Where is Your Treasure?

This text was preached as a sermon for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, 11 August 2019.
Audio for this sermon was recorded on 13 August, after the loss of the original recording.

Jesus said: “Fear not little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  Sell your possessions, and give to the needy.  Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.  For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

Luke 12:32-34, ESV

Today’s Gospel reading begins after Jesus has been telling his disciples not to be anxious about our lives, and what great worth the Father sees in us.  The thirty-second verse is a nice summation of this teaching – do not be afraid, because God the Father wants to give you the Kingdom.  Throughout this message, I want you to keep that truth in mind – especially if anything you hear today troubles you, remember that your Father in heaven is pleased to give you the kingdom.

Despite this wondrous pronouncement, which should be enough for all of us to say, “fair enough, Lord, your will be done!” many of us – myself near to the front of the line – find ourselves prisoners of our anxieties.  Our temptation is to think that our very special circumstances somehow warrant more latitude from God in our fears – to use an idiom of today, we expect God to give us the “space” to be afraid.

Having told us not to be afraid, Jesus continues on to tell us what to do with our newfound fearlessness – sell all that we have and give to the needy. 

Much like the command to “fear not,” this command takes us aback and tempts us to look at Jesus and say, “surely you don’t mean all our possessions?”  This command, which is repeated multiple times throughout the Gospels, has been dissected and examined by many trying to determine whether Jesus truly means this to be as extreme as it sounds, or if he’s being hyperbolic.  There are several religious orders from Church history that take vows of poverty, the Franciscans being among the most famous, which clearly shows that taking the command at extreme face value is a valid interpretation. 

At the same time, we know from Luke’s Gospel account that there were several wealthy women who traveled with Jesus and provided for him out of their means, clearly showing that the command is probably not intended in its extreme universally.

Jesus provides the guidance for how to understand the heart behind how he wants us to approach wealth in the remainder of the verses I want to focus on today.  Let’s hear them again:

“Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.  For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

On its face, this teaching is somewhat esoteric and feels a little fanciful.  It is best to understand it by thinking of the contrasting reality.  If we have to be provided with a means to store something that “does not grow old” that must imply that the current way we use will one day be inadequate, much like the treasure that it contains. 

Think of it this way: if we have an incorruptible moneybag, why would we store something that will eventually fail in it?  Would the moneybag not therefore be more valuable than the thing it keeps?  Or if we have an incorruptible treasure, why would we store it in something that will fail?  Wouldn’t the failure of the moneybag mean our loss of the treasure?  Therefore, whatever we have on earth is incomparable with what the Father gives to us, and it is foolish for us to value anything whose value will eventually fail with more esteem than that which will remain invaluable forever.

Last week, Fr. Ben taught a paradigm which I think rightly captures what it is that our Lord is looking for out of his people.  While some people are called to a “holy destitution” where they are entirely dependent on the goodness and care of the Church for their day-to-day care and feeding, most of the rest of us are called to live lives where our long-term reliance is on God’s goodness.  Our Father gives us out of his goodness the things we need to live the life he calls us to, and his store of these items is endless and will not lose value or quality over time, nor will it be stolen out of his control so that he would be unable to continue giving us out of his goodness. 

The warning that goes along with this promise is that if we do not trust in the Father’s goodness to provide for us, to answer our prayers and supplications, then whatever we do trust to deliver us will fail, and what it is that we treasure – unless it is the uncorruptible, boundless and invaluable treasure of God – will lead our hearts to perish with it.  “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

Today I ask you the question that I ask myself when I read this proverb – “Where is your treasure?”

For unless your heart is fixed on the goodness of God, then your treasure is not in heaven.

If your heart is fixed on your personal wealth and savings, then your treasure is not in heaven.

If your heart is fixed on the luxuries and pleasures of this life, then your treasure is not in heaven.

If your heart is fixed on your strength to overcome in life, then your treasure is not in heaven.

If your heart is fixed on your own personal vindication, then your treasure is not in heaven.

If your heart is fixed on preserving your life, then your treasure is not in heaven.

