Sunday, February 2, 2014

Then he began to speak

Matthew 5: 1-12, NT page 4 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people 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 in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Sermon Today is Groundhog Day, and there’s a fair amount of history behind this second or third tier holiday. The tradition has roots in the Roman Empire, as legions, occupying parts of Western Europe, spread the idea that if a hedgehog saw its shadow when it emerged from its hole on February 2nd there would be six more weeks of bad weather. As the tradition became popular, especially in Germany, it traveled over to Pennsylvania along with many German immigrants, and took strong root in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Since 1887 Groundhog Day has been celebrated there, and if Punxsutawney Phil comes out of his hole after a long winter sleep and sees his shadow later today, “it is six more weeks of bad weather; if it is a shadow-less day, spring is near”( In Georgia no one acknowledges the meteorological abilities of Phil, but of General Beauregard Lee of the Yellow River Game Ranch, a rival groundhog. But either way, this seems like a strange cultural phenomenon, to sit around and wait for an animal to tell you the weather – just don’t go saying that in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. There the age of modern meteorology is demoted – Al Roker has no credibility today in comparison to Punxsutawney Phil – and maybe that’s as it should be. It’s been said that, “the trouble with weather forecasting is that it's right too often for us to ignore it and wrong too often for us to rely on it” (Patrick Young), and certainly that’s what Atlanta was thinking last week. I was thankful not to be in Atlanta last week, as on Tuesday evening, after a full day’s work, hundreds, maybe thousands, of commuters abandoned their cars in the middle of the interstate to find a place to sleep in a restaurant, grocery store, or the home of a stranger who welcomed them in. It’s a hard thing to recover from an event like that one – and it’s no surprise that the citizens of Atlanta who so often complain about excessive preparation for a snow that usually never comes are now storming city hall, angry about a snow that did come, unannounced and without the proper response from city and county services. “They should have known that this snow was coming,” so many are saying, but how would they have known? It makes sense that we’d still gather around a groundhog’s hole for answers, as the weather is one aspect of our lives that is seemingly out of our control and that can still catch us by surprise. So today we wait for answers from Punxsutawney Phil on Groundhog Day. But today isn’t just Groundhog Day. If you’ll notice in your bulletin it is also the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany – and in this season of Epiphany we sit before Christ to listen and he began to speak: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted; blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth; blessed, blessed, blessed, blessed. I doubt that anyone who abandoned their car on Interstate 75 last week was considering themselves blessed, as often enough we know what Jesus has said and even what he has done, but not nearly enough do his words shape our thoughts and actions as they should. Instead our thoughts and actions are shaped by our mood, emotions, our limited outlook or the ways of our secular world who is telling us that today is Groundhog Day rather than the Christian world who is telling us that now is a season of Epiphany – a time for remembering that, kneeling beside the Christ Child were wise men from the East who journeyed many miles looking for answers and found what they were looking for in a manger bed. Years later people gathered around him again, and when he saw the crowds he went up a mountain, sat down, and gave his disciples a new teaching for determining the unknown. These teachings don’t focus on what lies outside of your control – there is nothing in there about telling the weather or ensuring that winter will be shorter rather than longer. There is nothing in these words that give you superhuman strength to shape the will of our country or our world. There is nothing in these beatitudes about them – no – this teaching is all about you and what you can do to weather a lifetime of uncertainty, tragedy, and victimization. When your spirit is poor – when your determination has been beaten out of you and you are ready to give up – when you are absolutely sure that you do not have the strength to do anything else and you throw up your arms in frustration – then – in that moment – consider yourself blessed, because yours is the kingdom of heaven. When you know exactly what you have lost and the world doesn’t make any sense without him in it. When just the thought of tears flowing from your eyes makes you panic because it seems like if you start to cry you will never be able to stop. When sadness is your food day and night – when a broken spirit is yours – when emptiness fills your home rather than laughter – consider yourself blessed – for comfort is on its way for those who mourn. And when you show mercy, but wonder if maybe you shouldn’t have been merciful. When you show mercy only to be taken advantage of, only to be left feeling weak; when you show mercy to someone who you learn doesn’t deserve your mercy, remember that you don’t deserve mercy either and yet you will receive it, for “Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy.” It’s all such a strange teaching in our world where the future is entirely uncertain – but in these Beatitudes you will receive an epiphany – a new and unexpected understanding – that in fact while there is more than enough in this world that you don’t have any control over, you do have complete control over your outlook. And that’s an important thing to remember – because your outlook governs more than you might think – your outlook determines how you see the world and too often your outlook is the deciding factor in whether or not you will see God at work in it. My outlook has been clouded, but on Tuesday morning the most incredible thing happened in our living room. We were having breakfast and all of a sudden we were joined by a mockingbird. I imagine it flew down the chimney; however it got in the house it landed on our mantle to take inventory of its surroundings, and immediately it began working towards its escape by trying to push through our dining room window. I grabbed a thick plastic bag and caught the bird, and I was able to hold it there for a second, hoping that I’d be able to hold the bird long enough to give everyone a good look at it, but it too quickly slipped out of my hands and flew out the back door fueled by either fear or resilience. It doesn’t matter which I suppose. What matters is that the bird didn’t lie down somewhere in the house to wonder why it all happened – that her day should be disrupted by a trip down a chimney that she probably wouldn’t ever emerge from. She could have started giving up right then – after all – plenty of people do. Having hit a patch of bad luck or sadness, plenty of people start dying right then and there – but there is another option. In the movie Shawshank Redemption the two main characters epitomize each of our options. On the one hand is Red, a man who has learned to survive in the prison for he is a man who knows how to get things for his fellow inmates - things like cigarettes and magazines – the thick prison walls permeable to seemingly everything but himself. And on the other hand is Andy – a man falsely accused of murdering his wife and her lover, who has spent years tunneling through those same prison walls that confine them both. “Get busy living, or get busy dying,” Andy says to his friend Red, and its words like these that we all need to hear when life takes a turn that it wasn’t supposed to take. The temptation is there and it’s just as real now as ever, to let the suffering and the heartache define you – to grow used to living behind sadness as though it were your own personal prison walls – to accept persecution and let it cage you in – but do not forget how to fly and do not forget how to live. For when you hunger and thirst for righteousness in an unrighteous world you are preparing yourself for the kingdom of heaven. When you keep your heart pure among this broken and sinful generation you will be ready when the change comes and you will see God. When you work for peace in an age of war, when you stand up for justice despite the persecution that would keep you silent, when you are reviled and slandered – do not live as though everything has been turned upside down – rejoice - for you are working towards turning things right. There is more certainty available then you have been led to believe – it all rests in the hands of Christ Jesus our Lord. Rejoice then – for despite the setbacks, toils, trials, and pain, yours is the kingdom of heaven. Amen.

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