Tag Archives: beatitudes

Loving Before Knowing [OR The Foolishness of the Cross] Matthew 5:1-12, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 29, 2017

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Matthew 5:1-12 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then 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. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

[1 Corinthians reading is after the sermon]

[sermon begins]

Several months after my husband Rob and I started dating, we ended up at a New Year’s Eve party.  We were standing in a circle of people we didn’t know.  A bit of round-robin started as people talked about their work.  Rob said his usual, “I’m in sales.”  Someone asked, “Oh? What kind?” He said something like, “I’m a manufacturer’s rep for a Georgia-based carpet mill.”  As is often still the case, people don’t seem to know how to reply to that statement.  Possibly because cut-pile vs. loop or solution-dyed vs. yarn-dyed controversies aren’t quite party talk.  So, I’m next in the round-robin.  People have their eyebrows up expectantly, hoping their curiosity moves into easier conversation.  And I say, “I’m a pediatric cancer nurse.”  Stares and crickets. More stares and crickets with some nodding and mmmm’ing, while the conversation moved to the next person.

Some conversations are too detailed for party-talk, like the pros and cons of carpet manufacturing techniques.  And other conversations are too hard, like kids having cancer.  These are not the only ones. Just a couple of examples of so many things that don’t qualify as polite conversation.  Grief is another such thing.  This is where the church comes in, talking through the polite conversation into what’s happening in our lives. It’s one of the reasons being part of the church can be a comfort while we’re also challenged by Jesus’ teachings. Listen to this Bible verse again from the book of Matthew:

[Jesus teaches his disciples, saying,] “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Jesus is often found teaching in Matthew.  The Bible verses today are most commonly known as the Beatitudes based on the Latin for blessed.  It is curious that people who suffer are described as blessed when these moments can feel and look like the opposite of blessing.  Jesus is pushing against the idea that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people.  There is no explanation for why people are poor in spirit or mourning, why people suffer.  There is simply a description of suffering and God’s promise to be present in the midst of it.

The Beatitudes state a promise into the suffering.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Notice there are no requirements to receive the kingdom.  In Matthew, the kingdom of heaven is now and it’s here.  Check out the kingdom parables in Matthew chapter 13.  They describe active presence of the kingdom on earth.  As Jesus teaches his disciples, Jesus teaches us, that we receive the kingdom, live the kingdom, and teach the kingdom.

I can hear you asking, “Well, pastor, that’s lovely poetry, but what does it look like on the ground to receive the kingdom and live in it?”  I’m glad you asked.  Richard Rohr, Franciscan monk and scholar, describes the rational mind hitting a ceiling.[1]  That ceiling is suffering. Today’s Bible verses name suffering as mourning and poor in spirit and more.  We can’t explain why it happens or its purpose.  We just know suffering exists and spend energy trying to prevent our own.  I mean, really, does anyone actually love eating kale?  Eventually, though, someone we love, or maybe even ourselves, suffers – we get sick, we grieve a death, we lose a job, we miscarry, or we watch our partner walk away.  All that we thought we knew about life and our place in it shifts.

But, as Paul says, “we proclaim Christ crucified,” the ultimate in earthly foolishness.[2]  Except that the cross means something beyond comprehension when it’s God’s foolishness. Jesus’ death on the cross means that God knows suffering.  More than that, it’s the mystery of God suffering with us when we suffer.  Paul’s use of “Christ crucified” points us there because the crucified Christ is also the resurrected Christ.  Christ whom we claim is among us now by the power of the Holy Spirit, God’s Spirit.

The same Holy Spirit names us the Body of Christ known as the church.  We are part of a resurrected life that we share together as a congregation.  We share that resurrection promise as a community of faith.  As Jesus teaches his disciples, he also teaches us, that we receive the kingdom and live in the kingdom especially when living through loss and grief.  Knowing this kingdom teaching can help stop us from painting a silver lining into someone else’s grief.[3]  We can simply be present with someone else in their suffering without fixing it or explaining it or telling someone it’s time to get over it.  We can avoid the trap of thinking someone else’s pain is a teaching moment for them and avoid setting ourselves up as the teacher.  Rather we can live the kingdom now by asking people how they’re doing, by telling people we’re sorry this is happening, by quietly listening, and by praying for them.