If your heart is fixed on writing the perfect sermon about a difficult topic, then your treasure is not in heaven.

If your heart is fixed on Auburn having a winning season, or Alabama winning yet another National Championship, then your treasure is not in heaven.

I felt I needed to include the last two to lighten things a little, but you get my point.  If we set ourselves so firmly on anything less than the goodness of God and his pleasure to give us the Kingdom, then we seek a treasure that may as well be a trash pile and we will aim far below what it is that our Father wants us to seek and to gain.

So, what does this mean?  That we don’t care about providing for ourselves or our families?  Not at all.  As Fr. Ben said last week, saving to ensure that we and our families are taken care of during lean times is much different from saving and storing up to ensure access to luxury and pleasure. 

But even this saving should be seen through the lens of God providing for us and not us relying on our own capabilities and financial prowess.

Are we to totally avoid all of the good things that life affords us?  Again, not at all.  When God rewards us with ease for a time, or bids us to eat and drink in the fullness of a feast, we do so gladly, but with the understanding that the pleasures of life are fleeting, and not the point of life.  Not every season is Lent, but neither is it always Easter in this life.  We look at the rewards given to us as glimmers and glimpses of the eternal feast, the always-Easter of Heaven.

What about our strength?  Should we be seen as weak?  Actually, yes – if the alternative is that we boast in our strength as being sufficient to succeed and overcome in this life. 

The same goes for our personal vindication against those who disagree with us – if the alternative is that we boast in our personal rightness, at the expense of facts or the experiences of other people, or contrary to the leading of the Spirit, then we ought to approach each situation as if we have at least the potential to be drastically wrong. 

The only things that we must be right about are the things that we will confess in a few moments in the Creed.  And yet, we are not called to weakness or foolishness – but to strength and wisdom that comes from Christ.  The difference is that if strength and wisdom come from the Lord, then they are not our personal strength and wisdom. 

If we rely on Christ, then Christ will be the one who overcomes on our behalf, and it will be Christ who is vindicated before the world.

It is the Father’s good pleasure to give us the Kingdom.  This is the gift that is more rich than any amount of money we could earn or save in our lifetime, with might and power that is stronger than any exertion on our part, and which Our Lord tells us we need to yearn for above all other things – even at the expense of our lives.  Previously, I have talked about Jesus’ repeated call to lay down our lives, and that this is more than mere metaphor or hyperbole – sometimes we are actually expected to bear witness in ways that means that someone will do us harm because the days are evil and the hearts of flawed human beings are twisted to work all sorts of malice. 

However, in this day and age, when American Christians are not usually faced with the imminent threat of violence, treasuring something more than our life may apply in  ways that do not lead to our literal dying for the cause of Christ. 

One of the most anti-Christian aspects that I see in our American society is the tendency for many to approach any issue from the perspective of what is best for me, what doesn’t interfere with me, how I want to keep doing the things that I like to do, regardless of what happens to people I don’t know or who don’t look or think or act like me

The messages I get from any kind of popular media are so intent on wedging me off as an individual (even while trying to lump me into a demographic) that it becomes clear to me that the altar the society at large wants me to worship at consists largely of a mirror.  Christianity is not a me-centric faith, and if I approach it as if it is, my treasure is not in heaven. 

This is part of laying down our lives, and part of counting our treasure as being in heaven – that we allow ourselves to be led by the Spirit to make sacrifices even when our upbringing, our peers, and our politics tell us that we shouldn’t. 

In so doing, we emulate our Lord who, despite the political expectations of the day, rejected earthly power and followed the path to the cross – because his heart is eternally with the Father, and his treasure is heaven.

Sometimes those sacrifices are big, and require us to take bold stands against oppression that does not affect us directly.  More often these sacrifices are small and just require us to actually listen to the concerns of others, even when hearing them is difficult, rather than warding them off with an impersonal talking point.  Sometimes they require us merely to mourn with those who mourn.

As I said when I began speaking today, the Gospel lesson we have heard is hard – this concept of seeking after a treasure in heaven when all I know is the things of earth is vexing at times.  I know the things that are presented to my physical senses, while the things my Lord asks me to value above all else seem fleeting to me.  The Church recognizes this as well, which is why the Collect for today bids that God would “make us love what [he] commands.” 

