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Posts tagged ‘poor’

Self-Giving, Love-Bearing

Mark 10:17-31

When I was a kid [well, I still am a kid, but just an older one], like most kids, I understood reward and punishment pretty well. Do well in school–get rewarded with good grades and a pat on the back from teachers and parents. Goof off and cause trouble—end up in detention and get grounded for what seemed like life. Be nice to your sister—perhaps ice cream may follow. Annoy and terrorize her on purpose—get privileges taken away. It all seemed so simple.

rewardKid

Until it wasn’t.

As I grew older and passed through that wonderfully chaotic and confusing time of adolescence, I started to realize that the rhythm of reward and punishment didn’t always hold true. Sometimes, for example, I did something really nice for another student, like inviting him to sit with me at lunch when no one else would. I thought that I would be rewarded. I wasn’t, in fact. Instead, it backfired. Some of my friends weren’t happy about it. And the student I sat with soon proved to be annoying and also a bit of a troublemaker. Sure, perhaps my intention was good, but I certainly did not get rewarded for my “good” deed.

This shook me up, because at that point in my life my faith was often based on doing good deeds or believing something “right” to gain a reward. This philosophy worked when I was younger and actually felt quite good.

Until it stopped being true.
Until I started to feel empty inside.

Until I started questioning whether believing and doing all these things would really bring me any kind of reward.

I started questioning whether that was really the point at all.

There are many stories I could tell you—about times when I woke up to this reality. The more I lived, the more I realized that following rules or doing good deeds for the sake of some reward wasn’t really the healthiest and most honest way to live.

Really, I was learning about the difference between self-sacrifice and. self-giving.

Now, I don’t know how you were raised in your particular faith tradition [or lack thereof], but as for me, I was taught that helping others was a good thing by my parents. The reasoning was pretty straightforward:

Because that’s the right thing to do.

Of course, for any inquisitive kid or teen that answer isn’t enough.

kidquestion

So I found my own path, and that path led me to evangelical Christianity for a spell. And yes, I won’t deny that I had some pretty fantastic experiences, made great friends, and learned a lot. But one thing that always confused me was this whole self-sacrifice thing.

It usually goes like this:
Jesus gave the ultimate sacrifice for our sins by suffering and then dying on the cross.

So…it shouldn’t be too much to ask for you to give up 2 hours of your week to go to church, should it?! That’s your self-sacrifice. Now sit and think about Jesus.

This line of thinking went further as I got more and more involved in the church.
Pretty soon, self-sacrifice meant giving up a lot of things, and not just time. I needed to sacrifice some friendships; some activities I liked to do; I was held to a different, albeit confusing moral standard as it pertained to sexuality; most importantly, I had to even sacrifice parts of myself.

I didn’t know it at the time, but for a few years of my life, I lost part of my own identity. I did things that I didn’t really feel comfortable or good. I gave up things that I was passionate about. I hung out with people who were like-minded and Christian like me in favor of hanging out with the kids I preferred to be with, who were different and even sometimes criticized by the Christians.

Does this story ring true for some of you?
Have religions or a church or certain people convinced you to sacrifice a part of yourself?

Allow me to quickly lay out a definition of self-sacrifice and compare it to self-giving.

Say you give and give and give some more [time, resources, energy] to someone. You think that you are doing a great act of service. You are relentless in your giving. Why? Because you think that eventually you receive something for your tireless acts of service. But eventually, you burn out. You’re human. You get tired, frustrated, and perhaps a little angry. You’ve sacrificed so much of your time and resources, and you just don’t see any return. And in that process, you’ve not only sacrificed yourself, you’ve sacrificed the very person you thought you were helping.

Why? Because now you’re bitter.
You throw up your hands in disgust and proclaim: Here I am, killing myself, giving so much, and what do I get in return? Nothing!

Resentment for that person follows.
You start to blame him/her.

I’ve seen this way too much in life!

So that’s self-sacrifice—a path to unhealthiness, burnout, and resentment.

Self-sacrifice comes from a place of fear and loss. We give and give [even more than we should or can] because we feel that we lack something. We are not whole inside and so we overcompensate by sacrificing too much until we burn out.

Now, how about self-giving?

giving-heartSelf-giving is not about your ego or fear or loss. Giving of self, I would argue, is a spiritual act, and comes from a place of wholeness and true humanity. If you feel whole inside, you are inspired to give. You give profoundly, creatively, and freely. Giving feels great while you’re doing it, because you’re not thinking about getting any reward! Self-giving emerges from you.

Think about that for a moment while we transition to a story in Mark’s Gospel.

Jesus of Nazareth is again on a journey with his disciples and on the way, he meets a man who falls to his knees before Jesus and says:
Good teacher, what do I have to do get eternal life?

A very legitimate question for someone who understood reward and self-sacrifice.
But Jesus, like usual, was snarky, and didn’t answer his question. He instead asked his own questions.

Why do you call me good?

In other words, don’t butter me up so I give you the answer you want to hear just so you’ll feel better about yourself.

And then this: You know the commandments.
Ah, yes! The man must have been thrilled. The list of sacrifices! Excellent, let’s see…adultery? Nope, didn’t do that, check. Stealing? Nope, I’m rich, so check. Bear false witness? Now way, check. Murder? Oh goodness, no, check. No defrauding? Got it, check. And Honor mom and dad? But of course, check.

At this point, the man probably was smiling ear to ear, ready to go home with heaven guaranteed.

wohoo

But Jesus didn’t let him off the hook.
Mark’s writer says that Jesus loved him when he said:

You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.

homer-doh-moment

Maybe Jesus loved this guy, but it was tough love.
For the man was rich, and he wasn’t ready to part with anything he had. So he grieved.
He grieved that this was the requirement.

Notice that Jesus didn’t tell him to give away all his possessions. The Greek wording for possessions doesn’t refer to an Xbox and a Iphone 6. It refers to land and property. Most likely this guy owned a lot of land and real estate. The last thing he wanted to do was to sell any of that in order to help the poor! What about all those other sacrifices he had already made!

It was a teaching moment for the disciples, and they were most certainly shocked. How could it be so hard for a wealthy, respected member of an elite social class to enter the reign of God? Easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle? That’s really hard to do! Unless it’s a really, really small camel…like a mini camel or something.

brick-bible-500wi

The disciples’ world was upset, because they saw hierarchies and social levels and God favoring the rich. Jesus saw a world in which women, children, lepers, and poor people were the first.
So Peter jumped up to try to reassure his ego, to remind Jesus that he and other disciples are still good, because:

Look, Jesus, we’ve left everything and followed you. Right?

Jesus seems to ignore Peter’s attempt to get the gold star.
Instead, he closes with a profound statement.

Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.

