Monday, March 31, 2014

Discovering a Beatitude Filled Life, "Blessed are the peacemakers..." By Rev Steven R Mitchell based on Matthew 5:9 and James 3:13-18

Discovering a Beatitude Filled Life

“Blessed are the peacemakers…”

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Mountain View United Church, Aurora, CO 3/30/2014

Based on Matthew 5:9 & James 3:13-18


        Each week we close our service with a Benediction, which is a word of blessing as we leave this time of worship, then we form a circle of sorts (the fact that it is always a very peculiar looking circle holds a great deal of theological reflection in its self) joining hands and we sing a little chorus with these words: Wider and wider, our circle expands.  As to the world we reach out our hands.  Led by the Spirit, we’re learning to bend.  Loving, and growing, and loving again.  At the end of this song we close with the words Shalom and Salaam!  Shalom coming from the Jewish tradition and Salaam from the Muslim greeting.  The reason that we say both is in keeping with one of our core values of “inclusion.” 

        The traditional body action used with Salaam is that of a low bow and the hand placed on the forehead.  This gesture places the person giving the greeting in a submissive posture and elevates the person being greeted.  Both Salaam and the Jewish Shalom are words for Peace, yet not in the same understanding that we use “peace” in our language.  These two ancient Aramaic words translate into a description about the well being of God’s people, of all God’s people, from the richest to the poorest, from the most agile to the lame, from the brilliant to the slow of mind.  Shalom is about justice, living out the truth of God’s kingdom. The Beatitudes for Today, by James C Howell   So when we say Shalom or Salaam, we are using the word peace, not in the sense of absence of conflict (which is our modern day understanding) but rather in the promotion of well being to those whom we say it to.

        Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.  For many people the idea of peace means no fighting.  Yet one can live in the absence of fighting and not experience peace.  Think of a home where there is no equality between the spouses, where one perceives themselves as being in authority over the other, there may be no fight because the spouse of lower stature has kowtowed to the other, bringing the appearance of peace because of no conflict, when in reality, there is the devaluing of the one spouse. 

        A common understanding of being a peacemaker means working at ending a war.  I remember signing my first petition at age 14, protesting our military involvement in Vietnam.  Yet to be a peacemaker by the definition that Jesus speaks of in this seventh Beatitude, Pope Paul VI in 1972 highlighted saying, “If you want peace, work for justice.”

        I want to share a reflection by Anne Sutherland Howard, author of Claiming the Beatitudes.  She writes: It’s taken me decades to learn this (Pope Paul VI’s remark about working for justice).  I used to think that peacemaking simply meant ending war.  As one who came of age in the Vietnam War, with my two brothers watching their draft lottery numbers, staying in school to avoid the draft, and ultimately getting drafted and serving in the National Guard, the war and the body count on the evening news was front and center in my family’s daily life.  My heroes were Father Daniel Berrigan and his little brother Philip both being on the FBI top ten list of most wanted because of their dramatic protests against the war.  I saw peacemaking as stopping that war: “Blessed are the peacemakers” meant “Blessed are the war protesters.”  A decade or so later, with Vietnam over, the Cold War was heating up with the massive weapons buildup of the early 1980’s.  I was working for an interfaith nuclear disarmament group, and I saw peacemaking as ending the nuclear arms race: “Blessed are the weapons protesters.”

        “But a rabbi’s question helped me see that peacemaking is something more.  I went to talk with Rabbi Leonard Beerman one day in the early 1980’s when I was discouraged, feeling that it was futile to protest the nuclear arms race when the nuclear stockpiles rose higher each day, and every day our country sold more and more weapons to more and more economically undeveloped countries.  “Our efforts are so puny and nobody cares, nobody listens, nobody can change anything.  Why do we bother to keep working for social and political change?”  I asked him.

