of course, most of all, how we can worship God as ‘blessed people’.  I want us to think about all these many different ‘strings’ of blessing so that we will keep them all tied up together, so that when life pulls on us, nothing can take away a sense of God’s blessing in our lives. 

Perhaps the greatest truth I want you to grasp in the weeks ahead is simply this: that to live in God’s favor, means that we live a life that favors God.   To put it another way:  In the coming weeks I want us to discover what it means to experience God’s favor, so that we can feel how blessed we already are how we can be a blessing---in our families, in our communities, in this church, and become a blessing of hope for the world.     

JESUS WANTS TO BLESS US
But now, we must get to an even more basic question.   It is the question about why talk about “blessing” in the first place.   I don’t want us to take anything for granted.   I want us to ask “why” blessings are important before we get to “what” God’s blessings are, because to understand the nature of God’s blessings is one of the most important conversations we can ever have.

Why is the matter and manner of God’s blessings so important for us?  Well, for one thing, the matter of “blessing” is at the very heart of some of the most important and most well-known words Jesus ever spoke.   We call them “The Beattitudes”.   These 8 statements of ‘blessing’ were placed as the opening lines of “The Sermon on the Mount.”   Perhaps the entire Sermon, which covers chapters 5-7 of Matthew, gives its own answers to what it means to live and become a person who is most ‘blessed’ by God.  We’ll look into that.  But for our main consideration I’m going to mainly focus on these 8 pronouncements of Jesus which begins: “Blessed are…..”  You know them: “Blessed are the poor in spirit….Blessed are those who mourn….Blessed are the peacemakers…..; so on, and so forth.  You know them, but do you really know them?  Getting to know and understand them is the goal of our conversation together in these weeks.

Now, I need to get to explain about my sermon title for today.  Because Jesus opens each line of the “Beatitudes” with “Blessed are….”, I have entitled my message for today:  “Plan Be.”   I picked up this idea from a preacher ‘down under’ in Australia.   He wrote a book with that title.  I haven’t read it yet, but I liked the title.  Do you catch the play on words?  They make a good point:  These “Be-Attitudes”, as they have been called by generations of Christians, have been understood as “attitudes”, referring to the ‘change of attitude’ we can have in our hearts as we face the pressures of life because we know God’s presence and favor.   Because we trust God, follow Jesus, and because we have faith--no matter what happens---we are the ones who “plan” and “decide” who we are going to “be” no matter what happens to us in life.   In other words, we don’t let life ‘break us’, but we decide to allow life to ‘make us’.  We are the ones who make up our minds and decide and plan who we will “be” and “become” so that disappointments of life are our appointments with God.   Because, with God’s help,  we plan who we will turn out to ‘be’ beforehand, we let nothing get us off course.

Since Christ has set us ‘free’ by his grace, our own “attitude” of hope determines who we are, not the problems we face, the difficulties we have, or the struggles we deal with.  Again, let me repeat: No matter what happens to us in, we can be assured that we are part of God’s plan and purpose.  “All things work together for the good of those who are called according to his purpose”, Paul said in Romans 8.28. Paul's powerful words bless us in similar ways as these truths in the Beatitudes, which call us to fulfill God’s “Plan.”   This is important, because God’s “Plan Be” turns out to be better than our “Plan A”.  In other words, because we trust in a God who has shown his favor on us and will bless us, even in hard times, we do not have to allow the problems of life overcome us, but we are overcomers because Jesus overcame.   We do not let evil overtake us either, because we have been so overwhelmed by God’s goodness in Jesus Christ, that we too are able to overcome evil with good.  And we do not give up or give in to the ways of this world, because God’s blessings come to us according to God’s timetable, not ours.  God’s blessings are the greatest blessings, because they are from God.  They are not lucky feelings which are tied up with what happens in this world, but they are blessings which come from another world, from God’s world, and they are blessings which are based upon the plans and promises God has revealed to us through Jesus Christ.   

