As we work through the Gospel of Luke this year, we will have a number of opportunities to explore this gospel writer’s unique perspective on Jesus and on the early Christian community. Like Matthew, it’s probable that Luke wrote with a knowledge of the Gospel of Mark and with Matthew he had access to a source that provided much of the material for Jesus’ teachings that appear in both Matthew and Luke, teachings like the ones here, known as the Beatitudes. But each of the gospel writers introduce additional material that is unique to their gospel. In Luke, this includes many of the most familiar and beloved parables—the Good Samaritan, The Prodigal Son, are examples of this other material. Continue reading
There’s something about our commemoration of All the Saints each year that appeals to historical sensibilities. Each year, as I reflect on the day and prepare my sermon, I find myself drawn to the stories of Christians who lived in the past. Usually my focus is not on the famous saints, the ones we remember in our calendar of commemorations, but on ordinary men and women who lived out lives of faithfulness in obscurity. Continue reading
That was the burning question last night at our first Lenten Bible Study on the Sermon on the Mount. We began and ended with the Beatitudes, exploring what they meant in the historical context, in the context of Matthew’s gospel, and in the context of our own lives. The behaviors and attitudes Jesus blesses (declares happy), are they things to which we should aspire?
We struggled most with “poor in spirit.” What does that mean? One powerful suggestion was that it refers to those who are beaten down by life, dejected, depressed, hopeless. Perhaps it refers to those who are spiritually empty, or empty themselves spiritually to receive God’s grace.
Frederick Buechner proposes that the poor in spirit “are the ones who spiritually speaking, have absolutely nothing to give and absolutely everything to receive …” That fits with another theme in Matthew’s gospel, the emphasis on the weakest, most vulnerable, “the little ones” (cf Mt 18:6).
In Christian communities, our tendency is to do just what we do in the rest of life, distinguish between the proficient and the struggling, the powerful and the weak, the successful and those who fail. God’s reign entails a reversal of values. We’re somewhat comfortable when the values that are reversed are material, there’s plenty of biblical precedent for that. What if God’s reign entails a reversal of spiritual values, too? What might that mean?
I’m reading Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship as I prepare for our Lenten Bible Study on the Sermon on the Mount. I’m not sure when I last spent any time with this Christian classic (25 years, 35 years?). Coming back to it after all those years, it’s striking both in the way it reflects its historical context and the ways in which it transcends its time and still speaks to us decades later.
For example, after going through the beatitudes, explaining them and showing how they speak immediately to the situation of Jesus’ followers in the first century, Bonhoeffer asks whether the community described in the Beatitudes exists anywhere on earth. His answer:
Clearly, there is one place, and only one, and that is where the poorest, meekest, and most sorely tried of all men is to be found–on the Cross at Golgotha. The fellowship of the Beatitudes is the fellowship of the Crucified. With him it has lost all, and with him it is found all. From the cross there comes the call “blessed, blessed.”
The fellowship of the Beatitudes is the fellowship of the Crucified!
Earlier, he points out that Jesus called his disciples blessed in the crowd’s hearing and that “the crowd is called upon as a startled witness.” From this he posits the essential unity of disciples and people. In his discussion of the Beatitudes, Bonhoeffer tends to emphasize the tension between Jesus’ followers and the world but here he stresses the commonality. It’s easy to read him (and to some degree the Beatitudes themselves) and place ourselves on that same grid. We hear a lot these days about the persecution of Christians in American, for example. But I wonder whether the perception might change if the emphasis were on the ways in which the people of God are meant to be a blessing to the communities and world in which they live.
In this week’s lectionary reading from Genesis 12, God calls Abram and Sarai out from Haran into the Promised Land, telling them, “I will bless you … so that you will be a blessing” and “in you all the families of the world will be blessed.” It’s easy to recoil, raise our defenses, withdraw or try to fight back when we encounter opposition. The world sees plenty of that from Christians. What might it be like to offer oneself and one’s community of faith as a blessing to its neighborhood and the world?
The Foolishness of the Cross
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
January 30, 2011
I love to bless stuff! I’ve made something of a joke of it over the years. I’ll bless anything. In part, that’s because of the priests I’ve worked with, one of whom always seemed to have an aspergillum near to hand. Aspergillum—if that word is unfamiliar to you, think of it as a “holy water pot.” Around here, I’ve blessed the new freezers and coolers in the food pantry, the youth room space, animals of course, on St. Francis’ Day, and most recently the new dishwasher.
For some, such stuff smacks of superstition or silliness, but it’s not, or only sometimes, and on the surface. Blessing is important, even the blessing of inanimate objects reminds us that they are set aside often, for important uses. Blessing is not a ritual cleaning, or a magical act. To bless things, whether it’s a dishwasher, a dog, or the food before we begin eating, underscore the sacred nature of all of creation and that even ordinary things can be set aside for holy use. Continue reading
One of the questions I often get from newcomers to the Episcopal Church, especially if they are coming from more Protestant backgrounds, has to do with the meaning of the saints. There’s a view among some Protestants, and it goes back to the Protestant Reformation, that devotion to or commemoration of the saints, is not quite biblical. Often these questions turn to whether, if someone joins the Episcopal Church, they need to start praying to the saints. Other times, though, there’s a bit of an edge to such questions, not unlike the time a former student once blurted out during a discussion on the Virgin Mary’s significance in the Christian tradition, “What’s so special about Mary?” My response? “She’s the Mother of God.” Continue reading