Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Just You And God

February 26, 2020 – Ash Wednesday

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon will be available later. Video of the service can be seen here.

Jesus tells us to beware of practicing our piety before others in order to be seen by them—that we’re supposed to go into our room and pray in secret and wipe our faces clean before we walk out of church. But, if we’re hiding our piety from other people, how in the world are we going to impress them? What good is a Lenten discipline if I don’t get to tell everyone about it? Why bother coming to church on Ash Wednesday if I don’t get to enjoy the smug satisfaction of seeing people give me funny looks when they notice the smear of “dirt” on my forehead? Right as we begin our Lenten practices, Jesus tells us that we’re supposed to carry them out in secret, where only God can see what we’re doing, in order that, by foregoing any earthly reward, we might obtain in its place a heavenly treasure. Heaven forgive me for disagreeing with Jesus, but I think someone should tell him that it’s a lot harder to impress God than other people.

God hears everyone’s prayers. God knows when we’re focused and when we’re rambling. God recognizes when we really mean it and when we’re just going through the motions. God sees when we start our morning with the Daily Office and when we prefer to piddle around on Facebook. Do we really think that our spiritual disciplines, when stacked up against those of every religious person from across the globe, are supposed to earn us a reward in heaven? When we give up chocolate or meat for Lent, do we think that makes a difference to God? When we give money to charity, do we think that the same God who sees how much money we spend on Amazon is all that impressed when we give $50 to help those in need?

Lent isn’t supposed to be a season to renew our relationship with God by impressing God or one another. It’s a season to renew that relationship by being honest with ourselves and with God. Something happens when we go into our room and shut the door and sit alone—just us and our Creator. A new possibility for spiritual growth and renewal unfolds when we push away all of the distractions and all strip off all of the pretense and sit down with the one who knows us better than we know ourselves. Lent isn’t a time to put on a good show. It’s a time for spiritual deconstruction—a chance to be stripped down to the bare bones of our faith and remember who we really are so that, come Easter, God might put us back together again.

We fast to remember that we are mortal and yet sustained by the giver of all good things. We give alms to remember that we, too, survive only on the bountiful goodness of our maker. We pray not to fill the space between us and God with our own utterances but to make space and silence for God’s Spirit to speak in us and through us and thus beckon our hearts back into the heart of God. In every way, Lent is about giving up—the surrender, the yielding, the mortification of ourselves before God so that we might reconnect with the one who loves not the person we pretend to be but the person we really are.

Lent, therefore, is a season to live with dangerous honesty. It is a time to stop pretending and seek our true selves and to let that true self sit exposed before God. For our whole lives, we have been putting on layer after layer of pretense—so much so that we have forgotten that it is possible for God to love the real self inside of us. And so, this Lent, we go on the terrifying yet liberating journey back inside ourselves, into our room, behind shut doors, in order to encounter the one who comes and meets us in that scary and vulnerable silence—the one who sees us and knows us and loves us anyway.

These forty days are a chance for you to practice the spiritual art of allowing the inside of your life to shape the outside instead of trying to do it the other way around. You can’t make God love you any more no matter how beautiful and impressive your spiritual practices might be. And you can’t make God love you any less no matter how empty and pretentious they are. God already knows who you really are, and God loves you just the same anyway. No matter what, at your very core, you are a beloved child of God—the God who hates absolutely nothing that God has made. How will your Lenten journey be a return to that fundamental truth? What shape will your Lenten disciplines take if your spiritual practices aren’t an attempt to convince anyone that you are worthy of love but a reflection of your faith in the one who already loves the real you?

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Ash Wednesday's Sermon on the Mount

Every third year, Ash Wednesday comes at the end of a lectionary stretch that focuses on the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. This is one of those years. As I noted last week, we skip ahead on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany in order to hear the story of the Transfiguration, but, before that, we have several weeks to hear from Jesus' longest recorded teaching. His sermon starts with the Beatitudes, then moves to an explanation of how the Mosaic law applies to his followers, before touching on challenging subjects like avoiding anger and lust.