The Church recognizes that this command is so difficult that we are unlikely to uphold on our own – if it indeed is possible for us to do so on our own at all – and asks for God to step in and change us so that we are able to please him.

Reflectively praying the Collect this week is the first of two works of prayer that I invite you to join me in this week.  If you already keep to the discipline of the Daily Offices, you will find that you already do this regularly, and all I ask is that you take some extra time to reflect on the words you are praying when you get to this point in the liturgy. 

If you want to incorporate it into other forms of prayer devotions, it is found on page 618 in the BCP, under the heading of Proper 14.  When we ask for God to “make us love what [he] commands” we show that our desire is for our heart to be with God, and that our treasure is in heaven.

In getting to the second work of prayer that I want to invite you to this week, let’s consider again the words Our Savior says: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” 

The fact that Jesus ties the Father’s gift of the kingdom to the command not to fear, and comes after the Lord has spoken at length against anxieties gives me reason to believe that at least part of the gift of the kingdom is the peace of the Lord, which we will exchange in a few moments.  Therefore, I ask you to join me this week in praying for God’s peace upon our lives throughout our busy days.  This can be as simple as praying in the morning when you wake up, as soon as you meet the first challenge of the day, as the day grows long, and as you look forward to your pillow.

 I encourage you also to pray for the peace of the Lord upon those you meet, even if – especially if – you feel provoked against peace through their actions or their words. 

In today’s world of online interactions, ask yourself continually if what you are commenting, posting, tweeting, or sharing works for the cause of the Kingdom’s peace, and if the answer is ever “no” then turn to the Holy Spirit for guidance on what to do instead.  Ask God to give you words to spread his peace, or to give you patience and contentment to be still in the face of the raging world, whether in our physical reality or in our online discussion spaces. 

By asking God’s peace upon our neighbors and even our enemies we show that our heart is with those whom God has made, and that our treasure is in heaven.

To close out my time today, I invite you to turn to page 672 in the prayer book.  Prayer 87, For Participation in the Peace of God, has been on my mind throughout this sermon preparation, and I invite you to join me in praying it either aloud or silently.

“Lord make me an instrument of your peace: where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is error, truth; 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 seek not so much 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. Amen.”

Prayer 87, For Participation in the Peace of God – The Book of Common Prayer 2019, according to the use of the ACNA

Blessed: The Poor In Spirit

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:3, ESV

This is part 2 of a 10 part series on the Beatitudes.  For the first post in the series, click here.  For a list of the series posts, click the Beatitudes category tag in the post information.

Last post I talked about what it meant to be “blessed” in the terms that Matthew is recounting from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  As a quick review, to be “blessed” in contemporary usage is to have divine favor, while the Greek word makarios (which is translated as “blessed are…” in the Gospels) can also be rendered as “happy are…” or “envied are…”  For the last option, I suggested that you could re-render that as “you should yearn or desire to be like” if using the word “envy” sounds like permission to commit the sin of Envy.

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A beggar kneeling at Charles Bridge, Prague.

This post will focus on the first statement: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

This is one of six permanent or eternal qualities that Kingdom citizens are to desire, yearn for, or seek to possess, and are blessed when they realize that desire, yearning, and seeking.  A Kingdom citizen is to never stop seeking after this state, and once they possess it, they are never to give it up.  We will look more into the permanence aspect further in the post.

I asked what it means to be “blessed” last time; now I ask: what does it mean to be “poor”?  Jesus says later in Matthew that “you always have the poor with you.” (Mt. 26:11 ESV) In the Mosaic Law, God tells Israel not to show partiality on account of someone’s wealth (or lack thereof): “…You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great…” (Lev. 19:15 ESV) So from the Word of God in two witnesses (the Word made flesh and the word given as Law), we know that there will always be poor people and that we are to treat them with the same personal dignity as someone who is wealthy.  Jesus’ statements are clearly about the indigent or monetarily poor, from the context of Matthew 26:11, and it is probably safe to say that the Law is primarily referring to the monetarily poor as well.  But is that what Jesus means in Matthew 5:3?

