Persecution

Matthew 5:1-12

1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them. He said:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Next week we will begin the season of Lent. And yes, every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end. It is closing time for our sermons series on the Beatitudes.

The Beatitudes remind us that in our weakest moments, God is with us, blessing us. God is on our side. When we mourn, when we refuse to push others around, when we are filled with mercy, God is on our side. Some of these beatitudes mention human characteristics. Others talk about our condition. Still more consider our disposition. Today we conclude our sermon series by looking at how God blesses those who are punished by others for doing what is right. “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

As has been our practice, we need to start by asking what it means to be persecuted. The Greek word we translate as “persecute” is διώκω (dee-o-ko), which literally means to make someone run away or cause someone to flee.

When I was a young man, probably in middle school, my older brother said to me, “When girls see you, they run.”

I responded, “Yeah, they run toward me.”

Women running away from me because they find my looks less than appealing isn’t persecution. Even what my brother was doing, I wouldn’t classify as persecution. That was teasing. A second meaning is to pursue someone in a hostile manner. Jesus specifically says that those who are persecuted, chased after, because of their righteousness are blessed.

We as Mennonites should pause a bit when we hear Christians today talking about being persecuted. Now don’t get me wrong, I do believe that religious persecution is alive and unfortunately well today. But much of what Christians in the United States call persecution today is an inconvenience, not persecution.

During the Protestant Reformation there was a lot of hatred between groups. Of course, it was hatred in the name of Christ! The Catholics didn’t like the Protestants, and the Protestants didn’t like the Catholics. But at least they had one thing in common. Nobody liked the Anabaptists! Recall that from the middle of the 16th century through the middle of the 17th century, somewhere around 2,500 Anabaptists were martyred for their faith. Our spiritual forbearers were drown in the river, burned at the stake, and beheaded. Some were placed in headstocks, others had tongue screws placed in their mouths. All because they thought that baptism should be the choice of an adult.

Even here in the United States, where we have “religious freedom,” many Mennonites have experienced persecution. Meeting houses and churches have been burned to the ground. Mennonites who refused to fight in wars were not permitted to sell their crops at certain granaries; some were tarred and feathered. That’s persecution.

That’s why I think that we Mennonites might want to help other Christians remember that just because everything isn’t as we would like it to be, that doesn’t make it persecution. If you are buying gifts in December and the store clerk says to you, “Happy Holidays,” that’s not persecution. If they refuse to sell you something because you are a Christian, that’s persecution.

Or one of my favorites was from the Christmas before last when Starbucks chose to not include the traditional pictures of Santa Clause, reindeer, and Christmas trees on their coffee cups and some Christians claimed that they were being persecuted.

You know, because Santa, reindeer, and Christmas trees play such an important role in the Christmas story, found in the Gospel According to Nobody.

If you are not permitted to live out your faith because someone forcibly or legally prevents you from doing so, that’s persecution. For instance, consider prayer in school. For a public school to not sponsor public prayer or to not have a paid staff person lead prayer is not persecution. It might be inconvenient and it might not be your preference, but that isn’t persecution. But if the school says that students are not allowed to pray in school, that is persecution. There’s a difference between not sponsoring prayer and not allowing it.

When we use the word “persecution” to describe every inconvenience we have to endure, the word loses something. And to be honest, I find it disrespectful to those who died for their faith, and even those who had to suffer financial and social costs. I may be just getting old, but I’m a little bit bothered when people use really strong language to refer to an inconvenience. For instance, sometimes my children will say that they are starving, you know, because they haven’t eaten in like three hours. No, you are hungry. Or after a favorite sports team loses, people say that they are depressed. I had a distant relative commit suicide last week after losing a battle to depression. No, you’re disappointed.

Starving? Depressed? Persecuted? I suggest we not use these words too lightly. Your coffee cup may not have Santa Claus on it, but my ancestor was burned at the stake. Please don’t cheapen their sacrifice.

I want to come back to a part of this verse that some people tend to forget about, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” We can’t leave out the “because of righteousness” part.

I’ve heard many Christians quote this beatitude to encourage themselves and like-minded Christians in their work in times when they are feeling rejected by others. The other famous go-to passage is to paraphrase Jesus, “Remember, Jesus said that the world would hate us because it hated him first.”

I have shared before some of my interactions with very forward and pushy Christians. I at least attempt to be kind in my response to people I find to be absolutely rude. When people tell me things like the version of the Bible that I use is demonic because I don’t use the King James Version, when they tell me that I need to accept Jesus and be baptized in their church to go to heaven, or when people place door hangers on our church inviting our members to attend a thriving church with a strong program for children, I try to at least listen to them and smile nicely. Obviously, these things hurt my feelings, and I can get angry. And I try really, really hard to not respond in anger.

I don’t always succeed, but I try.

Not everyone will respond in a kind manner when told that they use a demonic Bible or that they are going to hell if they aren’t baptized in the right church and in the right way. So sometimes these pushy Christians are met with some pushback. Names are called, insults may be thrown. People get defensive. Anytime you question someone’s firmly-held beliefs, they may get angry.

I would argue, though, if you are telling someone some of these things that I have highlighted here and they push back a bit, you are likely not being persecuted for righteousness’ sake. You are being persecuted for being a jerk.

I read an article online this week about persecution, and it said that if people leave the room when you enter, if you are never invited out with friends, and if people don’t seem to enjoy your company, it might be that you are being persecuted for your faith. But check your deodorant first.

Jesus goes on in verse 11, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.”

One of the greatest persecutions of Christians in the early years came at the hand of the Roman Emperor, Nero. In 64 AD, a great fire broke out in Rome and devastated a large portion of the city. Some accounts claim that Nero started the fire himself as a way to clear out dilapidated housing. But when things got out of control, Nero needed a scapegoat. So who did he go to? Nero blamed the fire on this small, but growing, group of men and women who claimed to follow a resurrected, homeless Jew.

This is when we start to see Christians fed to the lions and killed in the gladiatorial arenas. Nero said something false about the Christians, and they paid for it.

But one of my favorite stories probably originated as gossip. In the first century, there were a number of rumors going around about these Christians. It was said that they practiced incest and cannibalism. Husbands and wives often referred to each other as brothers and sisters. And when they got together for a meal, they spoke about eating the body and drinking the blood of some guy named Josh.

Two take home points: We must remember that just because everything isn’t coming easy to us doesn’t mean we are persecuted. And just because people don’t like us also doesn’t mean that we are persecuted. But there are times and there are places where it is against the law to be a Christian. There are times and there are places where Christians are put to death. Just over two years ago, 21 Coptic Christians in Libya were beheaded by ISIS. Their only crime was being an infidel. I for one am proud of those Christians who refused to recant their religious convictions knowing that it may cost them their lives.

Blessed are the persecuted. When you are faithful, when you follow Jesus, God is there with you. When you love your enemies, and even your enemies don’t appreciate it, God is there. When you stay firm in your beliefs, even if it causes you to lose friends, to lose money, to lose social status, or even to lose your life, God is there.

Jesus finishes the Beatitudes by saying in verse 12, “Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

You know what, Jesus. You almost had me. But then you came along and said to rejoice in being persecuted? What’s up with that? And when were the prophets persecuted? There are two times in the book of Jeremiah where he uses the word “persecuted,” but even if they weren’t always respected, when were they persecuted?

Now recall that the Greek word dee-o-ko literally means both to cause someone to run or to chase after. I wonder if Jesus isn’t doing a little play on words here. Much like I turned it around when my brother said that girls run when they see me, maybe Jesus is saying that when people see your faithfulness in the midst of persecution, they will follow you, chase after you. Not with the intention of hurting you, but with the intention of learning from you.

Remember the story of the Meserete Kristos Church in Ethiopia. Meserete Kristos Church began in the 1950’s as an effort from Mennonite Mission workers to set up hospitals and schools in this region. In 1974 a communist party came into power, and the Meserete Kristos Church of about 5,000 people had to go underground as religion was outlawed. They held their worship services in secret, baptizing under the cover of night. 20 years later, the church emerged and they had their first meeting in a stadium with an estimated 50,000 members. Today the Meserete Kristos Church numbers close to 500,000 people, making this the largest Anabaptist denomination in the world.

