The Other Beatitudes—A Sermon from Luke 6:20-26

Everybody knows the sermon on the mount.  Unfortunately, if I got up this morning and started reading, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who [yawn] mourn, for they will be…”, it wouldn’t be long before I’d see your eyes glaze over, and we’d have to have a coffee break for everybody to stay awake for the rest of the sermon.

Everybody knows the sermon on the mount.  It is familiar, beautiful, and powerful.  It is full of language that is burned into our conscious consciences, a part of our ethical core as disciples.  And it should be well known!  It is, after all, the living and powerful word of God! It deserves a place in our ethical core!  But unfortunately, like is often the case, familiarity breeds contempt. In our familiarity with the Sermon on the mount, we have lost something of our ability to really listen to what it really says.

But, what if the sermon on the mount had a little brother?  I have a couple of little brothers.  They’re both tough as nails.  They don’t mess around much, say what they mean and mean what they say.  To top it off, they’re stubborn as all get out.  If you can get that mental image in your head—the little brother, fists up, ready to get nasty if need be—I’d like to introduce you to the little brother of the sermon on the mount.  It’s name is “the Sermon on the Plain”, and it waits for us in the middle of Luke 6. (The sermon doesn’t even get its own chapter!  It shows up here just after Jesus has named his twelve apostles.  It almost seems to function as their introduction into what being a disciple of Jesus is really going to be about.)

The Sermon on the Plain is really a distilled version of the sermon on the mount.  They have a lot in common, but the sermon on the plain is shorter, tougher, punchier.  Maybe it’s just because it is less familiar that it feels a little more stubborn and unrelenting than its big brother does.  But instead of talking about it too much in generalities, let me show you what I mean, and let’s read a little bit of it together.  It starts out with a set of beatitudes, just like the sermon in Matthew.  They read a little bit differently, though.  We’ll start in Luke 6:20. These are the “other beatitudes’.

And He lifted his eyes to his disciples and said, “Blessed are the poor, because yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are those who are hungry now, because you will be filled.  Blessed are those who are crying now, because you will laugh. Blessed are you when men hate you and when they exclude you and insult you and throw out your name as something evil because of the son of man. Rejoice in that day and jump for joy! Because, listen—your reward in heaven will be greater, because their ancestors did the same sorts of things to the prophets.

On the other hand, [this might be a good time to pull your toes in] cursed are you who are rich, because you have received every bit of your comfort. Cursed are you who are full now, because you will go hungry. Cursed are you who laugh now, because you will mourn and cry. Cursed are you when everyone says good things about you; because that’s how their ancestors treated the false prophets.

I find these “other beatitudes” to be intense, raw, and inescapable. I look into them, and I easily see myself.  Unfortunately, I see myself on the wrong side, not among those who are blessed, but among the cursed.  Jesus paints two pictures.  One is of a group of people who are poor, hungry, saddened.  They are outsiders, and everyone talks and thinks badly of them. Jesus looks at that group and says—you are blessed! In his eyes, they’re the lucky ones!

and then there is another group.  They are rich.  They have full bellies.  They are happy and laughing, and everybody likes them because they’re easy to get along with.  Doggone it, that’s a pretty good picture of just the kind of guy I’ve wanted to become my whole life.  Isn’t that just a cup of cold water to the face?  The very kind of person I’ve spent my whole life—Jesus says they’re cursed.  He looks at them and says, “Man.  Gotta feel sorry for you guys.”

This set of beatitudes says that in Jesus’ eyes, the reality of the world is the opposite of everything I’ve ever known.  He takes all my assumptions about the world, and politely blows them to pieces.

Anybody else bothered by that?

If we’re really reading it, we’re bothered by it.  It’s so unrelenting and demanding.  It’s so physical that it won’t let me spiritualize it and shoo it away.  no “poor in spirit” here.  It’s the poor that are blessed.  No hungering for righteousness in this sermon, only the really physical feeling of hunger that comes from not having enough food to eat.

