Lectionary Sermon for Feb. 27, 2011, Matthew 6:24-34

Matthew 6:24-34

Who Cares?

somebody?

Picture reading a book.  There is a scene in which two of the central characters, a couple, are sitting in a restaurant together Over at another table a man and a woman are sitting.  Suddenly their conversation erupts.  They get loud; she stands up, picks up her water glass and tosses it at him, drenching his suit.  She storms out leaving him sitting there wet, and now, alone.  The two main characters look at each other wide-eyed.  The man asks, “What was that about?” To which the woman replies, “Who cares?”

What did she mean?  Since we were reading, we didn’t hear the tone in her voice.  She could have meant, “I don’t care; none of my business.”  Or she could have been thinking about what just happened, and think – that happens when someone in a relationship was not caring.  The question is, “Who cares?”  Does the man care about the woman?  Does the woman care more than the man?  Does the caring extend to the point of faithfulness or has their been betrayal?  Has one cared so little that now, the relationship is broken?

I want us to consider the question “Who cares?” in both senses today as we look at this important text from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. The question, “Who Cares?” has two fronts.  First it is a question about our place in the world: Who Cares about our lives?  Are we on our own? Or is Someone there for us?  Second, if there is Someone who cares for us, who cares?  Do we care?  If Someone cares, how should we then live?

First Matters: Jesus

Before we dive into this passage together we need to be clear about one issue; let’s call it the elephant in the room.  Does Jesus make any sense in the real world, or was he a mystic whose words, as nice as they sound, simply don’t work?  Are Jesus’ teachings simply nobel ideas that look beautiful represented in stained glass, or do they work out on the street, where fuel prices are rising, the whole Middle East is in revolution, and where our deeply divided nation faces an uncertain future?   What does it practically mean to follow Jesus?

As I have said before, it is a great conundrum of Christianity in our day: that it is more common to find people who worship Jesus than those who follow Jesus.  But Jesus did not tell people to worship him, he told them to follow him.  Of course after the resurrection, when they finally saw him for who he was, they worshipped him (remember formerly doubting Thomas, seeing his scares, confessing “My Lord and my God!”).  But worship without following was not an option Jesus ever intended to leave open.  We are here to learn how to follow Jesus.

What did Jesus mean then when he said,

25“I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?

Pious Nonsense?

...

 

Was it just pious nonsense?  Clearly not.  Here is why.  Though Jesus called his inner circle of disciples to leave their fishing business behind and follow him full-time, they still had to eat and sleep.  Somebody had to have a job, and a house, and in fact there were those who did.  Jesus and the twelve had people who provided support for them.      He and the disciples ate food they provided and stayed in their homes as he traveled in ministry.

His own lifestyle, then, was not a demand that everyone abandon property and employment and move out to the desert as monks in a commune.   Other groups did that in his day – he did not.

So when Jesus taught those people who came to the mountain that day, he was being realistic.  In fact, most of the people he was teaching that day were at the margins.  They were people whose lives were filled with sun-up to sun-down back-breaking toil, just to put “daily bread” on the table for their families.

It was to people with calloused hands and sunburned necks that Jesus said,

26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?

It is the opposite of irrelevant pious nonsense.  It is the most crucial, fundamental thought you will ever have.  What is your life all about?  Why are you here?  Is it simply to keep fed and clothed until you reproduce and then to make sure the next generation is fed and clothed so that you can have grandchildren to feed and clothe?  Is there a point to all of this?

Jesus asks a question that is as serious as it gets:

“Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”

This really comes down to the question, “Who cares?”  “Is there Someone up there who cares about me, who is looking after me, who has made me for a purpose greater than daily bread?

Does Someone Care?

Jesus’ very practical answer to the hard-working people of Palestine who had to labor for

Who cares?

their food and clothing was,

 

32 “… your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.”

Who cares?  Your Father in Heaven cares!  And, because there is Someone who cares, your life is about so much more than food and clothing, there is no comparison.  Of course you need food and clothing, and fuel and a home, as well as health care, insurance, utilities and all kinds of things.  He knows all that.  Rest easy!  He cares.  These concerns are legitimate.  But they are not ultimate.

Do We Care?

So now we have answered the first form of the “Who cares?” question: our Heavenly Father cares.  Now to the second form of the question: Do we care that He cares?   If we have a Heavenly Father who cares, how should we then live?