During that stretch, it's easy to focus on the pieces instead of the whole. For example, how does a preacher tackle Matthew 5:21-37 without offering a pastoral explanation that Jesus' teaching on divorce and remarriage is hyperbole even if that's bad exegesis? Similarly, one is tempted to talk about being the light of the world without linking that image to the Beatitudes--the gospel text that is proclaimed the week before (except when that Sunday is the Feast of the Presentation). But we can't hear what it means to be the light of the world without hearing that God sees as blessed those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, and those who are meek. And we can't even begin to understand what Jesus is saying about divorce or lust or anger without remembering what it means to be the light of the world. So why would we think that we can understand what Jesus had in mind about praying, fasting, and giving alms in secret without linking those instructions to the rest of the Sermon on the Mount?

Every year, on Ash Wednesday, we hear Jesus preach about alms, prayer, and fasting. That's an important part of the Sermon on the Mount that we shouldn't remove from its context. By the time we get to Matthew 6, Jesus has declared God's strange understanding of blessedness. He has identified his followers as the light that illumines that understanding to the world. He then exhorts them to live lives that let that light shine by avoiding culturally permissible behaviors that undermine the sense of holy community that defines God's reign. Then, and only then, we get to Ash Wednesday, when he tells his disciples that practicing the ins and outs of their relationship with God in order to impress others misses the point of belonging to God in the first place. That's what this gospel lesson is about. It's not about Lenten discipline. It's about belonging to the reign of God.

In other words, Jesus isn't simply telling us to practice our piety in private because that's the right way to give our alms, say our prayers, and endure a fast. It's the right way to do all of those things because we belong to the reign of God, which requires lives that reflect (shine) that truth inside and out. Although Jesus identifies the hypocrites whose spiritual practices are false, this isn't a sermon against hypocrites. It's a reminder that our external practices must reflect our internal identity. As transformed followers of Jesus, how we pray must reflect who we are in the same way that how we treat each other reflects who we are.

The good news is that that's what Lent is all about--getting the outside to match the inside by stripping way the false outside in order to get back in touch with the true inside. Lent is a time to be stripped of false pretenses. We get in touch with our mortality, our sinfulness, our need for salvation. The more fully we embrace that truth, the more fully God's grace puts us back together from the inside out. Then our piety isn't a performance but a reflection of our identity--just like the rest of our lives, just like the vision Jesus offers in the Sermon on the Mount.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Came And Touched Them

Every year, on the last Sunday before Lent, we climb up the mountain with Jesus, Peter, James, and John to witness the Transfiguration--the moment when Jesus began to shine with the glory of God. This year, since we're in Year A and we spend most of our Sundays reading in Matthew's gospel account, this coming Sunday feels like a distinctive interruption of the narrative. For the last several Sundays, we've heard what Jesus proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount. This week, we fast forward to Matthew's version of the Transfiguration in Matthew 17, but on Ash Wednesday we will snap back into the Sermon on the Mount and hear what Jesus has to say about prayers, fasting, and almsgiving. Still, the swap is less significant than in other years, when we jump from another gospel account into Matthew's introduction to Lent.

Because of that continuity, I'm particularly interested this week in what makes Matthew's version of the Transfiguration distinct, and my focus this morning is on what happens when the vision is over. Matthew tells us that the disciples fell on their faces, being overcome by fear. But then Jesus came and touched them and said, "Get up and do not be afraid," and, when the disciples looked up, only Jesus was there. That part? It isn't in the other gospel accounts.

Mark's version (Mark 9) and Luke's version (Luke 9) don't mention anything about Jesus coming to the disciples, touching them, or reassuring them. Instead, the disciples just look up and see that the event is over--that Jesus was standing alone. That gives Matthew some qualities that the other versions don't have. First, it makes this a pastoral moment. Jesus goes to the disciples. He seeks them out. He touches them and tells them to be not afraid. They were overwhelmed by their encounter with the Most High, and Jesus returns to them as their rabbi, their master and friend. Second, it gives this supernatural encounter a physical anchor that provides some contrast and depth. Do you know those moments when you're transfixed by something--a thought, a sight, and unexpected encounter--and then someone touches you on the shoulder or snaps their fingers or gently shakes you back into reality? That's what this moment feels like--as if the return to reality required a touch, an anchor in the real world. Maybe that gives the encounter an other-worldly, not-to-be-found-here quality. Or maybe it helps us remember that what happened was real--physical, touchable reality. I'm not sure about that, but I walk away from Matthew's version with a deeper sense of the concreteness of this encounter--as if the recollection here has some especially clear anchors in the historical account.