        Rabbi Beerman listened, as he always listened to my questions and complaints, and in his gentle, quiet way reached into his desk and brought out a picture of his new grandson, Matthew Benjamin.  He asked to see a picture of my new baby son, Benjamin Michael.  He told me to think about these two little boys who would graduate from high school in the year 2000.  He told me to think about what we owed them.  And then he asked me, “if we cannot cultivate a passion for what one human being owes to another, what are we?”

        From that rabbi, and that question, I began to learn about shalom, about what we human beings owe to one another as children of God.  As President Dwight Eisenhower had said back in 1953, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.  This world in arms is not spending money alone.  It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.” Claiming the Beatitudes, pg 98-100   

        Once the Christian Church became the legitimate state church by Roman Empire Constantine, the church has dealt with the ethical arguments for and against war based on either pacifism or “just war” theory.  The just war theory was codified for the church by St Augustine at the beginning of the fifth century in an attempt to answered the question, “When, if ever, is it justifiable for a Christian to participate in war?”  The tenets of just war say that war can only be waged (1) as a last resort, (2) by a legitimate authority, (3) to redress a grievous wrong, (4) with reasonable assurance of success, (5) to establish peace, (6) with violence proportional to the injury suffered, and (7) with weapons that discriminate between combatants and civilians.  These tenets were challenged by Baptist Theologian, Glen Stassen’s 1992 book “Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives for Justice and Peace”, moving from “Should we go to war?” or “Should we go to this war?” to “How can we prevent war?”  Claiming the Beatitudes pg101 

        How do we say “Yes to peace?”  After the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, any attempt to ask this question was labeled by our Government as being “unpatriotic” and “anti-American”.  Yet as Christians we need to hear the call from Jesus for transformative living.  Jesus challenged the accepted practice of “an eye for an eye” with “You shall not kill”, because he saw that revenge only brings more revenge.  In the Epistle of James we read: For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.  The lack of peace stems from basic human nature of envy and selfish ambition.  Out of this nature we nurture fear, hatred, jealousy, revenge, dishonesty, basically all the elements that lead to a non-peaceful existence.

        Is it actually possible to say “yes to peace?”  South African leaders determined that the only way to move forward in the post-apartheid era would be to form a “Truth and Reconciliation” commission.  All over South Africa, victims and perpetrators told their stories; women faced policemen who had murdered their husbands and children and told of their agony.  Henchmen who carried out vile orders admitted their guilt.  Justice was meted out, and yet the most astonishing moments of reconciliation, which would strike many of us as implausible, happened – because the truth simply had its day out in the open.

        The Hebrew understanding of justice is not about the good being rewarded and the bad being punished, nor is it about fairness to the individual, but rather health to the community.  (Mishpat) Justice occurs when the poorest in a community are cared for.  For those who have questions about the “appropriateness” of our burrito breakfast sandwiches that we give to the day labors once a month, we are doing justice, we are caring for the poorest in our community, not questioning the legality of their presence, but relating to these men as one child of God to another.  In our walk of Harambee with Georgia and her family in Greeley who suffered total loss of home in last Septembers flooding, we are practicing peacemaking, for we are working out justice with a family who became a part of the “least of these” in our extended community. 

        How do we say “Yes to peace?”  It starts with what we do locally, by working for justice, which means bringing about health to the community.  As Rabbi Beerman asked, “If we cannot cultivate a passion for what one human being owes to another, what are we?”  James end today’s reading by saying: Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.  His brother Jesus tells us: Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.  Peacemaking isn’t about stopping war – it’s about working for justice – the bringing about health to the community – to the world community.  Amen

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Discovering a Beatitude Filled Life, "Blessed are the pure in heart..." by Rev Steven R Mitchell, based on Matthew 5:8 and Matthew 25:31-46

Discovering a Beatitude Filled Life

“Blessed are the pure in heart…”

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Mountain View United Church, Aurora, CO 3/23/2014

Based on Matthew 5:8 & 25:31-46



        Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.  The heart is so central to our well being.  It is the one muscle that pumps life giving nourishment throughout our body.  Health professionals are always concerned about the levels of cholesterol in our body because too much can clog our arteries and put too much stress on our hearts.  When we develop a blood clot, again Doctors are very concerned that the clot does not travel into the heart, which would cause a heart attack.  So it’s pretty evident that having impurities in ones heart is not a good thing.