Blessed are the persecuted, for though some people may try to chase you away, others will run after you, pursuing you, as you run after Jesus

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Children of God

Matthew 5:1-12

1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them. He said:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Today is week four of our five-part sermon series on the Beatitudes. We have been looking at how God blesses people at their lowest points, and how God blesses people who don’t push others around. God blesses those who feel deep down inside that this world is not how it ought to be. And God blesses those who act upon their compassion. Next week we will wrap up this series by looking at persecution, and what good Mennonite doesn’t like to talk about persecution?

But today’s beatitudes are not completely foreign to us Mennonites, either. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Throughout this sermon series, I have read a beatitude and asked “What does that even mean?” What does it even mean to be meek? What does it mean to be merciful? To hunger and thirst for righteousness? And now, who are the pure in heart? If it is the pure in heart who get to see God, I guess you can count me out because I’ve got a little bit of a sick sense of humor.

I came across a video the other day on a website called 11foot8.com where a man living near Boston mounted a video camera on the outside of his home and pointed it toward a bridge with low clearance of 11 feet, 8 inches. This bridge is affectionately called “The Can Opener” because people tend to underestimate the height of their vehicles, and in a competition between U-Haul and bridge, the bridge always wins. The man frequently posts video compilations of trucks, campers, and U-Hauls crashing into the overpass, turning them into convertibles. You didn’t know they made convertible U-Hauls, did you? The bridge essentially opens the can. For those who speak a little German, I suffer from a condition known as schadenfreude, which means I get joy out of other people’s failures. I’m not pure in heart.

Throughout the Beatitudes, I find myself waiting on Jesus to give us more, to tell us what this looks like. I’m gearing up, expecting to hear a parable, or another story, or even for Jesus to answer with a question, as he often does. But he doesn’t. Instead, it is like popcorn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pure in heart. I mean, what a strange way to present a sermon!

But maybe that’s the key to understanding the Beatitudes. We need to remember that this was a part of a sermon. And when you learn how to preach, you learn that there is a very basic structure to most sermons. You tell them what you are going to tell them; you tell them; and then you tell them what you told them. In other words, you give an introduction, you go into more details, and then you summarize your point in the ending. And at least for today’s beatitudes, Jesus seems to do just that. He gives us these beatitudes, he goes on to expound upon them, and then he gives a brief summary.

Jesus tells us that the pure in heart are blessed because they will see God. We have already established that I am not pure in heart. So what does it even mean to be pure of heart? At the end of Matthew 5 we find what is often referred to as the six antitheses. These are the passages that start out with “You have heard it said, but I say unto you.” Each antitheses names an outward practice and gives some specific instructions from the Hebrew Bible. Do not murder. Do not commit adultery. Do not break your oath.

So what does Jesus say about these ancient Hebrew teachings? He doesn’t say that now it is okay to commit adultery and murder. Instead, he makes these teachings more intense. Don’t get angry. Don’t look at a person with lust. What Jesus seems to be saying is that these outward actions, sure, they are important. But what really matters is the root of these actions. You might say that what Jesus is saying is that rather than simply focusing on outward actions, his followers will focus on changing their hearts.

Pure hearts.

Later in Matthew’s gospel we read about Jesus’s critique of the Pharisees in the form of seven “woes.” The Pharisees are some of the most pious, and outwardly-religious members of the entire Jewish faith. But Jesus compares their actions to washing the outside of a cup or a dish while allowing the inside to mold and collect dust. He says that they are like freshly-painted tombs: they look nice on the outside, but what is inside is just bones and rotting flesh.

Do you think Jesus is interested in how we live, our actions, and how we conduct ourselves? Absolutely. But it must start with a changed heart. This isn’t just about how people perceive us and how we conduct ourselves in polite company. This is a radical way of reorienting our lives. We change from the inside out, not the other way around.

So what about these peacemakers? I think this beatitude will probably benefit more by reading further into the Sermon on the Mount than others. Consider everywhere you have seen or heard this beatitude. I’ve seen it used by law enforcement agents and military personnel. I’ve heard it used by pacifists and people who work in conflict transformation. There is obviously a wide understanding of what it means to be a peacemaker. There is even a nickname for the Colt .45 handgun, it’s called a peacemaker.

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t think that we Mennonites have always got this one just right. We have been the quiet in the land, refusing to participate in war, refusing to fight when someone threatens us. And while I think that is good, I don’t think that is what it means to be a peacemaker. Being a peacemaker requires that we be active, not simply uninvolved in violence. Blessed are the peacemakers, not just the peace keepers.

I know that I have shared this story before, but it still seems very appropriate. I recall a few years back when I was out for a stroll with my young son in the park. Paxton was probably 2 or 3 at the time, so he was walking some and just really starting to pick up on things that were happening in the world around him. We were at the Gypsy Hill Duck Pond, minding our own business, feeding the ducks when I noticed some young women sitting at the next bench down. They were probably high schoolers and they were African American. I noticed that there were some young men talking to these young women, and I thought that there was some casual flirting going on. But I soon realized how wrong I was.

The boys weren’t flirting, they were using racial slurs, saying things like, “You ain’t nothing but an n#$$@%. You’re just a stupid n#$$@%. You ain’t good for nothin’.”

I’m a peacemaker, I know what I should do in such a situation! I should rush in there and tell those boys what’s up. Maybe I could even intimidate them a little bit, I’m a good-sized guy. Even if I didn’t plan to engage them physically, maybe my physicality would cause them to head to the hills!

So what did I do? I pushed the stroller the other way. Maybe I left because I didn’t want my toddler exposed to that kind of hatred. Maybe I left because I didn’t want him to learn those ugly words. I can’t say for sure, but what I do know is that I left.

I still look back on that day, which was probably 4 years ago, and see it as one of my greatest failures as a Christian. And I’ve had many. Yes, I did not fight. I did not raise my fist or draw a gun. But was I a peacemaker? Absolutely not.  It probably seems obvious to you, but to be a peacemaker means that in those times when there is no peace, you create peace. I did not create peace.

When I think about how I might have handled that one differently, I ask how I might have disarmed those young men with my words and actions. What would Jesus do? The first thing that I would want to do is look at how Jesus expounds upon this beatitude in Matthew 5. And Jesus says in one of those antitheses that I mentioned earlier, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

There is an invitation to do good to those who seek to do bad. And the first thing I need to remember is that those young men didn’t learn those words out of nowhere. They surely inherited racist tendencies from their parents and those around them. Realizing that is a loving thing to do.

What would Jesus do? Jesus often made friends with those who were persecuted. So what if rather than walking away, I pushed that stroller right up to those young women and started talking to them as the boys were calling out their slurs? What if I just said, “Hi, I’m Kevin and this is my son, Paxton. I think I’ve seen you here before. Do you live close by? It sure is a nice day out?” And what if I turned and introduced myself to the young men as well? Notice what I did, I spoke with respect and dignity to the women that they were picking on, and then offered the same respect to the young men. I placed them on the same level, because we are all people created in the image of God and deserve respect and deserve to be loved. That would have been being a peacemaker.

Now notice what the reward is for the peacemakers. Many of these beatitudes come with a promise. The meek will inherit the earth. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled. What is the reward for being a peacemaker? The peacemakers will be called children of God. Now this metaphor is used differently in different parts of the Bible, but I want to offer what I have found to be helpful for understanding what it means to be a child of God.

When I look at my children, I see a lot of both me and my wife in them. Not only in their physical appearance, but also in their personalities. Someone recently commented on a picture of our family by saying that our children are a good combination of the two of us. Paxton has my dimples and his mother’s brown eyes. Hadley has her mother’s dark hair and her attitude. But there is no doubt whose children they are. They look like us, they act like us. They are our children.

Jesus says that the peacemakers will be called children of God, and then again in those antitheses, he says those who love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them will be children of their Father in heaven. When you actively seek peace, shalom, the well-being of your community, you look like God. When you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, you look like God. Some of Jesus’s last words on the cross were a prayer for those who were persecuting him, “Father, forgive them. For they know not what they do.”

When you are a peacemaker, loving your enemies, and praying for those who persecute you, you look like God, for you are a child of God. It is my prayer that we can all look a little more like God this week.

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Compassion in Action

Matthew 5:1-12

1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them. He said:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Welcome to week three of our five-part sermon series on the Beatitudes. In about 15 minutes you will be at the half-way point! Blessed are those who endure long sermon series, for they will be relieved when it is all over.