Prayer is one of the languages of the kingdom.  Jesus prayed the Psalms while on earth and now we do too as the body of Christ. Therefore, in the Psalms, we “encounter the praying Christ…Even if a verse or a psalm is not one’s own prayer, it is nevertheless the prayer of another member of the fellowship.”[4]  Praying for people on our prayer list who are suffering of mind, body, or spirit.  Taking the prayer list that’s in the weekly announcement page home, naming each person on it in prayer, or simply praying the whole list at once.  Praying is kingdom language even when we think our own prayers are uncomfortable and clunky.  That discomfort and humility in prayer are part of the kingdom language.  So is praying for people we don’t necessarily like.

As Christians, praying and being present to each other and the world’s pain is a freedom we have through the cross.  We may recognize God’s foolishness as wisdom and look to the cross as a way of knowing.[5]  It’s possible that one of the truths of Christ crucified is that our suffering connects us to each other differently.  We move through the party talk and listen to someone talk about their grief and loss.  These moments become prayer by transcending what we’re arguing about ideologically and opens our eyes us to see each other truly as beloved children of God.  Through the cross, through the suffering, we love before we know, we love as a way of knowing, we love as Christ loves us.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

 

[1] Richard Rohr, Public Remarks, Join the Divine Dance: An Exploration of God as Trinity, Arvada, CO, January 13-15, 2017.

[2] 1 Corinthians 1:23-25

[3] This is a riff on Brené Brown’s work on empathy vs sympathy.  See video, “Brené Brown on Empathy”:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw&sns=fb

[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper & Row, 1954), 46-47.

[5] Rohr, ibid.

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1 Corinthians 1:18-31 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” 20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. 26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

A funeral homily for E.J.: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven – Matthew 5:3 and John 14:1-6

A funeral homily for E.J.: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven – Matthew 5:1-4 and John 14:1-6a

Matthew 5:1-4  When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then 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.

John 14:1-6a “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4 And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.

Elizabeth Jane, E.J. – a daughter, a niece, a sister, a cousin, an aunt, a friend, a flight attendant.  All of these titles belong to E.J.  And all of these titles communicate a relationship of one sort or another.  Born and baptized in Fargo, E.J.’s life was filled with relationship both through what I like to call the accident of family and through the choices of friends and work.

These relationships sustained E.J. through thick and thin.  Her work for the airline fueled and fed her love of travel as well as gave her access to the art that brought her joy.  Her work also brought her enduring friendships that stuck through long hours in the air, on the ground, and over the holidays. Friendships with Marianne and Wendy sustained her through to the end. And her work brought her stories.  Stories that engaged the funny bone and entertained many of you over the years.  Leaving you with the satisfied feeling that only shared laughter with someone who loves to laugh can gift you.

The relationships of family carried E.J. through some tough times, including her last years when her health took a turn.  Some of the organizing and conversations were hard on everybody, including E.J.  But, this case, family sticks together even amid the practical challenges of E.J.’s outer world and the darker effect of E.J.’s inner world.

It was E.J.’s inner world that became her greatest challenge.  Beginning in her teens and lasting through her life, anxiety and depression were regular companions.  Her attempts to quiet the anxiety and mask the depression with alcohol only made matters worse for her and for the people who love her.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  This is the verse out of the Matthew reading that came to mind as I listened to stories about E.J.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  There isn’t a lot of agreement about what “blessed” means in this reading.

Because Jesus was Jewish and likely had some rabbinic training, I hang my hat with the rabbis on this one; that a blessing is something that already exists and occasionally we get a glimpse of the blessing that already exists. The rabbinic view is in opposition to the different view that a blessing is something akin to being tapped by a fairy wand and something good happens because of how deserving we are.

