Thursday, 23 March 2023

Are You Talking to Me?

I’ve been talking about the Beatitudes for a few weeks now and other parts of the Sermon on the Mount in the weeks before that. There’s sure lots to talk about there, but I feel like I’ve been repeating myself a fair bit. 

It might seem like I’m doing that again, but, please, stick with me. It’s all connected.

Of course it’s all connected, you might say. Whether you believe that the thing we call the Sermon on the Mount was one hugely long oration or that the author of Matthew’s gospel collected selected preachings together and repackaged them that way, it makes sense as a unit. A long one, for sure, but it makes sense. Particularly if you are the view that, from the very start, Jesus was clear who he was talking to: you. You are blessed, you are salt and light, you can live into the heart of the law and here’s how you do it. It’s about you, not some generic crowd in the ancient past, but you.

And that’s how it’s all connected, right from the start.

Right from the start, I imagined Jesus approaching the crowd and seeing them. I mean, really seeing them. I imagine Jesus looked in their faces that day, saw where they were at, and began by telling them the most important thing they needed to know: you are blessed. I imagine he looked each one right in the eyes and he said you who are poor are blessed, just as you are. And he looked at the broken and the grieving, the meek, the merciful, and so many others and, as he moved through the crowd, he told each and every one that they are blessed, just as they are.

In other words, this wasn’t just a generic sermon that he posted later as a blog, it was personal. I think we tend to hear much of Jesus’ teaching, preaching and healing as stories about Jesus rather than stories about how Jesus speaks to us. That way, we can keep it less personal. But that’s just it: I think Jesus meant to be personal. That’s why he didn’t begin with “all lives are blessed,” he began with naming how we might be feeling in our lives.

Imagine you’re any of the people Jesus addresses here. It’s not hard, because we will be among theses people somewhere. Imagine Jesus is speaking to you. You are blessed.

It’s not that simple, though, is it? As Jesus moves through the crowd, everyone will hear how each is blessed. And that might be easier to hear for some than others. Imagine, for example, that Jesus looks at someone and says blessed are the peacemakers and that someone is a Roman soldier. What makes them a peacemaker is their self, not their title or place in society. Remember the story of the faith-filled centurion?

And what about those who are poor in spirit when they hear Jesus tell those who are so strong in spirit and in following Jesus that they will be persecuted for it, that they are blessed? To both he says, “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

I think there’d be some discussion about that, and I think Jesus would say that heaven isn’t a destination, it’s a journey. It’s the journey of our life. That’s why Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is near. When we authentically live out the blessing we are, the good from which we come, we connect with God’s love and grace that’s in each of us. That’s what Jesus is all about. Wherever we are on our journey, we are blessed and that blessing connects us with God, in ourselves, in each other and in creation.

Thursday, 16 March 2023

Imagine The Peace We Would Live In

Blessed are the peacemakers, Jesus says, for they will be called children of God.

It seems to me that, of all the Beatitudes, this is one of the most straight forward and easily understood. And also one of the hardest.

First of all, blessed are the peacemakers. Literally, the makers of peace. That might include peace keepers, it might include those who’ve found spiritual peace or who are at peace with themselves, but it’s more than that. It’s the one’s who work to make peace happen.

Secondly, by virtue of being that, they’ll be called children of God. Okay, but we’re all children of God. Yes, but I think what Jesus is pointing out is the example they become. In order to be peacemakers, they live into their nature as children of God and bring that to the world around them. They’re aware of the divine spirit within themselves and live that love, compassion, grace - all that good stuff - into the world around them. They’re doing their best to live into their relationship with God and with God’s presence in the people and the world around them. They become an example to the world around them and each are called a child of God. Just like Jesus.

Which I think, as I’ve said before, is what Jesus is about. Imagine the peace we would live in if we could all be Jesus.

And that’s the hard part. Well, parts. We don’t.

Just like the crowd that listened to Jesus that day, we’re all different. We have different relationships with ourselves, with God, with people, with creation. Just like the crowd that day, some of us struggle, some of us doubt, some of seek, some of us are weak. Most of all we’re afraid and angry. We don’t imagine peace like Jesus does.

We still think peace is simply an end to conflict and the way conflicts are ended is by force. Fighting is ended because there’s a winner and a loser and the winner is the one with the most power. That’s not just today, I think many in the crowd listening to Jesus that day may have understood that, too. They lived under “Pax Romana,” the Roman peace, imposed on conquered peoples and maintained by an army. That’s a particular order maintained by power over people and we see it in everyday life, whether that power is force, persuasion or manipulation. That’s not the peace Jesus is talking about.