Do the monetarily poor possess the Kingdom of God because they are without wealth?  Are they in a state of being “blessed” in this way?  If you’ve ever encountered impoverished people who talk about money making schemes or who have placed playing the lottery in such esteem that buying a ticket becomes a near discipline for their life, then it would be hard to think this way.  The indigent poor are deserving of our care, help, and respect because they are fellow Image bearers, not to mention the specific commands throughout Scripture to render these things.  They are not, however, in possession of the Kingdom of God solely based on their lack of wealth.

When Jesus says, “blessed are the poor” he goes on to add “in spirit,” making this statement clearly not about monetary wealth.  It is definitely possible for a monetarily poor person to also fit this bill, and I might say that it is more likely that such an individual is more likely to be “blessed” rather than to be “seeking to be like” or “desiring to be” or “envying after” the poor in spirit; but if so it is not because of their lack of goods – otherwise, the Gospel would have had a single command, sell everything and beg on the street!

To understand what it means to be “poor” in the context of this Beatitude, we have to understand that “in spirit” piece.  The Kingdom isn’t a race to the bottom, where the most destitute or the pinnacle of indigence is assured a seat at Jesus’ right hand.  Rather, it is the most complete and utter monarchy, where the citizens are fully aware and openly accepting that they are absolutely dependent on their Ruler for life, for success, for health, for deliverance from harm and evil.  Jesus gives another analogy later in the Sermon on the Mount, as well as in other discourses: that of children looking to their fathers – or, more properly, their Father in Heaven.  We have all been children and remember times where we were unable to complete tasks, or when we were unsuccessful at something, or when we were sick, and we had to rely on our earthly parents for succor, shelter, and encouragement.  This is the type of spiritual dependency that Jesus is extolling and pronouncing as Blessed.

Neither is the Kingdom nor the King harsh in this picture of spiritual destitution – our God does not require us to be broken so that he may throw us a crust in patronizing magnanimity.  He requires us to be broken precisely so that He may lift us up.  In this way, we are to emulate the vast majority of the indigent poor, who look for assistance from more wealthy and advantaged persons to provide for them in their weakness.  They approach others humbly and ask for what can be spared, most times expecting nothing more than pocket change if anything at all.  Just as the beggar on the street knows intimately that they do not deserve even pocket change by their own merit, we know that we do not deserve God’s mercy, but we trust in His promises to deliver us from sin and suffering.

So, to be spiritually poor is to be utterly dependent on God:  for our life and as we approach death; for our health and through the trials of illness; for our well-being and in the midst of suffering; for our successes and in the midst of our failures; to provide us peace and to see us through storms.  Because the fact of the matter is that we are this dependent – yet most of humanity regards all of these things as being totally in our control.  Most of the ills, blasphemies, heresies, schisms, and just plain brokenness that has harried the human race throughout history is due to the deception that we are the captains of our own ship.  Even being able to confess this is not the full antidote – I am intellectually aware of the reality, and yet when I pray for help it is most often as if I am asking for assistance to something I could do on my own but would be easier if God helped me, not begging for direction and intervention with something that is monumentally too big for me.

Why is it that I say that this is a permanent, or eternal quality of citizens in the Kingdom of Heaven?

For me, the largest clue for why this is true is the closing of the statement: “…for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”  Not “…theirs will be the Kingdom of Heaven.”  Those who are poor in spirit, utterly dependent on the reign of the triune God, possess the Kingdom in real time.  They do not await their citizenship – it is already granted to them.  In their possession of the Kingdom, they do not lose their quality of being poor in spirit.

I want to quickly divert here and say that if you are a baptized Christian and struggle with pride of life – as I and many others do – then I am not saying that you are not a citizen yet.  St. Paul makes quite clear that Christians are at different maturity levels in different areas.  He also makes quite clear that those who confess the Name and Lordship of Jesus are counted among these Blessed because no one can make that confession except by the Holy Spirit, and none have the Holy Spirit without membership in the Body of Christ.  Indeed, by earnest confession and prayer we make strides to put pride in ourselves to death and replace it with dependence on God in Christ.