Jesus had two kinds of followers: his inner circle of disciples that left their jobs to work full time in ministry with him, and the thousands of others who followed him by embracing his vision of the Heavenly Father who cares, and the present reality of the Kingdom of God.  To these many, who did not leave their jobs, he required a kind of following that was intentional and active.  In fact there is no such thing as a passive follower of Jesus.  To them – to us – he gave this imperative:

33But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Strive for the Kingdom

This is an excellent translation: “strive for the kingdom of God!”  The old translations and the song said, “seek first the kingdom of God” – which is good, but “strive for” is closer to what Jesus said.

To “strive for” the kingdom means to make it our top priority, or as one scholar put it, to make the kingdom of God “the center of one’s  existence and thus experience the rule of God fully in one’s heart” (Donald A. Hagner, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 33A, p. 166)

So let us be practical; how should we then live?  How do we show that we care that  there is a Heavenly Father who cares?

There are two parts of this, like two sides of a coin that cannot exist separately if we are to follow Jesus.

Striving for the kingdom Personally, Daily

Striving for the kingdom of God and his righteousness has to be something we do individually and internally.   This is about personal spirituality.  There is no such thing as spiritual maturity that happens automatically, even over a long time.

You can live in Mexico for years and never learn Spanish if you don’t work on it.  In the same way, a person can be a passive church member his whole life long, without maturing spiritually.  Striving for the kingdom of God means daily time, a daily discipline of prayer, scripture, and reflection.

There is no other way to acquire the non-anxious life that Jesus spoke of.  There is no other way to actually come to believe at the center of our hearts that life is more than food and the body more than clothing.  The fruit of these conclusions does not drop down from us from heaven; it grows in soil that is watered and tended daily.

Striving for the kingdom Publicly

"for the least of these...for me"

 

Striving for the kingdom of God and his righteousness has another side that must not be neglected, the public side.

We are called not to be anxious about our food and clothing, but this does not mean we neglect the people around us who are in need.  If Jesus taught us anything it is clear that in his kingdom, the poor, the weak, the outcast, the sick are provided for.   Striving for the righteousness of the kingdom is all about striving for our neighbor’s well-being.

“As much as you did… you did it for me”

In fact, later in Matthew’s gospel, we will hear Jesus say that every cup of water given to a thirsty person, he will count as a cup given to him, personally (Matt 25).  Every plate of food served to a hungry person he will take as food given to him.  He instructs us to see his face in the hungry, the thirsty, the naked and the imprisoned.

There is nothing passive about striving for the kingdom of God and his righteousness.  Who cares?  God cares for us, and sets us free from a life of anxiety and self-absorbed meaninglessness.  We have a Father in Heaven who is watching over us and knows we have practical needs.

Who cares?  We care, and we show it in practical concrete ways every day of our lives, privately and publicly.  We care about our own spiritual condition; we refuse to be people of slothful negligence.  We will be people of prayer and reflection; people who grow up spiritually.

And we will be people who care about people.  We will be people who see the face of Jesus in every person in need.  And we will be people who reach out in practical ways, with time, with money, with votes, and with love.

Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?

Yes it is!

 

Sermon for Feb. 20, 2011 “Blessed are the Meek”

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”  Matt. 5:5

Psalm 37

Matt. 5:38-48

I can imagine a scene like this: Jesus stands on the mountain, crowds of people listen

...

eagerly to his words – he is like Moses 2.0.  He finishes his famous Sermon on the Mount and re-joins the disciples.  Peter approaches him; Jesus can see that something is troubling him. “What is it?” he asks.

 

Peter says, “I liked  your sermon; it was powerful; some parts almost lyrical.”

Jesus wants him to get to the point so he says, “But what?”

Peter says, “Well it sounded really good; nobel; high-minded and all, but I just wonder if people will believe it?  Especially the bit about “blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” – it sounds like a pious fantasy to some people.”

Jesus can see in Peter’s eyes that he is among the “some people” having a hard time believing, so he encourages Peter to come clean, “What about you, Peter?”

“Well,” Peter confesses, “in my life, what I’ve seen is that the meek get pushed around.  They get taken advantage of.  They don’t look very blessed.”

How about Us?