Jesus means the peace that comes from creating community where people feel they belong, where there is freedom, equity and an appreciation for the diversity which contributes to that community. That’s a wholeness of being that comes from sharing, respecting, communicating and doing all that with grace and an open heart. This peace honours vulnerability, empathy and engagement, not force and oppression.

And we don’t imagine we can be Jesus. We set Jesus apart and hold him up as an example of something we can never attain when we should be holding him close and aspiring to be what he shows us we can. We’ll fail sometimes, but the divine spirit in each of us can pick us up and try again.

We know peacemakers and we do call them children of God. I’m sure Jesus saw them in the crowd that day and we see them, not just in history or in the headlines, but in our everyday lives. And, just like Jesus, we should embrace them, hold them close, and learn from them.

Thursday, 9 March 2023

The More You Know

Blessed are the pure in heart.

Jesus wasn’t the only one to say that. It’s one of the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:3-12), but, like others, it can be found elsewhere in the Bible and other sacred texts. Blessed are the pure in heart, says Jesus, for they will see God.

Hmm. That might sound like a tremendous blessing, but a challenging one, too. Who can say that their heart is pure?

And yet, I’ll say it again. I think Jesus looked at the crowd and he saw in their faces how they were that day and he decided to begin with reminding them of the most fundamental thing: you are blessed. Just as you, from the very beginning, you are blessed.

As he moved through the crowd, he met the poor in spirit, people who were grieving, who were broken, meek, hungry. He met people who struggled to find the strength to live in a challenging world and he met people who’s strength of spirit challenged the world: people sharing compassion and grace, working for peace, living true to what Jesus was trying to show us all. I think Jesus saw this as a moment to remind us that, while it’s easy to say all lives are blessed, there are moments when it’s important for the individual to hear their experience named, just as they are in this moment, and know the intimacy of that connection recognized.

Jesus may well have found himself face to face with many more than the gospel records, but those that we have cover a lot of ground, moving from weak in spirit to being of such committed spirit that they are persecuted. And there in the middle seems the impossible: someone with a pure heart. Brokenness and grief we can understand, even care, compassion, working for peace, even being righteous we can see, but pure in heart? With all our human failings, how can that be possible?

We judge a pure heart with our own notions of morality and ethics, cleanliness and perfection, expecting, even, that it be without sin. We judge it to be unattainable, with maybe an occasional, even flawed, example. But I wonder if that’s what Jesus had in mind.

I wonder if, for Jesus, a pure heart was simply one that was able to strip away all that we pile on it and break down all the walls we build in the name of protecting it. What’s then laid bare is that divine spirit that’s at its centre, that essence of good that is in all of us. That’s why Jesus says the pure in heart see God. Not just in the visual recognition of God at work in the world or in the wonder of creation, not in seeing the surface, but in being aware that behind that and within that is the same divine spirit that’s in our own heart. Seeing God is knowing, understanding and connecting to God in the intimacy of a relationship. That’s what Jesus is trying to do for all of us, to bring us back to that original blessing.

I think Jesus saw that in someone’s face that day. Maybe even more than one. We can see it, too, maybe even in a mirror.

Wednesday, 1 March 2023

Blessed To Be

The meek shall inherit the earth.

Jesus wasn’t the only one to say that. He framed it with blessing in the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:3-12), but it’s in Psalm 37 and a similar idea can be found elsewhere in the Bible and other sacred texts. It’s certainly become prolific in popular culture.

But Jesus frames it with blessing.

It doesn’t have the feel of blessing, though. Neither being meek or inheriting this earth, as we know it, feels much like a blessing these days. I don’t suppose it was then, either, and I suspect there was a little confusion, even push back, among his listeners that day. We just hear the pronouncement of blessing, but I wonder how many people thought - and maybe even said - what do you mean by that?

Well, I think Jesus would say, you are blessed, just as you. You are a child of God, a gift to the world and a worthy part of creation, just as you are. I’m going to keep reminding you. All of you. That’s where you begin. Now, let’s talk about the meek and the earth.

If it seems like I’m turning things on their head, says Jesus, I am. This might seem like a radical shift in thinking for us because of what we’ve experienced, but Jesus is trying to bring us back to God’s ways, the way of living from those first days when all was good. People have turned things around and become hard hearted and power hungry. People want to collect meaningless stuff and dominate others and the earth. But listen to this. 

We’ve learned that to be meek is to be shy, weak and submissive. Just like we think of  vulnerability, it’s a weakness, a failure of spirit. But, also like vulnerability, it’s not. When Jesus talks about the meek, I think he means those whose strength is cloaked in humility, whose empathy and gentleness are super powers with which they serve the world around them. The meek are patient and kind, not self-serving, not easy to anger, they look for what is true and and are open and aware of the world around them. Jesus, I think, might well describe the meek in a similar way to how Paul famously describes love in his letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor.13), because love is the root of their strength. 

