Saturday, February 1, 2020

Year A, Epiphany 4, Matthew 5.1-12 Grace

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
This has been an exciting week for me.
Ever since 1979 I’ve been a cabinet maker.  But throughout all of those years I’ve never had a real shop.
I’ve worked out of make shift space in basements, which is a real pain in the neck when you have to carry all the material in through the house and down the stairs.
I’ve worked in garages.  That was always a challenge for space.
That was always a challenge, though the one I have now is as good as any,  it even has radiant heating in the floor.
 But space is an issue.
Well, this last week our new shop was constructed on my son’s property in Sagle.  It’ll still be a few months until it’s finished but it’s exciting.
We had a wonderful crew, all of them part of one family, a father and his sons and daughters.
The older men had distinctive beards.  The younger men were clean shaven, and the women’s heads were always covered.
After a few comments about our faith, I asked and found out that indeed, they had Amish background.
They were actually no longer part of an Amish community, but the heritage was very evident.
I got to speaking with Vern, the father, and he shared something about his faith.
It was actually a criticism, at least an observation, about much of Christianity.
As best I recall, what he said was “What happened, from the very beginning, was that Christians became so preoccupied with Christ’s death and resurrection that they entirely missed his reason and purpose for coming, and that was his teaching about living in the Kingdom of God.”
Basically, what he was saying is that we should listen more to Jesus, and less to Paul.
I’ve been thinking about that a bit, and you know, he has a point.
One of the interesting historical facts is that Paul had a vision of Christ on the road to Damascus, but was not personally one of the disciples who were with Jesus during his life and ministry.
Paul was not present to hear Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, or all the parables, and other teachings.
Well, what about Jesus?
And what would it be like if we concerned ourselves more with Jesus’ teaching and less with Paul’s focus on the meaning of his death and resurrection?
For starters, we would have to learn about the Kingdom of God and the values of that Kingdom.
It would be about living and loving as Christ lived and loved.  Like the Amish, we would devote ourselves to peace and forgiveness, and perhaps even, learn about what it means to be “meek”.
What it means is “enduring injury with patience and without resentment” and “not violent or strong”, qualities that the Amish seek to live out in their lives.
Well, before we go any further, it would be helpful to step back and think about the values and beliefs that were present throughout the Old Testament.
Blessing and Curses.
That is the major theme that runs through the Old Testament.
Be faithful to God and you will be blessed.
Unfaithfulness will be cursed.
To be blessed meant prosperity.  Good crops, herds, and children.  Prosperity also extended to the nation.  When the nation was faithful to the covenant good things happened.  And it was also the case that “as goes the king, so goes the nation”.  If the king was righteous, so also the nation.  If the king was corrupt, so also the nation. 
Faithfulness was always rewarded by God.
But unfaithfulness resulted in curses.
Barreness was one of the most dreadful curses.
For a woman to not be able to have children was a source of great shame.
Hence the overwhelming joy experienced by Sarah, for example, when she conceived in her old age.
Today, civil religion as well as preachers such as Joel Osteen, preach about this theme of blessing and curses.
I’ll quote for you from the Wikipedia article on Osteen:
Osteen's sermons and writings are sometimes criticized for promoting prosperity theology, or the prosperity gospel, a belief that the reward of material gain is the will of God for all pious Christians. On October 14, 2007, 60 Minutes ran a twelve-minute segment on Osteen, titled "Joel Osteen Answers his Critics", during which Reformed theologian Michael Horton told CBS News correspondent Byron Pitts that Osteen's message is heresy. Horton stated that the problem with Osteen's message is that it makes religion about us instead of about God.

When asked if he is a prosperity teacher, Osteen responded that if prosperity means God wants people to be blessed and healthy and have good relationships, then he considers himself a prosperity teacher, but if it is about money, he does not. He has specifically stated that he never preaches about money because of the reputation of televangelists.
In an interview with The Christian Post on April 21, 2013, Osteen expressed his sentiments on being perceived as being part of the prosperity gospel. "I get grouped into the prosperity gospel and I never think it's fair, but it's just what it is. I think prosperity, and I've said it 1,000 times, it's being healthy, it's having great children, it's having peace of mind. Money is part of it; and yes, I believe God wants us to excel ... to be blessed so we can be a bigger blessing to others. I feel very rewarded. I wrote a book and sold millions of copies; and Victoria and I were able to help more people than we ever dreamed of. But when I hear the term prosperity gospel, I think people are sometimes saying, 'Well, he's just asking for money'."
Well, the basic theme, however you state it is that if you’re faithful you will be blessed and good things will happen to you.
Many people believe that.
And like I said, it’s a major theme in the Old Testament.
Now it’s true that actions have consequences.  For example, because of my alcoholism I now have some neuropathy in my legs.  I haven’t had a drink in over seven years, but the consequences of my drinking are long lasting.
But it’s also true that bad things happen to good people.
Well, what does Jesus teach?
3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Now some of those whom Jesus called blessed would appear to be living a good and faithful life, manifesting Godly virtues like being merciful, pure in heart, and peacemakers.
But others that Jesus says are blessed are actually suffering.
The poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and those who are reviled and persecuted. 
It simply is not true that good people will always experience good things, and bad people will always suffer.
Sometimes it is just the opposite.
The good die young and the evil become rich and powerful.
Paul writes in 2 Timothy:
The saying is sure:
If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
12 if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
13 if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself.
And again in Romans 8:
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
What does all this mean for those of us who would follow Jesus?
It means that throughout life, both in the good times and in the bad times, we will experience the grace of God and be surrounded by his love.
In fact it is often in the midst of life’s greatest tragedies that grace abounds beyond measure.
This is the way of Jesus.  That whether we live or die he is with us full of grace and truth.  And to follow Jesus is to live gracefully.
St. Francis’ prayer speaks to this.
Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
Where there is hatred,let me sow charity;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light; and 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 to ourselves that we are born to eternal life.  Amen."

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