“You are a masterpiece in the making”
I remember counsel from one of the church’s master preachers, Fred Craddock. He was a theologian, a story-teller, a practical Christian, and wise elder. One of Dr Craddock’s maxims is that the preacher should not use sermon examples which the people could not experience for themselves. “The last time I had lunch with Pope Francis…”, for example, is not helpful to the people if they have not dined with Francis. It separates preacher from the people. Risking that maxim, I have a story in which the location may be unfamiliar, but you can take up the practice in the story and make it yours. If you do, may it be a benediction for you as it was for me.
Nancy and I take pilgrimages together, to be with each other, to experience holy places and to deepen our encounters with God. Sometimes they are distant pilgrimages, sometimes close to home, but they are journeys seeking the presence of the holy, and journeys finding ourselves. Six years ago we traveled to Egypt with a group from St George’s College in Jerusalem to study the early Christian fathers and mothers who went to the desert to practice their faith. These were Christian people who found the marriage of religion, wealth and politics of their time stifling, so they sought solitude as an avenue to God.
One of those early Christians was a man named Anthony. In his 20s, he left the opulence of Cairo, and great personal wealth, to practice Christianity in quiet service. He believed the task of Christians is simple and formidable – to become a lover of God by resisting evil and yielding to Christ. Faith practice in the cities of Egypt was impossible for Anthony, so after stages of seeking solitude, he landed in the Sinai Desert, and chose a cave for his dwelling. He was there for most of his long life. He responded when called on for wisdom from other monks, from church leaders and statesmen, but he held to his solitude and grew in grace and wisdom there.
One stop on our pilgrimage, then, was St Anthony’s monastery in the Sinai. His cave is not on the desert floor, but a fair distance up the side of a mountain. Because there have been so many pilgrims over the centuries, the monks of St Anthony’s have built steps for those who wish to climb to Anthony’s cave. There are 1200 steps. Nancy and I made that climb, though I was physically too large to enter the cave which was home to a much smaller Anthony. But the story is about the climb, not the cave.
If this was to be a spiritual moment for me, I thought about how to use it. I determined that as I walked up the 1200 steps, I would remember my sins, specifically confessing each, one for each step. I was 65 so I had years to remember. One sin confessed for each step, and every four or five steps, I would recite the ancient prayer, “Jesus, be with me in mercy.” On the way down, my plan was to remember my blessings, the good people and moments which had also been part of my life, those I deeply love, and what I had learned from them. I can tell you the day was hot, and the sun unrelenting, and I made my pilgrimage up and down those steps, along with hundreds of others. I had a short time at the top, in the shade but not in the cave, and then I changed my focus to blessings and headed down. It was a moving, deeply moving and healing experience. But let me share three surprises:
+ first, two times on the way up, young people passing by me (I was moving slowly in my prayer) reached out and held my hand, and greeted me warmly, though without words. I probably could not have understood their speech, but I understood the benediction in their eyes, as their sweaty hands clasped my sweaty hand over my walking stick. What an uplift.
+ second, at the top, where the shrine is, I had time to rest and cool down. After a while, I headed back down for the blessing art of my journey. The surprise was that walking back to the steps, I passed a Coptic priest who was coming up to the cave, and he greeted me with a benediction. I was not dressed as priest, but I sensed he recognized a fellow priest, and gave me his blessing. As far as I could see, he was not offering it to everyone. A bit of mystery.
+ third, as I made my descent, recalling blessings, my heart lifted, and when I reached the bottom, 1200 hundred steps later, I had not run out of blessings. I still had more to recite. For several minutes the recall of specific blessings continued. Imagine that, 1200 steps were enough for sin, but not enough to recount my blessings. What might your discovery be?
Why am I risking this much story in which I am a player? What would Dr Craddock say? I believe Fred would forgive my example because you can have such an experience. There is an impressive set of steps just down on the corner on Eugene and 9th, and there is another even longer set near Big Horse Brew Pub, I believe. You can confess your sins, if you have that many, and recall your blessings, or use the practice however you choose. In all the distractions and stress of these days, it is good to discover we can be released from our burdens, and overwhelmed with awareness of our blessings.
My ulterior motive, though, is to lift up the Gospel today, but as a recognition of the good you are doing, and the persistence with which you pursue your Christianity. Understanding Jesus’ expectations can be disheartening at first reading. Oh, I fall short in so many ways. But Jesus is not one to crush people, but to lift us up. As you consider Jesus’ expectations -- Do not resist the evil doer, turn the other cheek, give to everyone who begs from you, love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you – “Be perfect, therefore, even as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt 5.38f) – be aware of how you are ready to resist evil, see how you first choose non-violent options. Notice how you forgive as you have been forgiven, remember your generosity and pray not only for those who you love, but for those who trouble you as well. Friends, this is personal. Jesus is speaking to your heart. This is not about rule-keeping and shining behavior. Here is Jesus speaking to your heart, bidding you not to welcome violence to your heart, not to give in to fear, not to be silent when justice asks you to speak. Here is Jesus encouraging you – seek the company of your God, and welcome those who cross your paths, give thanks in all things. This way will not always be easy; you will not always receive welcome when you offer it. You may forgive, and have it rejected or ignored. Your non-violent resistance may receive ridicule, but your heart will be saved, and you will be called children of God. Jesus’ insistence is not to make you feel ashamed, nor to whip you into shape, but to touch your heart, and spare you becoming the violence and hardness of heart which you confront.