Land and property and family were the important attachments in the world. Probably this is still true in many ways.
The rich always have plenty of possessions—passing them on to future generations.
The poor always have little to none—losing land, property, and even family.
But in God’s reign, there is and will be balance.
Land and property, family and community, will be returned to the least of these.

And according to Jesus, this “reign” or “kingdom” of God is not something to aspire to, or to perform deeds to possess, but it is a reign that is present now.
All the rules and commandments that pious people spend their lives trying to follow do not get them any reward, as they think.

Self-sacrifice only leads to more people being sacrificed.

It’s actually about giving of self—what we have within ourselves. It’s returning balance to the world so that everyone has food and shelter and community and abundant life.

You see, the man who fell to his knees and then grieved; the disciples; all of us—we get distracted by the whole self-sacrifice thing and following commands to get a reward.

All religions struggle with self-sacrifice and it can go bad in many ways. Sometimes, it leads to people hating themselves. I’ve seen that. People are so hard on themselves and they sometimes even wish misery on themselves in a masochistic way. Other times, sacrifice can lead to people letting others walk all over them, even abuse them.

And as I mentioned before, sacrifice only leads to more sacrifice. These days many claim that those involved in “acts of terrorism,” whether religiously-motivated or not—do so out of mental illness. But so often, these acts of violence—whether in a school, temple, place of worship, or in public places—are committed by individuals who think they are self-sacrificing.

So all people of faith and those who do not claim any faith, let’s move away from self-sacrifice towards self-giving.

Let’s cultivate compassion within ourselves, because that will enable us to show true compassion to others. Caring for others requires caring for oneself.

Let’s give of ourselves, because giving is not sacrifice.
Giving is sharing.

And yes, giving is absolutely receiving at the same time!
Both parties benefit when someone gives.
And the reason for this is that when we truly give of ourselves to another, we stop separating our feelings from that person’s feelings. We experience real empathy, for both of us have a shared experience.

Friends, give of yourselves.

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Generosity Cannot be Measured

Matthew 20:1-16

I have mentioned before that four-year-olds ask the most questions…and constantly. Their brains are built to ask questions, and so they do. As we get older, though, for some reason, we ask less questions.

And sadly, many of us stop asking questions altogether.

But let’s not do that as we read scripture. Let’s ask questions!
Since today is a “parable” day, asking questions becomes even more important. So here we go…

In your opinion, what is justice?

Think about it. Come up with examples or your own definition.

Now, in your perspective, what is generosity?

Now that you’ve thought about it, let’s compare notes.

For me, justice is fairness and equity.

An example: I believe that all people deserve to have food to eat, a place to live, and safety. Justice, then, would be when all people have access to these basic needs—regardless of what needs to happen in order for that to be so.

And now, generosity.

In my perspective, generosity is sharing what one has.

An example: my friend has a garden with some kale growing in it. He shares the kale with me and others. We don’t pay him for it, he just shares it. Generosity.

How did our definitions and examples compare?

And-nowA parable of Jesus of Nazareth from the Gospel of Matthew.

A landowner, some workers.
And generosity redefined.
And justice turned on its head.

This parable story is similar to the story of the prodigal son, isn’t it?
It redefines “fairness” and exposes an immeasurable generosity.

In the prodigal son story, the dad shows generosity to the younger son.
In this story, the landowner shows generosity to workers who only labor for a short time.

Of course, in both stories, someone isn’t happy about the generosity.

The older son in the prodigal story is ticked off. He stayed and was loyal to his dad, worked hard, and didn’t squander his dad’s money. The younger son wasted his dad’s resources and messed up. The older son is mad.

In the other story, the workers who labor the whole day are ticked off, too. They stayed the whole time working the land and were paid a day’s wage. The other workers only labored for a few hours and were also paid the same. The all-day workers are mad.

Seems that both the older son and the all-day workers wanted justice—or at least justice as they defined it.

Look at what the landowner in the story asks the workers who are mad:

Are you envious because I am generous?

Again, questions are important.
The landowner’s question is a translation of an idiom in Greek.

The question should be: Is your eye evil because I am good?

In this Greek-speaking culture, the “evil eye” signifies an issue within a human being. Jesus said that the eye was the lamp of the body. If the eye was healthy, the body was full of light. It seems that in this story, the evil eye is the opposite of generosity. Perhaps greed or jealousy.[1]

Imagine if the all-day workers in the story had reacted differently? What if they would have said: We got what we deserved—a day’s pay. And as for these other workers who labored less time than we did—good for them, too. We ourselves are not hurt by the landowner’s generosity, and besides—apparently, the landowner has plenty to spread around.

But that’s not how they responded.

And that’s probably good, because this is the real world.

Most of us react most of the time like the all-day workers.
We want justice [at least our definition of it].

We prefer our justice over someone else’s generosity.

So the point of the parable, at least for me, is to change the question.

The question that we should not be asking is: who deserves this and that, and who doesn’t.

The questions we could be asking are: when and where do I catch a glimpse of generosity without limits? When and where have I experienced this generosity in my life? When and where can I participate in that generosity in the lives of others?

Because let’s be honest: justice is basically a joke.

A lot of people living in the U.S. have jobs and homes and food to eat.
And yet, the world we live in includes all kinds of unfairness for workers and especially immigrants from other countries who come here because of violence, political oppression, poverty, or manipulation.

What is “fair” when there are migrant workers who cut grass and trim hedges; fill assembly lines at factories; clean bathrooms and office complexes; wash dishes at restaurants, all the while looking over their shoulders and receiving the lowest wages?

These workers in service industries are fueling the banks, corporations, and companies of our Western society. They labor so that our technology-obsessed countries can get the newest phone, computer, or TV—or so we can eat any kind of food at any time of day and in a moment. So we argue about minimum wage increases; meanwhile, workers cannot earn above the poverty line while working 2-3 jobs. But if we all work and receive pay accordingly, isn’t that fair? Isn’t that justice?

No, it’s not.

In a just world, things would be better than they actually are, and for everyone, right?

The Jesus of Matthew does not ignore the unjust nature of the world.
Some who deserve a full day’s wage do not get it.
Others who deserve the same actually receive a TON more than they should.

This is why the world is out of balance.

And so, the last need to be first and the first need to be last.
Everyone needs to return to balance.

But that will take a serious overhaul!

We’re not given a solution in the parable, but we are given a hint.
Generosity without limits.

The landowner, who obviously represents God, shows generosity without measure. Everyone gets a full day’s wage—regardless of where they started or ended up. Anyone disadvantaged still receives the same opportunities as those who began with advantages. Wow, can you imagine if this actually were true in the world?

If there were equity, for every person, regardless of where and how she/he grew up?

This type of great generosity of the landowner [God] seems so beyond our human capabilities, right?
However, maybe generosity holds to the key to justice.