The Jewish notion of “blessed” helps us see E.J.’s life in full, revealing what belongs to her even though she herself could not see it as one who was “poor in spirit.”  Hers is the kingdom of heaven.  In the John reading, Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”

He says this because he knows that your hearts already are troubled.  How could they not be?  Along with the laughter that E.J. shared with you was her struggle with herself.  Also in the reading, Thomas says to Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going…how can we know the way?”  Jesus’ reply? “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  What is Jesus’ way?  Jesus’ way goes through a cross.

And the cross is God speaking in human terms.  The human terms of self-sacrifice to save someone else.  For instance, when we hear of someone who dives into a raging river to save someone from drowning, saves that person but succumbs and dies in the flood waters themselves, our first thoughts are often respect and awe.  We also honor the soldiers who return again and again to the firefight to save fallen friends and then die in the firefight themselves. Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  After all, how much more can be given?[1]  Jesus was tried, crucified, dead and buried.  In every way that the cross could be offensive, it is.

It’s offensive to think that the cross, and Jesus hanging there, was effective in any way.  That we even need saving is offensive.  That Jesus’ execution can change anything about real life seems a deception at worst and an utter folly at best.  And yet, quite surprisingly, it does.  Jesus’ self-sacrificing death on the cross changes everything.  Time and again in the gospel, we hear that God and Jesus are one.  Jesus is God and God is Jesus.  And Jesus focuses on the goal of bringing people back into relationship with God.

The self-sacrificing love of God, given fully on the cross, draws us back into relationship with God. [2]  Jesus as “the way, the truth, and the life,” means that he has already opened up whatever we perceive the barrier to be between us and God.  The poor in spirit often experience life as a series of barriers in one form or another.  Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Jesus calls the poor in spirit blessed because their relationship with God is not dependent on their own mindset and agency.  The poor in spirit are blessed because their relationship with God already exists through no effort of their own.

We do not make a way out of no way on our own.  Like Thomas, we do not know the way.  Jesus makes the way to God through the cross on our behalf.  The way is made by Jesus which means that the movement is from God to us, from God to E.J.  And because it is God’s movement to us, God’s movement to E.J., God gives us a future with hope as God also brings E.J. into a future with God.

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[1] Craig Koester, class notes, Luther Seminary: Gospel of John class: John’s Theology of the Cross.  December 1, 2010.  I am sincerely grateful for Dr. Koester’s faithful witness as a master of holding aspects of Jesus Christ’s life and work in formative tension.  His work is beautiful, articulate, and draws me more deeply into faith and love of Jesus.

[2] Koester, course notes, 12/1/2010.  For further study see: Craig R. Koester, The Word of Life: A Theology of John’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).

 

 

Matthew 5:1-12, Revelation 7:9-17, and 1 John 3:1-3 – For That Is What You Are

Matthew 5:1-12, Revelation 7:9-17, and 1 John 3:1-3 – For That Is What You Are

Caitlin Trussell on All Saints Sunday – November 2, 2014 at Augustana Lutheran Church in Denver

[sermon starts after these three Bible readings/paragraphs]

Matthew 5:1-13  When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then 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. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Revelation 7:9-17   After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” 13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. 16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; 17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

1 John 3:1-3   See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. 3 And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

 

[sermon begins]

Ahhhh, the Book of Revelation from which our first reading comes.  Such comfort, consolation, and encouragement to be found.  Seriously, though, it’s a shame we shy away from the Book of Revelation.  Granted, a lot of it is uninterpretable – although rapture theologians won’t let that stop themselves from trying to leave us behind.[1]  But the book itself is written to comfort people who have been through a “great ordeal.”  An ordeal that leaves them in need of a comfort only God can give.