To be blessed is an act of grace; it is God’s gift to you and me. It is God’s proclamation that he is with us, that God is on our side. When you are at the end of your rope, God is on your side. When you mourn, God is on your side. When you are meek, refusing to get your way through intimidation and threats, God is on your side.

Today we are looking at the 4th and 5th beatitudes, asking what does it mean to hunger and thirst for righteousness, and what does it look like to be merciful.

The first thing that I want to say is that I love the metaphor of hungering and thirsting for righteousness. Who here doesn’t know what it feels like to hunger or thirst? My children will sometimes tell me that they are hungry as soon as they leave the dinner table. Some of you may have more experience with hunger. Have you ever fasted, either for medical or religious reasons? Some people will fast in solidarity with the hungry around the world, participating in programs like World Vision’s 30 Hour Famine. Maybe you have even been forced to miss a meal or two because there wasn’t enough food in your house, perhaps allowing a family member to eat while you go hungry. We know what it means to hunger, yet for most of us, hunger is a temporary state.

Some know better what it means to thirst. I remember well my days growing up on the farm, baling hay on those 90 degree summer days in Ohio. Because I am the tallest in my family, I was often put in charge of stacking hay in the mow. 90 degree temperatures outside translate to 100+ degrees in the barn, and even greater temperatures as you get higher and higher in the hay mow. Warm air rises. And if you have ever baled hay, you know that you need to wear long pants and gloves to keep from getting torn up by the bales. I recall coming down from the hay mow, wringing the perspiration out of my clothes, and enjoying the refreshment provided by drinking from the hose in the milk house.

Though I rarely miss a meal, I know what it means to hunger. I know what it means to thirst. There is this deep, physical sense and desire for something more.

Even an infant, before they can speak a word, knows to cry out when they are hungry. They don’t even know what the problem is, but they know that something isn’t right.

But while we all know what it means to hunger and thirst, it is a lot more difficult to nail down what “righteousness” means. Perhaps you have heard the term “self-righteous,” “works righteousness,” or “righteous indignation.” In those contexts, righteousness isn’t really a good thing.

The Greek word we translate as righteousness is…actually five syllables long and really hard to say. The dictionary definition for this Greek word is “the state of one who is as they ought to be.”

Sure, that’s what I’m thirsting for. Okay, so how ought one be?

The easy answer is to say that one ought to be like Jesus. But if you have ever, I don’t know, stepped out of your house, you know that not everyone agrees on how one ought to be, or even what it looks like to be like Jesus. I tried to think of something that we would all agree is always wrong. My family has been reading 101 Dalmatians at bedtime recently. I would say that it is always wrong to make coats out of puppies. Well, unless there was no other option for keeping your child from freezing, then maybe it would be okay.

Trying to nail down what righteousness means and what it means to follow Jesus is not always simple. But what I believe we can all agree upon is that not everything and not everybody is as they ought to be. I would say that both using puppies for a coat and living in a world where the only option to clothe your child involves killing puppies is not how the world ought to be. And when you see something happening that isn’t as it ought to be, you feel it. I feel it physically. I feel it in the pit of my stomach. I long for the world to be made right. I long for righteousness. I long for justice. I long for things to be as they ought to be.

But here is where it gets tricky. Is thirsting for righteousness about making things as they ought to be between you and God, or between you and your neighbor or even your enemies? And does thirsting for righteousness apply to larger systems, like cities, nations, and even international relations? Jesus doesn’t say, but I’m going to guess that this isn’t an either/or answer as much as a both/and. We often use the word justice when we talk about international relationships, but that is a differentiation that is not made in the original text. We translate the same Greek word as either justice of righteousness based on the context, but it is the same word stem in the original language. Hungering and thirsting for righteousness applies at the personal, national, and systemic level. Any where things are not as they should be, we feel it in our gut.

The person who hungers and thirsts for righteousness is the one who prays “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The person who hungers and thirsts for righteousness is the one who knows that they are not living the way Jesus calls us and shows us how to live. The person who hungers and thirsts for righteousness is the person who sees crime and poverty on the news, and knows that this is not the way the world is supposed to be. The person who hungers and thirsts for righteousness sees Syrian refugees, some of whom are just children, dying in their attempts to find safety, and knowing down deep that this is not the way things ought to be.

But know this, when you sense that the world is not as it ought to be, when you feel it down deep in your gut, when you sense it to the point that you yearn for things to be set right, know that God is on your side. God is on your side because God wants things to be set right, too.

You might be saying to yourself, But I don’t know what to do? I know that I’m doing something that I shouldn’t, I know that people are hurting, I know that the world is not what it ought to be. But what can I do? Great! God is with you! The first step is realizing that things aren’t as they should be. The next beatitude tells us where to go next.

I want us all to notice how closely related the next beatitude is to the one we just looked at. Verse 7, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” Obviously, when I hear this beatitude, I think of Uncle Jesse Katsopolis from Full House, “Have mercy!”

There are two components to mercy: compassion and action. You simply can’t have one without the other. If all that you have is compassion, that’s not mercy, but sympathy; to feel bad for them. To have mercy requires that you do something. It can be forgiveness, it can be releasing someone from their debts. Mercy can mean helping someone on the street with a flat tire or a depleted bank account. Perhaps it would be better to describe mercy as compassion in action.

There are some really good examples of mercy in the New Testament, but probably the best-known is the story of the Good Samaritan. This tale begins with an expert in the Law questioning Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus then told a story where a Jewish man is traveling to Jericho when he is robbed, beaten, and left to die on the side of the road. Two different religious leaders from the Jewish tradition come walking down that road, and each passes to the others side, perhaps so as to avoid becoming ceremonially unclean. Then a Samaritan, an outsider, a person whom the Jews despised simply because of his ethnicity and heritage, comes by. He stops, cares for the man, and takes him to an inn. The Samaritan pays for the care of the beaten man and tells the inn keeper that he will come back by later and pay for any additional costs.

I love the way that this passage ends. Jesus asks, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

That’s compassion in action.

There was a famous study done at Princeton Theological Seminary conducted a few years back where seminary students participated in a two-part experiment. These are future pastors and theologians, so you have to think that they are at least half-way decent people. The first stage of the experiment began on one side of campus and the second stage was conducted across the campus. Some of the students were told that when they got to the second location, they were to talk about jobs that they held while a student. The other students were told that when they got to the second location, they were to present the story of the Good Samaritan. Neither group knew the other group existed. Then they told students various things to make it seem more or less urgent to get to the second location. Some were told that they were already late for the second appointment. Others were told that they needed to leave quickly and get to the other location so as not to be late. And a third group was told to that they had plenty of time to get to the next building.

What the students didn’t know was that the study actually had nothing to do with what they were told would be studied. The researchers posted an actor in an alley where the students would have to pass him. He was dressed like a homeless man. He was told to cough twice and then groan.

Again, these are good seminary students. What do you expect them to do? Some actually stepped over the man just to get to their next appointment. Even many of the ones who were to present the story of the Good Samaritan at the second location failed to stop, with 47% of those who were actively thinking of that story failing to help the man in need.

Do you know what the greatest factor was in whether or not the students would stop and help the man in need? It was how much of a hurry they were in. Overall, only 40% of the students stopped and offered help and only 10% of the ones who were told that they were already late offered to help.

Mercy requires compassion and action. Mercy is compassion in action. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

This is a little dangerous to say, because I don’t think that the only reason we should offer mercy is so that we will receive mercy, but that is what Jesus says. Is this a reference to helping people in need, or to forgiving people? Again, it is not an either/or, but a both/and. Jesus will say in the next chapter, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matt 6:14-15). Or in Matthew 7:1-2, Jesus says, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

God will treat us the way we treat other people. This is hammered home in Matthew 25, the passage about the sheep and the goats. Rather than looking at this promise of mercy and forgiveness as something that we have to do in order to receive mercy and forgiveness, I would prefer to frame it in the positive.

The great theologian, Karl Barth, was once asked what the most important lesson he ever learned was. Karl Barth had written a lot of theology. In fact, at one point after a lecture, a student started a question by saying, “Professor Barth, I’ve read everything that you have ever written.” Barth interrupted the student and said, “My goodness. Even I haven’t read everything that I have written!” Back to the first story. Barth was asked what the most important lesson he ever learned was, and he responded by singing, “Jesus loves me, this I know.”