Because I admit to having experiences in my own life in which someone showed me generosity that was too big to understand. I didn’t even ask for help or support, but I received it and so much so, that it overwhelmed me. That handful of people appeared in my life and then disappeared. They did not ask for anything in return. They just gave to me—whether it was money, or time, or kindness, or some talent that they could pass on. I cannot measure their generosity.

It changed me.

And I’ll never pay them back.

So I have and will pay it forward.

This is where, to me, generosity spills over into justice.
When generosity is not measured or controlled it can have a ripple effect.

When someone is the recipient of true generosity, that generosity spills over and out of that person and into the lives of others.
And generosity can bring balance.

Friends, we can spend our whole lives making a list of the crap that people have done to us or said about us, or the ways that society has hurt us, etc., etc. We can try to “measure” justice and come up with what is “right” and “wrong” and who deserves this or that.

But it will just cause us more suffering.

Generosity, though, isn’t measured.
It’s not limited.
And it can spill over into justice.

We started with questions; I end with one:

Will generosity flow out of you into justice?

[1] Emerson Powery, Professor of Biblical Studies, Messiah College, Grantham, PA, Commentary, Workingpreacher.org.

Mmmm…Salty…

Matthew 5:13-20   

We’re about to talk about NaCl. But before we dig into salt, some things to think about: Prior to this, Jesus of Nazareth gave his famous speech called the beatitudes and here we find the Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel continuing with some words you can also find in the Gospels of Mark and Luke, though their versions are shorter:[1] Mark 8:49: For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” And Luke 14:34-35: Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored [or used for seasoning?] It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; they throw it away. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” Matthew’s take is a bit different, isn’t it? In Matthew’s story, Jesus actually compares humans to salt. You are the salt of the earth. So let’s talk NaCl. Salt is important, is it not? saltcrystalsMost historical records say that the use of salt dates back to 6000 B.C.E. Egyptians used salt for a variety of things, including religious ceremonies and even money.[2] That’s right, salt was money. We get the word salary from the word salt, actually.   When something is not worth its salt that means of course that it is not fulfilling your expectations. Salt is worthy of its lofty, historical status. Consider that we are talking about Dead Sea salt from Galilee. deadseaSaltYes, that wonderful salt that comes in rock crystal form and can be used for such things as a muscle-relaxing, skin reviving warm bath, a non-corrosive cleaner, or an incredibly delicious hummus. In fact, there are more than 14,000 uses for salt.

So that’s pretty useful, wouldn’t you say?

But does salt actually lose flavor? You may think that it doesn’t, but sure it does. Salt from the Dead Sea or any other body of water is mixed with sand and other things. It is not entirely “pure” salt [NaCl]. The chemical impurities can decompose. When mixed with water or when exposed to a lot of sunlight, this salt mixture can indeed lose its saltiness. So it was true that in the time of Jesus, merchants in Galilee would sometimes encounter a salt mixture that was not useful because it had lost its flavor. It was trampled underfoot because, logically, people walked on the shores and therefore walked on the salt. So back to the metaphor.

How are humans like salt?

Matthew’s story has Jesus talking in the present and not the future tense. He says: You ARE the salt of the earth. So the followers of Jesus of Nazareth were already grounded in the identity of coming from the earth [and the sea], and having flavor, and also being incredibly useful for a thousand different things. This is important to note, because in the sad history [and present day] of human existence, we continue to say that some people are more important than others, more useful, more full of flavor, etc. But Jesus, in this case, says you all [plural] are the salt of the earth. Everyone is useful and has flavor and is uniquely salty. Even Homer J. Simpson. 24820BPThe-Simpsons-Homer-Mmm-SaltyBut Jesus [and Matthew] are not finished.

Not only are people salt of the earth, but also light of the world.

Just like with the salt, we need some context here if we are to get the light reference. Jesus was not talking to rich dudes; or political rulers; or even religious leaders. Jesus was talking to people who would be called poor by many and certainly would be considered poor in the material sense today. They were called salt and now they were called light. In their context, a house often had just one room. Therefore, anyone who enters such a house will immediately see the lamp on top of a stand. Remember, they did not have electricity—like many people in the Philly area this past week! So in Jesus’ time, many people would have an oil lamp on a stand, and the way they would put out the fire of the lamp was to put a bushel basket over the lamp. This is practical and necessary to do before going to bed so smoke and fumes stay inside the basket.[3] Keep in mind also that in this era, there were not hundreds of neon signs flashing, street lights, car headlights, or anything like that. When it was night, it was really, really dark. You could see the stars. So when the lamps were snuffed out, it was dark and hard to see. an-ancient-style-oil-lamp1 So, says Jesus, it is important that in calling these humans light, they should not put their light under a bushel basket. They should instead shine like a light on top of a hill. They should be bright. They should not be afraid to shine. They should be illuminating light—regardless of what others try to tell them they are or are not. And like the salt metaphor, people of light are connected to other people, and useful, and open. So there are two things that jump out at me here.

First of all, in Matthew’s story, Jesus is not calling religious people salt and light.

He’s not saying that if you believe this specific thing or if you go to this specific church—you are definitely salty and bright. Jesus is saying, to a group of often-marginalized and overlooked people, that they are already salty and bright. They don’t have to convert; they don’t have to follow certain moral codes; they don’t even have to join a certain religious club. They are already salt. They are already light.

As they are.

It’s just natural.

Secondly, the salty and bright people should not get discouraged or afraid.

Salt can lose its uniqueness and flavor. As people, we can, too. Enter stage left: assimilation and the pressure to fit in. Someone tells you that you need to change who you are because you do not fit their definition of a human being. You’re gay or lesbian…change your preference. You’re transgender…make up your mind. You’re poor…get a job. You’re sad a lot…take medication. You’re full of doubt…have more faith. You speak another language…learn English.

You don’t fit my definition of human…so change already!

We can be pressured to change who we are. But we shouldn’t. We don’t need to change the essence of who we are, because we are all unique. We are all salty. We all have flavor. We’re naturally ourselves. Actually, we can add a lot of good in the world if we are fully ourselves—honest and candid and real. In that way, we will also accept others as they are. So listen, don’t give power to others, allowing them to take away your saltiness or to cover up your light. You are already salty and bright. Don’t let others tell you that you can’t sing that way, or paint a picture like that, or that you should be just like them or that you’re not worthy to shine or to be salty. And don’t try to copy everyone else. Your light is uniquely bright because it comes from inside you. Likewise, don’t ever tell someone else that she/he cannot be salty or bright. Don’t force others to be just like you. Let their uniqueness shine through. And remember how Jesus closed this part of his Matthew speech. He talked about the Law, or in other words, the Torah commandments, which were summed up in: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.[4] Being salty is being loving and compassionate. Being a light is shining love and compassion for all people. This does not mean that you save the world or make yourself famously salty and bright. It means that in your little, seemingly insignificant life, you have the salt and light already in you.