This Sunday's gospel is a moment when the power of God draws close to Jesus' disciples, and it's also a moment when Jesus, the Son of God, reconnects with them using physical touch. There's a double-nearness in this passage that interests me. So far, I haven't found any connection with the Sermon on the Mount or the end of Jesus life. Maybe there isn't one. But there's a reason Matthew gave us this particular depiction of the Transfiguration and how that event ended. Since we only hear this version once every three years, whether or not there's any connection with the rest of Year A, maybe there's value in stopping to notice what's distinct about it.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

If Your Sibling Hath Aught Against You

February 16, 2020 – Epiphany 6A

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the service can be seen here.

What do you think about when you exchange the Peace? Every Sunday, after we confess our sins and hear the promise of God’s absolution, we greet one another in the ritual exchange of Peace. What in your mind is that all about? Is it a chance to greet your family and close friends? An opportunity to hug someone you haven’t seen in a while? A chance to stretch your legs before the prolonged kneeling associated with the eucharistic prayer?

I hesitate to mention anything because I don’t want us to become overly conscious of what is currently a beautiful ritual, but each of our three congregations has a very distinct way of exchanging the Peace. At 7:30am, in our Rite One service, when it’s time for the Peace, the congregation seeks each other out up and down the aisle. What could easily be accomplished in 20 or 30 seconds stretches out for a few minutes as people shake hands, hug each other, ask how things are going. It’s a smaller, more intimate, more regular service, and most people seem grateful to see familiar faces.

At the 8:45am service, the Peace lasts even longer because our choir, which is mostly children and youth, is intentional about going out into the congregation to find their families in order to exchange the peace. I think that the rest of the congregation welcomes the chance for a prolonged greeting, but it feels like the last ones to get back to their seats before the announcements begin are the members of the choir.

At 11:00am, things are much more subdued. We turn to our neighbors, to those in the pew in front and behind, and perhaps wave politely to a friend a few rows in front of us, but then we take our seats. You may have noticed that the clergy often wander down the chancel steps and out into the congregation, but woe to the wandering priest who strays too far down the aisle at the 11:00 service. That congregation finds their way back to their seats rather quickly, and my colleagues sometimes get stranded in the back of the church.

Some of us love the Peace, while others of us can’t stand it. Although I don’t know that there are any at St. Paul’s, in many congregations, there are still holdouts who prefer the approach of the 1928 prayer book, which, like the prayer books before it, didn’t include the Peace in the liturgy. Those traditionalists, instead of seeking out anyone with whom to share the Peace, usually stare straight ahead, hoping that those around them will get the message and not approach them with such a newfangled liturgical invention. Of course, the Peace is actually an ancient practice that has been included in the Eucharist from before the fourth century. In fact, even the ’28 prayer book has elements of the Peace written into the Exhortation, which the priest was presumed to read to the congregation on a regular basis:
And if ye shall perceive your offenses to be such as are not only against God, but also against your neighbours; then ye shall reconcile yourselves unto them; being ready to make restitution and satisfaction, according to the uttermost of your powers, for all injuries and wrongs done by you to any other; and being likewise ready to forgive others who have offended you, as ye would have forgiveness of your offenses at God’s hand: for otherwise the receiving of holy Communion doth nothing else but increase your condemnation.
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus says it another way: “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” The Peace is designed to be a ritualized version of seeking out your sibling in faith in order to be reconciled with them before approaching God. The Exhortation, which is also in our current prayer book, is designed to be read to the congregation a week before Communion is celebrated in order to give everyone time to go and make amends to the ones we have wronged before worship the following Sunday. The Peace is a liturgical approximation of that effort, not a substitute for it. It’s not designed to be a time when you seek out specifically the people whom you have hurt or who have hurt you, but that’s not a bad place to start. When we turn to our neighbor and offer a handshake, embrace, or kiss of peace, we aren’t merely greeting the people we love. We are declaring that together the community of the baptized are reconciled to one another so that we can now approach God’s table and share the meal that is the reminder of our reconciliation with God.