After studying the Beatitudes, and especially today’s focus on hungering and thirsting for righteousness and the merciful, I think I can summarize my theology up with a simple maxim, much like Barth did. And this teaching comes just two chapters after the Beatitudes. These two beatitudes can be reduced to the phrase, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

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Mourning and Meekness

Matthew 5:1-12

1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them. He said:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

We are in week two of a five-part sermon series on the Beatitudes. Last week we considered what it might mean to be poor in spirit, and what it means to be blessed. I stumbled across Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, which he calls “The Message,” this week. A paraphrase is different from a translation. The NIV, KJV, and NRSV are translations, which attempt to give you the English equivalent for each word that is in the original Greek and Hebrew versions of the Bible. A paraphrase isn’t worried about getting every word exactly right, but instead tries to capture the idea that the passage is trying to convey. This is helpful, because a lot of our language is made up of idioms and common phrases that shouldn’t be taken literally. For instance, if I asked you, “What’s up?” You would probably tell me how your day is going, how you are feeling, or what’s new in your life. If you went back to the days when Jesus walked the earth and asked, “What’s up?” they might say, “The sun, moon, and stars?” Or as my high school physics teacher used to like to say when someone would ask what’s up, “The opposite of the force of gravity!”

So there are advantages to using paraphrases of the Bible, especially if you find yourself struggling through some of the thick and dense language of our modern translation. There are also disadvantages, mostly because a paraphrase requires that the translator interprets what he or she thinks the text is trying to communicate rather than giving it to you straight and expecting you to figure it out on your own.

So I really like what Peterson did with some of the Beatitudes, and some are a little iffy. But I really love how he paraphrases last week’s beatitude, “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”

I’ll probably draw from the Message some as we continue through this series, but I also want to make references to our more traditional translations as well so that those who are familiar with those texts don’t feel lost.

Last week’s beatitude may not have applied to you. You may not consider yourself to be poor in spirit, or at the end of your rope. But don’t worry there are more blessings to be handed out. If last week’s beatitude didn’t apply to you, perhaps today’s will.

I know this first one applies to me.

I know what it means to mourn. Less than one month ago we said goodbye to the only grandfather I can remember, the only grandparent that I have had for my entire adult life. Four weeks ago yesterday, I was standing outside in single-digit temperatures, praying the final blessing upon my grandfather and committing his body to the soil. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

One of the things that I do as a pastor is help people during their times of grief. I help them to mourn. I sit with people in the hospitals. I go with them to the funeral homes to plan the services. And I do my part in funerals, praying, preaching, trying to love people, trying to give them hope. But in all honesty, after a while, you can become kind of hardened to it all.

This is, in part, a good thing. If I was a blubbering mess at every funeral, I wouldn’t be of much use. But it isn’t a switch that you can turn on and turn off again. I’ve learned to be strong in those moments, and it isn’t easy to go back again. So at my grandfather’s funeral, some members of my family openly and honestly mourned the loss. Sure, I shed a few tears, but I kept it together pretty well. Yet I still wonder what I missed by not being able to mourn.

Perhaps you are familiar with the phrase, “Whistling past the graveyard.” Whistling past the graveyard is an idiom used to describe people who seem to be oblivious to the pain and suffering around them. In the midst of suffering and pain, they are strangely upbeat and optimistic. Again, there are times when it is necessary to present yourself in a steady way. But there is a difference between keeping it together and becoming inured to the suffering and pain around you.

Jesus says in verse four, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” I wonder if those who fail to mourn appropriately will miss out on that comfort.

But we would be making a huge mistake if we assumed that when Jesus said “Blessed are those who mourn” that he was referring exclusively to those who have lost a love one. We mourn many things. We mourn missed opportunities. We mourn the loss of our youth (back in my day I could throw a football over those mountains!). We mourn tragic experiences. We mourn at the news of illness, suffering, and pain. And as we find time and time again in the Old Testament, the Jewish people mourned for their lost way of life and freedoms.

It has been very helpful for me to read through these texts with my commentaries open on the table, because there seems to be a lot of references to the Psalms, the Prophets, and the Proverbs in these beatitudes. Remember that Jesus’s audience would have been made up exclusively of Jewish men and maybe a few women at this point. They would have grown up learning these texts, texts like Isaiah 61:1-4,

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (blessings?) and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor. They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.

This passage, which Jesus quoted in his first recorded sermon, talks about the Israelites mourning for their loss of the Promised Land, the loss of their families, the loss of their Temple. Psalm 137:1-4 also comes to mind, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?”

What does God say to those who mourn? How does God address those who long for the past, who desire to return to the way things had been? God responds with comfort. As Handel made famous in his Messiah, Isaiah 40 serves as a reminder to us of God’s response in the midst of mourning: “Comfort, comfort ye my people… Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.”

Those who mourn aren’t just experiencing the loss of a loved one. To those whose children don’t develop into the person they had hoped they would be, God speaks words of comfort. To those who receive a bad report from the doctor, God speaks words of comfort. To those who lose a job, who lose a home, and maybe even those whose favorite team loses the Super Bowl, God speaks words of comfort. God is on your side. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

We understand mourning, but come on now. What are we supposed to do with this next beatitude? Verse 5, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

When I hear the word meek, the first thing that comes to my mind is Beaker from the Muppets. Beaker could only say “Meep,” which sounds a lot like meek.

So what does it mean to be meek? One helpful way to understand what it means to be meek is to look at the opposite of meek, to look at the antonyms to meek. The opposite of meek is to be dominant and controlling. I heard someone compare the opposite of meekness to being an “angry alpha male.”[1] Many of the word leaders would fit that category quite well!

The Greek word we translate as meek is πραΰς,” which isn’t really all that much fun to say, but it is interesting. Praus literally means “mildness of disposition, gentleness.” Not exactly words we commonly associate with Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, or Kim Jong Un.

What do we associate with praus? It is one of the Fruit of the Spirit. Paul writes that when a person is filled with the Holy Spirit, they will exhibit these signs, or bear these fruit. Galatians 5:22-23, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”

A number of times throughout the New Testament Jesus is described as being praus, meek and gentle, like when he rides into Jerusalem on a donkey. But here is a trap that I don’t want us to fall into. To be praus is not to be something that rhymes with meek. To be praus is not to be weak. Praus is power under control. The Greeks actually used the word praus to describe their war horses. These powerful stallions had to keep their power under control and only use it in an appropriate manner and at an appropriate time. This took discipline. This took training.

Blessed are the wild stallions who are able to control their strength and not dominate.

This is interesting to me because so much of our world is controlled by alpha males. I mentioned a few of our world leaders who would fit well into that category, but probably most leaders of most nations would. These powerful men rise into leadership positions and if you mess with them, they will blow you off the face of the earth! Of the two genders in our traditional binary classification system, which one tends to be more gentle? The women.

This brings back memories of the high school locker room where the alpha males, who usually hit puberty first—shaving before many of our voices changed—challenging the smaller, weaker boys to see who could do the most pushups, the most pullups, or even to fight. They would dare the others to take a swing at them, to try to pin them on the ground. And if they refused, they were called feminine names like Nancy, or a sissy.

I’m not saying that there aren’t plenty of alpha females out there, too. There are blood-thirsty women who will stop at nothing to get ahead. But from my experience, it is we men who could learn a thing or two about being praus, about being gentle.

Those who mourn will be comforted. So what do the meek get? The earth! Like after a loved on passes away, and you are dividing up their possession among family members. I got the car! I got the house! What did you get, Billy? I got the earth.

To translate this as saying that the meek will inherit the earth, as in the globe, is a little misleading. It is better to think of it earth as in soil. Or an even better translation is to say that the meek will inherit the land.

As I said earlier, the Beatitudes are filled with references the Hebrew Bible and we must remember that Jesus’s first audience was Jewish. So when a Jewish person hears that the meek will inherit the land, they would most likely think of the Promised Land.

But as Jesus was speaking these words, the Promised Land was under the control of the Roman Empire. In fact, the Promised Land had transferred ownership several times since the Hebrew people took possession of it. And how did land usually pass from one country to another? Obviously, they reached a deal based on the fair market value, worked through the paperwork with a real-estate lawyer, secured a loan, and then celebrated on closing day with milk and honey. I hear that land was flowing with it.