You have the capacity to love.

Because your so-called religiousness won’t do the trick; your holiness will never be enough; everybody breaks religious rules and fails to uphold religious doctrines and disciplines. Everyone. You will inevitably fall asleep praying; you will get tired of worship; you will sometimes not want to do the work of meetings and administration; you will get annoyed with church people; you will be sad and apathetic sometimes; your doubts about God will not fade away; and you may struggle with your spirituality every day of your life. You will have days and maybe months when you will struggle to get up in the morning and you may feel that you don’t have much of a purpose. You will sit in class at school and wonder if you matter. You will go to work only because you have to and not because you love what you do. You will stay in relationships because of obligation and not because of compassion. You will have moments when your light will dim and your saltiness will fade. Yes, you are human. But you can love. You can encourage someone who has been pushed down. You can welcome someone who has been left out. You can show compassion to someone who is barely hanging on. You can add flavor to someone’s day with laughter or a fresh perspective. You can treat people well—no matter where they are from or how they look. You can get up each day, and go to bed at night, with the realization that you were born salty and born with light. So be salty. Be bright. Recognize the beautiful flavor and light in all others. Be fully yourself and embrace the fullness of others. Amen.


[1] New Revised Standard Version. For side-by-side Gospel comparing, check out: http://www.utoronto.ca/religion/synopsis/meta-4g.htm
[3] Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Bruce J. Malina,
[4] Matthew 22:37-40, NRSV.

Re-framing Blessedness

Matthew 5:1-12

different-greetings3How do you greet people? How do people greet you?

It depends on where you live, of course.

In Hawai’i, someone might approach you and say:

How’s it?

In Philly and South Jersey, I hear this a lot:

How YOU doin’?

Or, this:

Whazzup?

or

What’s up, yo?

Or the really short version:

“Zup?”

But I’m originally from the Midwest where people often say:

How are ya?

or

Howdy!

And in Canada, I’ve heard:

How’s it going, eh?

In Java or the Philippines you might be asked “where are you going?”
This is a formulaic greeting and the expected answer is “over there.”

Burmese or Cambodian people may ask “have you eaten yet?” (literally, “have you eaten rice?”).
But don’t get too excited—it’s not an invitation to lunch, just a simple hello.[1]

Many cultures use important gestures as well as words. In China, you might receive a nod or bow; older generations in Hong Kong may clasp hands together at the throat level and nod; In India, people place palms together as though praying and bend or nod, Namaste; in Indonesia some say selamat, which means peace; Japanese may bow from the waist, palms on thighs, heels together; and Koreans may offer you a slight bow and handshake (right hand in one or both hands); in Malaysia, some touch the other person’s hands with both of their hands, and then they bring their hands back to the chest, a salame gesture.

There are so many ways to greet other human beings.

What surprises many people from other countries is how people in the U.S. greet one another. For example, even when people greet you with how’s life? or how are you doing? they are not wanting to hear your whole life story. People tend to expect a very short answer like “fine” or “I’m good” or “Fine, thanks for asking.”

Of course, we say fine or good even if we are having a terrible day or even if our life is in shambles. How are you? We are like trained Pavlov’s dogs:

I’m fine.

Which really means:

0120OPEDanderson-masterBut there’s a new phenomenon I have noticed.
How are you? I’m blessed.
I’m blessed.

And then, when you leave someone, they may say to you:
Be blessed!

And now trending on Twitter, the overused, incredibly confusing:

#BLESSED

I’m on my yacht near the Cayman Islands.

#BLESSED

I got the job at McDonald’s and here’s my selfie of me in my new uniform.

#BLESSED

I just had a peppermint milkshake and so far no lactose intolerance.

#BLESSED

My team is playing in the Super Bowl and I love commercials, too.

#BLESSED

My stocks just went up and I’m making it rain.

#BLESSED

Blessed? What does that mean?

The dictionary says that as an adjective, blessed means: made holy; consecrated. This of course can be used as a title for a dead person who we think was somehow holy, i.e. “the Convent of the Blessed Gertrude” or “the blessed saint Tim Tebow.”

But blessed can also mean favored, fortunate, lucky, privileged, enviable, happy. See #BLESSED

Similarly, blessed can mean having a particular quality or attribute, i.e. Warminster is a nice suburb, blessed with an abundance of strip malls.

Ironically, blessed can also mean an annoyance or exasperation. There wasn’t a blessed thing anybody could have done!

Yes, we have explore this word blessed if we are to get anything out of these famous words of Jesus [so-called sermon on the mount], found in Luke and in Matthew’s Gospel. Often called the Beatitudes, they are not just famous for Christians. People of many traditions are familiar with these words–Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, etc. What we are looking at today is of course in Matthew’s Gospel, but you can also find a shorter version in Luke. Most people who study the Bible believe that Jesus did not say all this in one moment from a hill overlooking the Lake of Galilee. Most scholars think that this sermon is actually a collection of Jesus’ words throughout his ministry, kind of like a greatest hits album.

Tour with the Rolling Stones to follow.

I have backstage passes.

#BLESSED

Now a lot of people think that Jesus invented the beatitudes but he didn’t. The beatitudes are part of a wisdom literature that dates back to the writings of what we call the OT and the Psalms and Proverbs. In Israel’s culture, poets and sages used beatitudes to encourage admirable behavior and traditional attitudes towards life. These ancient writings affirmed that blessedness was not about material fortune or prosperity. People were blessed when they were filled with and surrounded by a spiritual sense of well-being—both as an individual and as a community.

So, it’s kind of shalom-like, if you will.

Be at peace with yourself and be at peace with others.

#TRUEBLESSING

But then Jesus enters the mix with his twist of the beatitudes. That’s right, Jesus twists it. His beatitudes are paradoxical. They don’t fit our typical idea of blessedness. In fact, Jesus turns our idea of what blessed means upside down. Jesus says, in nine different ways, that being blessed means being:

Poor, mournful, humble, hungry, merciful, honest-hearted, peaceful, persecuted, and hated.

Uh….#BLESSED?

More like #ANNOYEDBYJESUS

Suddenly, I’m not feeling so blessed because Jesus’ beatitudes really seem to have an attitude!

But hey, let’s give it another look and see what blessed really means in another language. You see, Matthew’s Gospel was written in Koine Greek and the word for blessed is makarios. From that to the Latin word beatus. And then, to the English word blessed.

But did Jesus speak Greek as his first language? Uh, no. that would be Aramaic. And there are two Aramaic words that become makarios in Greek. They are ashrei and tovahoun. Unlike makarios, which is passive, the two Aramaic words are active. In English, their translation is wake up or get up.[2]

So all of a sudden, we are hearing this:
Wake up to be poor, mournful, humble, hungry, merciful, honest-hearted, and peaceful.

