The Blessed of God

Below is my sermon from January 29, 2017, on the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes from Matthew have never been my personal favorite (I tend to prefer Luke’s version), but they’re a good reminder that the values of Jesus are often at odds with what we see valued in everyday culture.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Thinking about this passage from Matthew got me wondering about what it means to be blessed. So naturally, I did a quick search of #blessed on Twitter. Anyone ever see tweets or posts with that tag before? People use the hashtag to mark their posts as celebrating a blessing in their lives.

Some of the more fun ones: “Got pulled over for going 42 in a 30. Explained to the officer that I was trying to get to Pop-Eyes and it closed in 30 minutes. He let me go. #Blessed.” “Just got my new Audi! #Blessed.” And, my personal favorite, “Ordered an eight piece nuggets, and Chick-fil-a gave me ten. #Blessed.”

Of course there were some more serious things going on, too. A lot of high schoolers had gotten accepted to college, and used the hashtag blessed to share their joy. Or there was the woman who had just gotten to hold her first grandchild for the first time. The young man celebrating being best man in his brother’s wedding. The father of three who had a job offer after being out of work for six months. #Blessed.

What does it mean to be blessed? These tweets are a pretty good representation of how we use the word today. We say we are blessed, or others are blessed, when something good happens to them. Something worth celebrating or sharing with others.

There’s even a theology that treats blessing like this. We call it the Prosperity Gospel, and its proponents, most notably Joel Osteen, will tell you can tell who’s blessed and who isn’t by how much material blessing they have in their life.

And then, we have Jesus, who gives us a different take on what it means to be blessed. Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely.

This isn’t the kind of list that you tweet about, at least not with the hashtag blessed. Just imagine it: “Had a rough day, not sure what I believe anymore. #Blessed.” Or, “Was meek at work, and got walked all over. #Blessed.” “Spoke out for justice today…lost a couple of friends. #Blessed.”

This isn’t how the word blessed is supposed to be used. The beatitudes, this beginning of the sermon on the mount, are so familiar to us, that we’re used to them. But when you really pause and think about them, they don’t make sense.

Instead, it is as Paul writes in First Corinthians: The message about the cross is foolishness. It is foolishness. Think about it. We’re part of a religion that celebrates its leader being executed by the state. We’re part of a religion that says the poor are blessed. A religion that says those who mourn and those who are reviled are blessed. We’re part of a religion that says all are equal in God’s eyes, regardless of nationality, or race, or gender, and yes, even regardless of religion. It’s pure foolishness.

It may be foolishness, but God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom. What we get in the beatitudes is a glimpse of that foolishness. A look into the way that God sees the world. And God’s foolishness is indeed wiser than our greatest wisdom.

Those whom, in our wisdom, we would ignore or devalue, are precisely those God has chosen to bless, and to honor, and to love. But the beatitudes are more than just a glimpse into how God sees the world, they are an invitation to join God in that viewpoint. To look at others and the world around us, to look at our own selves, with the eyes of our creator.

Instead of measuring someone by their possessions, we are invited to see their character. Instead of feeling pity for someone’s misfortune, we are invited to enter into that grief, or pain, or loss and share it with them.

Instead of despising another’s weakness, we are invited to see weakness as the point of God’s connection with humanity. Instead of seeing the needs of our neighbors as a nuisance that we have to deal with, we are invited to view our neighbors’ needs as a mark of blessedness to which we are privileged to attend.

And yet, we so often fail at seeing things through God’s viewpoint. We despise the foolishness of God as just that, foolishness. We all do it. I do it, you do it. We try to cover up the weakness we find within ourselves, and it makes us uncomfortable when we find it in other people.

We do not love our neighbor as ourselves. When we look at another, and judge how deserving they are of our care, of our advocacy, we judge their very humanity, and in doing so, we chip away at our own.

And yet, we hear Jesus’ call: Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. For theirs is the kingdom of God.

The kingdom of God does not have to be a faraway place, to be reached at some distant time, or after our deaths. Listen to what Jesus says: theirs is the kingdom of God. Not theirs will be the kingdom of God, or they shall see the kingdom of God. Theirs is the kingdom of God.

The kingdom is right here, present among us, when we honor each other as God’s children. When we look at another, and see not differences, but common humanity. When we look past the world’s judgment of weakness or vulnerability, and see instead strength and dignity.

Seeing others as God sees them is part of living in the kingdom, but so is seeing ourselves the way that God sees us. Because the same grace and blessing extended to others is also given to us. I prayer that we are able to look at others, and ourselves, through God’s eyes. It’s probably foolish. But God’s foolishness points us towards the kingdom of love, justice, and hope. Amen.