Nope, land was acquired through war. The Romans acquired the Promised Land in the same fashion that other nations, including the Hebrew people, acquired it before them. The most powerful among them—the alpha males!—led them to victory.

But it isn’t the alpha males who inherit the land. They may have run of the locker rooms and even control many of the most powerful nations in the world today. But it is the meek, the gentle, who will in the end inherit the earth.

And this isn’t the first time that the Hebrew people have heard this. Psalm 37:10-11 says, “A little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look for them, they will not be found. But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy peace and prosperity.”

So why this turn of expectations? Why are the meek getting the earth/land? Recall the image of God setting the world right at the end of time. In Revelation 21 John is given a vision of the heavens descending upon the earth and there is a new heaven and a new earth. They are fused. They are one. There is no more pain. There is no more suffering. Death has been destroyed. And though there are a number of words that John could have used to describe the new earth, he uses the same word that Jesus does when Jesus says that the meek shall inherit the land, the soil, the earth.

The alpha males and alpha females don’t inherit the Land, or the earth, because they acquire their power and possessions through force and intimidation. But power and coercion don’t have a place in the final Promised Land. Greed and exploitation have no place in the coming Promised Land. The meek and the gentle inherit the land, the earth, because we will all be made like our Lord in those days. And our Lord is meek. Our Lord is gentle.

As Psalm 37 begins, these evil and wicked things will wither away like the grass. Those who humble themselves, those who control their strength like a powerful stallion, they are the ones who will inherit the earth.

[1] See Bruxy Cavey’s sermon from Woodland Hills on the meek.

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Poor in Spirit

Matthew 5:1-12

1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them. He said:

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

The Beatitudes. What a beautiful and unexpected opening to the Sermon on the Mount. Here is the one proclaimed by John to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, the one the Magi understood to be the king of the Jews. And he opens what is probably his most influential sermon by pronouncing blessings upon an unexpected group of people. Not the rich, not the powerful, but the poor in spirit and the meek. In my studies this week I came across a commentary that said that there is probably no greater argument against the Prosperity Gospel than the Beatitudes. While our world wants to associate blessings with faster cars, bigger houses, and better health, how does Jesus begin his most famous sermon? By blessing the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the hungry, the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers, and the persecuted.

So you think you know who God favors? God surely favors those who have it all together, who never doubt, who are always too blessed to be stressed. No, Jesus pronounces blessings on those who don’t have it all together, those who struggle to make ends meet. Jesus pronounces blessings upon people like you and me.

I’m going to try something a little different for the month of February (and start a week early). I want to take this familiar passage of scripture and walk through it for several weeks, looking at two verses or two beatitudes each week. We will have a five-week-long sermon series on the Beatitudes. And because there are an odd number of beatitudes, I want to spend half of our time today as an introduction to the Beatitudes and the other half addressing the first beatitude.

The first thing that I want to do by way of introduction to the Beatitudes is simply to admit that I have been wrong in the past. I know, that may come as a surprise to some of you as you are not too familiar with people standing up on a Sunday morning and telling you that they have made mistakes. Well I have, and I’ll surely make more.

Specifically, I remember a time when I spoke about the Sermon on the Mount and described it as beginning with a large group and claiming that people likely walked away when he started challenging them and their firmly-held convictions. “Blessed are the who? I’m out of here!” “You say unto me to love my enemy and go the extra mile? I’m going to go a mile away from you right now!”

But if we look at how the Sermon on the Mount starts and ends, we find a different story. Verses 1-2 say, “Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.”

Jesus started with a crowd, down at the foot of the mountain. In the previous chapter, Jesus gave his first sermon, which nearly got him killed, he called some disciples, and then he goes on preaching, teaching, and healing. People are coming out to hear what he has to say, to see if he really is the Lamb of God that John was proclaiming. But when Jesus goes up the mountain, only his disciples come to hear what he has to say. And according to Matthew’s gospel, there are only four disciples at this point.

So Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount starts out with a really small crowd of four. But when we get to the end of his sermon in chapter 7, we read this: “When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law. When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him.” (7:28-8:1).

The thing that amazes me is that I assumed that as Jesus offers what is arguably his most difficult teaching on how we are to live as his followers that people would leave. Just the opposite is true. Even though this teaching is difficult, upside down, and backwards, the small group of four quickly grows to a large crowd.

And it all begins with blessings.

But just what is a blessing? We have maybe overused the phrase in our day and age to the point that we really don’t know. When someone sneezes, we say, “Bless you.” We offer our blessing when people get married or when they celebrate a birthday. We even say things like “Children are a blessing.”

The Greek word we translate as “blessed” is makarios. When the Greek Bible was translated into Latin, makarios was translated with the Latin word beatus, which we further Anglicize to get the word beatitude. Makarios and beatus are really challenging words to put into English. They literally mean happy, fortunate, or blissful. There is even a common translation of the Beatitudes that says “Happy are those who…”

Happy are those who mourn? That doesn’t make any sense. Fortunate are you when you are persecuted. Yeah, I don’t think we are quite there yet.

Instead, I like to think of makarios and blessing as a sign that God is with you, God has your back, or as a former pastor[1] liked to say, “God is on your side.”

Who wouldn’t want that?

Mary famously sings in her Magnificat, “From now on all generations will call me blessed.” Abraham was blessed so that he could to be a blessing to all nations. Makarios, beatus, blessed-ness. This is the state of God being with you, not because of anything that you have done or earned. A blessing is a gift, it is grace. It is the very presence of God with you, not because of what you have done, but often in spite of what you have done.

But notice that the Beatitudes aren’t necessarily things that you should strive for. Yes, it is good to be a peacemaker and it is good to be merciful. But are we supposed to be poor in spirit? Are we supposed to try to be persecuted? To mourn? Surely this is not some sort of formula where all we have to do is follow these teachings and we will be blessed.

One of the confusing things about the Greek language is that it has what is called a mood (kind of like some four year olds I know). The beatitudes are in the indicative mood, not the imperative. This isn’t Jesus telling people that they should be poor in spirit or to be persecuted. That would be the imperative, it would be a command. The Ten Commandments are imperative. Thou shalt not…, and Honor your father and mother. But the indicative mood explains what is already happening. It is descriptive, not prescriptive.

I’ve probably played around with the name “beatitude” before, making it into words like the “be attitudes,” or even the “how-to-be attitudes.” But these aren’t commandments. Jesus isn’t saying that we should be poor in spirit and then God will be with us, have our back, or be on our side. No, Jesus is describing the reality that when we are poor in spirit, God is with us and we are blessed.

So let’s look at this first beatitude. Verse 3, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

To be poor in spirit suggests that you are lacking something. To be poor in anything means that you have an insufficient amount of it. If you are financially poor, you don’t have enough money. If you say that I am a poor preacher, you are saying that I lack the necessary skills required to be a good communicator.

Insufficient. Inadequate. You are below average. You simply don’t add up.

Surely, we all know that feeling. I don’t always feel like I’m good enough at being a father, a husband, a pastor. But this isn’t just any old kind of poverty. Jesus specifically says poor in spirit.

What does that even mean? What does it mean to be poor in spirit? Jesus uses the word pneuma, which is word that we translate as breath, wind, and spirit. This could be a reference to the Holy Spirit, but the day of Pentecost has not yet happened, so Jesus probably wasn’t thinking about the indwelling of the Holy Spirit as we often talk about in the church.

Instead, I think of cheerleaders who are abounding in spirit…team spirit! Kurt Cobain, I am told, “Smells like teen spirit.” Or around the holidays, we talk about being in the Christmas spirit. The Grinch’s heart grew three sizes, and he was filled with the Christmas spirit. Is Jesus talking about not having the energy to cheer for your favorite team or to put up the Christmas lights? No, I’m pretty sure that’s not what Jesus is talking about. But we are getting there.

When you see someone moping around, depressed, and defeated, you might say that they have a broken spirit. If a cheerleader is bubbling over with team spirit, and the Grinch is bubbling over with Christmas spirit, some people’s cups overflow with a spirit for life. They are vivacious. They are fun to be around. They are the life of the party. It’s the people on the other end of the spectrum whom Jesus blesses.