This Christian journey is a blessing journey, though it will be full of challenges. Don’t ever lose sight of that – a blessing journey. And here is an echo of Jesus from another wise elder and holy man, Desmond Tutu: “You are made for perfection, but you are not yet perfect. You are a masterpiece in the making.” (The Book of Joy, p 92) Amen.
Beatitudes, 29th January, 2017
When Jimmy Carter was sworn in as President of The United States in 1977, he laid his hand on a family Bible and on the Bible from George Washington’s Inauguration, as Presidents do. But Carter’s Bible was open, open to Micah 6.1-8. There is a question there – we heard it just now – and the answer, while clear, can be a challenge:
What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
Before 1977 I thought little of the Prophet Micah, but since that Inauguration, I have remembered his challenge:
What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
Picture Jesus in the Gospel this morning. He has been baptised and spent time alone in the wilderness with God. On return he finds first two, then four, disciples, to learn from him, walk with him, teach in his name, and ultimately carry on his work. Their trust in him is why we are here this morning.
As his reputation spread throughout Judea, reaching as far as Syria and Jordan, people came. There was something about his word and his person that drew folk to him. This memorable day, as the crowds were gathering, he went up a hill, sat down, and addressed his disciples. Scholars today affirm that among the words of Jesus, and the words about Jesus, found in the New Testament, this Sermon on the Mount is the purest and clearest view into the heart of Jesus. Perhaps he is answering the question, “What is it the Lord asks of you?” If you want to know Jesus, more than the religion which has grown up around him, here is the place to start.
Blessed are the poor in spirit. Would we not rather be rich in everything, to have everything, to need nothing. In that self-reliance we believe are security and safety. Jesus taught a wisdom which knew that one can never be completely self-reliant, and that while the creation is good, it is not always safe. The way to peace of heart is to be sure there is still room in our souls for growth, surprise and an intimate walk with God. Poor in spirit means we are open to Spirit, instead of being shut up with all our right answers.
Blessed are those who mourn, he said, as opposed to those who try to hold back grief, or hide it. When we mourn, we are open. I believe we are closest to God when doubled over in tears, or doubled over in laughter. Then the walls we build around ourselves, the images we make and try to believe are true, our shells are cracked open. No one likes to be ambushed by grief, but when we are honest about our grief, we are in position to be comforted.
Blessed are the meek. Not the weak, but blessed are those characterized by gentleness, kindness, the ability to be still and silent, people who have power, but not the need to use it over others, but for others. Here are marks of a contemplative life; not weak or shy, but reflective, truth-seeking and truth honoring.
Then Jesus’ teaching takes a more active tone: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Holy ones pursue and work for what is just, no matter the distance nor the obstacles. He said, “Blessed are the merciful,” who understand that violence leads only to more violence, and while mercy is not the right response in all cases, mercy planted will bring mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are people who stay on the path of God’s goodness, who rejoice in small blessings, who have known deep love. Blessed are the peacemakers. It takes two sides to make peace, or three, all willing. Peace is often complicated, and requires first addressing injustice. It involves negotiation and compromise and respect of the dignity of all parties. And lasting peace can take time, but without peaceseekers and peacemakers, the kingdom of earth will not be of God. Blessed are the peacemakers, the reconcilers, and bridge-builders.
Finally, Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…”, and in a change of tone, “Blessed are you when you are accused and slandered and falsely persecuted because you have taken this road with me. Note the change from “Blessed are those who” to “Blessed are you” – now we are being addressed. Jesus’ way is not easy, but it is good. It can be trying dealing with ourselves, our families, and our neighbors. It will be more difficult on a community or national scale. You may find reason to give in, but to give in makes you into your enemies. You become what you despise. There must be another way through. So in times of trial, or temptation, or when you just want to walk away, hold fast to your vision of kingdom, hold fast to your faith, hold fast to the Jesus you know in your own heart. Already in our country people are finding this last beatitude – blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account – a very present experience in their faith. But be confident, stay the path – you are in good company. Prophets and sages, teachers, and witnesses – Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr, Francis of Assisi and his counterpart in Rome Pope Francis, Ed Browning, Desmond Tutu, saints and whistle blowers and ordinary people who just said “No”, countless real people who have walked where you walk.
Once upon a time, a man laid his hand on a Bible open to a page which said,
“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
May this be our witness, in our day. Amen
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.