And, oh, what a people.  The writer tells us that, “there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages…”   This text gives us no way to imagine a limitation because it is all inclusive – “be it geographic, ethnic, numeric, linguistic, economic, and on and on the list goes.” [2]

The last verses of the Revelation text reads, “They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”   It is easy and tempting to try to minimize this promise of comfort.  I was leading a Bible Study at the women’s prison a few years ago.  There I stood, waxing on about different takes on heaven, when a woman from the back row raised her hand.  She told me it was all well and good that I had time to play with those ideas but she believed in a place and time when there would be no more hunger, no more thirst, and no more tears.  She counted on it.  She ended up being the preacher God put in our midst that day.   And she is definitely a saint.

The woman from the prison doesn’t fit the description of “saint” as it’s more commonly used to mean a “best-ever-super-great person.”   But she does fit into the saints who are part of “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages…”  She is a saint who defiantly bears hope in the face of all things to the contrary.

Speaking of contrary things, Lutheran Confessions was a class I had to take in seminary to become a pastor.  The class isn’t quite as racy as the title makes it out to be.  For that you would have to turn to The Confessions of St. Augustine.[3]  But there were some gems.  One of them was the professor.  He liked a good argument and found plenty of them.  His passion for arguing was matched by his passion for walking into any situation regardless of the discomfort involved – his or anyone else’s.  At one point he whipped off his pastor’s collar, waved it around in the air, and told us that with this collar we were able to walk into any situation, bearing hope, where many would fear to go.  Well, I’d argue with him on that – which of course he’d love.

I’d argue that it is by our baptism into Christ that we are able to walk into any situation, EVEN IF we are afraid to go.  It’s not the collar.  It’s the cross that bears all things, even death. The author of the reading from First John writes, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”

As children of God we are saints by baptism, not by our own action.  At the same time we are sinners, bearing the hope that has been put in us through the Jesus’ death on a cross.  This sainthood is Christ’s to give and it is given freely.  Through his gift, we defiantly bear hope and bring peace in the face of all things to the contrary.

What are these contrary things, these things that would defy hope?  Let’s try those verses in Matthew to answer that question.  Jesus tells the disciples that the kingdom is revealed into through a poor spirit, grief, hunger, thirst, persecution, and false accusations.  How do we bear hope?  We bear hope by being with people.  I hear these stories from you time and again.

You’ve sat in the hallway at a nursing home waiting to visit someone and take the time to hear another resident’s story because they need to tell it to somebody.

You’re the one who’s child died and you let someone sit with you while you felt everything and nothing all at once.

You’ve been with a friend who spouse has left them.

You’re the one whose “no” meant “yes” to someone who hurt you and then you needed to trust somebody else to help you heal.

You’ve been with the undocumented family who has no home.

You’re the victim of war who was caught in the crossfire and taken to safety in a new place with new people.

You’ve been with each other in places that seem the most forsaken by God because, if the cross means anything, it means God shows up in the worst possible places and situations.

Grief, poor spirits, all the contrary things, are not mentioned by Jesus as things to achieve and wear as a badge of honor.  These are the hard things that just happen in life.  Hard things that we get to bear with each other and for each other.  I get to show up for you, you get to show up for me, we get to show up bearing hope for each other in situations that seem utterly hopeless.  This is true when we don’t have words that fix it.  Perhaps it’s true especially when we don’t have words that fix it.  What’s most important is showing up for people regardless.  Showing up, bearing hope, does not imply that we’re not afraid.  It doesn’t mean that we’re not going to pay some kind of emotional or physical price for showing up.  Showing up, bearing the suffering and bearing a defiant hope, is a gift we give each other in the face of really hard times; because it is a gift first given to us.

See what love the Father has given you, children of God, for that is what you are…

Jesus shows up for the multitude, in the multitude, for you, and in you.

Children of God, for that is what you are, be at peace – the kingdom of heaven is yours.



[1] Rapture theology is a fairly recent historical development dating to the early 1800s.

[2] Eric Mathis, Professor of Music and Worship, Samford University.  Commentary on Revelation 7:9-17 for November 2, 2014 at WorkingPreacher.org.  https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2182

[3] Saint Augustine.  The Confessions of Saint Augustine.  (Project Gutenberg, eBook, June 2002) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3296/3296-h/3296-h.htm