As Jesus brings them into focus with this blessing, I think we can see why the meek inherit the earth. When our hearts are open to the world around us, when we live in the love which is there, we are connected. We are meek and vulnerable and strong and we are connected.

Again, in bringing us back to God, Jesus is bringing us back into relationship with God wherever God is. And that’s everywhere: in ourselves, in each other, in the earth. For each of us, it’s literally “all my relations.” The divine spirit can be found in all things because its life and love and we are of the divine spirit and of the earth, doubly blessed.

Perhaps that’s why, at first, it may not feel like much of a blessing. So many of our relationships feel broken, unattended or out of control, it’s overwhelming. Perhaps the best place to begin is where Jesus begins, again and again: simply blessed to be.

Wednesday, 22 February 2023

The Worth of Our Being

Lately, I’ve been talking a lot about the part of the Gospel of Matthew we know as the Sermon on the Mount. That makes sense, there’s a lot there and it’s long, very long. But I’ve been hammering away a bit at the first part, in particular, and a particular view of the opening words of the Sermon on the Mount, something we also gave a special name to: the Beatitudes.

Maybe that’s what got me started down this road. Special names can give things special recognition because we think they’re special, but they can sometimes set things apart. They can also collect important things under one title in a way that makes us see the title as more important than what it actually says. Like the Bible, for example. 

I think that can also steer us into thinking that Jesus isn’t addressing anyone in particular. Even when Jesus is addressing a crowd, his disciples or a single person, when we study and talk about what Jesus is saying, we can label it, try and understand it and find meaning and yes, maybe it speaks to us, but it’s still something we can hold “out there.” Even when we talk about being written on the heart, we seem to be still trying to connect with something that wasn’t said to us, but to people in a different place and time. 

But it isn’t. It’s for us, now, just as we are.

Look, I’ve said (don’t stop me if you’ve heard this before) that I think Jesus looked at the crowd that day and he saw what he so often saw in the crowds that came to see him. He saw people who were hurt and broken, grieving, struggling with the world around them, trying to live what he was teaching and being frustrated by a world that seemed cruel and oppressive. They were looking for healing and hope. So he began by telling them they’re blessed. Right from the start, just as they are, right where they found themselves in that moment. You are blessed, he said. That’s where to start.

But Jesus isn’t just talking about “those people,” nor is he is he talking about “a different time” or generalizing about a “nice idea.” He’s talking to you and me, both to our community and to our individual experience. This is personal.

Look around you. The crowd Jesus addresses is all of us. We’re all addressed here: today we may be among the poor (in spirit and wealth) or the grieving, we may be among the patient and enduring or the lost and seeking, we may be among the doubtful or committed, the oppressed or struggling. We might find ourselves experiencing those moments any day, in any place.

Today, I see the poor in spirit and the grieving everywhere I look. And that includes the mirror. We’re still struggling to come out of an experience of fear, anxiety, isolation and grief that many haven’t known before. We’re struggling with loss and overwhelming social circumstances. We’re struggling with conflict, with learning about past wrongs that  ask for responsibility and healing. We’re struggling with how to be open and vulnerable in a world that seems to demand a different kind of strength. 

To all of us, Jesus reminds us of the hope that resides in the worth of our being, that there is love and strength in simply knowing we are.

Wednesday, 15 February 2023

Revealing the Connection

I don’t know that there’s much difference between “reveal” and “expose” technically. They seem to be synonyms. Maybe they’re interchangeable, but it sure feels to me like there’s a different connotation. Doesn’t it? Especially when it involves people.

Reveal sounds so much more positive. Revealing something sounds like you’re sharing something that ought to be seen or known. Exposed sounds like something that ought to have remained hidden or was hidden for a reason (and probably not a good one). Reveal feels like it was willingly shared and exposed feels like it was something done without permission or consent, either in the doing or receiving.

Maybe I’m overthinking it, but I’m thinking it because of a couple of stories about Jesus. Maybe even all the stories about Jesus and us.

We’re coming to the end of the season of Epiphany. An epiphany means a sudden revealing or  perception of something or someone’s essential nature or meaning. It’s a season of light and being enlightened, full of stories about how Jesus is revealed but, more than that, it’s about how the stories speak to Jesus being revealed in us.