Finally, God's "Plan Be” or plan 'to be' is to help us understand, most of all, that the Be-Attitudes of Jesus are nothing less than the attitudes of Jesus himself.   These are the “attitudes” which we should plan to have in our own lives because Jesus has become the Master and Lord of our life.    Through Jesus Christ, God has blessed us all, can bless all of us, and will bless everyone who trusts in him.   Jesus came preaching the kingdom of God as ‘good news’ of God’s favor and blessing because Jesus did not come to be blessed, but he came to be the focus of the blessing we all need the most.  This is why we call Jesus the most “blessed” Son of the Living God.  He is the one who blesses this world with God’s greatest blessings of faith, hope, and love.  

JESUS BLESSES US IN A WAY ONLY GOD CAN
There is much more to understand about how Jesus uniquely brings God’s blessing into our lives.  We will talk more about “what” Jesus did and does to bless us in weeks to come.  But another very important word of introduction is necessary concerning ‘how’ we are blessed.  

When the Bible speaks about “being blessed” there is something we must not take for granted.   When Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, ….those who mourn,…. blessed are the meek…., and so on,  Jesus does not mean ‘blessed’ in the same way most of rest of the Bible assumes it.  If you miss this change of understanding given to us in Jesus, you’ll miss everything about God’s greatest blessings.  In the Hebrew Old Testament it was assumed that if you had wealth, children, and good health and lived in serenity and safety, you were a blessed person.  But the people Jesus calls ‘blessed’ are anything but wealthy, rich, healthy, happy or safe.   The people Jesus calls “blessed” are poor, grieving, humble, hurting, and anything but happy.   If Jesus’ words mean anything, they mean something very different for the people of God.  Jesus is not necessarily contradicting the old Hebrew ways of thinking, but he is reinterpreting them, superseding them, and helping God's people to find the new ways and new kinds of deeper, higher and even greater spiritual blessings which only God can now give through Jesus Christ.  Remember Jesus' words, "not as the world gives, give I to you...." (John 14.27). This is the blessing only God can give through Jesus.

 Since we are talking in ‘spiritual’ terms that can transcend our human understanding, let’s try to visualize with a picture put in terms we can understand.  Remember in the tragic 911 event we can’t get out of our minds?  In that tragic moment, most people we saw in those images on TV were running away from those burning buildings.   We can visualize that.  But at the same, time, we also know that while most people fled, there were also hundreds of fire, emergency and medical responders were running into the building.  We must not forget to visualize that also.   Along with the tragedy was also a great blessing: people who were strong enough, brave enough, committed enough, and daring enough, to try to help others without thought of the danger to themselves. 

Today, when we think of people who are most heroic, we cannot help of those who rushed into those buildings to save lives, no matter what it cost them.   Heroic people like this are a ‘blessing’ to our world.  No one doubts this.  But when you really think about this picture, it’s a very strange way to be a blessing or to bless the world, isn’t it?   Most of those heroic first responders are dead.  What kind of ‘blessing’ can they be as people who died for others?   It shouldn’t be hard for us Christians to recognize the hidden or great ‘blessing’ even in the tragedy.   When people show what they are made of, we see not only the best of humanity around us, but we also see the potential that is in each one of us.  Seeing a blessing, even in the midst of such loss and tragedy is where God’s greatest blessings begin to reveal themselves.  Of course, those tragic moments in New York were in no way a blessing in and of themselves, and I’m sure that those first responders would have liked to have lived and been a blessing in other ways, but as they lived and died, now they remain forever etched in our minds as perfect examples of what it means to be a blessed, and to bless others with in how you live and in how you die.   They are forever “blessings” and real national treasures to us because they keep teaching us how to be a blessing in a world that can still hurt and harm. 