 

A sermon on baptism

Below is my sermon from Sunday, January 8, the Baptism of our Lord. While it touches on the biblical text, it mostly focuses on a Lutheran understanding of the sacrament of baptism. When I reference the Small Catechism, you can find it in an ELW, or online here: http://bookofconcord.org/smallcatechism.php#baptism.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Do you remember your baptism? Anyone? A lot of you are probably like me, who was baptized as an infant, and have no memory of the event at all. I’ve found out basic details from my parents—it was at Good Shepherd Lutheran, King of Prussia. My aunt and uncle were my godparents. My brother, who had just turned two, threw a massive tantrum in the middle of the sermon.

And I found this a few years ago. My baptismal candle. You know, those candles that we give to parents every baptism, to symbolize the light of Christ? I was cleaning out my childhood bedroom, and found it in its box, stuffed in the back of a drawer. Right where the light of Christ belongs.

There’s this thing about baptism, where we believe it is of foundational importance to our faith, and yet, for most of us in Lutheran churches, we have no memory of it happening. And today, the celebration of the Baptism of our Lord, is a good opportunity to reflect on baptism, and consider what our baptisms mean for us—and what we can learn from this passage of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan.

So, what is baptism? What gifts does baptism grant? What is the significance of such a baptism with water? If any of those questions brought back confirmation flashbacks for you, that’s because I’m quoting from Martin Luther’s Small Catechism. It was written in 1530, as a guide to help the local pastors teach their congregations, and it has been the focus of teaching for confirmation for the nearly 500 years since.

If you would like to follow along with me, you can find the Small Catechism in the back of your hymnals. All the way in the back, on page 1164, you’ll find Luther’s explanation of the Sacrament of Baptism.

What is baptism? Baptism is not simply plain water. Instead, it is water used according to God’s command and connected to God’s word. This is actually the basic Lutheran understanding of a sacrament—either baptism or communion: a physical element, combined with the God’s command and promise found in Scripture.

What gifts or benefits does baptism grant? It brings about forgiveness of sins, redeems from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe it. This is something that we also profess each week when we say together the creed: that we believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

Well, what does that mean? The emperor Constantine took it so literally that he waited until he was on his deathbed to be baptized, just so he wouldn’t have an opportunity to sin later and screw it all up. But that’s not exactly what we mean by it. Baptism does bring about the forgiveness of sins, but not in such a simple way. It is an event, done once in our lives, but not once and done. We continue to live out and experience our baptisms daily.

Which brings us to Luther’s last point about baptism: What then, is the significance of such a baptism with water? It signifies that the old person in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned and die through daily sorrow for sin and through repentance, and on the other hand that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

Luther doesn’t say it explicitly, but underneath of this is the understanding that baptism, as much as it is about forgiveness, is also about identity. It is about who we are. If it wasn’t, our gospel story wouldn’t make all that much sense.

Jesus, beginning his public ministry, comes to John seeking a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Well, that’s kind of weird, because the way we understand Jesus is that he had no sins for which to repent. He was born without sin, and lived without sin according to tradition. So why should he be baptized at all?

Baptism is not a simply a mechanism for forgiveness but rather announces God’s favor and establishes Jesus’ identity. Baptism, for Jesus, was less about forgiveness than it was about commissioning, the inauguration of his mission and ministry and assurance of God’s presence.

This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. With Christ, we too, receive our identities and our commission in that font of water. As Luther says, we become a new person—a person who, because of forgiveness, is not bound by past mistakes or failures, but open to the future. A person who is not seeking to become worthy or acceptable by any false standards of the world, but who is proclaimed worthy and beloved by virtue of God.

We need to keep returning to that—to that forgiveness, to that grace, and to that love of God. It’s why Luther mentions a daily dying and rising: he knew that it was something we had to remember frequently, or we might forget or take it for granted. It’s why we begin every worship with that dying and rising: confessing our sins and hearing God’s forgiveness.

Because, like Jesus, God’s purposes for us don’t end at our baptism. That’s merely the beginning. At every baptism, as we light these candles, I say: Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.

And we together say: we welcome you into the body of Christ and into the mission we share: join us in giving thanks and praise to God and bearing God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world.

Baptism is a commissioning: to be God’s people in the world. To live in grace and forgiveness, and to shine so brightly with the love of God and light of Christ that others take notice. God blesses us, claims us as God’s own, and gives us the most holy job of sharing that love with others.