Dangerous Blessings

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Thank you to the Greenwich United Presbyterian Church for inviting me to preach for All Saints Day Sunday.  This sermon is on Matthew 5:1-12.   

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Earlier this week my husband Juan was unpacking his box of Halloween costumes, trying to decide what he’d dress up as this past Friday night.

As he opened the box, memories spilled out around him.

One costume reminded him of his last Halloween a few years ago with a beloved co-worker who died a few months after Halloween of breast cancer, in her mid-40’s leaving behind two teenage daughters.  

Seeing that costume again triggered memories of Joyce and their friendship filled the room and just like that grief returned.

Tears welled up in his eyes.

Sadness grew around us.

 

Two weekends ago I was at a dinner party to honor a couple, longtime Presbyterians who have served the cause of peace and justice in incredible ways.

My friend Tom, the husband in the couple, his sister flew in from Alabama to be at the festivities to honor her brother and sister-in-law.

She leaned over at the end of the night to give me a hug and a kiss and I caught the scent of her perfume.

It was the same one my maternal grandmother wore every day, and she died fourteen years ago, just a few months before I got married.

Memories of my grandmother filled that room and just like that grief returned. Tears welled up in my eyes.

Sadness grew around me.

 

It only takes a moment doesn’t it?

For our memories to be reignited?

We don’t even realize it is going to happen, we are not looking for grief.

Grief is no fun. None of us want to dance with grief until it dances with us.

We do not go looking for it.

We want nothing to do with grief because it means something has happened.

Something sad.

Something emptying.

 

And yet it finds us.

Unsuspecting.

Catches us off guard.

And fills us with memories.

Some are good. Some are welcome.

The tears of grief flow, but they are mixed with tears of joy.

Some memories, though are not good. And we do not welcome their return.

The tears of grief flow, and they are bitter, painful tears.

 

Today we celebrate All Saints Sunday, a yearly occurrence in most of our congregations.

A time of remembering of grief.

Lighting of candles.

Some of the grief and saints of the past that we remember today are very present,

We lost them only a few months, weeks, maybe even a few days ago.

Other grief is longer.

But yet still fresh. Important to be marked and remembered.

And some of us come today to worship anticipating a grief.

Knowing that it lurks just around the corner.

Waiting.

And it is already beginning to hook us in.

And so this day, this Sunday is a gift.

Because it reminds us that we are never alone in our remembering.

But are gathered up as the family of God.

Surrounded by the community we keep and by the God who loves us beyond our

            wildest imaginings.

As we light candles today. This is our hope. This is our proclamation.

That we are not alone.

And that our grief is remembered.

 

Jesus said to his disciples:

Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.

 

But Jesus did not leave it there.

His message to his disciples in this passage in Matthew’s Gospel included more:

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

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

Blessed are those who are persecuted, their reward is in heaven, for they are a prophet.

 

But is this what our society tells us?

 

When we grieve,

We hear the message,

“You only have one day off of work for that funeral.”

Or for many, not even a day off,

“If you take a day off for that funeral, don’t expect a job to be here when you get back.”

“That person died a year ago, why are you still sad?”

 

For those who are meek,

We hear the message,

“Survival of the fittest.”

“Be at the top of the food chain.”

“Eat or be eaten.”

or our children who might be meek are bullied in school, made fun of on the bus. Go-getters are rewarded in our society.

 

For the merciful,

We hear the message,

“He deserved what he got, he should rot in jail.”  

“That person is not worth your time and energy, he or she is a lost cause.”

“Do not give that person money, they will waste it anyway.”

or the words of hate and fear we have heard in just the last two weeks on the news about how healthcare workers returning from saving lives in Africa are being treated. What about their acts of mercy, are those celebrated? What are the messages we hear about those who are sick and infected with Ebola. Are they messages of mercy?

 

Or for the peacemakers,

We hear the message,

“War is the answer.”

“Only strength is respected.”

“You are not patriotic.”

“Let’s go bomb and kill those people over there.”

“Sometimes all that is understood is the barrel of a gun.”

 

Or for prophets,

We hear the message,

“We do not want to hear your words, we do not want to listen.”

or for many of our modern day prophets, their “reward” is death.

 

What do these Beatitudes mean for us in today’s world?

What do they mean for you in your world, in the life of this congregation?

What does it mean for you and for me to be followers of Jesus,

            the giver of the Beatitudes,

            the radical Beatitudes?

What does it mean to follow that Jesus,

Who turned the everyday conventions then

     and the everyday conventions and convictions today upside down?

And who says that they are false and empty and a lie?

What does it mean to follow that Jesus?

The Jesus who says the way the culture we live in tells us to live

     is a lie?

Dangerous Beatitudes.

If we choose to follow them.

Dangerous Jesus.

If we choose to take him seriously.

I offer you these meditations and ideas Greenwich Presbyterian Church as you discern your future. As you are searching for your next Pastor and as you are seeking to be something new in this community. The world around us, even in this beautiful piece of the world is not well. The world around us is sick, and its celebration of vapid-ness takes away all that is life-giving, productive, generative and offering of Resurrection. Our Lord Jesus Christ talks about the way of death and sin, the way of destruction to our souls and our communities—and we live in that sort of a world today. More than ever before people are looking for something new. They are searching for a different way to engage their lives. They are hungry, many are starving for authentic community.

 It turns out that is the story of the life of Jesus. He not only spoke out against these life-crushing, soul-diminishing things—but he struggled against them with all that he was. He taught others to do the same. That is what the Beatitudes were all about. And for that he was such a threat to the power around him that he died on a cross. And here we are 2000 years later. Still trying to figure out the message, and still trying to live in the way he commanded us. Because what Jesus has offered and commanded us to do and to be are not easy things.

This community is hungry for such a prophetic message. Most people these days do not want to join a social club, or an insider’s group. But they do want to put their heart and soul alongside a movement that is about changing the ways of the world that are destructive. They are hungry for spiritual food. And they are in need of a Good Word.

I want to challenge you to be that for this community that is around you and that is a part of you. Go out and walk beside those who are grieving, meek, hungry or sick.   Do not just walk beside the ones that you know but walk beside the ones you do not know. Find the ones that no one walks beside. Or the ones who hide from everyone else. Or the ones who are discarded or thrown away. There are people like that present in this community. And they are your #1 ministry focus. Be Jesus for them. Be comfort, peace, mercy for them. Take the ministry outside and into new places.   As you seek your next Pastor, find one who is committed more to those you do not know than to those you do know. Find a Pastor who is committed to being outside this building more than inside of it, who is committed to prophetic speech more than correct speech.

It is dangerous being a follower of Jesus.

It is dangerous following the Beatitudes.

It is dangerous to be someone who grieves and remembers the saints of the past.

I invite you to embrace that danger as an example of your faith in this next chapter of life and ministry here at Greenwich Presbyterian Church. Engage in practices that are to the glory of God, follow the Beatitudes and the Saints!

Let us pray:

May God, the brightness of the universe, bless us.

May Jesus, the light of the world, disturb us.

May the Holy Spirit, energy of the cosmos, strengthen us.
May we be blessed with the power to speak and live the gospel all of our days.[1]

AMEN.

[1] Iona liturgy written by Mary McHugh & Patricia Stoat, shared by Diana Butler Bass on Facebook November 1, 2014.

Image from The God Article.

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