        The heart is purely a muscle, yet poets and romance writers consistently refer to the heart as if it somehow is able to produce emotions.  Yet it is the brain that developed the ability to process thoughts and emotions.  It is the brain that allows for reasoning, it is the brain that is the home of our consciousness, and it is the brain where feelings originate.  When our brain senses danger, signals go out into our body which can cause physiological changes in our breathing, our legs may become momentarily immobile, we can lose our ability to make sound, and our heart beat can increase.

Yet we attribute all of our feelings as centered in the heart.  Phrases such as:  Have a heart, He is heartless, I’m half heartedly working, She will steal your heart, My heart isn’t in it!  All these indicate emotion.  In the story of The Wizard of Oz, the Tin-man was seeking a heart.  As the Wizard gives him a mechanical clock in the shape of a heart, the Tin-man is told, “the heart will never be practical until it is made not to be broken.”  A short time later as Dorothy is getting ready to leave, you see the Tin-man crying as he says, “I must truly have a heart, because I feel it breaking.”

        What is it about our heart, this non-thinking, non-feeling muscle, whose only purpose in life is to pump our blood yet we attribute it with having the capable for emotion?  Every one of us has had some occasion to feel emotions that we say come from the heart.  We would never say things like: I have a broken brain, my brain is sad, I have joy in my brain.  Rather, we know for a fact that emotions like: love, greed, hate, fear, revenge, care, and compassion are felt in our heart.   

        Last Sunday I went and saw the new movie: Son of God.  As I sat through this movie watching with a critical eye (as I am always suspicious about Hollywood doing any portrayal of Jesus’ life), I found myself tearing up a great deal, especially when Jesus was saying, “I am the truth, and the way, and the life.”  It wasn’t my brain being touched by these words, but my heart.  My heart was being touched because I have experienced the spirit of Jesus and these words were penetrating my heart as if words of love were coming from my spouse. 

        So how does “purity” enter into this equation of the Beatitudes?  Do we have to roto-router out all the cholesterol to make a pure heart, or have a blood transfusion in order to have a pure heart?  The word pure is often translated into “clean”.  Psalm 51:10 : Create in me a clean heart, O God.  And renew a right spirit within me.  Cast me not away from thy presences.    The Psalmist makes it very clear that having a clean heart is important in order to be in the presence of God.  Wouldn’t it be marvelous if we just had a machine washable and perma pressed heart, to where all we would have to do when it becomes soiled is just throw it into the washing machine to make it clean!

        Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  What does it mean “to see God?”  Is this not the goal of our faith journey, to see God?  For if we see God, are we not then in the presence of God?  So again, I ask you what does it mean “to see God? 

        Rev James Howell in his book, The Beatitudes For Today, suggests that: It may be helpful to think of purity in two ways.  There is a purity that looks like simplicity, focus, single-mindedness; and there is a purity that looks like goodness, cleanness, holiness – and the two are not unrelated.  The human predicament is that we let ourselves get frittered away in multiple directions. Trying to be and do everything, when we were made for just one thing, for the one thing that finally matters: God.  If purity of heart is “to will one thing,” then focus is everything.  The pure, like a race horse, need blinders to block out their peripheral vision, so they keep their eyes on the one goal, the presence of God within the heart.

        Think about the story of Mary and Martha, when Jesus came to visit.  Martha was busy doing the hostess thing, cooking, trying to get things set up so Jesus’ stay would be a pleasant one, all the time being busy and missing out on the interaction with her guest.  While Mary was not bothered by all the “things” that should and could be done and chose to sit at Jesus’ feet, listening to what he had to say.  Private prayer time or the discipline of meditation are several forms of taking the needed time to clear one’s mind so one can be like Mary and sit and focus on the truly important thing needed to make us whole.  When we are able to discard all the distractions that keep us from focusing on God, then we have achieved a “pure” heart, that single-mindedness.

        Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.  Part of our Christian family say’s that we will not see God until we die and enter into heaven.  Another part of our Christian family say’s that we can see God right at this very moment.  In the parable found in Matthew 25, Jesus talks about finding God where we live life.  34 “…’Come, you who are blessed by God; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the [pure in heart] will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The [Jesus] will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

        What does it mean to see God?  Jesus tells us we see God when we show compassion and mercy on our fellow brothers and sisters.   I remember a story told by Rev Dr Tony Campolo, sociology profession at Eastern College in Philadelphia, PA some years ago when he was visiting a very poor village in South America.  When he was boarding the small plane at the airstrip located next to the village, a woman came up to him trying to hand him her baby boy, asking him to take her son back to the States with him, where her son would have a chance for a better life.  Tony says, as he looked into her eyes, for the first time he was able to see Jesus in human form.  From that point on in his life, he realized that as a follower of Christ, if he could see Jesus in the face of the person he was dealing with, the way that he would treat that person would be completely different than if he didn’t see Jesus in that face.  What a powerful and sacred experience and revelation Dr Campolo had.

        Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is at hand.  He also pointed out that when we are doing acts of compassion to the least, then we are interacting with him.  I think a pure heart goes beyond just showing compassion to the least, for we can show compassion all day long and never see God.  I think the pure in heart, comes when we like Tony Campolo can begin to live life seeing Christ in each person that we meet.  It is at that point that we have the single mindedness that allows us to treat one another at the level we would if Jesus were asking us for a cup of water.  It is at that point that we can then truly see God.   Amen


Sunday, March 2, 2014

Discovering a Beatitude Filled Life, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness...", by Rev Steven R Mitchell for Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 3/2/2014

Discovering a Beatitude Filled Life

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…”

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Mountain View United Church, Aurora, CO 3/02/2014

Based on Matthew 5:6


        Once a month we come to this table for communion.   There have been many words used to describe communion over the centuries: the Eucharist, The Lords Supper, The Passover Meal, and Communion.   In more recent times I often hear it called the Love Feast.  I like the sound of that one, for it integrates two aspects of my theology about what the faith community of Christ is supposed to represent, love being that of extravagant welcome, and for the feast, the body of Christ, and the body of Christ goes beyond the symbols of the wine and bread for me, to includes the teachings of Jesus. 

        I find it amazing that the last Passover meal that Jesus had with his inner circle, the disciples, has become the most powerful ritual that we practice in any gathering within a Christian faith community that of breaking bread with one another and how it ties in so intricately with this week’s Beatitude of hunger and thirst.  We invite any and everyone who seeks Christ to come and eat from this table, with the idea of being filled.  Throughout the telling of Jesus’ ministry, the Gospels bring up story after story about Jesus and food in one fashion or another.  His very first miracle of turning water into wine was at a wedding feast; massive crowds coming to hear Jesus are reportedly feed, and there were leftovers.  Jesus was always attending dinner parties hosted by the upper classes such as the Pharisees, as well as by sinners and tax collectors.  The point being Jesus and food go hand in hand.   Even in the Hebrew Scriptures, we read about how God provides a banquet table, even in the presence of our enemies.  

So, if the Hebrew Scriptures offer the promise of God providing enough food, and Jesus engaged with a multiplicity of dining experiences, why would Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount, lift up the idea of hunger and thirst as a blessing, especially to an audience who generally didn’t have enough money to feed themselves sufficiently?  And more importantly how do we who live in the land of milk and honey, relate to this particular blessing?  