Faced with such a demanding text, I think two options present themselves.  “Option 1” is that we take these simple sayings and tease them out, dissect them down, gradually interpreting them in ways that dull their sting a little bit.  In option 1, we interpret them away, and I have to admit that this is a pretty compelling path.  I would love to do that, to employ whatever sophisticated exegesis and interpretation methods might promise to soften the blow a bit.  I wish I could take these things that Jesus says and turn them into what I think he should say.  I would love to somehow transform these beatitudes and woes into something interesting.  But they aren’t that, are they?  Not on their own.  This text isn’t interesting—its dangerous.  It is sharply critical of my vision of my very life.

Option 1 is to interpret them away.  In Option 2, we let them interpret us. What if we could let these words diagnose us?  What if I could let them shape me into the kind of person that Jesus admires? What if I could let them really challenge my idea of what the good life is really all about, and provoke me into letting Jesus teach me about his way of life, his vision of life.

This week, sometime when you’re by yourself in front of a mirror, I want to ask you to take a few moments and let these other beatitudes challenge you with a couple of questions.  Stop and look, literally, into your own eyes and ask yourself a few questions.

First, “Who am I becoming?” What kinds of things characterize who you are, both inside and out.  What dominates your life?.

Second, and more interesting, “Who gets to decide who I am becoming?” Looking at where you’re headed is a good start, but for people who claim to be disciples of Jesus, a more basic question is whether or not we are really letting him determine the vision for our lives.  The guy who said these beatitudes is really painting a radical vision, but am I willing to let that vision really affect me.  Drive me?

Finally, “What about everybody else?” It’s not just about me. These beatitudes not only change the way I see myself, but the way I look at almost everyone I see.  People aren’t good or bad, lucky or unlucky, blessed or cursed in the same ways I normally think about it.  My ideas of status and value just don’t hold up in the face of these beatitudes.  But, it’s not my ideas of value that really matter anyway.  It’s what Jesus values that really matters.  After all, he is the master.  I am the student.

I’ve got a lot to learn.

(Audio version here: The Plain Beatitudes. This is part one of this series.)

Sermon on the Plain—Cedar Lane Edition

This past Sunday’s sermon was our introductory foray into the sermon on the plain, an extremely distilled dose of Jesus’ vision of what his disciples are like. Part of the challenge of this past week’s sermon was to get in a mirror, eyeball to eyeball with ourselves, and think about three questions:
1. Who am I becoming?
2. Who decides who I become?
3. How does Jesus’ message change the way I see other people?

I shot a little video of some Cedar lane folks reading through Jesus’ sermon on the plain, as a way of helping us hear it.  I want to invite you to settle in, hear these words, and spend some time meditating on those questions. May God bless the hearing of his word.

Mentalities for a Church Engaging the Community

In part one of this series, I talked about how complicated it can be to develop a particular set of mentalities within the church.  That’s not all that helpful without some concrete examples of what we mean by mentalities.

The church here at Cedar Lane (Tullahoma, TN) is working to become more engaged with the community, so here is a working set of mentalities that I’m teasing out as part of that transition.  They are not in any particular order yet.

1. We love to serve people. It’s not a burden to us, something we do reluctantly out of guilt.  We find joy in serving other people, and the more we do it, the more we love to do it.  We anticipate having a great time while we serve.

2. Service is a sacred duty. Although we could never repay the gift of Christ’s sacrifice, we receive his actions both as gift and lesson.  The cross is both the means and the purpose of our redemption, a binding path for us to follow if we are to honor our commitment as disciples of Jesus. The Lord bids us honor him by serving our neighbor.

3. Our lives are not our own. Everything that we are, do, and possess is conditioned by the Lordship of Jesus Christ over us. There is no question of convenience or desire.

4. Evangelism is the invitation to participate in the kingdom of God. This necessarily involves the invitation to serve. We don’t view ourselves as servants and others simply as recipients of our service, but everyone as having potential for service in the community.