It is the destitute. The down and out. Those people who feel like they have been kicked in the teeth and seemingly have no purpose, those are the ones who Jesus comes and says to them, “God is with you. God is on your side. Blessed are you.”

These are the people who are experiencing a spiritual bankruptcy. These are the people that Jesus blesses. These are the people to whom Jesus promises the kingdom of heaven.

In Luke 18, Jesus tells a story about two men who went to the Temple to pray. One man was a Pharisee, an upright man who seemed to have it all together. The other was a tax collector. He worked for the enemy, and likely made a profit by cheating his own neighbors out of their hard-earned money. The Pharisee prays first, thanking God that he is not like this tax collector. This Pharisee keeps the Law. He fasts twice a week. He tithes 10% of all he has.

The tax collector, however, doesn’t provide some sort of list of his accomplishments for God to admire. Instead, he recites a simple phrase: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

It is the tax collector who realizes that he needs God. The Pharisee has it all together. The tax collector is poor in spirit. And it was the tax collector who went home in a right relationship with God. It is the tax collector who will inherit the kingdom of heaven.

But that doesn’t make any sense. Why are the poor in spirit inheriting the kingdom, while those who have it all together seem to be missing out? Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, chapter 14, Jesus tells the story about a man who was preparing a great banquet. He invites many people, and they all seem to have excuses. One man has just purchased property, another a team of oxen. A third person has just married a lovely woman, so he is a little busy right now. All of these people seem to be doing okay. You need finances to purchase land; you need money to buy oxen, and you probably already own land if you buy a team of oxen. Even getting married was an investment back in those days. These may not have been the richest of the rich, but things were going well for them.

And they chose not to go to the banquet.

So the master sends his servants out to invite a different demographic. Luke 14:21b, “Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.” When these people came to the banquet, there was still room at the table. So the master sends his servant out once more. This time he tells him to go to the streets, he sends him to the gutters, and invite anyone he finds there to join him at the table. And it is these people who accept the invitation. They, you might say, inherit the kingdom of heaven.

These are the poor in spirit. These are society’s rejects. These are the down and outs. They aren’t the perky cheerleaders or the redeemed Grinch. They are the ones who seem to hate life because life seems to hate them. These are the ones upon whom Jesus proclaims blessings.

No, we aren’t supposed to strive to be poor in spirit; to be poor in spirit is not the goal. Don’t try to be poor in spirit so that God will bless you.

But if you are broken. If you have been hurt. If you have made bad decisions or if bad things have happened to you at no fault of your own, know this: God is on your side.

If you have been trying to start a family and it just isn’t happening. If you gotten pregnant and not wanted to be. If you have cheated on your spouse. If you have lied to your best friend. If you have a debilitating disease or a crippling injury. God is on your side.

God, the creator of heaven and earth, so loved this world that he came to us as one of us. God entered into this broken world and lived among us broken people. And he did so not to condemn this world and all of us broken people. He came to save us. When God in Christ Jesus began his most influential sermon, he didn’t start by congratulating the religious folks who had it all together. Maybe he would have if there was such a thing, but there’s not. Nobody has it all together, some just do a better job of looking as if they do.

No, when the creator of heaven and earth came to live among us and to save us, he started by proclaiming blessings upon the lowly, the downtrodden, the broken, the forgotten. To the poor in spirit, Jesus proclaimed, “God is on your side.”

 

[1] I structured much of this sermon on Rob Bell’s sermon from several years back at Mars Hill.

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Color Blind

1 Corinthians 1:10-18New International Version (NIV)

10 I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”

13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

I had the opportunity to attend Eastern Mennonite University’s School for Leadership Training this past week. This event always provides an opportunity to see some old friends, make a few new acquaintances, and learn something in the process. This year we had two keynote speakers, Christena Cleveland, a social psychologist who teaches at Duke Divinity School in the area of the church and racial reconciliation, and Drew Hart, a theologian who teaches at Messiah College and specializes in African American expressions of Christianity. So we heard a lot about church and racial relations throughout the week, and as you can probably imagine, these conversations can get pretty intense.

During one of the breaks, I found myself sitting next to Cheryl. Cheryl is an African-American, a grandmother, and a seminary student. She is also completely blind, walking with a collapsible cane, wearing sunglasses at all times. So I instantly had respect for this woman, because I know that reading theology books and studying Greek and Hebrew is tough enough when you can actually see. But here she was, a woman in her 60’s, who had just finished her Master’s in Counseling degree the year before, taking seminary classes because she wants to be able to do pastoral counseling, counseling from a Christian perspective.

So I’m sitting, talking with Cheryl and some others who are gathered around a large table, and I mention something about my privilege in society as a white man. Without missing a beat, Cheryl turns toward me, and in perfect Ebonics says, “What? You mean to tell me you ain’t a brotha?”

Sometimes it amazes me how well we are able to draw dividing lines between ourselves and others. I’m on this side, you are on the other. Race is just one obvious dividing line, perhaps because it is so obvious. If you see someone, you can tell—for the most part—if they look like you or not. Black, white, Asian. We also divide based on political affiliation, church or religious denominations, income level, education level, and social location. It is pretty easy to divide up into subgroups, and we do it very well.

When I was younger, I remember that it was kind of cool for hip people to say things like, “I don’t see color. I just see people.” Or maybe my favorite was when people would say that they are color blind. I probably have even said that at some point myself.

But today I am less convinced that being color blind, in a metaphorical or literal sense, is a good thing. We see color, and we often divide people up and differentiate even if we claim that we don’t. No one is blind to race, even my new friend Cheryl new that I was white. I think that rather than claiming to not see color, we would do better to appreciate the beauty of diversity in the world and in the people around us.

Here’s the important thing to remember: we can still be different and be in unity.

Our text for this morning is the Lectionary Epistle for the fourth Sunday of 2017, so don’t think that I went out and picked this one just because of the things that are happening around us. This text was assigned to today years ago. But it also fits our context very well. Funny how the Bible continues to speak to us today after a couple thousand years, isn’t it. In a time when our world seems more divided than ever, we yet again come to one of the many texts in the Bible that remind us to continue to work together in unity.

Paul writes this letter to the church in Corinth, which based upon these two existing letters, 1 and 2 Corinthians, really seems to be messed up. If you read these two letters you find that this church is dealing with issues like sexual immorality, social class division, gender roles, and idolatry, just to name a few. And in our text for this morning, we find that this small church is dividing over leadership. Some people claim to follow Paul, others claim to follow Apollos. Still others claim to follow Cephas, which would most likely be a reference to the Apostle Peter. One final group even has the audacity to say that they follow Christ. Now if you ask me, that last one sounds like a good option to me! But if I was in that situation and I claimed to follow one of the other leaders, only to have someone else say, “Well, I follow Christ,” I would probably qualify that person’s attitude as “Holier than thou.”

We don’t know just what area of their Christianity Paul is referring to here, but we know based on the book of Acts that Paul and Peter had some disagreements about things like eating with Gentiles. And that may be what he is referring to in our text, but we can’t say for sure. What is known is that these early Christians are dividing up, some claiming to follow the teaching of one man, others claiming to follow another.

It is a good thing we don’t do that today, right? We actually name our churches and denominations after the people we follow. Yes, we follow Christ, but we follow Christ as interpreted by Menno Simons. That’s why we are Menno-nites. At least the Methodists didn’t choose to name their denomination after their leader. But Methodists follow Christ as interpreted by John Wesley. Presbyterians follow Christ as interpreted by John Knox. You can take about any denomination and trace their roots back to a person or a group of persons who gave shape to a way of following Jesus.

Some say I follow Menno. Others claim to follow one of the Johns, Calvin, Wesley, or Knox.

And guess what? I think denominations are a necessary thing. Even more so, I think that they are a good thing. In and of themselves, there is nothing wrong with denominations. I’m glad that there are churches out there that focus on some aspects of the Gospel, and others focus on other areas. I’m glad some churches sing praise and worship music while others keep the old hymns alive.

Where I think we get into trouble is when we start to draw these dividing lines and then write off those who are on the other side. We sometimes call this “othering.” It is us versus them. And of course, we get it right. The other side, they are wrong. When we write people off as being “other,” we no longer need to engage them, their experiences, and their thought process.

