Lust and the Pure in Heart, Matt 5:8 and Matt. 5:27-30

Lust and the Pure in Heart

Matt 5:8   “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

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Matt. 5:27-30

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’  28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.  30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

I want to get one thing clear, right from the start.  When Jesus said “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God”  he was NOT speaking exclusively about purity in relation to sexuality.  That is a mistake.  Purity of heart is far broader than that!   In fact sexuality is not even the primary area in which purity of heart is required of us.  It is important, and it is addressed by Jesus, but to limit purity of heart to sexuality is a huge mistake that we will not make.

Very likely Jesus took the phrase about purity of heart and the idea of seeing God from Psalm 24:

3 Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD?

And who shall stand in his holy place?

4 Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,

who do not lift up their souls to what is false,

and do not swear deceitfully.

Here, lifting up your soul in worship to what is false and swearing falsely are  both ways of speaking about idol worship.  A pure heart is one that is exclusively devoted to the one true and living God, the God of Israel.

Nevertheless, we are in a series on the Beatitudes of Jesus, his central, fundamental teaching which he gave in his famous Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5.  In this series we have been pairing one of Jesus’ Beatitudes with one of the 7 primary obstacles to living as Jesus taught which, through the centuries, the church has identified as the “Seven Deadly Sins:” Pride, Envy, Sloth, Greed, Lust, Wrath, and Gluttony.  And so, if we had to choose which of the deadly sins is an obstacle to having a pure heart, certainly lust would apply.

And even though purity of heart does not exclusively apply to sexuality, certainly it is included, and in fact Jesus does go on to address lust in his Sermon on the Mount as we have just read, also from Matthew 5.

Beginning at the Beginning

We need to begin at the beginning.  “Good, good, very good” is what Genesis tells us was God’s evaluation of the physical world he created.  He made humans, male and female, both, it says, “in his image” (or in Greek, in his “ikon”) and said they were “very good.”  Sexuality was God’s idea.  In the Genesis account, God places the first man and woman in a perfect garden and says to them, in their state of perfection before they bit the apple, “be fruitful and multiply.”  (Gen. 1)  Human sexuality is God’s idea, it is good, and blessed.

The original sin was not sex.  According to Genesis, the original sin was “wanting to be like God.”  The first result of sin was shame.  Shame was not the original state we were meant to live in – it is a fallen condition from which we need deliverance.  Nevertheless, sexuality itself is one of God’s good gifts.

In my Sunday School class we are studying the Song of Songs, or the Song of Solomon, which is a celebration of the goodness of human desire, attraction, and love.  The Song acknowledges how powerful a force it is, as the lover exclaims:

Set me as a seal upon your heart,

as a seal upon your arm;

for love is strong as death,

passion fierce as the grave.

Its flashes are flashes of fire,

a raging flame. (Song 8:6)

How true – a raging fire; wonderful in a fireplace or an oven, but horrible when the house catches fire and is destroyed.  Love, desire, attraction, human sexuality is very much like a fire, both good and dangerous.

The Heart is the Issue

The connection between purity of heart and lust was made by Jesus himself.  He located the origin of the single most powerful marriage-breaking action, adultery, in the heart.   Let us be clear, Jesus is not condemning sexual attraction, which is built into our genes.  Literally translated his words are:

Whoever keeps looking, (or) whoever is staring at a woman in order to lust after her, has already broken his marriage in his heart.”  (see F. D. Bruner, The Christbook, p. 183)

If love is a fire, then indulging in lustful fantasy is throwing kindling on the fire.  The opposite is required of disciples of Jesus.  In fact there is no such thing as passivity as an option.  Love is too strong a fire, as the Song of Songs says; “passion is as fierce as the grave.”  And so concerted resistance is required.   Even though we all know that gouging out an eye and cutting off a hand is hyperbole, exaggeration for effect, we should take it’s intended shock-value to heart.

In order to resist the raging fire of passion, bold resistance action is necessary.  We do not fan the flame; we avert our eyes.  There are places we will not go, media we will not watch, internet sites that we reject.  We take Jesus’ warning with all the strength his dramatic words intend.  This is serious business.

In this respect, we are called to be dramatically counter-cultural.  But so were the early Christians.  Roman mores were as loose as Western values.  Sex was available everywhere then as it is in our culture.  Nevertheless, we are called to a higher standard.  We are called to have pure hearts.

The Blessing

Jesus pronounced a blessing on the pure in heart; he said “for they will see God.” What could he have meant?  One of the fundamental facts every good Jewish person knows is that no one can see God and live.   Israel’s God is invisible.  He is not allowed to be represented visually in any form, according to the second commandment.  All images of God are forbidden.