Epiphany begins with the arrival of the magi who followed the star to the infant Jesus, revealing him to be the promised one. But the first story of the adult Jesus is his baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. That includes a moment of revelation when a dove appears and a voice is heard saying “this is my beloved in whom I am pleased.” Jesus heads off into the wilderness for a time and then into his ministry. The bookend to that, closing out the season, is the Transfiguration story. Jesus on the mountain top with Peter, James and John, appears a vision of light, then standing with Elijah and Moses, revealed not only by that appearance but again by a heavenly voice saying “this is my beloved, listen to him.” Except, this time, Jesus tells the disciples not to tell anyone about it until after the resurrection. I wonder if maybe Jesus felt it wasn’t time yet to be so exposed. I don’t know, I’m just wondering.

I believe that Jesus, in his life and ministry, in his essential being, is showing us that we, too, are divine and of the earth. Just like him. That’s what Jesus is revealing to us, encouraging us, even - as John says - commanding us to do: to love just as Jesus does. Not for a moment do I think that Jesus is expecting us to be perfect at it, but simply to live it. Maybe Jesus worried that people would see him as something beyond their reach if they heard this story.

See, as one of us, Jesus reveals how to be vulnerable. In his ministry he made himself vulnerable healing the sick, spending time with outcasts, eating with sinners. He made himself vulnerable in loving, that we might learn to love. Jesus’ moment of transfiguration was revealed and lived out - mountain top experiences and the lowest of valleys - in his life. Ours can be, too.

We’ve learned, I think, that vulnerable is a weakness. It leaves us exposed, yes, but it also leaves us open to empathy, to connection, to building relationships. I think Jesus reveals it to be one of our greatest strengths. A divine one, even.

Sure enough, even now, we might hear the transfiguration story as something that sets Jesus apart from us, something that exposes what Jesus is that we aren’t. I think it reveals a connection to the divine light in all of us, if we’re just willing to be vulnerable enough to be open to it.

Thursday, 9 February 2023

Oh, There's More To It

The Sermon on the Mount is a lengthy section of Matthew’s gospel, chapters 5-7, that includes some important and familiar sayings and teachings of Jesus. The Beatitudes, the images of salt and light, teachings on the law, how to pray (the Lord’s Prayer’s here, too), judging others and more - it’s a highlight reel of ethical and healthy living, not just for individuals but for community, for bringing the kingdom of heaven here.

It’s called the Sermon on the Mount because the author of Matthew presents it as one continuous piece of preaching. One very long continuous piece of preaching, certainly much longer than you’d want to sit through in a church pew on a sunny Sunday morning.

Some biblical scholars have suggested that it was likely that Matthew collected sayings and teachings from a variety of places and assembled them into this “sermon.” That’s an interesting thought and one that would certainly make sense if your experience of a sermon was what most people experience each week. You sit, someone talks at you, you listen, someone talks some more. And there’s a lot of stuff here to remember. You’d best take notes.

What if it was a sermon, but it wasn’t that kind of sermon? Maybe even just the first half hour or so. What if it was something more engaging, something more authentic, something that went kind of like this.

Jesus sees there’s a crowd. He steps up a little higher on the hillside to get a better view of their faces. That’s Jesus for you, always wanting to know his audience. He sees how desperate they are for a word of hope, some encouragement that things will be better, some direction that might help them feel closer to God. He sits down as they gather round, but instantly realizes that’s not what they need. They need connection. He stands up again and he steps into the crowd. He begins to talk.

 He looks people in the eye and he says you are blessed. Just as they are, broken and hurting, needy, eager for encouragement, each one is blessed. As he moves through the crowd, he reminds them all that we begin in blessing. We don’t earn it or seek it out, it’s already who we are: blessed by God. He’s passionate about it, he speaks from the heart, he’s authentic and they hear him.

He might pick up a handful of dirt when he tells us we are salt or point out how the sun casts shadows behind what it illuminates when he tells us we are light, just to make the point that it’s real, that we are already impacting the world around us. He gestures at the top of the mountain when he mentions the city on a hill where everyone can see it. He's on a roll now, moving through the crowd. The disciples hustle to keep up.

But hang on, says someone in the crowd - Jesus would have welcomed questions - what about the law? Jesus grabs one or two of them - his hands on their shoulders - as he explains how he came to fulfil the law. And he gives them three huge examples, and he might go one on one with them as they question him about them: the point is, it's not just "don't murder," he says boldly, it's hold in your heart love and respect for all life. Begin there. And adultery's more than a word, what it really means is to not lust after others as if they're some kind of object. Respect them. Begin there. And divorce? The real problem isn't the legality of it, the real problem is the brokenness of all our relationships. Begin there. Begin with what’s at the heart of the law, not the letter. 

Be sincere, Jesus would say, be authentic to what’s in your heart and engage each other with that. That’s what’s at the heart of the law, too. The law is a way to loving God, yourself and your neighbour. From your heart.