I can only speak from my experience as a white man, and I will own up to my personal prejudices. I am not as guilty as some others, but I too fail. Sometimes we see a person of a different ethnicity do something, and we say, “That’s just the way ‘they’ are.” That’s just what African Americans do. That’s just what Latinos do. That’s just what Asians do.

And it isn’t just racial, it is denominational as well. Those Baptists, they just care about a person’s soul, and couldn’t care about the person who is hungry. Those Methodists…just care about the person who is hungry, and don’t care about a person’s soul. Those Mennonites won’t fight in a war, they hate America.

That’s right, it goes both ways. And it is really easy to write off another race or another denomination, lumping all the people together, without ever considering why they believe what they believe. But it doesn’t feel good when people do it to us, does it?

I think it was Jesus who gave us a rule about this, I believe he even called it the Golden Rule.

I don’t like it when people make assumptions about me based on my race, and I don’t like it when people make assumptions about me based on my religion. So why do I do it to other people?

Because it is easier.

I heard a number of stories last week at my seminar on race relations, and one that Dr. Cleveland shared really hit home for me. Perhaps you have noticed that we recently have experienced a change in leadership here in the United States, and about ½ the country isn’t happy about it. Christena said that she was talking to one of her co-workers at Duke, who teaches Ethics. Duke isn’t really a Liberal/Progressive or Conservative school, in my opinion. I’d say it is pretty much in the center. But she described this co-worker as a very progressive ethicist. Soon after the election, Dr. Cleveland was having a conversation with this ethicist and he said, “I just don’t know how anyone could vote for Donald Trump.”

Remember that Christena is a Social Scientist, which means that it is her job to research how people live and interact with one another. She replied, “Really? You don’t know how anyone could vote for Donald Trump? Let me ask you an important question: Do you know anyone who voted for Donald Trump?”

He couldn’t name one.

I think that this is becoming more and more of an issue today. In some ways, our world has shrunk considerably over the last few decades. We can connect with people around the country or even around the world in seconds. Last week I Facetimed with my brothers in Ohio, seeing their faces and the inside of their homes, right on my phone. I exchanged Facebook instant messages with a friend in Scotland, talking to him as fast as I could talk. I receive news on my mobile device from places I’d never heard of ten years ago, and now are a part of my life. Places like Aleppo and Mosul are closer to a reality to me because of our shrinking world.

But modern technology shrinks our worlds in negative ways as well. With all of the choices for news outlets today, we select the news programs that most closely reflect our political leanings and interests. Do you get your news from NPR, MSNBC, CNN, or Fox News? You have a choice, and we tend to listen to sources that enforce our current leanings, not ones that challenge us. You used to have three choices for your television news: Walter Cronkite, Tom Brokaw, or Peter Jennings. And I don’t think that they really said anything all that different from one another. If you watched one over the other, it was probably because you liked their personality or their voice more than the others.

Years ago, our circles of friends tended to be people who lived close to us. Especially in our growing up years, many of us would name relatives as our best friends. Cousins, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters. And I don’t know about you, but I’m a lot different than some of my family members. But we spent time together, we talked with one another. These were our friends. This was our community.

But today, with our ability to connect with people around the world, we tend to connect with people just like us. This is totally normal, and I’m just as guilt of it as anyone else. We have shared experiences, shared likes, similar jobs and educations. It is easier today to surround yourself with people just like you. But that doesn’t make it right. We can do better.

I actually find some beauty in a somewhat strange practice here at Staunton Mennonite. There are a number of you who grew up in other denominations: Methodists, Episcopals, Nazarenes, Catholics, C&MA, etc. It is strange that you all found your way into a small Mennonite church in Staunton, VA. But it may be even more strange that some of you still self-identify by the denomination of your youth. You say things like, “I’m an Episcopal who worships in a Mennonite church.” “I’m a Methodist who worships in a Mennonite church.”

That’s strange because some people would say that by worshipping in a Mennonite church, you are by default a Mennonite.

But I think that there is something beautiful about it all. To self-identify as a Methodist in a Mennonite church means that there is something about that identity that you wish to claim for yourself. You aren’t willing to let that go because something from that experience has been life-giving and nourishing for you. Yet there is something that keeps bringing you back to Staunton Mennonite. There are some really good people here who genuinely seek to love God and love their neighbor. And while this is feeding you, you aren’t ready to get rid of everything else that has been nourishing you up to this point. And you shouldn’t have to give it up! I’m not going to ask you to recant your previous theological instruction to worship with us and I am glad for the diversity that those who come from other traditions bring to our fellowship.

And with those traditions come other ways of interpreting scripture. Every time I preach a message about nonviolence, I can count on one of you to say something or ask difficult questions. What about Hitler? What about if your family was being attacked? Should we stand by as Aleppo and Mosul are bombed?

I have some responses, but every time I’m asked those questions, I am forced to dig deeper. Every time I get asked what we should be doing in Aleppo and Mosul, I need to not only question my own understanding, but to consider the perspective of the other person. And no, that’s not easy, and it isn’t always fun. It would be so much easier to surround ourselves with likeminded individuals, but would that really be better?

When Paul calls for unity in the church in Corinth, he isn’t saying that everyone just needs to love one another and get along. He isn’t saying that they should simply overlook some ethical questions and love each other. No, read the rest of what Paul wrote, and that is clear. What Paul is saying here, and says elsewhere as well, is that we must continue to engage and interact with other people, no matter how difficult it is. If you don’t know someone who voted for Donald Trump, that’s a problem. If you don’t understand why African American men still feel oppressed, you should ask one.

We will naturally gather and group according to our similarities. That’s okay. But in Christ, there is no longer male or female, Jew or Greek, slave or free, Republican or Democrat. Yes, Paul knew that there were still men and women, Jews and Greeks. But that’s the foolishness of the cross. At the cross, we all come together in unity. And a symbol of death and humiliation is what keeps us together.

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8:16 on a Saturday

John 1:29-42

29The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” 35The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”

37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). 42He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

I want to thank everyone who helped by stepping in at the last moment during my absence last week. We were back in Ohio for my grandfather’s funeral, but it was also a time to catch up with friends and family members that we hadn’t seen for some time. But being back in my old neighborhood did more than provide time to catch up on social matters. It allowed us to catch up on a few errands as well.

One of my high school friends married into a family that owns a meat processing facility and storefront. This family is comprised of a bunch of big, burly men with long beards. Recently they started selling their own kind of seasoning, which they call “The Bearded Butcher Blend Seasoning.” Sonya mentioned at one time that she wanted to try this seasoning, so as I was driving by, I made a quick stop and picked up a variety pack. And there in the store, sure enough, are the bearded butchers themselves.

They are really quite intimidating to see, hoisting cuts of meat and throwing them around with their bare hands. One of these bearded butchers is about 6’3” tall and wears a size 13 shoe. Do you know what he weighs?

Meat.

(Yes, that was an extremely long setup for a bad joke.)

We are in the season of Epiphany in the church calendar. Advent was a time of waiting for Jesus to come, and Epiphany is the realization of who Jesus is. When someone says that they have had an epiphany, they often mean to say that they just had a really good idea. It is like a metaphorical sheet has been lifted and now they are able to see something new for the first time.

This is why we include stories of the Wise Men in Epiphany. They were among the first to have the sheet removed to see Jesus for who he was. And today’s text includes the story of John the Baptist and the first disciples of Jesus recognizing who he is.

But before we get to all of that, I want to make sure that you are all aware that tomorrow, January 16, is my son’s birthday. Seven years ago, Paxton came into our lives, kicking and screaming. I remember the event very well. We put off going to the hospital for as long as we could, mostly because Sonya didn’t want to get sent back home because she was experiencing false labor. After a few hours we called my family in Ohio to let them know what was happening and we made the trip to the hospital, overnight bag in hand, walked right up to the nurses’ station, and requested a room. Yes, we got some strange looks riding up that elevator.

I’ll save you the gory details about the next couple of hours. At 8:16 pm, on Saturday, January 16, 2010, our 7 lb., 14 oz. Paxton was born. I didn’t make it to church the next morningJ.

8:16 pm. I didn’t need to look that up, I just remembered. I had to look to see what time church started today, but I remembered that Paxton was born at 8:16 pm. When I need to write down my wife’s phone number, I have to look it up. But I remembered 8:16 pm.

