Today’s sermon from North Presbyterian Church, Kalamazoo
What would you say are the marks of a successful church?
Here are some of my ideas for North Church:
We’re going to court some billionaire investors. Not donors, but investors. We want to incentivize their giving by promising a lucrative return. Once we have their money, we’re going to make use of it.
First of all, because we need to keep them happy (so they’ll keep sending us money), we’re going to turn our upstairs balcony into a skybox where our wealthiest members can observe the service in comfort, with leather recliners and a full wait staff serving champagne and caviar.
For our music ministry, we’re going to hire a full-time, paid, professionally trained choir (we already have the best organist in Michigan, so we won’t need a new one of those). Our contemporary worship team will get brand new, state-of-the-art AV equipment.
We’re going to get TV cameras so our service can be broadcast live via satellite around the world.
We’ll get paid endorsements from celebrities like Derek Jeter (add Christina Hendricks and George Clooney for sex appeal), who will tell everybody how great North Church is.
And finally, we’ll need to protect all this new stuff, so we’ll need to get a security force to guard the church. And I’m not thinking just some smiling, helpful rentacops either… I’m talking about SWAT team gear with assault rifles: I want such an overwhelming display of power that nobody will even THINK about messing with our church.
If we had all of those things (i.e. money, fame, and power), we would be a successful church, right? Wrong.
Jesus’ definition of the word success is different from the one accepted by the rest of the world. The world has a very self-centered definition of success, but Jesus presents us with a God-centered definition of success. The word he uses is blessed, which can also mean successful or lucky when you take away the spiritual side of it. That word blessed, by the way, comes from the Latin beatus and is where we get get the word Beatitude from. Blessedness, from the God-centered perspective of Jesus, is quite different from the world’s self-centered idea of success.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
The world sees wealth as a sign of success: the Armani tux, the Vera Wang dress, the Italian sports car, the yacht, and the mansion. The world looks at people who have those things and calls them successful/lucky.But Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The kingdoms of this world (governments, corporations, institutions) cater to the desires of the haves, but the kingdom of heaven (Jesus’ vision of an ideal society) will serve the needs of the have-nots. On the day when God’s dream for this world comes true, no more will Senators and CEOs vote to give themselves raises and go on vacation while the people whose jobs they cut sleep in shelters and line up outside soup kitchens. That’s not going to happen anymore.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
The world looks at people who seem to be happy and calls them “successful.” Today is Super Bowl Sunday, the one day a year when people watch TV just as much for the commercials as they watch it for the program. How many people plugging products in those commercials will be average-looking folks, looking bored, and saying, “Meh, I guess this product is okay…”? Not very many, I think. TV commercials are full of beautiful, smiling people who are excited to tell you all about how a particular cleaning solution changed their lives forever. They want us to believe that we’ll be as beautiful and happy as they are if only we buy what they’re selling. The world says that happy people are successful people, but Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Jesus invites us to not buy into that “cult of happiness.” Jesus doesn’t want us to turn away from the pain of this world, he wants us to look at it and do something about it. That’s what compassion is: Showing up with food or clothes, visiting the shelter, the drop-in, the hospital bed, the courtroom, and the prison cell. That’s the kind of love Jesus showed us and it’s the kind of love he wants us to show others. Wherever there’s pain, there’s Jesus, so that’s where we should be too.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”
The world says that successful people are tough-minded alpha-dogs who stand their ground and don’t compromise. Those are the big-shots who end up in running the show. The world puts them in charge of things. But Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek (i.e. gentle, flexible), for they will inherit the earth.” I like this one because I read a book by a couple of biologists last year that talks about how competition is not the only driving force behind evolution. They make the case that cooperation plays just as big a role in the ongoing development of life. When God’s dream for this world comes true, the ones in charge will be the ones who know how to work well with others and value relationships more than ideologies.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
The world believes that truly successful people lack for nothing. They have everything they could ever want. They benefit from the way things are. Insulated by wealth and power, they don’t sense the urgency of the situation or feel the need to challenge the system. But Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (i.e. justice, fairness), for they will be filled.” That last part is especially ominous because history has shown, time and again, that poor people will not stay quiet and submissive forever. If the leaders will not change the system, the people will change the leaders. Jesus has been proven right more than once: “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.”
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”
The world says that successful people know how to give as good as they get. If you hit them, they hit you back. They make an example of you so that others know not to mess with them. That’s the politics of power. But Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” Real power, according to Jesus, comes from knowing that you could rip your enemies to shreds but choosing not to. What’s more is that mercy is contagious: it comes back to you. It stops the cycle of violence from going around and around and escalating until the situation is out of control. The United States and the Soviet Union spend the latter half of the twentieth century with nuclear missiles pointed at each other in the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). But then the Cold War ended, not with a mushroom cloud, but with a party: people singing and dancing as the Berlin Wall came down. The doctrine of MAD-ness did neither side any good in the end.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
The world says that successful people are savvy: they know how to read between the lines and close the deal. They’re street-smart; they have guile. Successful people know how the game is played and stay two steps ahead of the competition. These savvy, successful people are sure to see great big dividends on their investments. But Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” Savvy, street-smart people see the world for what they can get out of it, but they’re missing a whole other dimension of reality. Those who see the world like Jesus does get to see the hand of God at work in creation. These blessed folks know that they’re not alone and that life has meaning. I like to compare this one to the scene in Star Wars when Han Solo is laughing at Luke Skywalker as he trains to be a Jedi Knight. Luke says, “You don’t believe in the Force, do you?” Han replies, “Kid, I’ve flown from one side of this galaxy to the other, and I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but I’ve never seen *anything* to make me believe that there’s one all-powerful Force controlling everything. ‘Cause no mystical energy field controls *my* destiny. It’s all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense.” Han is savvy but Luke is pure in heart. Luke is learning how to see the world through a different set of eyes and so, as Obi-Wan Kenobi said about him, he’s taking his “first steps into a larger world.”
