Monday, February 3, 2014

February 2 Sermon

To hear a recording of this sermon as preached, click here.

Matthew 5:1-12

5When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.


I don’t know if you noticed, but I changed the sign out front this week to read thusly: “This Sunday at 11, come hear the best sermon ever. Also, the pastor will preach.”

This is the challenge of the sermon on the mount. How do you preach about a sermon? If that is not meta-enough for you, how do you preach about that which is widely agreed to be the best sermon of all time, Jesus’s list of those whom God call blessed? It is wonderful, and poetic, and timeless, and yet many of us who have heard this sermon for years have not asked what it means. After all, being blessed is good, but what does it mean?

The Common English Bible, which is the translation that the United Methodist Church and other denominations have been working on for some time, translates this passage this way:

“Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

“Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad.

“Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth.

Isn’t it wonderful, for there is nobody who needs a measure of God’s grace more than the hopeless, the grieving, the harassed. We’ve all been there at some point, of course, feeling like we’re at the bottom of a well with no way out, until, eventually, God sends down a rope. This is what it means to be blessed. God is with us. Always.

There is a reason this is the greatest sermon ever preached. Nobody needs a way out more than the hopeless, and we know this viscerally, in our guts, in our souls, for there have been times when we have needed that presence of God more than we have needed food or drink. And if you are like me, when you do get the rope, you tend to climb out of the well, give God sort of an embarrassed thank you, and then go on your way until you find yourself stuck in another ditch.

But there are those among us, and many more outside these walls, who do not have the luxury of going about their merry way. There are those who find themselves stuck more often than not, and frequently because of the shove of a fellow human, sometimes because of you or me. There are those who are truly hopeless, truly reviled, truly harassed.

I mean, it is nice that Jesus is with me, that I am blessed when I mourn, but I have to tell you that I have a sneaking suspicion that this passage of scripture is not actually about me. Sure, I grieve, but not all that often. Sure, I am merciful, as long as it doesn’t inconvenience me too much. But I am not really hopeless; my lot in life doesn’t lend itself to that kind of thing. I haven’t had to spend too much of my emotional capital on peacemaking. I am not particularly meek. For one thing, I’m a little too cranky a person to be meek. And for another, meekness means that you’re under provocation. You can’t prove your humility until you’ve had your back pushed up against the wall.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the beatitudes are not actually about me, and that is a problem because, you know, I really, really want Jesus to like me. If Jesus is serious about this stuff, if he is serious that God is especially with the oppressed, and I am not one of those folks, well, that says lots about who Jesus is, but it says less flattering things about my role in all of this, and that’s kind of hard to face.

And so I am left to wonder, if it is not about me, then who? Who are the grieving, the poor in spirit, the ones who are reviled and persecuted and who find themselves on trial on account of their faith in Jesus?

It is not too hard to find these folks, once you start looking. There are Christians in oppressive countries who are jailed for their beliefs. There are Christian missionaries who are killed by terrorists.

Those are the easy ones to spot. But in a country where we don’t kill people because of their beliefs, the business of finding those people Jesus is talking about it is harder, because the way we dispose of people in this country is not by killing them, but by maligning them, by saying that they are outside the mainstream, that they ought not be paid attention to. When you are stuck in a hole, after all, you can be hard to spot.

But they are there, if you’ll just open your eyes. Those who are poor, who are marginalized, who feel like they have no home. I was reading an article just this week about a really cool organization called Lost-n-Found youth, which provides safe space for youth who are LGBT, who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, and who have been kicked out of their homes by their families simply because of this fact. There are approximately 750 LGBT kids on the streets of Atlanta with no place to sleep, simply because they’ve been kicked out of their houses by their families! Youth and children, who have been disowned by their families. Say what you want about the issue of homosexuality, but these are kids, and they are homeless. These are the kinds of people Jesus calls blessed.

Did you know there were so many homeless gay kids in this city? I certainly did not, but that is the way it works. We shove these folks aside, and even if we aren’t actively persecuting them, we’re letting it stand in the name of holiness, of maintaining our Christian morals. It is in the face of this kind of response that Jesus sits atop the mountain and says, blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn.

Now, I haven’t talked much about the issue of homosexuality from the pulpit. You may have noticed me dropping a couple of hints along the way about where I fall on this, but I haven’t said much. For reasons I will explain, I think it is time.