I think Peter may be speaking for many of us here today.  We are Christians, so we want to hear Jesus and we want what he says to be true, but we have a sneaking suspicion that at times his head was in the clouds; that it’s not possible, in real life, to be “poor in spirit, merciful, pure in heart, a peace-maker,” and especially, “meek.”   So what do we do with this teaching?

I think the first thing we do is to hear what Jesus meant to teach, and not to hear distortions of what he taught.  As I have said before, this teaching is from the real Jesus, not from “Miss Manners.”  He is the one who was willing to confront evil face to face without backing down – even to the point of overturning the tables of the money-changers in the temple.  Whatever Jesus meant by being “meek” he did not mean – could not have meant – simply lying down and letting yourself be taken advantage of.

So what did he mean, and how can we apply what he said in the real world of our lives today?

First, to what he meant when he said

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

It starts, as almost everything Jesus said does, in the Old Testament.  In this case it starts in Psalm 37.  Five times this Psalm talks about the people who will “inherit the land” and once, specifically it calls them “the meek”.  Listen again:

37:9 those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land.

37:11 But the meek shall inherit the land,

37:22   for those blessed by the LORD shall inherit the land,

37:29  The righteous shall inherit the land, and live in it forever.

37:34 Wait for the LORD, and keep to his way, and he will exalt you to inherit the land;

The Psalm and Practical Problems

This Psalm was addressing a real, practical problem.  The answer that it gives is that God is at work in the world, and despite present appearances, in the long run, he will insure that his faithful people will know his blessing.

The problem in the Psalm is that present appearances look the opposite.  The Psalm is all about the world in which it appears as though the wicked prosper with impunity.  They become wealthy by devious, evil methods; they take advantage of people and get away with it; they even plot against the righteous.   So the psalm keeps advising, “Do not fret” rather “trust in the Lord” and “wait for the Lord”.

Why?  Because God’s people know how to take the long view.  Yes, it may appear as though now, for the moment, the wicked prosper at the expense of the righteous.  But the game isn’t over yet.  There is more to come.  And God is watching, and he cares about the outcome.  In the long run, if you want to be around to “inherit the land,” then keep your head up: God is going to honor those who live faithfully, those who wait on him, those who walk in his ways; yes, those who are “meek.”

Jesus and Practical Problems

Jesus too was addressing a real, practical problem in his day, and additionally, he was also dramatically changing the way Psalm 37 should be read.

The practical problem was this: in Jesus’ day, there was oppression.  Under the Romans, there was no freedom of association, no freedom of speech, no voting bad guys out of office, and certainly no dissent against the rampant corruption.  People were tired of it – as tired as the Tunisians, Egyptians, the people in Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, and everywhere where tyrants rule.

And so, revolution was in the air.  There were already armed groups gathering for war.  They wanted to take back the land; the land God had promised them; the land that was supposed to be their “inheritance.”

For Jesus, this was wrong on two counts: first, because he knew that armed resistance was morally unacceptable and futile. And second because he had a radically larger vision of the kingdom than the geographical land of Palestine.

Jesus’ Changes on the Psalm

Jesus made a dramatic change in the way Psalm 37 should be read.  Instead of “ the meek shall inherit the land” referring to the land of Palestine, Jesus said, “ the meek shall inherit the earth.

I don’t have time to tell you the background here (which has to do with how 1 Enoch 5:7, a Jewish apocalyptic book, had already widened the meaning of the promise to the meek to mean wining the final cosmic conflict at the end of the present age: they literally would inherit the whole earth).

The promise and the purpose of God was never simply limited to the Jewish people and Palestine.  God’s promise to Abraham was that through him, God would bless the whole world: the earth.  Jesus was asserting that God’s purposes would come true.  The meek, those who lived faithfully, trusting God and waiting on him in hope, would live blessed lives, contrary to current appearances.

An Alternative Community

Jesus was not only rejecting armed conflict with Rome, he was doing something more.  Jesus

...

was intentionally creating an alternative community of people whose common life would be an anticipation of the “new heavens and new earth.”

 

Jesus was laying down the standards and values of people who lived life together as if God was in charge of the world, not as a tyrant, but as a loving Heavenly Father.  This new Jesus-community would live the kind of quality of life together that would reflect their core commitment to each other.  In their life together they would exhibit the blessings of being “poor in spirit, merciful, pure in heart, a peace-maker,” and especially, “meek” towards one another.