Except one.  There is one image of God that is allowed.  Listen to this text, which may need to be heard again, for the first time:

26 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

27 So God created humankind in his image,

in the image of God he created them;

male and female he created them. (Gen. 1)

The closest we will ever come to seeing God is when we look at people that he made in his image.

What does it mean that humans, male and female, are made in the image of God.  Of course it does not mean that we look like God physically, that God has arms and  legs; but then what does this image consist of?

Dominion over Creation

The Genesis text does not leave us guessing; it says precisely what this means.  God, as Creator, has dominion over all that he has made.  He has control.  He is able to use his Creation as he wishes.

He has granted dominion, like his dominion, to his human creations.  He has allowed men and women to use his creation for our benefit.  He has given us “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

We humans, have the God-like capacity of dominion over creation.  We are able to use God’s physical world for our benefit.  Does this give us license to abuse God’s creation?  Are we allowed to harm this good world God made?  Of course not; how absurd an idea that would be.  As if having created this good world God lost interest in its welfare.   No, we are responsible for how we use his world, but we are allowed to use it.

Limits to Dominion

But where does our dominion stop?  What part of God’s world are we not given dominion over?  What is left off of the list of the biosphere that we are given god-like dominion over?  Each other.  We were never granted dominion over other people.

In fact it is only after Adam and Eve sinned that we hear about humans dominating other humans.  After they sinned God lists the negative consequences of their choice of disobedience. Adam is told of the difficulty he will have producing food from the ground; it will cost him the sweat of his brow. Eve is told that now she will have pain in childbirth.  If that were not bad enough, she is told:

“your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” (Gen. 3:16).

Now that the world has become corrupted by evil, now that innocence has been lost, one gender, made in God’s image, exercises dominion over another gender, equally made in God’s image.  Now in this corrupted state, one treats another as something useful; one treats another as a means, rather than as an end.

What the Pure in Heart See

The pure in heart see what is true, as God sees.  The pure in heart do not look at other humans as means to their ends, to use for their own purposes.  The pure in heart look at other people, regardless of gender, or race, or any condition, and see the icon of God, the most God-like creature God made.

And so the pure in heart cannot look at each other as objects, useful for our own gratification.  This is why purity of heart includes sexual purity as well.  The pure in heart do not look at others as kindling wood for their own raging fire.

And this is why purity of heart is not limited to sexual purity.  The pure in heart do not look at humans as means to ends in any way, economic or political or in any way.  Rather the pure in heart see the icon of God in each other.

We are compelled to treat each and every human on this fragile planet with dignity and respect.  We care about how each one is treated.  We are saddened to hear that some of these icons of God are hungry.  We are alarmed when we see poverty and suffering.  We are horrified when some are dominated and abused by others.  We decry violence and discrimination as if there were levels of the image of God and some the right to dominate others.

But we are disciples of Jesus.  We affirm the counter-cultural belief that the pure in heart are blessed, because they have their eyes open, they see the world as God sees.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God

Sermon for Jan. 23, 2011, Matthew 5:7 Greed and the Merciful

Matt. 5:3-10

Greed and the Merciful

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Matt. 5:7   “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Someone once said, “The main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing.”  That about sums it up.  For us, as Christians, the “main thing” is Jesus.  We are followers of Jesus.   Why is it so hard to keep this the main thing?

Because of an intractable conundrum; some would call it a riddle.  It is possible to “worship” Jesus without “following” Jesus; that’s the conundrum.  It is possible – in fact common, to find Christians who will come to church, sing songs of praise, say the creed, pray, and yet live lives that show little of the impact of Jesus’ teachings.

I’m not just talking about the famous religious leaders who are caught doing terrible things – though they are included – I’m talking about ordinary people like us.  And the reason is simple once you think about it.  It is a whole lot easier to worship than it is to forgive people who hurt you.

It is easier to sing a hymn than to  let someone else’s opinion win the argument; it is easier to say a creed than it is to turn the other cheek.  It is simply a whole lot easier to perform acts of worship than it is to put into practice the teachings of Jesus.  In fact it seems that there is little correlation between how important many folks feel worship is and how mature they are as followers of Jesus.

Jesus himself anticipated this conundrum.  He says, later in the Sermon on the Mount:

Matt. 7:21-23 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ 23 Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’

So, yes, while it is possible, even common for Christians to find worship a lot easier than following Jesus, it is clear how Jesus feels about it.  For Jesus, “the main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing.”

The Beatitudes and the 7 Deadly Sins

We are in a series on the Beatitudes of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount: Jesus’ central teaching.  This is the essence of what he expects of us; the “main thing”.