Let me preface this by saying that I know this is a really, really complicated subject, and I’ve met almost nobody who didn’t feel strongly about it one way or the other. Let me also say that the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church is very clear. We believe that people who are LGBT, who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender are people of sacred worth, children of God, but—the church has said—the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. If we are going to talk about this issue, we should be clear about what the general conference of the church has said.

I deeply love our church, this denomination. I have told you that I did not grow up in a United Methodist Church, but that I chose this denomination on purpose, because I love our way of doing ministry, our theology of grace. But if I am going to be clear about where the church stands on this issue, I should also be clear that I disagree with the church’s teaching. I understand the church’s position, but my understanding of who Jesus is and what he teaches leads me to a different place. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that sexuality ought not have boundaries. I am saying that the boundaries and covenant of marriage are things that ought to be open for everybody, for they are deeply good, deeply holy.

Now, I don’t intend for this to be a sermon only about homosexuality, and so if you’d like to talk to me one-on-one about this issue, know that my door is open to you. I mean that—I would love to talk with you. But I also believe that we can’t pretend that difficult issues don’t exist. That doesn’t do justice to the work of God in the world. So why do I bring this up?

Perhaps you have heard in recent months about Frank Schafer, the former United Methodist pastor who was brought up on charges within the church because he performed the wedding of his son, which would have been lovely in the eyes of the church except for the fact that his son was engaged to a man. And Frank Shaefer went through a costly church trial, and ultimately he lost his ministerial credentials, for saying yes to his son.

This being a newsworthy thing, several of you heard and asked me about my thoughts on the situation, which I have shared privately, but I did not bring up the trial in worship because, well, we had other irons in the fire. The work of God is bigger than this one issue.

But today, today is different, because a United Methodist minister in the New York conference has been brought up on charges for the same thing, for saying yes to his son, for saying yes, my child, I love you and I will perform your wedding: but this time, the situation hits  closer to home. The Rev. Dr. Tom Ogletree is the minister in question, a world-renowned Christian ethicist and the former dean of two seminaries, most recently Yale. What I find most impressive about him is that he is the brother of Bette Prestwood, one of our beloved members here at North Decatur. I checked with Bette before I brought this up today, because you can imagine that it is deeply personal, but it is important for you to know that this is going on. I hope you will be supportive of Bette in these days as she supports her brother and her family.

This isn’t a sermon about just about homosexuality. It is a sermon about God, and without getting into a drawn-out explanation of why I believe what I believe—because that conversation should be one-on-one, not one-on-a-hundred—let me just say this. I’ve never met anybody who was gay who wasn’t reviled and harassed because of it, who didn’t find him or herself hopeless at times; there is a reason that the suicide rate for people who are lesbian and gay is so high. And now, we’re punishing people for agreeing to officiate the weddings of their own children, for wanting to give their kids a chance at the stability that the marriage covenant brings. Here’s what I want to know: if it is true that the hopeless are blessed, that those who are harassed and reviled are blessed, that those who hunger and thirst for the favor of God are blessed, how can anybody, anybody make an argument against aggressively reaching out and welcoming those who are marginalized, including our lesbian and gay sisters and brothers? Why do we continue to act like the church is a place for people who have it together instead of what it is, a hospital for sinners like you and me?

It is in the midst of this reality that Jesus preaches the sermon on the mount. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are the reviled. Blessed are the meek. And what does it mean to be blessed? It means that God is with you, of course. And so if we want to be with God, we ought to go looking for those Jesus called blessed.

If you have come here looking for a blessing, I must share with you that it is quite possible that the sermon on the mount is not actually about you, at least in the way that many of us wish it were. But the sermon on the mount also reminds us that the business of living our faith is less about my own wanting this to be all about me and more about making this all about others, for it is in the business of working for the welfare of others that we find God.

Now, here in a few minutes, we are going to gather at the table for Holy Communion. No matter where you fall on all of this, whether you’ve been nodding your head so much during this sermon that you’ll leave with whiplash or whether you are wondering why the Bishop sent us this guy of all people, no matter, you are welcome at the table. This is what the church does, after all. We eat. We gather, we discuss, we argue, and eat. We get nourishment for the road, sustenance to support us on the long road of blessing.

And if you take on that challenge--if, as you travel that long road of blessing, you find yourself hungering and thirsting for righteousness--well, Jesus says you might just also find yourself filled. You might just find yourself in the presence of God. There is no greater blessing. In the name of the Creator, the Christ, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.