With these words, Jesus makes it plain that we must be reconciled to one another before we can seek reconciliation with God. Why? Because that is the nature of the unconditional love that draws us together and draws us into the presence of God. The beauty of unconditional love is that it has no limits, but the challenge of that same love is that it completely falls apart as soon as you start to place restrictions on it. If it isn’t the same for absolutely everyone—if there are individuals out there whom we have cut off from God’s love—then it can’t be true for us as well. We are able to draw near to God because of God’s love—because of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. It doesn’t matter who we are or where we’ve been or what we’ve done. God welcomes all of us with open, loving arms. But that can’t be true for us if we’re the reason someone else is unable to receive that love.

The instructions Jesus gives us are pretty absurd. They don’t make sense in this world. Only in the reign of God do they make any sense. If you walked all the way from Galilee down to Jerusalem to offer your gift at the temple and there remembered that you offended the person who lives down the street from you, would you really leave your gift there, walk all the way back—six days of walking each way—to be reconciled to your neighbor before returning to offer your gift? Would you? Jesus says yes. That’s how powerfully important the experience of reconciliation is. If we are not reconciled with one another, if we cannot let go of the anger and resentment of being wounded, if we cannot put down the guilt and shame of having hurt someone else, we can never know the power of God’s love.

Why do you think Jesus equates anger with murder and lust and divorce with adultery? It’s not because Jesus believes that only perfect people belong in God’s reign. It’s because Jesus knows that, if we let broken relationships persist among us, we cannot know the beauty of a whole and perfected relationship with God. What fractured relationships are keeping you from experiencing the liberating love that God already has given you in Jesus Christ? Let that love work its power within you. Ask God to help you let go. Ask God to give you the courage to seek out the one you have wronged and to grant you the strength to forgive the one who has wronged you. In other words, ask God to make the limitless power of God’s unconditional love a reality in your life so that you might find ways to recognize that love in others as well.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Not One Stroke of a Letter

Once Jesus gets on a roll, how do you know when to cut to commercial? Yesterday, as the gospel lesson, we heard the part of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus pivots from his description of God's reign in the Beatitudes ("Blessed are the...") to the part where he outlines what we're supposed to do about it ("You are the light of the world"). If God's reign is blessedness for those who mourn and we have been invited into that reign, then how we live in relationship with one another must be a direct reflection of our relationship with God. That's where we pick up this Sunday with "You have heard that it was said..." I just wish that we had the second half of yesterday's gospel lesson repeated again this week:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
That's Jesus' way (or perhaps Matthew's way) of letting us know that the instructions that follow are not Jesus' attempt to abrogate the law of Moses but to increase our understanding of its demands. To use a fancy word I read in a book, it's a prokatalepsis, which is an argument that anticipates later objections. Jesus knows that when he starts tinkering with the law, people are going to accuse him of picking and choosing what suits him. But he wants them--and us--to know that, if you read what follows and have any sense in which that is opening up loopholes or relaxing the expectations, you've misread it.

So, when we get to this Sunday, and we hear Jesus explain what he asks his followers to do, we can't reasonably interpret it as a hyperbolic expectation that, in fact, demonstrates the futility of the law, which is how many people interpret the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. If you've read this blog for long at all, you've noticed that my understanding of the gospel is principally received through the grace-over-law mentality. But we can't write off Jesus' words as an over-the-top sermon designed to lead us to Pauline depravity and a total dependence on grace. (I think that's where all of us end up, but not in a sermon on this Sunday's gospel.)

You have heard that it was said you shall not murder, but I tell you anyone who is angry with a sibling will be liable to judgment. You have heard that it was said you shall not commit adultery, but I tell you anyone who lusts has already committed adultery. You have heard that it was said that certificates of divorce are required to end a marriage, but I tell you that divorce and remarriage is the same thing as adultery. You have heard that it was said do not swear falsely, but I tell you that you should not swear at all.