But we are human; we do not find it easy to live as Jesus requires.  So we are also, along with the Beatitudes, looking at the list of seven fundamental obstacles we face; what the church has identified as the “Seven Deadly Sins:” pride, envy, sloth, greed, lust, wrath and gluttony. This pairing of a Beatitude with a Deadly Sin was suggested to me by Jeff Cook’s book.

Greed and the Merciful

Today we are looking at the Deadly Sin of Greed, paired with the Beatitude “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”  – Matt. 5:7

Did you notice the implied threat in this beatitude?  What if we do not show mercy; will we then not receive any?  It’s frightening to consider.  It reminds us of the implied threat we repeat each time we say the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”  What if we don’t forgive?

The whole basis of our Christian lives is that God has chosen to be merciful to us.  Is it possible to worship God sincerely, to praise him for his lavish mercy, and at the same time withhold our mercy from others?

Jesus says: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

It turns out that it is of utmost importance to keep the main thing, the main thing.

I have a question: did it strike you as odd that we would pair the beatitude of the blessing on the merciful with the deadly sin of greed?

The Good Samaritan

Remember Jesus’ most famous parable, the parable of the Good Samaritan.  We all know it well.  It begins with a man trying to limit the circle of people he is responsible for.  He asks: “If I am required to love my neighbor, who exactly is my neighbor?”

Jesus tells the story of a victim of random violence and of the two men who saw his need and refused him help, and of the one man who did stop and help him.

Jesus asks the question at the end: which one was a neighbor to him?  To which he replies, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”   In other words: “You go and be merciful in this way as well.”

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

How is mercy such as this the opposite of the deadly, soul-killing sin of greed?Think of the men who refused mercy to the victim in Jesus’ parable.  Why did they fail the test?  At least in part because of the sin of greed.

What is greed?  Greed is selfishly clinging to what mercy requires be given.  Let me say that again: greed is selfishly clinging to what mercy requires be given.

Greedy for Money

The priest and the Levite in the parable both know that to stop and help is going to cost money – and for the Samaritan it does.  Who will pay the fee at the inn?  Who will pay for the care?  Someone has to.  The greedy person withholds the mercy that is required because he sees the costs involved.  Yes mercy costs money.  That is one of the reasons why Jesus told us that it is impossible to serve both God and Mammon; Mammon is against mercy – no one can serve both.

But this is shallow thinking to this point.  I honestly do not think the dollar costs were upper most in the minds of the priest and the Levite, though they must have added to their resistance to showing mercy.  I believe that both of them were greedy for other things as well.

Greedy for Security

They  were both probably greedy for their safety – if a man has been a victim of robbers, then there are robbers around.  If you stop to help, you become an easy target; best keep moving lest there be two victims lying together.

Wrong!  Mercy requires that our own security cannot be our highest concern.  Mercy requires some risks as we get involved with people in need.  Mercy runs toward the burning building from which the cries are coming.  Mercy sits with people who have become desperate – with all the uncertainty that state implies.  Greed is selfishly clinging to what mercy requires be given. Mercy gives up total security; it goes to places where those greedy for security would never venture.  Places where people are suffering.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

Let’s go even deeper, because it was not just greed for money and security that made the priest and Levite fail the test.  It was greed for something else – how do you put this in words?

Greedy for Self

The priest thinks of himself as a priest.  It’s who he is.  He is a man of dignity and honor.  But more than that; he is a person who takes his role seriously.  He is responsible to handle holy things: holy books, holy sacrifices, the holy instruments of the temple.  He is required by the law and he requires himself to keep from contamination; to keep from impurity.  It would simply not be in keeping with his whole personal sense of himself to go over and touch this victim.

The man who was robbed and beaten must at least be bloody, if not already dead.   Either way, touching him would defile a priest and make it impossible for him to fulfill his function for a while.  He is greedy for this sense of his own dignity and importance; for his clean hands.  No way he is going to give all that up for the sake of some man who didn’t have the sense to travel in a protective group!

And the same with the Levite.  What if someone saw you doing humanitarian work?  It’s simply beneath you.  Greed is selfishly clinging to what mercy requires be given.  Mercy requires that we let go of our personal pretensions in the face of suffering.

If we extend mercy, won’t we be taken advantage of?  Yes; maybe; sometimes.  Being merciful means we give up the idea that the height of virtue is to never be taken advantage of, never be played for a fool, never become the victim of a scam.  We will be as wise as we can be; we are not called to be fools, but if there is a risk involved in being a person of mercy, so be it; we accept it.  We will not be greedy for what mercy requires be given up.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

The Blessed Life

This is what we believe, as followers of Jesus.  The blessed life is not the life that walks by on the other side.  The blessed life is not the life that keeps all the coins safely in the purse.  The blessed life is not the life that risks nothing.  The blessed life is not the life that keeps hands clean and reputations intact.