Now, to us

How do we apply this to our lives?  We face the same basic problem as the psalmist and the people in Jesus’ day in this respect: it looks as though good is punished and evil is rewarded.   Nice guys finish last, as they say.  We can easily be seduced into believing that it is the aggressive, the demanding, the conniving, and even the mean-spirited who get what they want, whose needs are met.  We are tempted take this essentially god-less perspective with us into our politics, our economic habits, and even into our homes and churches.  We share the same problem.

The Solution

The solution is first to confess that this perspective is perfect for a world without a God in it – it is a perfectly appropriate a-theistic perspective, but is not an option open for believers.  We are here to assert that despite current appearances there is a God and he is in control.  We are here to assert the radical belief that living faithfully, in the end, is far more blessed than living the opposite.

We are here to affirm that Jesus was not just teaching pious impracticalities when he gave us the vision of the blessed life, but that the new community that he was bringing into being, the church, could experience common life on an entirely new, transformed level, by following his teaching.

We are here to commit ourselves to being that community.  We are here to affirm our trust in a God who is able to bless us as we live lives faithful to him.  We are here to assert that Jesus is Lord – of our politics, our economics, our ethics, and of our common life together.

We need his help.  We cannot live lives of faithful obedience on auto-pilot.  So we will pray, relying on the presence and power of his Holy Spirit to transform us into the people he made us to be.  There is no better prayer to begin with than the model that St. Francis gave us:

The prayer of St. Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy;

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”  Matt. 5:5

Sermon for Feb. 13, 2011, Gluttony and the Persecuted, Matthew 5:10; 6:19-34

Matthew 5:10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Gluttony and the Persecuted 

enough?

The Beatitudes of Jesus, which is how his famous Sermon on the Mount begins, are Jesus’ fundamental, central, bedrock teaching.  This is where spiritual growth begins for people, like us, who want to be disciples of Jesus.

But following Jesus has never been easy.  As the church as reflected on the root causes of our failures to follow Jesus, she has developed a list of seven primary obstacles to effective discipleship called the Seven Deadly Sins.

I was introduced to the idea of pairing one of the beatitudes of Jesus with one of the  Seven Deadly sins that corresponded to it by Jeff Cook’s book.  Most of the pairings looked intuitively obvious – except this one.  In fact, pairing the beatitude in Matthew 5:10, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” with the deadly sin of gluttony seemed, not just awkward, but contradictory.  But the more I reflected on the relationship between the way we think about persecution and the sin of gluttony, I saw relationships that I believe are powerful, and which we need to consider.

Both gluttony and persecution bring up desire and fear; pleasure and pain; the use of our bodies, and the way we think about the good life we all long for.

Gluttony – millions of varieties – one thing in common

First, let’s be clear that gluttony is not only about over-eating – though of course it  is included.  We sometimes use the term “glutton for punishment”  – there are a million things we could be gluttons for – work, entertainment, sleep, esteem, money, pleasure, hobbies, television, talking – all of them have one common characteristic: gluttony is failure to recognize when we have had enough.  Gluttony always wants more.

A newborn baby will cry when she feels hunger pains.  Then, when she is fed, she will drink until she has had enough, and then, she wants no more.  We were all born with this switch that is turned on when hungry, and off when we are satiated.   Even though eating is the first pleasure we ever knew, nevertheless, we had an inborn sense of how much was enough, and when he had enough, we were willing to forego any more of that pleasure for the time.

Pleasure and Brain Chemistry

Pleasure, we know know, is a function of brain chemistry.  When endorphins are released – either naturally or through drugs – we feel pleasure.   I have recently learned that companies that produce snack foods or desert foods – chips and cookies and such, have studied brain chemistry intently.  They have now learned that just the right combination of sugar, salt and fat will produce a pleasurable response in the brain – that never stops – that does not get switched off.   “No one can eat just one.”

So now that they are messing with our brain chemistry, it is even harder; but people have always had trouble saying “enough is enough; no more.”  And as I said, food is only one of the million ways in which we fall prey to the self-destructive sin of gluttony.  Most of us here are in a position to have more than enough of almost everything we need.  Most of us here have more than most humans who ever lived on this little planet have had of nearly everything.  And we want more.