5.  We are a “Servant” church. It is part of our corporate identity as a people.  Theologically, this is rooted in the idea that the church is the physical representation of Christ on earth today.  In as much as we recognize from scripture that Christ is “servant”, we work to fulfilling that identity in our body of believers.  It is part of who we are.

6.  Whenever we fight against darkness/brokenness, we fight with and for God. Darkness shows up in the world in thousands of different forms. Family failure, financial despair, emotional imbalance and the grief of life unfulfilled are all expressions of evil.  The mission of the church in the world is not just to get people to accept Jesus in order to gain forgiveness in preparation for their death.  Rather, the church exists to embody the God who works to restore and heal his broken creation.

7.  Everyone can serve. Everyone.  Absolutely everyone has a way of fighting darkness in the world.

8.  We want to help people help people. When we see someone taking initiative to push back against darkness somewhere, we don’t immediately suspect their motives, and we don’t jump into criticisms.  Our first reaction is to respect their initiative and passion.  What might they need in support?  Encouragement? Advice? Freedom or space?

9. We do not judge the people we serve. We recognize that before God we have our own problems, and our own sins.  We rely on the forgiveness of God, and are compelled to give what we expect to receive.  We relish opportunities to be gracious and merciful. We know we don’t occupy the high ground, we don’t have a status that allows us to stand in judgement over other people.

10. Service leads to friendship. Our normal thinking about status—that we are superior to others—is an illusion that stands as a fundamental barrier to relationships.  When we serve, he voluntarily dispel that illusion, and open up the possibilities for new relationships. We also deepen the friendships with the people we serve with, so that all the friendships of the church are built upon the identity of service and the practices of service.

11. We want to be great neighbors. Our church is planted within a particular community, and God calls us to be good neighbors to that community.  We are a part of our community, and don’t exist in isolation from the community and its problems.  Jesus teaches us how to be good neighbors, how to interact with the people with whom we share our city.

There’s my initial list.  I hope it’s useful in defining what I mean by strategic “mentalities”.  I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments below regarding what kinds of mentalities might additionally be helpful in making our transition, as well as how the ones I’ve listed strike you.  How present do you think these mentalities are? Are they sound theologically?

The next post in this series will address common destructive mentalities. I’d welcome comments ahead of that post as well!

Hospitality and Restoration: Elisha and the Shunammite Woman

There’s an incredible saga hidden in the narratives of the Hebrew Bible that deserves more attention. It begins in 2 Kings 4, and then shows up again in 2 Kings 8. Maybe the whole bit would get more air time if it had a better title, but for now lack of one it’s called the story of the Shunammite woman. What a mouthful.

The Cracker Barrel of the Ancient Near East

Shunem was a small town just off of a major international roadway, known as the Via Maris.  The Via Maris was a major trade route in the Ancient Near East, going from Egypt through Israel up to Damascas (Syria), where it then connected with other routes to Assyria or Babylon.  This was a major pipeline for trade in the ANE, and the people who lived along the route had a chance to profit by the travelers and live in a wider world due to the trade potential. To help you get your bearings, we’re talking about a place a good bit north of Samaria, just north of Jezreel (about five miles).  You might remember that in Jezreel there was a royal residence—one that was the site of some infamous moments in the sagas of Ahab and his descendants. (Naboth’s vineyard was around Jezreel.) So this town, Shunem, was in a region that we know the prophets were active, but it’s away from Elisha’s home base in Samaria.  We don’t really know where he was going while he was passing through Shunem, but it makes a lot of sense that he needed somewhere to land when he was in this region.

This saga that begins in 1 Kings 4 really revolves around this woman who notices the traveling Elisha, and shows him hospitality by giving him some food. Elisha makes a habit of stopping in whenever he travels that way, and over time she recognizes that he is a holy man.  The woman and her husband build a small room on their house for Elisha to stay in when he passes through, and he becomes a regular guest in their home.