I believe that what in this life – working in this fallen created realm – is a spiritual humility akin to monetary destitution and indigence will be transformed into a different kind of humility before God.  In writing this post, I cannot think of what exactly that transformation might look like, or even if there are earthly examples that we might use to gain an understanding in this life.  What I can think of that might approach this are the best examples of relationships between mature children and their earthly parents; or between loyal subjects and just rulers.

What I do know is that eternity in the Kingdom won’t be one endless realization that “I’m not worthy!”  Citizenship is predicated on the acceptance that I’m not God, and that I was created for His purposes not mine, which is its own kind of honor – the Creator of the cosmos chose of His infinite will and power to create me in His Image to accomplish His purposes, and desires that I will come into a relationship with Him.  But at the end of it all, being poor in spirit is utter realization that I am not God, and that, whatever I may think in this life, I am subject to His will for my life.  How this is accomplished is through confession that Jesus Christ is Lord and seeking to live a life governed by his teachings – in essence, to be a disciple of Christ.

Grace and Peace to all in the Name of Jesus Christ Our Lord.

Blessed

Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.
And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
(Matthew 5:1–12, ESV)

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What is it to be “blessed”?  I think this question is at the core of understanding the importance of the Beatitudes to Jesus’ earthly ministry.

This post serves as the introduction to a ten-part series on the Beatitudes.  For the following nine posts, I will be examining each of the Beatitudes and writing about why the qualities Jesus talks about are blessed, and how we should approach each of these statements.

Some of these are qualities that Christ-followers are called to emulate and seek after at all times (to be poor in spirit, to be meek, to hunger and thirst after righteousness, to be merciful, to be pure in heart, and to be peacemakers), while others are qualities that are temporal (to mourn, to be persecuted for the sake of righteousness, and to be reviled and slandered).  Six are eternal qualities of citizens of the Kingdom, and three will pass away after the Kingdom comes in its fullness and restores Creation to what was intended from the first breath of God to call light out of darkness.

So, what is it to be “blessed”?  As someone who has lived in the South nearly all my life, I have heard some variation on the phrase “bless your heart” more times than I can count.  It is a cultural joke that generally stems from the time-honored wisdom of mothers everywhere to “say only nice things” about people.  I usually hear it when the blessee has done something worthy of pity, or that a “less nice” person would scoff and laugh about.

Is this what Jesus means?  No, and we should be quick to banish the possibility from our minds.

The modern English dictionary has several definitions for the word “bless.”  In modern usage, “bless” can mean to invoke divine favor upon someone, to express reverence for God, to express gratitude for an act or a gift.  The modern definition is definitely tinged with a deep historic embedding of Christian thought in the formation of the modern language.  In Jesus’ day, a “blessing” was a word of acceptance, a proclamation that the person doing the blessing stood behind the person being blessed.  In the days of the Patriarchs, the rights to rule over the household were conferred through blessing (reference Isaac unknowingly blessing Jacob instead of his firstborn, Esau, to find out how important this was in their culture).

The Greek word being rendered as “blessed are” in each of the statements in the English translation of the Beatitudes is the word makarios, which means “happy, blessed, to be envied.”  In addition to reading the Beatitudes as “Blessed are…” you could also read them to say “Happy are…” but it is also appropriate to say “You should envy those who are…”  Or, maybe, to avoid confusion with the sin of Envy you could render it “You should yearn or desire to be like those who are…”

As I said above, there are six qualities that are blessed which are permanent attributes of Kingdom citizens – to be poor in spirit (humility), to be meek (gentleness), to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to be merciful, to be pure in heart, and to be peacemakers.  These are the attributes that we are to strive for, to yearn after.  I would say that it is especially appropriate to render these six statements as “You should yearn or desire to be like those who are…”

There are also three qualities or experiences which are temporal, and which will be removed when the Kingdom comes in its fullness to restore the creation to what the Creator intended:  mourners will be comforted and mourning will cease (Revelation 7:17); the persecuted will possess the Kingdom of Heaven and persecutions will come to an end (Revelation 21:4); finally, those reviled for the sake of the Gospel will rejoice to be counted like the prophets, and the revilers will be made to acknowledge Jesus as the Christ (Philippians 2:10-11).  To me, rendering these statements by Jesus as “Blessed are” or “Happy are” is especially appropriate, because it highlights that the merciful hand of God is with those who mourn, and divine favor is upon those who suffer for the cause of righteousness.  These are qualities and experiences which all Kingdom citizens will possess or face at some point.