Why We Want More

more

 

Why?  Why do we keep wanting more, when our whole life experience tells us that more of the same does not fix us.  More of the same doesn’t make us happy after the first few moments.  More of the same – whether its clothes, vacations, entertainments – never fills the empty places in our hearts.  The essential ache that is part of the human condition is spiritual; nothing else fits the shape of that gap; nothing else works to fill it, regardless of the quantities.

This problem is as old as humanity.  Thousands of years ago the prophet Isaiah asked his fellow countrymen the question:

2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?

Though it does not work long-term, gluttony does do one thing: it distracts us, at least momentarily, from facing the inner vacancy.  Fixating on another helping, another spree, another round, another episode, briefly takes our minds off the scary truth that none of it has ever been successful before.   And that’s what is behind our gluttonous quests for more: fear.

The Cure

And that is why the cure for the soul-disease of gluttony is not, at root, a strict budget or a healthy diet, it is trust.  Trust can push back from the table, or the register, or the screen and say, that was nice, that was enough, there will be enough tomorrow.  This is what our Lord taught us from the sermon on the mount:

6:25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?… 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Trust is knowing that we will be taken care of tomorrow by a God who knows, who sees, who cares, and who provides.  And it is deeper than that.  Trust is knowing that asking “what will we eat and what will we drink?” are really surface questions.  Deeper is the question “what will fill the gap, and stop the ache, after we have eaten and drunk our fill?”  Trust says, I will seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, because only God can fill the God-shaped vacuum of the heart.

Persecution: us?

The glutton is running from the pain of an inner ache.  The persecuted are willing to face pain without turning away.  Jesus pronounced a solemn blessing, saying,

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

In Jesus’ times, his followers would have to face the prospect of real, physical persecution – physical pain – maybe even death – as the price for following Jesus.  Christians around the world throughout history have had to endure physical persecution.  Thanks be to God, most of us will never even get close to that prospect.  Let us then apply Jesus’ words to our own circumstances.

Maybe it is because we have lived with so much prosperity for so long that we are soft (probably so) but it does not take the threat of a baton crashing down on our heads or the prospect of jail time to dissuade us from seeking the kingdom of God.  For most of us, the threat of being out of step with our culture is enough.  The thought  that we will be derided by our peers is sufficient to turn on the fear-response.

The Persecution of the Soft (us)

Once we feel that fear, our sense of moral outrage at injustice starts to soften.  We will not speak of poverty or discrimination, because in good company, bringing it up is like rain on the parade (“buzz kill” as the young people say).   For us, sometimes a dirty look across the table is enough to shut down our passion for the righteousness of the kingdom of God.   Maybe what we are truly gluttons for is peer approval.  If so, we will never have enough.

The Blessed Life

But that is not the path to the blessed life.  Blessed, Jesus said, are those who are willing to face persecution, to stand up for what is right.  Blessed, are those who do not fear the consensus view, but who take God’s view even if it costs something.

Blessed are those who stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves, even if they are persecuted for it: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who champion the causes of the powerless, even at the expense of social approval, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who are willing to speak truth to power, in government, in industry, in the justice system, and everywhere, even at the cost of ridicule or of being misunderstood, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who know that “different” does not mean “bad” and who will welcome those who are different – by race or by ethnicity or by any condition that others use to exclude them, even when they become excluded too, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who trust that our Heavenly Father has provided enough – enough for the birds of the air, the lilies of the field and for everyone, so that there is no fear in working to ensure that everyone has enough, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who know that the aching gap in the heart will never be filled by the gluttonous quest for more, but that the God of “enough” is able to make cups overflow when his kingdom is our highest hunger, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

We will be disciples of Jesus.  We will not be gluttons for bread which cannot satisfy; we will seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness!

The Fifth Commandment: a story by Joy Davidman

“Honor your father and mother” Exodus 20:12 //  Deuteronomy 5:16

A story told by Joy Davidman, Smoke on the Mountain, 60-61 which I read in  in Patrick Miller’s The Ten Commandments, 204-205

Joy Davidman & C.S. Lewis

 

Once upon a time there was a little old man.  His eyes blinked and his hands trembled; when he ate he clattered the silverware distressingly, missed his mouth with the spoon as often as not, and dribbled a bit of his food on the tablecloth.  Now he lived with his married son, having nowhere else to leave, and his son’s wife was a modern young woman who knew that in-laws should not be tolerated in a woman’s home.