Hospitality Repaid

Elisha wants to repay the hospitality, and so he (in an odd, indirect way, I think) asks her how he can repay the favor. Perhaps his royal connections can help them? She responds that she and her husband don’t really need anything more than what they have, they are self-sufficient. Elisha continues to ask his servant what should be done, though, and Gehazi (the servant) responds by pointing out that she didn’t have any sons, and that her husband was old.

Elisha calls her in again, and tells her that in the next year, she would have a son. She wasn’t fishing for this offer, and had really become resigned to not having a son, and responds almost angrily. “No my Lord, oh man of God.  Do not lie to your servant.”  She doesn’t want false hope or empty promises. Things were fine how they were already—no need to interfere, thank you very much. But, things turn out just the way Elisha had said, and that seems like a pretty good ending to a classic miracle story. But, the story goes on.

The child grows up, and one day goes to his dad who is working as a harvester, and while he’s there he cries out because his head hurts. His dad has him taken to his mother, and the kids sits on her lap until noon, when he dies. So, she takes his body, and she takes it up to Elisha’s guest room, and lays it on the bed, and then takes off to go see Elisha. She confronts him bitterly, “Did I ask my lord for a son? Did I not say, ‘Do not deceive me?'”

Resurrection, Elisha Style

Elisha sends his servant to go quickly intervene, by placing Elisha’s staff on the corpse. Almost as if she knows that’s not enough, the woman insists that Elisha himself go, and so he does, and finds that indeed the attempt to resurrect by proxy didn’t work.  So, Elisha himself goes into the room where the body is—his room.  Reading the account, you get the sense that this is a miracle Elisha really has to work for.  He prays, lays himself on the body in a sort of weird CPR, and then he gets up and paces around for a while. He goes up and does it again, and the boy sneezes seven times and comes back to life. Weird story, but in the end Elisha gives the boy back to his mother.

The persistence in the story, both of Elisha and the woman, gives me a real feeling of urgency. The story fills with tension, because you get the sense that Elisha has really gotten in over his head, that he’s messing with things that are almost outside of his authority, and he might not be able to pull it off. Is Elisha (and by extension, the Lord) just messing with the woman? The stakes are so high, the woman feels betrayed, and Elisha can’t give up on making things right. He seems to be insistent here on taking the role God has given him past the limits. Elisha is far from an impersonal passive prophet in this episode, he is deeply invested in this family.

Restoration

A final episode of the Shunammite saga pops up in 2 Kings 8.  The woman had gotten a tip from Elisha about a famine that would last seven years, and so she takes her whole family and they leave.  Seven years later, they come back, although her lands have been taken over—perhaps by the land-grabbing royal family! She makes her way to the king to appeal for her lands back, and when she gets there she happens to walk in while Gehazi is telling the amazing story of her son’s death and resurrection!  The king is so astonished that he immediately orders the woman’s lands restored to her, along with anything that’s been grown on the land while the family has been away. The way this saga becomes woven into the narrative of the royal family in this last episode is fascinating to me. It’s almost like the king realizes here that he had been unknowingly oppressing someone who had been remarkably blessed by the Lord, and he too realizes that he might be in over his head—the power dynamics get flipped because she has an unseen but powerful ally.

The whole beautiful story is full of hope, faith, persistence, and hospitality. It’s got crazy twists as the woman’s fortunes rise with Elisha’s coming, and blessing of a baby, then fall when the boy dies. They rise again with the boy’s resurrection, then fall when the famine comes. The famine passes away, but the family has lost everything they have, until they are finally restored in an act of surprising justice.  Altogether, the story is something of a vignette of life between the people, the prophet, and the king. I don’t know that it’s easy to boil it down into “the story means THIS:_______”, but it seems to me to be a tale of how one woman gets wrapped up in the prophet’s life with the Lord, and how that contrasts with her interactions with the king. The story makes me want to be careful about taking advantage of people. It makes me want to be careful about making promises to people, particularly on God’s behalf. It makes me want to work hard to make things right for people, and it gives me hope that hospitality can bring some great, if messy, blessings.