And get up even when you’re persecuted and hated.

I’m starting to get it, are you?

The beatitudes are more than feelings. They are not promoting any kind of self-help or get rich with Jesus scheme.
Instead, the beatitudes contradict what society says we should be about:

Make the most money; don’t worry about who you step over.
Think about yourself and your own closed circle and disconnect from others.
Be the strongest and mightiest and make war if you have to.
Don’t cry—don’t be weak.
When you give to someone, definitely ask for something in return.
Manipulate others or the earth as needed.
Give up on justice if it’s too hard or inconvenient.
If others talk bad about you, pay more attention to them than to those who know you and actually care about you.

Yes, Jesus’ beatitudes challenge our perspective and our behaviors. And they remind us that being blessed isn’t about having more things or even feeling happy all the time. In fact, Jesus’ beatitudes embrace the negative experiences we all have in life. In other words, we don’t have to answer “I’m fine” when someone asks how we are doing. We can answer honestly if we so choose. I personally like what one individual did when I asked How are you? He paused, looked up at the sky, looked over his body, pinched himself and then said: The sun is out and I’m alive.

I wonder if we were more honest with ourselves, our God, and each other, if those moments of disappointment and despair and even depression would become opportunities to find growth, healing, and wisdom. I think so. Everyone gets down, has difficult times in life, and doesn’t feel blessed at all. But if we’re honest in those moments, we can discover that all the things we chase after too much like superficial happiness, wealth, fame, and power—they don’t bless us.

#DISAPPOINTING

Instead, friends, recognize that being poor isn’t just about having less material things. It’s about being wise. It’s about detaching yourself from things and finding freedom, joy, and gratefulness in all that is simple and beautiful.

And Mourn openly and honestly when you are sad and don’t resist it; find comfort and healing.

Be humble with the animals, trees, land, and sky, and so cooperate with and enjoy Mother Earth.

Seek justice, but not just for yourself or for those who are close to you; seek justice for anyone anywhere.
This brings wholeness.

Be merciful to everyone, and mercy will find you.

Be honest on the inside, and this will show up on the outside.

Work for peace and never war, and then end your hate and start your love.

Stand up for others who are pushed down even when it will cost you something. This continues the circle of your interconnectedness to all living beings.

Accept that people won’t like you and will sometimes say bad things about you when you try to do good things. Don’t let that stop you. Instead, find joy in the fact that you even have an opportunity to do good.

Friends, don’t just be blessed. Wake up to live compassionately; stand up to live for justice.

#Amen


[1] The ‘How Are You?’ Culture Clash By ALINA SIMONE, NY Times, JAN. 19, 2014

[2] Abuna Chacour

The Same Love

Matthew 1:18-25, NRSV
18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah[a] took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;[b] and he named him Jesus.

Footnotes:         a. Matthew 1:18 Or Jesus Christ       b. Matthew 1:25 Other ancient authorities read her firstborn son

That was an older episode of Saturday Night Live with Will Farrell, Chris Kattan, and Tom Hanks. Of course, they were dancing to that infectious tune from the 90’s, Haddaway’s song What is Love?

Indeed!

What is love?

And baby, don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more!

Some say that the question what is love is the most searched-for phrase on the internet. Perhaps that’s an exaggeration. Maybe top 10, though. Throughout humanity’s existence, hoards of people have tried to answer this question. Today we are no different, of course. There are many who are trying to define what love is and sadly, along the way, they are defining, according to their worldview, what love is not.

Look, I am just as tired as you are of the bombardment of negative messages and heavy rhetoric out there. There are a lot of hateful things said and done to many people just because of the color of their skin, their sexual preference or orientation, their religious beliefs or lack thereof, or their cultural heritage. Let’s be frank—it is happening.

A lack of love.

Rev. Frank Shaefer, a United Methodist pastor in Central PA, was just defrocked recently. That means the United Methodist Church took away his ability to be an ordained minister. Schaefer has led a congregation in Lebanon, PA for more than 10 years. Earlier this year, a church member filed a complaint because Schaefer performed the 2007 wedding of his gay son in Massachusetts, where same-sex unions are legal. According to the Methodist Board of Ordained Ministry, this violates religious doctrine. This in spite of Rev. Shaefer’s plea that he performed the ceremony as simply as an “act of love.” On the same day that he was defrocked, members of the Board came to Frank and hugged him or shook his hand, saying: We really don’t want to do this, you know that, don’t you?

Also, following the recent memorial service for Nelson Mandela in South Africa, there were a number of inexplicable things said. For example, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a Tea Party Republican, attended Mandela’s funeral. He also posted on his Facebook page:

Nelson Mandela will live in history as an inspiration for defenders of liberty around the globe. He stood firm for decades on the principle that until all South Africans enjoyed equal liberties he would not leave prison himself, declaring in his autobiography, ‘Freedom is indivisible; the chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me.’ Because of his epic fight against injustice, an entire nation is now free.

Amazingly, Cruz’s condolences and his attendance at Mandela’s funeral were met with incredible backlash and highly-charged, negative comments about how Mandela was a terrorist and not deserving of Cruz’s support.
Sadly, many who commented claimed to be Christians.

And then, we have been bombarded with news and comments about a famous reality TV show personality on a Duck Dynasty, program I do not watch. He made some hateful comments about gay and lesbian people and also said some racist things publicly in GQ magazine. Then a subsequent sermon he preached in PA with similar rhetoric has surfaced, too. The saddest part of all this is that after he was suspended from his TV job [only for a bit], a number of people claiming to be Christians have rushed to his side and have expressed their overwhelming support for him, in spite of his hateful comments.

What is going on here? Did I miss something? What happened to…

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love?

I don’t mean to belabor the point, but during a season in which we promote love incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, where is the love of Christians?

Don’t worry…this won’t end in a rant, because then…nothing good happens. But we do have a responsibility, I think, to address the hate and to combat it with love. Being silent about all this is not the way to show love.

After all, if I were to answer the question what is love I would most certainly tell you various stories about people in my life who showed me mercy when I didn’t ask for it or who made peace with someone they used to dislike or who accepted someone unconditionally—in spite of differences and even when it was unpopular to do so.

What is love? It is when people act compassionately and truly empathize with others.

That is where I would like to go as we look at the misunderstood story about the birth of Jesus of Nazareth—a story as I have said before—that only appears in Matthew and Luke, and in just a couple paragraphs and no more. As always, I invite you to come to your own conclusion about these stories in scripture. Listen to some interpretation and study and then ask your own questions.