“I can’t have this,” she said. “It interferes with a woman’s right to happiness.”  So she and her husband took the little old man gently but firmly y the arm and led him to the corner of the kitchen.  There they set him on a stool and gave him his food, what there was of it, in an earthenware bow.  From then on he always ate in the corner, blinking a the table with wistful eyes.

One day his hands trembled rather more than usual and the earthenware bowl fell and broke.  “If you are a pig,” said the daughter-in-law, “you must eat out of a trough.”  So they made him a little wooden trough, and he got his meals in that.

These people had a four-year-old son, of whom they were very fond.  One suppertime the young man noticed his boy playing intently with some bits of wood and asked what he was doing.

“I’m making a trough,” he said, smiling up for approval, “to feed you and Mamma out of when I get big.”

The man and his wife looked at each other for a while and didn’t say anything.  Then they cried a little.  Then they went to the corner and took the little old man by the arm and led him back to the table.  They sat him in a comfortable chair and gave him his food on a plate, and from then on nobody ever scolded when he clattered or spilled or broke things.”

Sermon for Feb. 6, 2011, Wrath and the Peacemakers,

Matt. 5:9, 21-26

Wrath and the Peacemakers 

Egyptian protester kisses policeman: peacemaking

Matt. 5:9   “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

The Downward Plunge into Violence

The bible begins in a perfect world, a garden paradise where a man and woman are in perfect harmony with each other and with God.  But they want more: they want to be god-like, so they choose evil over good, and the downward spiral begins.

First, they play the blaming and blame-shifting game: he says “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree.”  She says, “The serpent tricked me,”  Then, as the story moves on, there is a rapid sequence of scenes that depict a head-long plunge downwards.  Brothers have a conflict; one feels shamed; he gets angry.  God watches – even steps in to give a warning:

Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.  6 The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen?  7… sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”  8 Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” (Genesis 4)

Lamech’s Boast

The story descends further.  Cain’s descendants learn his ways.  We hear of Lamech; he comes home with a proud boast to his two wives:

23 Lamech said to his wives: “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. 24 If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” (Genesis 4)

Lamech was the father of the famous ark-builder, Noah.  Genesis sums up the world that Noah was born into this way:

“Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” (Gen. 6:11)

Down and down and down; anger, vengeance, murder, violence; it’s enough to make you want to destroy the whole thing and start over.

Beatitudes and Deadly Sins

Is there a word from God for a world like this?  We are in a series in which each week we are examining one of Jesus’ Beatitudes which he gave in his famous Sermon on the Mount.  These are Jesus’ fundamental, central teachings; the starting point of true spiritual growth.

We are also pairing one of Jesus Beatitudes with one of the “Seven Deadly Sins.”  This pairing was suggested to me by a book by Jeff Cook.  The Seven Deadly Sins are the church’s best thinking, over many years, of the primary obstacles we face as we try to live the way Jesus taught us to live.

Today we are looking at the deadly sin of wrath, paired with the beatitude,   “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matt. 5:9)

Wrath

We don’t use the word “wrath” much anymore.  Wrath is anger, but more so.  Anger may be what we feel when someone hurts us, either verbally or physically; our faces flush, our blood pressure rises, we feel the desire to strike back by some means.  This is our biological inheritance.  It served us well when we were running around in loin-cloths with bones in our noses and with much smaller brains in our skulls.  Now it mostly just gets us in trouble and makes matters worse.

Wrath is more than an initial anger-reaction.  Wrath nurses the anger.  Wrath blows on the coals of anger until they become red-hot.  Wrath indulges in the seductive self-deception of righteousness indignation, and self-justification.  Wrath, as Cook says well, “is not concerned with restoration, but with revenge and dominance.”

Wrath is spiritual immaturity.  Wrath on display is not just a momentary failure, it is more: wrath is the sign that there has not been spiritual growth over years.  We no longer have bones in our noses, but the question is, how far have we developed spiritually?   The assessment is still true:

“Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” (Gen. 6:11)

The Blessed Peacemakers

There is an alternative way to be.  Jesus said,

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

Let’s clear away some brush so that we can see this beatitude accurately.   The one who said this was Jesus, not Miss Manners.  Jesus was the one who was capable of saying things like:

“Woe to you blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”  (Matt. 23:24)

Jesus neither avoided conflict nor backed down in the face of opposition.  He is the one who took a whip to the animals in the temple and drove out the money changers who were desecrating it.