The blessed life is the mercy-giving life.  We all, like the priest and the Levite,  are presented with tests: will we be greedy, or will we show mercy?  As followers of Jesus who know that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing, we commit ourselves, not just to worshipping, but to the harder task of following Jesus, who taught us:

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

Sermon for Jan. 16, 2011: The Slothful and the Hungry; the Beatitudes and the Seven Deadly Sins

Proverbs 6:6-11

Matthew 5:3-10

The Slothful and the Hungry

I was in a conversation recently when the topic of trusting God versus working hard came up. I mentioned the Proverb about the hard-working ant, which my friend had not heard of. When I was growing up we used to read the Proverbs, so I was familiar with it. It thought you would like to hear it.

The first line is great: “Go to the ant, you lazybones” (Prov. 6:6)

by Ojforce

In the old King James it said, “Go to the ant, thou sluggard.”

We are in a series on the Beatitudes of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount, paired with the Seven Deadly Sins (suggested by Jeff Cook’s book). The Beatitudes of Jesus define for us “the life well-lived,” the “blessed life.” The Seven Deadly Sins are the church’s best thinking on the fundamental obstacles we face as we try to live the way our Lord Jesus taught us to live. We all confront our natural tendency to engage in pride, envy, sloth, greed, lust, wrath, and gluttony.

So far we have looked at the deadly sin of pride as the opposite of the beatitude of being poor in spirit, and the sin of envy and the beatitude of mourning for the missing pieces in a world of suffering and pain.

Today we focus on the deadly sin of sloth, paired with the beatitude:

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Matt. 5:6)

Sloth? Us?

We don’t use the word “sloth” any more – it’s archaic now. We are more likely to use words

sloth?

like “laziness or indolence” today. We normally use words like that for people who won’t get up out of bed or off the couch and go out and get a job or go out and cut the grass when it needs cutting. That kind of sloth is clearly wrong; and like the Proverb about the ant said,

10.  A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest,   11. and poverty will come upon you like a robber, (Proverbs 6)

In a different setting I might spend some time on that topic, but I don’t think that’s our problem here. Most of us are people who have worked hard all our working lives. We take care of our homes and our automobiles, and a great number of us work in the church and our community. So, we can check “sloth” off the list of sins that we deal with, right? Not so fast.

If we think about sloth, not as “not doing anything” but as “not doing the things that need to be done” we may open the door to new rooms that need some cleaning out.

Sloth as Trivial Pursuits

In our culture we have endless opportunities to spend most of our lives in trivial pursuits, to the neglect of doing things that need to be done. A life spent in trivial pursuits is a life of sloth.

Now, of course I am not against entertainment in general, or sports, or shopping or festivities – even Jesus took time out for fishing and for wedding celebrations (which were multi-day events in his time). He even supplied the wine for the party.

But I am talking about a life in which there is little or no time for making a difference in the world, or in the community, or in the life of the church because trivia is given first priority.

Just as in stewardship season I challenged us to examine our giving compared to the amount

hours

we spend on entertainment and travel, so I think we are called to examine the amount of hours we give to entertaining ourselves compared to the time we spend making a difference in the world. Sloth is letting meaningful things remain undone because our time is consumed with trivial pursuits.

I’ll never forget the rhyme I heard as a young person at a camp one summer:

“Some men die in battle, some go down in flames,

others die by inches, playing silly games.”

I do not want “silly games” to sum up my life. That is not the blessed life that Jesus taught us to live.

Sloth as Apathy

There is another kind of sloth besides trivial pursuits: it is the sloth of apathy. One of the

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worst words of the modern world (said with a dismissive sigh) is, “Whatever.” People say, “whatever” when they hear about something they don’t want to be bothered about. It literally means, “I don’t care.”

“There are people without homes.” “Whatever.”

“There are families who cannot afford both food and utilities and medicine” “Whatever.”

“There is genocide in Africa.” “Whatever.”

“There is a great injustice in our home-owners insurance system.” “Whatever.”

A person may be a workaholic but care nothing about poverty, hunger, access to health care or the horrific state of many of our prisons – and this apathy is the sin of sloth. It is wrong not to care.

Sloth as Spiritual Laziness

Besides trivial pursuits and apathy, there is one more way in which we all struggle with sloth: spiritual laziness.