Some context about Mary and Joseph. When two people got “engaged” in their era it was considered to be marriage, though the couple would not yet live together. Engagements lasted as long as it took for the male’s family to come up with a dowry [money, animals, land, etc.] for the female’s family. Also, the male was supposed to come up with some sort of living arrangement. Engagement did not include a trip to buy a ring at Jerod or Helgsburg Diamonds, and then a period of planning for a wedding that could be broken off by the couple at any time without any legal hassle. No, for Mary and Joseph, things were much different. The first step of betrothal was a marriage contract. Family usually made the arrangements. This betrothal could only be broken by divorce, in essence, nullifying the contract.

The second step would include a marriage feast, and the couple would then start their life together in a commonly-shared home.

So…Mary and Joseph had the marriage contract sealed, and amidst the financial and social preparations, Mary gets pregnant.

Oops.

According to Matthew’s story, Joseph had no part of it. This was not his kid.

Double oops.

Matthew describes Joseph as a righteous man—a good dude. So here are the good dude’s two options: public stoning or divorce.
Uh, what?

Joseph dismissed Mary quietly [not subjecting her to public disgrace], meaning that he was breaking the marriage contract. Doesn’t this sound like Joseph was avoiding the more difficult but more merciful choice of staying with Mary?
To me it does.

But Joseph, even if he wanted to stay with Mary, had no choice to do that by law. In fact, if he did not break the marriage contract, Mary would mostly likely stand trial publicly and that would not end well.
Now I don’t like either one of these scenarios. I just wish Joseph would have stood up against the law and stood with Mary.

But then, Joseph had a dream—an angel visited him and reassured him that he did not have to break the marriage contract. This angelic message seemed to comfort Joseph’s fears and he did finally decide to stay with Mary.
Now, what should they name the kid? Yehoshuah [Hebrew], Joshua [English]. But since the NT is written in Greek—the kid is also called Jesous, Jesus [English]. This name means “Yahweh is salvation” or “Yahweh saves.”

The Gospel of Matthew is conveniently connecting all this to Hebrew [OT] prophecy. Matthew quotes part of Isaiah 7:14, albeit the Greek version. Why do I mention that? Oh, because there is that little, polarizing word virgin in there. This word virgin in Greek is parthenos. But the actual Hebrew word in Isaiah’s original text is ‘almah which simply means a young woman.

I told you I would leave you to work out your own thoughts about this, so I won’t dwell here too long. My worldview tells me, after studying these texts, that the Isaiah prophecy has nothing to do with the New Testament story. So is Matthew’s Gospel trying to trick us by connecting current events to very old prophecies? Let’s try to empathize with Matthew’s worldview.

Matthew’s community was made up of people who were waiting for help. In the 1st and 2nd century, people were trying to make sense of what Jesus of Nazareth had taught and lived. People were unsure. So Matthew’s connection to the old prophecies was an encouragement to people that God had not given up on humanity.

Isaiah 7:14, Matthew knew, was about King Ahaz of Judah. It was around 735-732 B.C.E. Syria and Israel were attacking the land of Judah. Isaiah speaks words of encouragement to King Ahaz and to Judah’s people, saying that God will give the king a sign. A baby will be born and before this kid is a teenager, Jerusalem will no longer be torn apart by war.

This ancient promise is seen by Matthew as a present-day promise.

Isaiah thought that Immanuel, God with us, would come in the future; peace and fulfillment would follow. Matthew thought that this Jesus of Nazareth was with the people like an Immanuel, and wanted to bring peace and fulfillment, like Isaiah said, but not just to Judah. Jesus’ message and life, according to Matthew, was for all people.

Both Isaiah and Matthew were talking about the idea of incarnation—that God could be present [incarnate] in the world. The message, though told in different ways across many centuries, is the same:

God is with us.

As this idea developed, God with us became real in the life of Jesus of Nazareth and in all those who shared love and mercy with others.

What is love? God. What is God? Love.
What does God incarnate mean? God is in us.
So love is in us.

Okay, I get it–the story of Jesus’ birth is very ambiguous and a bit confusing. I have many more questions than answers. But that’s okay, because Jesus actually grew up and the Gospels say a lot more about that. Yehoshuah personified love, acted compassionately and also said that we could and should too. If we look at the grown-up Jesus, what is love is an ongoing question with many active answers.

Love speaks out for justice. Love does not withhold itself when it doesn’t get what it wants. Love is not conditional, but unconditional. Love cares about what happens to people all around the world because love knows that we are all interconnected.

Love is naturally compassionate and empathetic.

Love knows that someone else is also you.

I have to share this song with you. Have you heard Same Love, written and performed by Macklemore, Ryan Lewis, and Mary Lambert? Hear it now:

Macklemore raps:
Playing God, aw nah here we go
America the brave still fears what we don’t know
And God loves all his children, is somehow forgotten
But we paraphrase a book written thirty-five-hundred years ago
I don’t know

When I was at church they taught me something else
If you preach hate at the service those words aren’t anointed
That holy water that you soak in has been poisoned
When everyone else is more comfortable remaining voiceless
Rather than fighting for humans that have had their rights stolen

Whatever God you believe in
We come from the same one
Strip away the fear
Underneath it’s all the same love
About time that we raised up

Love is patient
Love is kind
(not crying on Sundays)

Yes, I agree. It’s about time that we raised up…in love. Jesus did.

But we ought to love people with the same love.
It doesn’t matter if they are gay, lesbian, bi, transgender; black, white, yellow, red, green; religious or not; materially wealthy or materially poor; it doesn’t matter if they are family or not, or if they claim a different culture, nationality, or worldview. It’s the SAME Love that we extend, because that is what love is. Love is NOT conditional; love is free of categories and names and circumstances. Love is the opposite of fear. Love is the great bridge-builder and the patient and kind healer.

So this season and every season of your lives, love people with the SAME LOVE. May that same love [incarnate] live in you.

JOY: What Is It?

Matthew 11:2-11

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

7As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

bowlGo find a bowl. Any size will do—preferably glass. Look at it. This bowl is empty, is it not? And yet, still a bowl, right? Now put stuff in it. It doesn’t matter—fill it. Now what is it? Has the bowl changed its essence? Is it now “candy” if that is what you filled it with? Is it water? Is it coins? No, the bowl is still a bowl. Now I want you to imagine that this bowl is you—your life. Now imagine all the things that your life becomes filled with—events, circumstances, successes, failures, good and bad relationships, life and death, money and no money, jobs, school, sicknesses, discoveries, sunny and rainy days, etc, etc. Your bowl [your life], though filled with events and things and people—is still not defined by its contents. Your life is still your life. You are still you. In spite of what we may think, our bowls are still the empty vessels of life that they always have been.

All of the stuff our bowls get filled with does not define us.