What further contrasts these three from the other six is that while the permanent attributes are characterizations of the Kingdom citizen, the three temporal attributes are either consequences of the Fall or reactions by the fallen world to the encroachment of the Kingdom.  Mourning results from death and loss, which results from the sin of Adam.  Persecution, revulsion, and hatred are reactions by the parasitic hold of sin on the world against the truth and health of the Kingdom.

You will note that I keep referring to the Beatitudes as qualities or experiences of Kingdom citizens.  The Beatitudes form the first part of the discourse known as the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew (a similar sermon is found in Luke, and contains a shorter but similar list of blessings).  The focus of Matthew’s gospel account is on what Jesus’ message means for the Jewish people, and it is steeped in references to Judaism, to the teachings that grew up with the rabbinical traditions.  Part of the backdrop of the culture during Jesus’ ministry was a kind of Jewish nationalism that looked for a strongman Messiah who would kick out all of the Gentile oppressors (such as the Roman Empire) and restore a righteous kingdom on earth at Jerusalem.  There were multiple rebellions during the time by people looking for the fulfillment of the words of the prophets in mighty men.  Some of these people flocked to Jesus because they thought he was setting the stage for his own populist uprising that would restore the line of David to kingship in Israel.

In many ways, the Sermon on the Mount reads to me like a manifesto of what it actually means to be a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven.  The beatitudes are like Jesus’ response to people saying, “we want to see God’s kingdom here and now!” with Jesus responding “Okay, but just so you know, this is what that looks like!”  This reading has one significant potential for error: it can seem like Jesus, through the Beatitudes, is laying out a checklist for what someone outside the Kingdom needs to do to get inside the Kingdom, like what someone outside the United States might be expected to do to be legally allowed to live within the United States.  This is not the case.  Therefore, I insist on calling the statements in the Beatitudes “qualities” and not “acts” or “works.”  The Beatitudes look for the blessed to be meek, not to act meek.  One is the truth of a person, the other is hypocrisy.  The Beatitudes are not what someone must do to become a Citizen; rather, a Citizen is already in possession of the Beatitudes.

Another way to think of the qualities enumerated in the Beatitudes, especially the six that I call “eternal” qualities, is to view them in the same way as the fruits of the Spirit.  Just as the fruits of the Spirit are qualities that evidence a transformed life – rather than being acts or deeds that in themselves transform that life – so too are the qualities enumerated in the Beatitudes evidences of those who are already members of the Kingdom of God.  I’ve tried to come up with secular parallels to this, using my hypothetical immigrant to the United States, but everything I come up with is rooted in the deeds of the one seeking citizenship – there are no uniquely “American” qualities that I can enumerate, if I’m being objective and putting aside patriotism for the sake of this essay.

Over the next several months, I invite you to explore each of these qualities with me.  If, during your examination, you find that there are particular areas you struggle with or are especially difficult for you – do not be discouraged or overly dismayed!  Our God has blessed us with a Comforter that speaks to us in our weaknesses to build us up, to urge us to growth.  I find that I especially struggle with purity and against apathy towards injustice, as well as against pride in myself.  But I know by faith that my prayers for mercy and acceptance are heard, and I now rarely see a day that goes by where some kind of growth is not evident to me.  The Way of the Cross is not an easy or quick road, and our walk along it will not be finished in this life.

It is my hope that this series will bless you as you join me in examining that which Our Lord has called “blessed.”

Grace and Peace to all in the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Hosanna in the Highest!