Something that is often harder for us to do than cutting the grass, doing the laundry or grocery shopping is prayer. It takes discipline. It takes motivation. It takes time. It’s not obvious right away that anything comes of it. The same with reading scripture with attention to it’s message for our own lives. And because it is not easy, we make excuses for not doing it, and then we believe our own excuses.

How is this compatible with the greatest commandment:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Matt. 22:37)

The Seven Deadly Sins are real obstacles. Our natural, default way of living, unless we consciously, daily work on our spiritual lives is to be people of pride, envy, sloth, greed, lust, wrath, and gluttony. To neglect the spiritual battle is sloth. And this is why there are so many Christians who have made so little progress. Sloth.

Hunger and Thirsting to be Put Right

The alternative to the life of sloth is the beatitude:

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Matt. 5:6)

Righteousness simply means being “put right.” Blessed are those who long for things to be put right, for their hunger and thirst will be filled.

Hungry to be Personally Put Right

This hunger and thirst to be put right starts with our longing to be put right personally. No one gets through life without damage. All of us have our dark sides, our weaknesses, our wounded parts. All of us have developed bad habits, inappropriate ways of relating to others, dysfunctional responses to the pain in our lives. We all need to be put right.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst to be put right personally. Blessed are those who care that there is a gap between who they are and who they should be. Blessed are those who discipline themselves daily – with the same dedication that they make sure they get daily food and water – to be put right. Blessed are those who do not follow the path of least resistance, the slothful path, but who hunger and thirst to be transformed by God’s Holy Spirit in that incremental, daily way that the Spirit works as we daily submit ourselves to him.

Hungry for the World to be Put Right

But our Hunger and Thirst to be put right does not stop with ourselves. Blessed are those who

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hunger and thirst for the world to be put right: for wars to end, for corruption to cease, for human rights to be upheld, for justice to be done.

Blessed are those whose hunger and thirst for a world put right is so strong that it motivates them to think, pray, organize, vote, and act to make a difference. Blessed are those who volunteer in organizations working to put right things that are wrong, such as hunger, poverty, injustice and discrimination and intolerance.

Blessed are those who refuse to live the slothful life of trivial pursuits, apathy and spiritual laziness, but who hunger and thirst so much to be put right themselves, and for the world to be put right, that they respond with action and dedication.

Blessed are those with this kind of hunger and thirst, for they will be filled. They will know the deep satisfaction that comes from living a life of meaning and purpose. They will know the joy and peace that comes from a day spent giving of oneself. They will know how God’s presence is more real to those who “love the Lord with all their heart, soul and strength.”

Life and What is Missing: Envy and Those who Mourn

Life and What is Missing

The Beatitudes and the Seven Deadly Sins

part 2:  Envy and Those who Mourn

Matthew 5:2-12

Why are we here?  What is our purpose?  I remember the day that question first struck

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me.  I was young; I had no idea how to answer it.  As I grew older, in school we were introduced to the world’s great literature.  I became aware that this question has been the primary human quest ever since our ancestors learned to record their thoughts in writing.
We all want to know, what constitutes “the good life”  or, “the life well lived”?  Who gets to say?

Once we start going down that path, we quickly come up against other profound and universal human questions:  Who is God?  How do we relate to God?  What does he want from us?  How should we live?

Which leads us to ask, “Why are things the way they are?”  “Why am I the way I am?”  “Why is the human condition such an obstacle to living the well lived life?”

Our Story and the State of the World We are descendants of a long line of people who have asked these questions.  They have left for us a written record of their quest.  We open our bibles at the beginning and find a world created as a perfect, fruitful garden; a man and a woman, in harmony with their garden, with each other, and with their Maker.

But quickly storm clouds form, the sky darkens, prideful choices are made, and suddenly the story is a world-gone-wrong story.  It is a story of a broken world.  The fruitful garden is left behind, replaced by stoney, thorny land that yields fruit only after sweat and toil.   Harmony turns to enmity outside the garden.  Envy between bothers, Cain and Abel, becomes fratricide.  This is now who we are: descendants of the choosers of evil over good, inheritors of the sins of pride and envy, living in a world of violence, of shame and of regret.

An Intervention Story

There would be no point in telling the story if this were its conclusion, but it is not.  As unlikely as it should be, the story becomes an intervention story.  God’s purposes for the good world he created have been challenged by evil, but he has not abandoned his world.

God intervenes by calling one man and one woman, one family, out of all the families of the earth.  He calls Abraham and Sarah, binds himself to them and to their descendants by solemn covenant, and makes an eternal promise.  They will become bearers of a blessing whose final objective is worldwide.  As far as the scope of the evil in the world, so is the scope of the blessing they will bear.  They will become a light to the nations.