The bowl is about identity, of course. And so is the Matthew Gospel story about John and Jesus. During this season when many Christians are focused on the baby Jesus—a story that appears in only a handful of Bible verses—it is appropriate for us to talk about who Jesus was and is. Of course, that identity of Jesus has been determined by people over the centuries and still today.

Most of you probably have already figured out that Christ-mas and December 25th have little to nothing to do with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. These traditions of Christmas [leading up to Dec. 25th in the West and January 7th in the East] are relatively new and more closely related to cultural traditions and winter solstice observances. In fact, celebrations of Jesus’ Nativity are not mentioned in the Gospels or Acts; the date is not given, not even the time of year. Moving forward, in the 1st and 2nd Century there is no mention of any celebrations of Jesus’ birth in the writings of early Christians like Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen of Alexandria. Still in this time period, Jesus of Nazareth was defined by his life and ministry, and his death. The four Gospels provide much more detail about his life and his death. They even provide more specific times as to when his death may have occurred.

So to sum up, the earliest NT Biblical writings—Paul’s letters and the Gospel of Mark—do not mention Jesus’ birth. Neither does the Gospel of John. Only Matthew and Luke tell this story and in entirely different ways with different details. The New Testament is much more concerned with what Jesus did as an adult and how he died. This is how he was defined.

But in Matthew’s Gospel, this was not even the case yet. John wasn’t sure about Jesus.

Everyone was waiting for a Messiah, a ruler of some sort, or at least a prophet who would shake things up and change the current state of people’s lives. They were all waiting. John was waiting. Was Jesus their guy? Or had they been waiting in vain? John was confused. Jesus of Nazareth was certainly no king. Actually, he wasn’t even a religious leader. He had no sway in the temples, no power or authority in Jerusalem.

So was it time to give up on this Jesus and start waiting for another Messiah?

Of course, Jesus’ response isn’t what many wanted to hear. Jesus did not tell John:
Sure, I’m the Messiah. Here I am!
Bow down to me, worship me, the deal is done!
Everything is going to get better!

Instead, Jesus told his disciples to report back to John—to remind him of the compassionate and life-changing things that were happening to those who were typically left out and pushed down. Once again, Jesus borrowed from prophets like Isaiah, and lifted up the healings of those who were suffering; the new life for those who were considered dead; the poor being uplifted rather than ignored. But Jesus never really talked about himself. In fact, he talked about John. Who was John? How did people define him? What did people expect? A great priest with long, flowing robes who would lead the people? A prophet who would preach to them? John certainly was a prophet, but more than that. John was a guy who told the truth [no matter how painful]; he lived among the people without pretense; he exposed hypocrisy, greed, and injustice.

People tried to define John in certain ways and with various titles.

So did people try to define Jesus in certain ways and with various titles.

We still do it.
At Christmastime, we talk about Jesus as Savior and Messiah—and these are things that Jesus actually never said about himself.

We sing joy to the world, the Savior reigns…but after 2000+ years, does the Savior reign?
I mean, the world that John and Jesus both hoped for still doesn’t exist.

People are still incredibly poor. There is still great evil and corruption in the world.

Many times, joy is hard to come by.

I know that I am challenging a lot of our most popular assumptions. But I think that we need to do this if we are to concretely live out faith and practice compassion in life. Jesus of Nazareth and his cousin John both taught compassion, love, truth, and justice. Neither one of them believed that one person alone could bring such balance to the world. It would take a village—no, a whole community of people. And so Jesus called people lights in the world. Lights is plural. You, me, everybody else—lights in this world.

It is one of the biggest challenges of this holiday season, because we often force an identity on Jesus and then on ourselves. Christmastime is supposed to be a happy season of smiles, hugs, warm feelings, and stuffed stockings. But that’s not really at all what the story and message of Jesus of Nazareth is about.

It is about JOY.

Okay, but what is joy? To address this question, we have to ask another question:

What is happiness?

Often, the two words [and ideas] of joy and happiness are lumped together. Certainly, during this holiday season, we are bombarded with images, songs, and stories that tell us to be happy. Have a holly, jolly, Christmas! We say merry Christmas for a reason, right? Or..happy holidays? I mean, who would really go so far as to say to someone have a mediocre, melancholy Christmas or May you have a realistic holiday or better yet,
Miserable Christmas to you, too!

Uh, I’m joking, of course. But I am not joking about this word happiness. We have got to take a closer look because Happy Christmas is less about reality and more about marketing.

According to the Free Dictionary and Psychology Today, happiness is an emotion based on the external. It is based on situations, events, people, places, things, and thoughts. Happiness is also connected to the future—something you do not currently have but hope to have one day. Happiness depends on outer circumstances that will need to align with your expectations in order for you to “feel” happy. Thus, a “Merry” Christmas, in this sense, depends on whether your family and your friends meet your expectations for the holidays to be “happy.” If they don’t, unhappiness results. Happiness, then, is a roller coaster of emotion; we are at the mercy of other people and things, speeding up and down and hurling through loopy-loops until we get sick. Now I happen to like roller coasters, but just not the emotional kind that I was speaking of there. I’m not a huge fan of being happy one moment and then depressed a bit later, and then repeating the same cycle again and again.

So that’s happiness. But what is joy? Ah, here we go.

Joy is actually not external, cannot be bought in a store, is not conditional on someone else’s behavior—in fact, joy is completely independent of everything and exists on its own. Joy laughs at attachments. Joy doesn’t need them. Joy is free; joy lives and breathes on its own. Hmmm…so do you think we can start a movement? Can we instead say to other Christians, have a joyful Christmas? Can we say to those who are not Christians, have a joyful holiday?

I think we can. And I think it is more real and certainly healthier. For joy means being at peace with yourself—accepting who you are, where you are, and why you are. Joy is about accepting who you are not, and who you are not with. I received a great question about joy this week: what does joy feel like? Seems like something children are privy to. Explain the way joy feels!

Joy does not feel like happiness. It’s deeper, fuller, more realistically yours.

JOY does not come from your successes or achieving goals you set for yourself.

JOY is not dependent upon external circumstances.

JOY is when you are grateful consistently—even when there is no success.

JOY is internally and eternally yours when you are joyful regardless.

With practice, we can experience joy even in the midst of sadness. We will need to see life as more than just one disappointment or success after another. We have to let go of judgments and the negative emotions that come with them. If we can work on that, we will find joyful freedom.

Life is a gift. And each and every one of us is a life-gift. Our bowls can be filled with plenty of things, but it doesn’t change the fact that each one of us is a life and gift. Gratefulness comes when we just realize how much of a gift life actually is. And those around us are gifts, too. And this life is unpredictable and will always surprise us. Joy is in embracing the changes and the surprises. It is seeing a snowstorm not as an inconvenience or a fearful event, but as a moment to pause and admire creation—to stop and breathe and laugh, cry, and experience. When joy and gratitude live in you, the imperfections of your life add beauty and wholeness to your life.