Isn’t it interesting the way the details of certain life events stay with us? It is usually the events that change our lives in one way or another that we remember the most. Where were you when you first heard the news about September 11, 2001? Where were you when you heard about the moon landing or that President Kennedy was shot? We don’t have to consciously try to remember these things. Often, they just stick.

There is an interesting story embedded within our text for this morning. We have been talking the last few weeks about Jesus’ baptism, and today’s text is the closest thing we find to John’s account of that event. Notice, there is actually no mention of Jesus being baptized in this text, but when we piece together our other gospels, it seems as if that is what is going on here. John sees Jesus, and in a moment of epiphany, John declares that Jesus is the Lamb of God who has come to take away the sins of the world. John sees the spirit descend on Jesus.

The next day, John is spending time with two of his disciples, because he too had followers, when Jesus once again approaches. And once again John declares that Jesus is the Lamb of God. This time, however, it seems that he is saying it for the good of the two disciples who are with him. And what do those disciples do? They follow Jesus.

We’ve probably all been in similar situations before. We finally get the chance to speak to someone we respect and look up to, and you just say something silly. That’s kind of what happens with John’s disciples. John just told them that Jesus was the Lamb of God, and they follow him. Jesus then asks them what I believe was probably a philosophical/theological question. He asks, “What are you looking for?”

A deep question indeed! What are any of us looking for? Inner peace? Holiness? Happiness? The Lamb of God asks them a question, and they respond by…not answering his question. Instead, they respond to his question with a question of their own. “Where are you staying?”

But here is the really interesting thing. Jesus doesn’t laugh off these men and their bumbling questions. He responds by saying, “Come and see.”

Throughout the gospels we find Jesus dining with people across the socioeconomic spectrum, entering their homes, breaking bread together. And what is the first thing Jesus does when these bumbling men come to him and answer his question with an unrelated question? He invites them to come spend some time with him in his apartment or hotel room.

Now notice what we find in the second part of verse 39, immediately after Jesus invites the disciples of John to join him at his home: “It was about four o’clock in the afternoon.”

That information isn’t that helpful, and it seems out of place. Why did the author of this gospel feel that it was important to include the time when this happened? Does it even matter?

The gospel of John is believed to have been written by John the disciple of Jesus, the brother of James. Remember, Peter, James, and John had a little sail boat. Well in John’s gospel, John hesitates to refer to himself by name. You know, it’s awkward to refer to yourself in the third person. Instead, he chooses to often refer to himself with the humble title, “The Disciple Jesus loved.”

Later we are told that one of the disciples of John the Baptist who left to follow Jesus that day was Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter. The second disciple is never named, and many scholars believe that John is writing about his own experience of being called by Jesus.

So why does it matter that this event took place at 4:00 in the afternoon? It doesn’t. What matters is that John was able to recall what time this took place. This event was so important, so life-altering, that John could remember exactly where and when it took place.

Like 8:16 pm, on Saturday, January 16, 2010.

If you take a closer look at this text you will notice that in the last five verses or so, in the section involving the calling of the disciples, three different times we are given a word and then offered the translation for that word: Rabbi, Messiah, and Cephas. These are either Hebrew or Aramaic words, Aramaic being a local dialect of Hebrew, like Yiddish or Plattdeutsch. This is the language Jesus and his disciples and most 1st-century Jews would have spoken in daily conversation. But the New Testament was written in the more formal Greek. So after offering the Hebrew/Aramaic word, John translates the actual word that would have been spoken into the Greek language. Rabbi, which means teacher. Messiah, which means Christ, or anointed one. Cephas, which in Greek is Petros, the Greek word for rock.

Just an aside, you may remember the early Christian Rock group known as Petra. I don’t know if they intentionally used the word Petra because they were playing Rock music, or if it was a reference to Jesus as the rock. Either way, Petra is the feminine form of the word, and the group was made up of all men. I’m just saying, this is why we study Greek, people.

It isn’t uncommon to have a non-Greek word included in the New Testament, only to be translated by the writer. But this is unique in that this happens three times in five verses. You get the sense again that this is an eye-witness account of something big. This is John being called by Jesus, and he is recalling the exact words spoken and the exact time…or as exact of a time as is possible in a world before we had watches and cell phones.

This is 8:16 on a Saturday. This is the day, time, and place where everything changed.

So what does this mean for us living in the 21st century? The first thing that I want to do as we move into the practical aspect of this teaching is to squash a common misunderstanding. There are religious traditions that claim that a person must have an “8:16 on a Saturday” moment when they decided to “follow Jesus,” or “give their life to Christ,” or “pray the sinner’s prayer” in order to go to heaven. Indeed, there are biblical examples of this happening. Paul was blinded by the light, and he was converted. 3,000 people witnessed the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost and they converted. John and Andrew were invited to stay with Jesus, and they became his followers at 4:00 in the afternoon. But nowhere in the Bible does it say that everyone will have that kind of experience.

I do not think that it is necessary to have a conversion experience like Paul, John, Andrew, or the 3,000 at Pentecost. Many people who grew up in the church have been gradually drawn more and more to this one we call Jesus. I don’t think it matters how you become a follower of Jesus. I believe it matters that you become a follower of Jesus.

So maybe not every Christian has an 8:16 on a Saturday moment in their walk with Christ. Maybe not everyone can trace their life back to a time when something major changed. But my hope is that I can help others have their 8:16 moment.

I’ve shared some of my frustrations that come from my experiences with other Christians before. I’ve shared the hurt that I felt when another church left religious tracks on the front and side door of our church, asking if we know how to get to heaven. More recently, we had visitors from another church show up on our front porch who tried to evangelize me, never asking if I had a church home or was a follower of Jesus. I appreciate the effort of people to evangelize, but sometimes I find it outright insulting the way some people do it. And just this week a friend who is going through a divorce shared online about his struggles with the church as he goes through this difficult time. He said things like he feels “unwanted, like a 2nd class citizen… all you want to do is pretend I don’t exist.”

Unfortunately, these kinds of experiences are far too common, and I’m sure you can come up with more examples as well.

I want to offer 8:16 moments to these people, to people who have been made to feel like 2nd-class citizens, to people who have felt unwanted. How can we provide opportunities for people to see Jesus anew? How can we help direct people to those times when something happens that changes their lives forever?

I was reminded this week of a story that author and former professor Tony Campolo tells. Once, when Campolo was traveling to Hawaii for a seminar, he found himself wide awake at 3:00 am. So he decided to go out on the street to see if he could find a decent place to grab a bite to eat. All that was open at that time of night was a greasy-spoon, all-night diner. Tony settled in and ordered a donut and a cup of black coffee.

At about 3:30, a group of women, prostitutes, came in, fresh off a night of work. Tony overheard one of the loud women proclaim, “Tomorrow will be my 39th birthday,” to which another replied, “So what, you expect us to throw you a party or something?”

The first woman said, “No, don’t be so mean. I was just saying. I’ve never had a birthday party before and I don’t expect one now.”

After the women left, Tony approached the owner of the diner and asked if those women come in every night. The owner assured Tony that they did, and Tony asked if the owner would mind if he threw a birthday party for the woman.

“Sure,” said the owner. “Her name is Agnes.”

Tony returned the next night with streamers, balloons, and a birthday cake that read, “Happy birthday, Agnes!” Evidently, the word had gotten out, and the diner was packed with prostitutes who were there for Agnes’s surprise birthday party. At 3:30 am, Agnes walked through the door, and everyone yelled, “Happy birthday,” and began to sing Happy Birthday to Agnes as the cake, ablaze with 39 candles, was set before this woman.

She just lost it, weeping uncontrollably.

The owner of the diner said, “Hey, Agnes. Hurry it up already. I want some cake!”

Agnes replied, “If it is alright with you, can I just keep the cake for a little while?”

Everyone agreed that would be okay, and Agnes stood up, cake in hand, and walked out the door without saying a word.

Not knowing what else to do, Tony said, “Maybe we should pray for Agnes.” And he did.

When he finished the prayer, the diner owner said, “Hey, you never told me you were a preacher. Just what kind of church do you belong to, anyway?”

Tony replied, “The kind of church that throws surprise birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.”

That’s an epiphany. That’s an event that changes the way you see the world, that changes the way that you see God. It’s 8:16 on a Saturday; it’s 4:00 in the afternoon. It’s 3:30 in the morning. And your life will never be the same.

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