But, a promise, even a God-made promise, is different from a final solution.  The pride and envy that characterized the beginning of evil in the world does not stop because a promise has been made.  The world is still a world-gone-wrong; a world not as it was meant to be.

The Climax of Intervention

Eventually this intervention story reaches its climax.  God intervenes by entering the story as a human character – God in human flesh.

Jesus comes, not to float above the earth, but to make footprints in its dust, to be soiled by direct contact with earth.  He comes to completely identify with the pool of humanity that lives life, both hating the world’s wrongs and perpetuating them.  His total identification with this world takes him down into the waters where they gather in repentance, and to be baptized with them.

As he emerges from the waters the heavenly voice proclaims him God’s unique Son.  He is the intervention the world has waited for ever since they left the garden.  He is the one authorized by the decent of the Spirit of God to speak to our deepest questions.  He is the one who gets to say: why are we here?  What is our purpose?  What is the nature of the life-well-lived?  What has gone wrong?  How should we then live?

Life as it should be lived

He gathers together people who long to hear God speak his word into this world-gone-wrong.  They come to a mountain, Jesus stands at the top to teach the meaning of the well-lived-live in the context of a world-gone-wrong.

Blessed” he says, “are the poor in spirit” – those who feel no shame in crying out to God, because they know that no other source has any hope of helping their deepest needs,  “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Theirs is the knowledge that this world-gone-wrong is not the only reality; that God is at work, and is present, and is ready to respond to those who humbly seek him.  The kingdom of God is at hand.

Jesus continues, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Trying to help modern people like us understand the admittedly archaic sounding word “blessed” some translations use the word “happy.”  This beatitude shows most clearly why happiness cannot be the point; no one can be both happy and mourning at the same time, unless we distort the meaning we usually give to one word or the other.  This beatitude says that the spiritually mature perspective on the world is one that mourns.

Mourning a World-Gone-Wrong

And how could it be any other way?  This is not the world of the Garden anymore.  This is a world in which evil has fouled the nest.

In this world, it is right to mourn for children who grow up without love of father and mother.  We mourn for families in which violence, instead of shelter, happens behind closed doors.  We mourn for  a world in which young people are seduced into lives of addiction, become the prey of drug dealers, and then become predators themselves.

We grieve for a world in which people lose confidence in their own dignity as they search in vain for meaningful employment.  We grieve that there are sick people who are shut out of health care.  We lament a world polluted by lethal chemicals.   We grieve over bodies exploded in market places, over women kept in ignorance and submission, over people sleeping on the streets in the winter, over hunger, poverty, disease; how could a person alive in this world look around and not  mourn?

How could we not mourn for a world in which the best and brightest of us still, after all this time, cannot come up with efficient systems of help without creating bloated systems of dependency?  How can we not grieve for a world in which the “smart people in the room” have stopped trying to find solutions simply because previous attempts have failed?

The Ugly Alternative to Mourning

And yet, there are those who do not mourn.  There are those who look away; avert their gaze.  Why?  How is it possible not to be moved to mourn for the suffering of the world?

As the church has reflected long and hard about the teachings of Jesus, trying to come to terms with the human condition that makes it hard for us to be the people of blessing, seven “deadly sins” have been identified as the chief obstacles we face.   Today we are confronted by the deadly sin of envy.

What is missing?

It is unanimous: everyone looks at life and determines that something is missing.  We all have an intuitive understanding that things are not right, that something is amiss.   In a world-gone-wrong, we often conclude that what is missing is what someone else has, that we do not have.  Envy is the conclusion that what is missing for me, is that I lack what someone else has.  My life would be OK, I would be happy, if I had: his income, his career, her beauty, her self-confidence, his stature, her house, his intelligence, her family, his power, her success, his car, her lawn, his pension, her budget, their health, their relationship, their kids, their luck.

And every time we feel envy, every time we locate our feeling that something is missing in the life of another person, we reveal our own spiritual immaturity.  Envy mis-locates the missing pieces of a broken world, believing that they are external rather than internal.  What is missing was lost in the Garden; it will not be recovered across our neighbor’s fence.

Doubly Deadly Effects of Envy

The effect of the sin envy is indeed deadly; it is soul-killing.  How can I be moved by the poverty of the poor while thinking that what is missing is the perfect cruise that my friends just took, that I never had?  How can I mourn for the homeless while envying someone else’s larger more beautiful home?  How can I give any thought at all to someone else’s pain while I am focused on my own?