(Year B, Palm Sunday, March 25, 2018; Liturgy of the Palms Gospel Reading from Mark 11:1-11)

“And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!  Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!’” – Mark 11:9-10, ESV

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Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem,
Petar Milošević

Today is Palm Sunday, the day when the Church remembers the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, when people lined the street to acclaim him as the coming King who would usher in the new Kingdom of David.  It is also when the account of Jesus’ trial, mocking, torture, crucifixion, and death are told in the Gospel reading for the Eucharistic service.  As my priest put it this morning, if this juxtaposition seems jarring, good – it’s supposed to.

One of the thematic features of the liturgy for Palm Sunday is the reinforcement of the fact that the same crowd that was moved to proclaim, “Hosanna in the highest!” when Jesus entered Jerusalem was equally stirred up to denounce him and call for his execution, shouting “Crucify him!” mere days later.  I have been to congregations where the people play the part of the crowd in both Gospel readings and say “Hosanna” during the Liturgy of the Palms before the Processional, and also “Crucify him” in the Gospel during the Eucharistic Liturgy.  This is done to drive home to everyone in the congregation that Jesus was the only person present at his condemnation who was innocent.

In my last posting, I mentioned my struggle against pride in reading the Gospels and supposing myself better than the disciples who totally missed the point in Jesus’ teaching.  I used to struggle in a similar fashion when I read the accounts of Our Lord’s Passion, especially the crowd being stirred up against Jesus.  All modern Christians want to say that they wouldn’t be part of the guilty ones who cried out “Crucify him!” but the Gospel account makes plain that everyone who wasn’t Begotten from the Father had an intimate hand to play in the condemnation and death of Jesus.

What are the alternatives to being in the crowd?  There’s Pilate, aloof and disinterested in Jewish power struggles except for how it might impact his assignment to keep the peace in Judea, amazed in the enduring silence of Our Lord, but unwilling to make any move toward faith and truly speak out against the injustice.  There’s the Jewish religious leaders, who bought off people to rouse the crowd and spread rumors and false testimony.  There’s the soldiers, to whom Jesus was just another dirt-poor man from Galilee, another rebel who was shown to be nothing special.

Where are the disciples?

Peter is the last we see of any of the disciples in Mark’s Gospel by the time Jesus is condemned to death, and he denied any connection with Jesus, as had been foretold earlier in the day.  The Gospels say that they all went into hiding, with only one being bold enough to come to the foot of the cross (St. John the Apostle).  The people who are the least culpable are the guiltiest – Jesus had told them that these things would happen, and that he would be raised up and glorified, yet they didn’t believe him, and so they scattered as foretold in Zechariah 13:7.

As modern-day Christians, seeking to put ourselves in that first-century scene in Jerusalem, our choices are limited in terms of roles to play, and in truth not all Christians would be found in only one crowd.  For myself, I believe that I would probably be with the disciples, cowering in a room waiting for the soldiers to drag us out to be flogged, humiliated, and, if we were lucky, stoned to death.  Palm Sunday calls us to examine our hearts and see where we would be in the list of the guilty – because there is no option to stand on the sideline, and the one who was condemned and crucified was the only one innocent before the crowd.

Palm Sunday is the beginning of the observation of Holy Week in the Christian Church.  If you can join a local congregation in the observation of the liturgies and rites this week, I strongly encourage you to do so.  These are some of the heaviest and most powerful prayers and services of the Christian calendar.  The Maundy Thursday liturgy is one of the oldest collection of prayers in the Christian tradition, and the Maundy Vigil calls you to join in the disciples’ difficulty of staying in prayer for “even one hour.”  Good Friday is the soberest and most solemn service of the whole Church year, and confronts us with the cross of Christ, its scandal and our guilt.  Finally, the Easter Vigil and Resurrection Sunday usher in the Great Feast of Easter, which brings us out of Lent and into the joyful celebration of the Risen Son.