These ‘heroic, first-responders’ also teach us about how God blesses us, in the midst of a hurting, harmful and unhappy world, because as they sacrifice, suffered, and died with their own lives cut short, we are reminded that ultimately, only God can give us the fullest and final blessing.  The blessing we seek, need or want, will not fully come in this world, but must come from God in the world to come.   This is also part of what each one of these 8 Beatitudes are about.  These Beatitudes are about what only God can do.   Only God can make person who is depressed feel blessed.   Only God can make a person who is grieving a great loss know that in our great God nothing is ever lost.    Only God can elevate the meek, and make the last, first, and the first, last.   Only God can bless and fill those who hunger for righteousness when it seldom happens in this world.   Only God, can give mercy to those who are merciful, but have little for themselves.  Only God can make us pure in a dirty world, or bless those who resolve to stand against the cry for war, or who stand for what is right when everyone will hate you for it.   If God does not finally bless those who trust in him, then none of us have any hope of being or feeling eternally and righteously blessed.    

WANTING THE BLESSING ONLY GOD GIVES
Before we close, I want us to one brief look at the “context” or “occasion” of these Beatitudes.  We are told by Matthew that Jesus spoke these words to his disciples, as they came up on a mountain.   In Matthew’s symbolic way, it is important for us to realize that these ‘be-attitudes’ are not meant for us to ever fully understand in this world.  They are words spoken for disciples only, people who come up on the mountain with Jesus and are willing to become a lifelong learner, while sitting at the feet of our living Lord.    These ‘be-attitudes’ are for learning throughout the ups, and downs of our whole lives, while we keep trusting God, not matter what, and they are not instant, quick, short, lessons that you can put in a sound bit, an app, or fully grasp without the experience that comes with them.   

But along with the disciple’s perspective on the mountain, we must also consider the “crowds” (Matthew 5.1) of people who were coming to Jesus to be blessed down below.   In the previous chapter, (4:23-25) we read how Jesus’s preaching about God’s good news and his work of healing was bringing all kinds of people to follow him around.   Because of the blessing Jesus gave through his own his healing words and works, the crowds would and could not leave him alone.   But Jesus could not heal everybody while he was on earth.   Jesus could not speak God’s good news to everyone one on one.   Some would have to get it secondhand.   So, Jesus had to bring his closest disciples together so they could learn and pass the word of blessing and take it to the rest of the world. 

On the news, as I was writing this message, I  heard about a bus driver in Buffalo, New York, who happened to drive his bus across a bridge when he saw a young woman in her 20’s standing on the other side of the railing, as if she was contemplating a suicide jump.  Thinking quickly, he stops the bus and calls out,  “Ma’am, are you O.K.”   When he gets no response, he puts on the brakes, opens the door, and goes out to the woman.  He pulls her in and sits her down and then he sits down beside her and puts his arm around her, reminding her that ‘no matter how bad it is, it can’t be so bad that the problem can’t be solved or faced in another way”.    In doing this, the bus driver saved the woman’s life.  He gave her hope.  He told her that she is loved and that it is a blessing for her to be alive, no matter what.  He also reminded her that can and will get through this and, no matter how bad it is, it will get better.   

This is a great picture of what Jesus wants to say to us through these beatitudes.   In these pictures of people being blessed in some very peculiar ways, Jesus wants to put his arm around us, no matter what we are going through, no matter what we think doesn’t matter anymore, and no matter what we think is lost, and the Spirit of the living Lord wants to say to us, “Nothing is ever lost in God, because in him you are blessed!”.  No matter, what you think is impossible now, all things are possible with God and everything matters.  You matter to God too.  We are what life is all about.   And eventually, that is eternally, you can’t lose anything and God can’t lose either, because he is God.  

So, for now, in way of anticipation for what is to come, Jesus came to show us a God who always has the power to bless.   Do you want to be blessed?  Do you want to be blessed with a blessing that always gives and never can be taken away?  That’s the kind of blessings which are found in these beatitudes which are reflected in Jesus’ words:“Not as the world gives,” Jesus says, “I give unto you” (John 14.27).  Only the one who is God come in the flesh has to power to bless like this.  Again, this is why “Plan Be” is even better than “Plan A”.   Through Jesus, God speaks the most important words of life, which can bless us, no matter what, and which also serve as a reminder, that God’s plans for us only get better. Amen.