Envy not only robs the joy out of experiencing with gratitude and delight, the goodness of the life God has given to us,  it also strangles to death our motivation to be a part of God’s compassionate care for others.   I cannot any longer take pleasure in my home, my family, my vacation, while envying yours.   Nor am I willing to spend my resources on care for others, while at the same time, I regret that I don’t earn as much as a colleague.  Envy is a double edged sword that draws blood from two sides at once.

Blessed are those who Mourn

Blessed are those who do not mistake what is missing.

Blessed are those who know that this world is indeed broken, but who know that they will be comforted by their compassionate response to the pain.

Blessed are those who know the comfort that comes from taking our eyes off our neighbors’ blessings, and turning them instead on our neighbors in need.

It is impossible to hand out food at the Christian Service Center to those who don’t have any, and then to feel badly that someone else’s stake is thicker.  It is impossible to tutor kids from broken families and then not to appreciate our own.  It is impossible to send money to people who lost everything in Haiti and then to feel badly about our suburban homes, or lawns, or vacations, or entertainment budget.

But to participate along side our Lord, who got down into the dirty human waters and was baptized into this world-gone-wrong, is to experience the comfort of the Kingdom that he came to bring.

Pathetic and miserable are the ones who envy, for they harm themselves and bless no one.  The world does not miss them when they leave it.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will get involved in the pain, and when they do, they will receive comfort themselves, and live lives of purpose and significance on behalf of others.

Life as Intended: Pride and the Poor in Spirit, Jan 02, 2011

Life as Intended: Pride and the Poor in Spirit

Matthew 5:1-12

At the start of every new year we give thought to the kind of people we are and the changes

Who Says?

we would like to make in order to be the people we want to be.  All of us sense a gap between our profession and our practice.   We know we are not doing exactly what the doctor tells us we should do, nor are we the kind of spouse or family member we should be, we are not the kind of Christians we want to be – at least on our better days.  So, at new years we make resolutions.

We all know ourselves well enough to know that none of these ever last the entire year, but, we figure, even if they last six months we will benefit from that amount of personal improvement.

Who defines the good life?

What kind of people should we be?  What is it that constitutes the well-lived life?  Who has the right to say what kind of life is worth living?  We are here today in church at the start of the year 2011 because we assert that God, our Maker knows best, and that Jesus, who came to live life down on our human level, has the authority from God to define the well-lived life.

For the next several weeks we are going to study Jesus’ central teaching.  One day, shortly after Jesus’ ministry began and crowds were beginning to come to hear him teach, Jesus went up on a hilltop.  From there he delivered his famous “Sermon on the Mount.”  It begins with nine statements about the blessed life called the Beatitudes.  This is Jesus’ core, central teaching, essential to living life well.

The church has reflected on the teachings of Jesus over the years.  As spiritual leaders tried to understand his teachings and help their communities to put them into practice, they identified seven fundamental, soul-killing obstacles that Christians must avoid in order to follow Jesus.  These have been called the Seven Deadly Sins.  They are: pride, envy, sloth, greed, lust, wrath,  and gluttony.

Not long ago Jeff Cook wrote a book in which he paired the Beatitudes of Jesus and the Seven Deadly Sins.  It is quite interesting and I hope, helpful to us, as we begin 2011, to use this pairing of classical theological reflection and the core teachings of Jesus to help us as we try to understand and to practice the well-lived life as God defines it.

Our commitment is to let our Lord Jesus define for us what the “good life” is; what  constitutes the “well-lived life.”  When there is a conflict between our culture’s definition of the good life and Jesus,’ we will notice it.  We will re-affirm our commitment to allowing God and only God to set our agenda regardless of what Wall Street says, or what the Politicians say, or what the talking heads on TV and radio try to convince us is true.  We are Christians: we make no apologies for following Jesus.

We begin with the first deadly sin, the sin of pride, the first Beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in Spirit.”

Pride

Pride begins the list of the seven deadly sins.  Cook explains that “Pride is the natural love for myself magnified and perverted into disdain for others.”  It is not only thinking too much of ourselves, pride is also thinking of ourselves too much.  Pride is making myself the center of the universe.

Augustine called pride the foundation of sin, for, “Pride made the soul desert God, to whom it should cling as the source of life, and to imagine itself instead as the source of its own life.”  It was pride that motivated Adam and Eve to violate God’s commands. Being finite was not good enough for them; they wanted to “be like God, knowing good and evil.”  Pride is the essential soul-killing sin.