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
The world defines success by winning. Whether it’s trophies on the shelf or notches on the bedpost, the world wants to know about your conquests. This was especially true in ancient Rome, where the empire was built on the doctrine of Pax Romana: world peace through global conquest. They believed that Roman order would prevail over the barbarians of the world by the mighty hand of Caesar. And Caesar himself was worshiped and given a very special title: “The Son of God,” Sol Invictus, “the Unconquerable Sun.” But Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers (not the conquerors), for they will be called children (lit. ‘sons’) of God.”
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Finally, the world says that respect is a measure of success. They say a good name is as good as gold. If people listen to what you say, you’re successful. If you get invited to the White House to advise the President on a matter, you’re successful. The world says it’s good to be admired and respected. Those who possess the kingdoms of this world are accorded respect, whether they deserve it or not. But Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Notice the parallel with the first beatitude. God’s ideal world belongs to the have-nots, the disrespected, the ones without a voice, and those who suffer and die for standing up and speaking out for what’s right. When God’s dream for this world comes true, these are the people we’ll be listening to, not the flattering bootlickers who only tell powerful leaders what they want to hear. We need people of conscience who will “speak the truth in love” to the powerful ones in charge. That’s what prophets do, but they’re almost never listened to or given the respect they deserve. Nevertheless, Jesus calls them “blessed” and commands us to keep doing it.
Jesus redefines success. He takes the world’s self-centered idea of success and replaces it with his own God-centered idea of blessedness. In the mind of Christ, success is not a blessing and blessing does not look like success. God’s blessing is upon the poor and oppressed peoples of this world, the ones without a voice, the ones who weep in the night, and the ones who are literally starving for change. God’s blessing is upon the gentle, the compassionate, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers.God’s blessing is upon those who face the pain of this world and do what they can to make a difference. God’s blessing is upon those who are a blessing. And so it is that I say to you:
May God bless you and make you a blessing, this day and every day. AMEN.
Posted below is the sermon, which was written and delivered by my dear friend (and fellow Trekkie), the Reverend Naomi Kelly. Naomi serves as pastor of Forest Presbyterian Church in Lyons Falls, NY. This sermon is reprinted with her permission.
Her text is the Beatitudes, Matthew 5:1-12.
I’m sure that you’ve watched many Star Trek episodes, and I’m sure you’re familiar with the Episode from Star Trek: The Next Generation where Captain Picard becomes a little boy, there is some kind ionic cloud and passes over the shuttle craft and he, Guinan and Ensign Ro are genetically altered to the time just before puberty, they are pre-teens is you will. Captain Picard is very happy that he has hair, and when the antidote seems impossible and the he will be young and grow up again, and be given another chance to go through life, he begins to imagine what he can become, he was already a Star Ship Captain, maybe this time he will be an archaeologist, another one of his passions. But soon the ship is in danger and young or not he must act, he must do something to save his ship. It was very difficult for him not being able to command his ship the way he used to. He still has all his skills, only in a younger body. And he finds that when he changes his perspective and begins to see with the eyes of a child he is able to do great things, he is able to use his childishness to save the ship. His perspective is changed as he figures out what he needs to do in order to succeed at his calling. When Jean Luc was able to humble himself, to become vulnerable, to allow the child that he’d become to direct his actions, he was able to do great things. Star Trek always has the ability to give us new and fresh perspectives on our culture by taking us outside ourselves just enough so that we can see where we fall short, where we need work, what we can do better.
Jesus does that too, (you see Star Trek always copies Jesus) Jesus gives us new perspectives on life, like His Sermon on the Mount. The Beatitudes give us one such twist. Seasons of the Spirit, a commentary on “Year A January 30, 2011 says: “In these saying, Jesus turns human notions of happiness upside down. What kind of living brings God’s blessing? Jesus teaches that the blessed ones are those who are humble of heart, who are gentle, who show mercy, who hunger and thirst for God’s ways. Those who mourn will be comforted; those who make peace will be called God’s children. Those who are persecuted in the cause of justice will find themselves part of God’s transforming reality.”
The Beatitudes give us a beautiful vision of what the world can be like. It is a vision that allows us to see the world from a different perspective. Like Paul says in the letter to the Philippians we need to be humble as Jesus was humble, to be more Christ like- that gentle merciful nature that is part of us, that we hide away, because we think it makes us vulnerable is what Jesus reminds us to show to the world. The kind of power that we’re used to, is not God’s idea of power.
These stories are revealing of the church in a way, they remind us that at one time the church took itself too seriously, that we began to want more power and influence in the world, and now all the mainline denominations are struggling, perhaps we lost the vision of Jesus’ teachings, perhaps the world doesn’t need what we have to offer anymore. I don’t know about you, but I often think I know better than God, I have all the answers, this kind of attitude leaves us inflexible, and not humble at all.
It is time for new a perspective again, it is time to reform and always be reforming, it is time to read the words that we have had handed down to us with new eyes, in a new light, and see where we need to change our perspective. The Spirit of Christ enables us to do that, gives us the insight and vision to change. Just as the young Jean Luc was able to change his perspective and use the skills of a pre-teen to save his ship, we are able to open to new ways of being church to make a difference in our world. And we can say, Blessed are the weak because when we are weak then God is strong and can influence and change our lives and our behavior. Blessed are the flexible for they will survive the changes that come along.
Blessed are the young at heart for they will able to transform the church to serve the world and each other.