So, for Jesus, being a peacemaker is not the same as being a docile door-mat, a  spineless “peace at any price” person.  Jesus was passionate – about God, about justice, and about people: suffering people, poor people, and excluded people.

But he never used his passionate opposition to evil as an excuse for vengeance.  He was not seduced by “righteous indignation.”  He did not give-in to wrath.

Jesus’ Vision

Instead, he held up the vision of the world as it was made to be, the world as it should be, the world as the prophets say it will be, when, as Micah said,

“they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more;” (Micah 4:3)

Jesus’ vision of the world as it should be was multi-layered and richly complex.  It was both internal and personal – individuals made right and at peace  with God and each other, as well as public and political – nations and structures made right and at peace with God and each other.

The Personal

On a personal level Jesus got very specific about how God expects his children to live.  It seems that perhaps he had the story-line of Cain and Able in his mind when  later in the same Sermon on the Mount he said:

21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’  22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment;”  (Matt. 5:21-22)

Yes, there is some hyperbolic over-statement for effect, which Jesus used a lot – but it’s meant to wake us up.   Anger is like bacteria:  give it nutrients and it will explode in volume.  Yes, it feels good to be all “righteously indignant” – that should be the first danger sign.  Everything that feeds our pride easily seduces us into self-deception, the essence of spiritual immaturity.

The Political

There is another layer beyond the internal.  Jesus was not just a personal-trainer.  His vision of the world put right and at peace was profoundly political every bit as much as it was personal.  He specifically opposed the movement of violent revolution that was gathering steam in his day.  He saw the zealots and knew of their plans to overthrow their Roman oppressors.  He utterly rejected that violent path.  When push came to shove, in the Garden of Gethsemane, when the sword came out, he said,

52“Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matt. 26:52)

Peter did put his sword away that day, but not too many years afterwards the swords did come out, and Jesus’ prediction horrifically came true.  It is still coming true today – all around the world.

Judas Iscariot, the zealot, betrayed Jesus because he would not take up sword and embrace “the myth of redemptive violence” (as theologian Walter Wink’s famously called it).  Jesus has been betrayed constantly throughout history and down to today in the same way.

War as Horror

Are we required then to be pacifists?  I wish I could be a pacifist, but I cannot.  Evil is too powerful.  Police have to be prepared to stop bad guys, nations need armies for protection.  Genocide must be stopped.  But I also believe what I have been told.  I have never had to go to war, but every last person I have ever spoken to who has been there, including some here today, have told me the same thing: war is horrible.

Even when it is justified and necessary, it is always horrible.  What happens in every war is horrible – the intended and (hopefully) justifiable parts of war are bad enough – but every war has always had unintended victims, piles of innocent bodies.

And yet, what happens when the topic comes up?  It is not with agony and horror that many of us consider the prospect of war, it is more like with bravado and glee!   How our Heavenly Father must grieve!

Our Mandate from Jesus

Jesus pronounced a solemn blessing on peacemakers.

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

If we want to call God “Heavenly Father” and be his children, we have been given our mandate.  It does not matter that our culture loves violence; we have been called to an alternative way of living, on every level.

We have been called to be peacemakers in our homes and personal relationships.  We will not nurse grudges.  We will be the first to offer forgiveness and reconciliation because we are children of God, followers of Jesus.

We have been called to be peacemakers in our society.  We may disagree with one another over taxes, health care, the role of government, or even over human sexuality, but we will respect each other’s dignity and right to differ.  We will require our political leaders to act with civility towards one another, or loose our votes.  We will be peacemakers as our Lord requires; we are children of God!

We have been called to be peacemakers in our world.  We will demand that there is never a rush to conflict by our political leaders.  We will demand that if there is ever a need for war, that it be the utterly last resort, after every means of avoiding it has been exhausted, and we will never ever enter it with anything but agony over the failure of our efforts to keep peace.

No matter how small a minority we are, we will not betray our Lord; we affirm Jesus’ words:

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