C. S. Lewis helps us understand Pride.  In his famous book Mere Christianity he says:
“There is one vice of which no man in the world is free; which every one in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else; and of which hardly any people… ever imagine that they are guilty themselves…  And the more we have it ourselves, the more we dislike it in others.” (p. 148)

Nobody wants to admit to being proud.  We will admit to being lazy, ill-tempered, even gluttonous before we will say we are prideful.  So how do we know if this is a problem for us?  Lewis says,

“…if you want to find out how proud you are the easiest way is to ask yourself, ‘How much do I dislike it when other people snub me, or refuse to take any notice of me, …or patronize me or show off?” (p. 149)

I hate that!

Ouch!  He got me there.  Cook points out that “Obsession with self is the defining mark of a disintegrating soul.”

Many sins we can do behind closed doors, or when we think no one is watching – if they knew, we would feel shame.  Pride is the opposite; it is public – everybody can see it.  When we show disdain for people for any reason, race, status, eduction, taste, accent, condition in life, we show disdain for their Maker, and we publicly display our own spiritual immaturity.

Self-justifications, excuses, reasons we give for our smug disapprovals, are all evidence of our failure to grow up.   As persons who are made in God’s image, our gifts differ, our advantages of birth differ, our life-experiences differ, but none of us is superior to any others.  Pride is not just inappropriate, it is an inherent error that displays profound ignorance of the truth.  Pride is soul-killing.

The Poor in Spirit

By contrast with the prideful person, the truly blessed person is, according to Jesus, “poor in spirit.”

3.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

What did Jesus mean when he said “blessed are the…”?  He did not mean that they were the happy ones – in fact it would be ridiculous to say “happy are those who mourn.”  Nor did he mean “try to be this way and you will be better off.”  These conditions, starting with being “poor in spirit” are not achievements we can attain – as though, if we worked hard, eventually we could become “poor in spirit.”  Rather these conditions are just that: conditions.  If a person is in the condition of being poor in spirit now, they are in possession of the kingdom of heaven – meaning the same as the kingdom of God.
So what does it mean to be “poor in spirit”?  Listen to how Eugene Peterson translates it the Message version:

3 “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

A person is “poor in spirit” when they know that God is the one without whom they would not make it.  He is their provider, sustainer, the one whom they call out to, the one they rely on for the strength to make the next step.

The bible does not glorify poverty: being poor is never a good thing in itself.  In fact poverty is a dangerous condition – the poor are taken advantage of, they are often oppressed, they are vulnerable, life for them is precarious.  There is no idealization of poverty in the bible.

But because poverty is so bad, the poor tend to be the very people who cry out to God.  The poor don’t  have any pretenses.  Because life is difficult, they know that they are in need of help, of God’s protection from abuse and oppression.  God’s people, the Israelites were all poor in Egypt where they were slaves.  When they cried out to God about their condition of poverty and injustice, God heard them and delivered them.   Dozens of times we read of God’s special concern for the poor:

Isaiah 25:4  “For you have been a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress, a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.”

Proverbs 19:17 “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and will be repaid in full.”

Proverbs 14:31 “Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him.”

It is not a virtue to be poor – it’s horrible.  But because it is, the poor cry out to God, and because they cry out, he listens, he cares, and he watches out for them.  Blessed are people who know that God is the reason for anything and everything positive and good in their lives; blessed are the poor in spirit.

How did the poor in spirit get that way?  Not by pretending to be poor in spirit, but by living day by day, in conscious contact with their Maker, calling on him for help, in frequent gratitude for his presence.  In other words, the poor in spirit got that way by cultivating their relationship with the Lord.

Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven

They are blessed because they are the ones who know that everything is not as it seems on the surface.  They are blessed because they recognize the unseen world all around them.  They know that the Kingdom of God has come!

3  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Clearly this is counter-cultural.  The focus of this blessed life is not about accumulating a massive pile of material objects and obtaining great power.  It is not about being the one who gets his way or the one in charge.  The blessed life is a life of humble dependence on God, day by day.

Of course, the person who is poor in spirit naturally looks at the world differently.  She looks at the poor of the world as God does, and cares for their needs.  She hates injustice and systemic oppression.  He works to eliminate poverty, disease and discrimination.  The blessed person who is poor in spirit, prays every day, “may your kingdom come” – even more today than yesterday.

The person who is poor in spirit asks, “where can I get involved?  How can I help?  Where can I contribute my gifts for the sake of the kingdom of God?”

And when all is said and done, the person who is poor in spirit does not need applause like the prideful person waits for, but rather simply feels blessed to have been a part of the work of God in the world; blessed to have been a faithful citizen of the kingdom.

3  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

In 2011 (and always) this is our mandate: this is who we want to be, unapologetically.  By God’s grace, this is who we will be!