Practice Hospitality. It’s one of the ways God heals the world.

The Call – A Sermon from Exodus 3

(This is part two of the Exodus Sermon Series.  The Sermon audio for the series is here.)

Today, we move in our series on Exodus to a well known section, the appearance of God to Moses in a burning bush.

Exodus opens with the birth of Moses, and the stories of his early life are full of promise, perhaps even destiny.  His mother defies her oppressors in the act of saving his life.  She claims the opportunity to raise as her own, but shrewdly creates the opportunity for him to live and learn as part of the Egyptian aristocracy.  Early on he rejects the safety of his social situation to identify with his oppressed people. He interjects himself to fight injustice against them and between them, but is forced to flee when his own people reject his authority and reveal his vigilante actions.

As our story this week opens, Moses has been living in Midian as a fugitive from a crime committed forty years ago in Egypt.  He’s started a new family, gotten a new job, a new life. He still lives in a measure of fear, fear that his past will catch up with him.  Instead, in this story, Moses is forced not to confront his past, but his future.

Here, at the burning bush, God beckons Moses to join him in an outlandish mission.  God shares his own mind with Moses, the Lord reveals his plans and vision of the future, and even his very name.

It is profound that God’s identity is revealed in this story of calling. It is in the context of this story, where God calls Moses to join him in plan of redemption and deliverance, that the Lord reveals his personal name. It is when God acts that we discover what he is to be called, who he is.  This is a story about identity.

But it’s not just the Lord whose identity is revealed in this story.  This is the definitive story in the life of Moses, the moment in which his identity must forever be determined.  It is the most important question he will ever face: how will he respond to the call of God? From this moment on, his life will not be defined by the promise of his early life, his status as a fugitive or failed advocate for justice. His role as a shepherd or even his identity as son, husband, or father will ultimately take a backseat to what is decided this day, this confrontation with a God who demands his future. Whether or not he obeys God’s call will determine Moses’ identity forever.  Much depends on this encounter.

In chapter 3, God reveals to Moses what God is going to do.  The conversation between Moses and God begins with God making this announcement (Ex. 3:7-8):

I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Caananites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.

God reveals to Moses what God is going to.  There is no doubt who is taking action here.  The Exodus will be God-powered. The exodus is not to be an act of Moses’ strength or will, but God’s. God declares, “I have come down to deliver them.” Of course, it must be this way. Who else but God could stand against Pharaoh? Who else but God could command the powers that are to definitively defeat the armies of Egypt? Moses had already tried his own at bringing justice, years ago, and failed.

Perhaps it is for this very reason that it is so surprising that God immediately follows his declaration that “I have come down” with the stunning bid to Moses in verse 10, “Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” The God-powered Exodus depends on Moses.

It is a demonstration of Gods power, but God freely chooses to invite Moses to participate.  God makes Moses what he could not become on his own, a deliverer, a force of justice and redemption. The Lord chooses to act through Moses.  It’s an incredible affirmation, but not an unusual one. Lord chooses to act through Moses, just like later he will choose to act through Joshua, Gideon, David, Saul, Elijah, Peter, James, Paul, Epaphras and Timothy.  Just like he chooses to act through you and me.

“But, wait a minute,” you say. “Isn’t that stretching things a bit?  After all, this is Moses we’re talking about here. Don’t you think the call of Moses is a different deal, an exceptional occasion? Perhaps, but you have to realize:

The call of Moses is not the call of Moses.

Confused? Fair enough.  But think about it: is it just Moses that is called here to participate in God’s plans? Aaron, too, but that’s the easy one. After all, he’s the one God tells Moses to take with him when he makes his demands to Pharaoh. But is he the only one?