Most of us in this room have never truly known hunger or have we?  As an example, how often in conversations with friends, does the topic of “have you eaten at such and such restaurant” come up?  Most of us tend to tip the scales on the upper side of what Doctors say is the appropriate weight for our build.  So what do I mean when I imply that maybe we are hungry and thirsty, even though we have enough to eat; and not just enough to eat, but enough of “stuff” in general.   I live in a house that is bigger than what I grew up in.  Paul and I have more bathrooms in our house than occupants, yet we are not fully satisfied with what we live in.  Paul wishes we had a master bedroom on the main floor, and I want to change the color on many of our walls.  We both want to have a garden retreat in our backyard.  For those of you who have been in our home, you know that it is a nice house, so why are we not satisfied with what we have?  What is missing that makes us want more?  Let’s expand this question to include: Why do people in our country move from one relationship to another, one restaurant to another, one diversion to another, and still happiness, contentment, and peace seem to elude us?

We are reared to expect a broad satisfaction, physically and emotionally in our culture.  These expectations come by way of a free capitalistic philosophy, which promotes the idea that having more is what will ultimately make us happy and provide satisfaction, and yet Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones tells us that, “He can’t get no satisfaction.  But he tries and he tries and heI tries and he tries, but he can’t get no satisfaction.”  We are not a people who can easily relate to the first century hears of Jesus’ words, who were physically hungry and didn’t have enough clean drinking water available.

You may wonder why I am equating physical attributes to the Spiritual attribute that Jesus was talking about as he said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.   Because what we want, what we purchase, how we act are expressions of how we are doing spiritually.  Song writer Harry Carroll expressed this spiritual deficit so artfully in the song, “I’m Forever Chasing Rainbow’s”:

I'm always chasing rainbows, Watching clouds drifting by, My schemes are just like all my dreams, Ending in the sky.  Some fellows look and find the sunshine, I always look and find the rain.  Some fellows make a winning sometime, I never even make a gain, believe me, I'm always chasing rainbows, I'm watching for a little bluebird in vain.   If we are forever chasing rainbows, it is a sign of lacking something inside, a satisfaction that comes with feeling incomplete.  Author Maggie Ross observes: “We fell empty, but feeling has little to do with being empty.   Don’t we feel empty because we are full of the wrong stuff?” 

As we discover what it means to have a Beatitude Filled Live, one of the neediness’s that we can find to propel us into fulfillment is in the need to be hungry and thirsting for righteousness.  Rev Anne Howard points out that in this particular blessing, “Jesus again quotes the prophets.  This is not a call for personal or individual righteousness or moral rectitude, as some have understood from the Greek translation of this saying.  [In other words] It’s not a call about ‘getting right with God.’  This is a prophets’ call for restorative justice or distributive justice, an echo of Isaiah 61 (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…), which restores the powerless and the outcasts to their rightful place. Claiming the Beatitudes pg 62 

I spoke a little about Mahatma Gandhi last week as being an example of meekness and how he had great power in his meekness.   It was through his hungry and thirsting for righteousness, that he was able to move a country to defy the Imperialism of Great Britain through non-violence and non-cooperation and bring India to be an independent nation once again.   It was an act of restorative justice as freedom from an oppressive government brought back the outcast population of India to their rightful place as citizens of their own country able to be ruled and governed by their own people.

We as individuals are under siege from the rule of capitalism.  We must realize the oppression we live under by a system that denies equality of basic needs which is fostered by the illusion that we do not have enough and the only way we will have enough is if others go without.  We as Christians need to come to understand the dangers of living in the land of milk and honey – that the lie comes in not having enough, but comes from having the wrong stuff.  This can only come by first recognizing that we need to be poor in spirit, relying on God not on external stuff.

Discovering how to live this particular beatitude is hard, not because we have plenty, or because working toward justice is hard, whether it’s in working for immigration reform or helping newly released inmates Claiming the Beatitudes (which by the way will be topics in upcoming Hot Cakes and Hot Topics), but it is hard I believe, because it calls upon us to trust not in our own power, but solely in God’s economy of justice for all; on God’s extravagant invitation to each person.  As we come to this table, the table of the love feast, let us come hungry and thirsting for justice, not for ourselves but come seeking God’s justice throughout the world.  Amen