Friends, we are trained at very early ages to believe that we are defined by other people and by the things we have. We are often told that only when we acquire certain things will we be happy. We are conditioned to believe that if we do not have certain things, we cannot be whole or content.

But we are not valued by what we have, nor by what we accomplish.

Our value is in who we are.

So find inner joy in who you are, as you are. And may that internal joy you discover lead you to compassionate living with others—recognizing the life and gifts in them. That is what this season and this life are about.

Amen.

PEACE: What Is It?

Isaiah 11:1-10

I thought that there was no better way to start a message and conversation about peace than to hear from the late Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela who died at the age of 95 this past Thursday, December 5th. His life and work are a testimony to what real peacemaking looks like. And that is why as we ask the difficult question today: what is peace? I wish to include Mandela in our reflection.

Often during this time of year, Advent and Christmas, the word and concept of peace can be quite superficial and abstract. We talk about Jesus as the Prince of Peace, we hear familiar words from prophets like Isaiah, we call the infant Jesus a peace child, and we sing silent night and peace on earth until we’re blue in the face. But what does it all mean really? Does one season and one day out of the year have any real, peaceful impact on our lives and on our world?

That is the question I am holding today. Do our words and beliefs about Jesus as the one who brings peace really mean anything? Or is it just a holiday tradition of hanging up pretty lights and tinsel and singing familiar carols and exchanging gifts? Is peace real? Is Christmas about peace? Do we really live peace in our lives?

I don’t know about you, but I have no interest in being calm and comfortable for a few moments on Sundays in Advent and then on Christmas eve—no interest in entering a church and singing some songs, lighting some candles, doing the same Christmas traditions—when out into the real world all is conflict, tension, and suffering. For me, hiding the tension makes me feel worse. It’s hard to sing Silent Night and Away in a Manger without thinking about kids in Syria, Palestine, Southern Sudan, West Philly, and Camden. Peace? Not so much for them. It’s painful for me to put up lights and exchange gifts when I know for a fact that there are plenty of people who see no light in their lives and don’t want gifts, because they just want food…or a job…or safety….or health.

So what is peace?

I’m coming clean here, being honest with you. This second Advent candle of peace is a tough one for me. I myself am full of tension; I’m full of conflict internally. And the world around me doesn’t seem to be cooperating.

But I do find something that speaks to me in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King:

True peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice.

I also find encouragement in what Nelson Mandela wrote in A Long Walk to Freedom:

When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both. Some say that has now been achieved. But I know that that is not the case. The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning.

Peace as the presence of justice; peace as living in such a way that brings freedom to others. This stays right with the prophet Isaiah’s perspective. For Isaiah, the people of Israel had become a stump—dead, nonmoving, apathetic, unjust. So when Isaiah speaks of a plant growing out of this dead stump, it is a hope, a dream—that the people would wake up, be alive, and bring justice and peace to their lands, to their communities—to themselves. Isaiah’s belief about God was that the presence of God [called spirit] would be obvious in people because they would live differently. They would not be dead stumps but alive in this spirit. The spirit would awaken the people as an active agent of wisdom and understanding, counsel and strength, and justice. This spirit, at work, would show itself as the poor would be uplifted [no more injustice for them]; people would be equal and not pushed down, the evil oppressors would hold no more sway.

And only then, with the dynamic action of the spirit in people to bring about justice—only then would there be true peace. The wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the lion–a little child leads all of them. These images of contrast, of yin and yang, of strength and weakness, hot and cold, opposite things living together in harmony—are the image of the peaceable kingdom. A world in which people recognize the tension of injustice and suffering and do something about it. A world where hurting and destroying is not the norm.

And now to the other questions I received this week about peace:

  1. Did Jesus have one main definition of peace or was he concerned with many different types of peace – inner peace, peace between people, peace between countries? What was most important to him when he spoke about peace?

What we know of Jesus is found in the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Thomas. Each time that Jesus used the word peace he usually meant shalom. This of course is the Hebrew word that expresses God’s desire for all of creation. Shalom means that people are in a good, healthy relationship with God; people are in healthy relationships with each other; they are in healthy relationships with their physical bodies and minds; and people are in healthy relationships with the whole earth [animals, trees, land, etc.]

So for Jesus, peace was about all of us living in balance—recognizing our deep connection to each other and to all living things. Jesus of Nazareth would have been well-versed in the Torah and in the writings of the prophets, like Isaiah. When Jesus said “blessed are the peacemakers” he was echoing Isaiah’s call for the people to create a peace on earth. It was all about action. One clear example is in the Gospel of Matthew: You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. (Matthew 5:38-39).

For Jesus, acting out shalom was the whole point. How do we treat others? This was the proof of true peace. Let’s add a cool twist to this. Walter Wink, professor of biblical interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in NY, explores deeper.

When you slap someone on the right cheek, consider that it is a back-handed slap. Why? Because in the time of Jesus, the left hand was not used for greeting or for doing much at all in public. The left hand was used for what we now call toilet paper. Yes, that’s right. So keeping that in mind, the right hand slapping someone’s right cheek would be a back-handed slap. This demonstrates to the other person that you are above them; a back-handed slap is to push someone down or insult them as lower than you. Turning the other cheek then, is not really an act of being passive, but rather an act of showing another that he/she is your equal. It is not responding to violence with more violence. Jesus actually never taught passivity or getting walked over. Shalom/Peace for Jesus was about seeing others as equals. In the end, Jesus was concerned with a holistic peace that was demonstrated in peaceful living with others.

Question #2:

How can you create peace when the other party doesn’t want there to be peace?  Can peace be one-sided?

When we seek peace with another person and that person rejects it—this is a sign of deep hurt and a broken shalom in the other. We often forget that we cannot control the attitude or the behavior of others; we just cannot. Even if you are behaving in a most peaceful and compassionate way, this will not change the person. He/She will ultimately have to make peace with him/herself first before accepting your offering of peace. So in this case, yes—peace can be one-sided.

When we forgive or offer peace to someone, this action is healing for us. We must recognize this. Only then will we be able to see that any person who cannot accept peace or forgiveness is greatly suffering. Of course, this does not excuse bad behavior. But when we offer peace to someone, we do it because it brings peace to us and we hope that the other person will also experience such a peace. But we must accept that we cannot force a person to be at peace; this will enable us to have compassion and to be able to move on.

Good questions.

In conclusion, let’s hear these words from Nelson Mandela, reminding us that peace in ourselves, peace with each other, and peace in the world— this is not a reality for everyone. So we must join with others and be the buds that spring out of the stump—committing ourselves to peaceful, just living and recognizing that all people deserve love, acceptance, and wholeness.

I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.

 May we keep walking as agents of peace. Amen.

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