What about in the elders of Israel? Here at the burning bush, in 3:18, notice that Moses isn’t going straight to Pharaoh, but to these elders, and then they’re all going to go together to meet with Pharaoh.  What about Joshua, who becomes Moses’ assistant and successor? What about Hur, who along with Aaron holds up Moses’ hands while Joshua fights the Amalekites in Chapter 17? What about those are selected as judges over the people in Chapter 18? What about Bezalel or Oholiab, who end up being in charge of the craftsmanship of the tabernacle, or the Levites who are charged with taking care of it? What about the scores of men and women who contribute to building the Tabernacle, or the entire nation that gave generously for the project?

Moses is just the first domino.  He’s the one God speaks to first, but the call of Moses is not just the call of Moses.

The call of Moses is the call of all Israel.

And so it often is with us.  Somebody begins to hear and act on the word of God, begins to respond to their calling, and sometimes it turns out that others join in and discover their own calling there as well.

[The following is very congregation-specific.

As part of encouraging that process, we want to have a forum to have some of those conversations, so on

July 18 we’re going to have an event called “Outreach Sunday”. The whole idea behind it is the recognition that Your calling may not be just for you.

Here’s how it’s going to work.  After class on that Sunday, we’re going to gather for a potluck in the gym. Around the gym, we’re going to set up some booths, tables where people can share in some of the ways they’ve become involved in outreach ministries, and perhaps share some opportunities for you to come alongside and join them in that effort.  I’m very excited about the possibilities of what can happen when we dedicate this time to listening to the ways God has already started to move us into action here at Cedar Lane.

Here’s what we need to pull this thing off:

We need people willing to share their calling and their food.

We need people willing to pay attention.

Paying attention is really critical to this event, and truthfully, it’s critical to our episode with Moses as well.  ]

In the version of this story that is in most of our heads, I think this whole thing starts when God’s booming voice calls out, “Moses, Moses”.  However, notice how particular the text is in how the story actually unfolds in 3:2-4.

“And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here am I.”

Often I wonder, what would have happen if Moses had just turned the other way. I wonder if this was the first time it had been there, or if maybe the bush had been in these familiar grazing grounds for a long time, but this was the time Moses finally got up the courage to check in out.  Doesn’t it seem like the Lord waits for him to investigate t before speaking to him in a clear voice?

But what if Moses had just said, “Whoa, that’s scary!” and hurried back home, or “This bush makes me feel uncomfortable.” What if Moses said, “I’m not comfortable with the difference between this bush’s culture and mine?” Okay, that last one’s unlikely — for Moses.

But for us, I think we come up with all kinds of reasons to turn away from burning bushes, those places where if we stopped and looked for a moment, we would easily hear the voice of God calling us to serve.  The truth is, our world, our community, is full of burning bushes, waiting to be recognized. But we have to learn to pay attention to burning bushes.

This sermon started with the concept of Identity. This is a story that reveals god to be an acting God, a calling God.  It is the episode that brings Moses into the action, forever shaping his identity.  It can do the same to us, if we listen.

A Note about Sermon Manuscripts

I’m going to publish sermon manuscripts here from time to time, and I wanted to say a little bit of how the manuscript functions for me.  It is rarely a word-for-word version of what actually gets delivered from the pulpit, but its part of my preparation cycle when I’m taking the parts of thesermon and working out how they might fit together, how they might sound.  It gives me a chance to tweak the sermon structure and do some word-smithing with particular parts of the sermon.  It’s a part of crystalizing the sermon itself, part of the discipline of preparation, but I don’t usually think of the manuscript as the final version.  and it might sound like a weird nuance, but I want to be clear that between the manuscript and the actual spoken word event, the real sermon is the latter.  The manuscript is a written document reflecting the sermon, the sermon itself is a spoken word.  I think they are both useful, although not exactly the same thing.

I welcome any feedback on either versions of the sermons I intend to post here. As with any post, if there’s an element in the sermon that leads you to another though, please share in the comments.  The more voices, the better!