This week, I pray that all Christians would be mindful of their sins and seek repentance for anything they are truly sorry for, and continually thank God for the mercy shown to us in the willing sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

Grace and Peace in the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Hour Has Come

(Year B, Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 18, 2018; Gospel Reading form John 12:20-33 [34-36])

“Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks.  So these came to Philip…and asked him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’  …Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.  And Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’” – John 12:20-24 (ESV)

wheat_in_field
Wheat in field

There are many occasions where I fool myself into feeling superior to the likes of Peter, James, and John when they are jockeying for position, supposing myself to be among those who really get “it” about what Jesus is bringing and somehow think that I would do better.  As misguided and outright wrong as that attitude is – just as misguided and wrong as their jockeying for position – it is nevertheless an honest view of the characters portrayed in the Scripture.  I must continually remind myself that the only reason I’m somehow better able to appreciate the teachings of Jesus is because I have the benefit of the past twenty centuries worth of theological discourse and Christian teachings.  Put me in the identical shoes of any of the Apostles in the Gospel writings, and I’m probably going to be in the same boat of (mis)understanding as they are.

And it is readings like this that most point that out to me.  Because I remember first reading this account before I had the benefit of a study bible, or read any commentaries, or was exposed to the teachings of the Fathers, and thinking that Jesus’ response was seemingly disjointed, and – dare I say it – melodramatic.  Why should Greeks who wanted to meet Jesus cause him to go into a lengthy discourse about grains of wheat and glorification, and receiving eternal life by hating your earthly life?  As a young Christian I wasn’t exactly troubled, but I was puzzled.  The text does say that he said these things to show what kind of death he would experience, but I still failed to see why Greeks had anything to do with it.

One of the constant mysteries that underlies all the Gospel accounts is in regard to the identity of Jesus.  Is he a Prophet, a madman, or God Incarnate?  John’s gospel was written after the three synoptics, and is written, as I’ve stated in another reflection, to highlight the “whys” more than the “hows” and “whats” – which the synoptics cover more than adequately.  The mystery in John’s gospel account is deepened considerably in that John explicitly states that Jesus, being the Word, was with God and was God (John 1:1), and yet portrays him as possessing what appear to be certain limitations to his power.  This passage appears to me to be one example – it seems as if Jesus takes the interest of the Greeks to be a sign not only that his crucifixion is near, but also that it is time to let the disciples in on what is about to happen.

Paul writes in the second chapter of Philippians that “…[Jesus], though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8, ESV)  Part of the “emptying” of himself, and taking on the form of a servant, must have meant losing the divine omniscience that He would have in His glorified state.  But even though he had to rely on the sign of the appearance of the Greeks, he was able to discern what they meant, just as he was able to read the hearts of those whom he encountered during his ministry.

When this is brought to mind, the seemingly out of the blue remarks by Our Lord come into focus – the appearance of the Greeks marked for Jesus a turning point in his ministry.  He had done many things in the fulfillment of prophecy to the Jews, but the interest of the world outside the Hebrew people marked that the call to the Gentiles to come and believe in the Lord Jesus was imminent.  Before it could happen though, the Christ must be captured, mistreated and tortured, killed shamefully, and then rise in the fullness of the Glory of God.  He was telling Phillip and Andrew that before he could be proclaimed to the world (by preaching to the Greeks) he must first put off his mortal body and put on His Resurrection Body.

All Christians have some ministry that they do – it is a consequence of the Faith, no one can truly call themselves a Christian and be content to sit on the sidelines, or doze in the pews.  As James says, “so also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:17, ESV) Not all ministries are publicly acclaimed; many lay Christians engage in the ministry of intercessory prayer, which is done in closets and by beds and only occasionally on street corners.  Since we all have ministries, we either will encounter or have encountered turning points where something happens that signifies some coming change and makes us ready for the next faithful action.  These changes can be anxiety inducing, and we either rise to the challenge or shy away, vainly hoping to maintain the status quo.

This week, I ask you to reflect on your personal ministries, whether they are large or small, and ask God for insight into their shifting needs, how they need to grow to work in harmony with His will.  Also ask for clarity and understanding when reading the Word of God, so that you aren’t like me, and unwittingly committing the sin of Pride by thinking the Lord disjointed and ineloquent.

Grace and Peace in the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.