If we try to interpret these words as a simple instruction for how to live, we will end up frustrated. It is that, but it's more than that. We have to remember the Beatitudes and the link between them and this Sunday's gospel reading. In God's reign, the poor in spirit, the mournful, the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are the blessed ones. If that's true--and we believe it is--then we have work to do as citizens of that reign, which is why Jesus calls us the light of the world. And, if we're the light of the world, we can't be part of God's reign if we hide that light under a bushel basket. In other words, the instructions Jesus gives us aren't prerequisites for entering the kingdom but, again, descriptions of life in that kingdom. If you are a participant in God's version of blessedness, this is how you live. Participation comes first; blessed living comes second.

Jesus tells us that our righteousness must exceed that of the religious leaders in order to enter God's reign. Our righteousness is how we import God's world view into our own. If we think it's good enough to refrain from murder and adultery and issue tidy certificates of divorce, which seems to be Jesus' interpretation of the righteousness of those religious leaders, then we're still not participating in God's reign here on earth. God's righteousness--God's way for the world--is even more than that. It's that righteousness that we pursue as participants in that reign.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Pursuing God on the Margins of Life

February 9, 2020 – Epiphany 5A

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here.

“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” The prophet Isaiah’s words reflect the familiar longing of a people whose prayers and supplications remain unanswered. In every religious tradition, including our own, there is a sense in which all of our religious practices are an attempt to get God’s attention in order that God might grant our request. We fast not only to prove to God that we are worthy but also to give God a reason to listen in the first place. We know that God has a heart for those who are hungry and thirsty and for those who are close to death, so we give up food and water and dress ourselves in sackcloth—in burial fabric—and put ashes on our heads—the very dirt of the grave—in order to win God’s attention and affection. But often even our best efforts go unheeded.

Some of the oldest parts of the Bible—the psalms and what are often called the historical books—include references to fasting. From the earliest days of the Israelite religion, individuals would fast when they or a loved one were sick or when they were being pursued by an enemy. Similarly, entire communities would fast whenever they were hit by a famine or a plague or when an invading army approached. But setting aside time on the liturgical calendar for a religious fast was a relatively late invention. Only after the city of Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians, when the temple was destroyed and the people were carted off in exile, did the entire nation begin to observe appointed fasts as commemorations of those tragedies. The people would fast on the anniversary of the city’s siege, and again on the date when the walls fell, and again when the temple was burned to the ground, and again when the final deportation occurred. Although it may seem strange to us now, God’s people had made theological sense of that great loss by attributing it to their collective faithlessness. They didn’t want to make the same mistake again, so the succession of liturgical fasts was instituted (see Blenkinsopp, Joseph. Isaiah 56-66: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Anchor Bible. Doubleday: New York, 2003).

But those fasts weren’t working. The prophet Isaiah writes at a time when God’s people were being ruled by the Persians, who had set them free from the hands of the Babylonians but who had levied such steep taxes against the people as to cripple them during reconstruction. The prophet Zechariah, a contemporary of Isaiah, describes the time when Jerusalem was being rebuilt as one of great struggle, with widespread unemployment and no defenses to keep their enemies from stealing what little they had (8:10). Similarly, the prophet Haggai notes that at the same time God’s people were subjected to an extended drought, “sow[ing] much and harvest[ing] little, eating but never having enough” (1:6, 9-11). Nehemiah writes that things got so bad that people sold themselves and their children into indentured servitude in order to buy seeds to plant (5:1-5). Yet, throughout it all, God’s people kept saying their prayers and observing the appointed fasts, expecting that God would notice, but things kept getting worse.

What were they doing wrong? Why wasn’t God hearing their prayers? With damning specificity, Isaiah explains why: “Day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinances of their God.” The prophet explains that the people were saying all the right words but had forgotten how to put those words into practice: “Look, you serve your own interests on your fast day, and oppress all your workers…Such fasting…will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?” During the appointed fasts, the landowners would come together to perform all of the expected religious rituals, but, at the same time, their indentured servants were forced to work overtime in order to make up for their masters’ absence. That kind of fasting doesn’t bring people closer to God. You can’t convince God to answer your prayers for rain and a bountiful harvest if you’re forcing your neighbors to sell their children into slavery in order to feed their families.

So why fast at all? If fasting isn’t about going through the motions of humility in order to convince God to act, why would anyone bother with it? We fast because giving up food or water and dressing up in burial cloths and covering ourselves with dust and ashes is a way to bring ourselves a little closer to our own mortality, which is the very place where we find God. We enact the ritual that approximates our own death in order to internalize the truth that God is to be found (and thus is to be pursued) on the margin of life—at that narrow boundary between sufficiency and deprivation. When we, too, live in that place where life isn’t an assumption that we take for granted but a gift that we cherish, we discover that our prayers have already found their way into the heart and mind of God.

Our God is the God of the weak, the vulnerable, and the oppressed, the sick, the starving, and the destitute. Our faith teaches us that those who live on the edge of existence are the ones who dwell closest to God’s heart. We fast, therefore, not to become the marginalized but to remember who our God is and where our God is to be found. We fast not to get God’s attention but to return to the place where God has always been.

Most religions, including many variations of our own, teach that God responds to the prayers of the pious—the truly faithful who succeed in convincing God to grant their petitions because of their performance of holiness. If that were the case, we would expect God to answer those who pray the loudest or the best or the most often. But our faith teaches us that God responds to the prayers of the needy, of those who depend most fully on God’s grace and favor. If we believe that—if we really believe that God’s heart belongs to those who live on the edge of life—then our religious practices won’t focus on convincing God to hear us but on convincing one another that those who pursue the welfare of the poor and the oppressed are the ones who pursue the very heart of God.

“Is not this the fast that I choose,” the prophet Isaiah declares on God’s behalf: “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” Our religious practices only make sense if they are fully integrated and fully reflected in our daily lives. If we believe what we claim to believe about God, then our fasting and our prayers and our worship and our formation and our stewardship and everything we do as a congregation in the name of God must be in the pursuit of God where God is to be found. That pursuit must be our daily practice. Our God abides with those who live on the very edge of life itself. Our piety, therefore, must take us there. Then, in the words of the prophet, our light shall break forth like the dawn, and the healing of the world shall spring up quickly.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Missing Beatitudes

Tonight, at our midweek service, we will read the gospel lesson we didn't hear this past Sunday: Matthew 5:1-12. Instead, we heard the story of Jesus' parents presenting him in the temple because the feast of the Presentation, which takes precedence over the usual Sunday rotation, fell on a Sunday. That's the right thing to do, of course, but it's hard to begin a lectionary series on the Sermon on the Mount without beginning with the Beatitudes.

This coming Sunday, we'll hear what comes right after the Beatitudes: "You are the salt of the earth...You are the light of the world...Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." On the following Sunday, Jesus will explain in part what that means, when he says, "If you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment...Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart...Whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery." I don't think we can hear those words of Jesus and make sense of them without first hearing the Beatitudes.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit...Blessed are those who mourn...Blessed are the meek...Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness." That is Jesus' description of God's reign. When we see what Jesus sees and what God sees, when we see God's reign manifest on the earth, we discover that those who are poor in spirit belong in God's reign, that those who mourn shall be comforted, that those who are meek are they who inherit the earth, that those who strive for righteousness as if it were a basic necessity are they who are sated. When we are citizens of that world, that's what we see, too. And, if that's what followers of Jesus see with their hearts and minds, that's what we have to make seen with our lives, too.

You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. If the world around you is going to see the reign of God, it must be reflected in how you live. That isn't by abrogating the law but by strengthening its demands--to the point that, just like God's reign, we cannot pursue it on our own.

Without the Beatitudes, the rest of the Sermon on the Mount can begin to sound like a guilt-inspired rant on the decline of moral society. (Social media rants on the Super Bowl halftime show, anyone?) With the Beatitudes, however, we can hear Jesus' sermon as a description of what life in God's reign is like. In God's reign, what it means to be blessed is completely reversed. If we believe that, we have a role to play in showing the same thing to the world because our lives, when guided by the Holy Spirit, reflect the truth of that reign.