We Are That

Sermon on Matthew 5:1-12.

Once upon a time, there was a community of acorns. They lived together, as acorns do, in the shade of a mighty oak tree. These were good little acorns and they wanted to be the best acorns they could be. So, they worked hard, took classes, and went to self-help seminars together. They polished their shells until they were sparkling bright. All in all, they were good little acorns who lived very respectable lives in the shade of that mighty old oak. Then, one day, another acorn fell down from the tree and said, “Friends, gather round! I have something very important to tell you.” The acorns were all abuzz at this news. They wanted to hear what this new acorn had to say, because they wanted to be the best little acorns they could be. A hush fell over the crowd as they listened close. The new acorn took a breath, looked up at the tree, and then looked back at all of them. “WE,” the new acorn said, “are THAT.” And pointed up at the tree.

The other acorns were confused. They looked at each other and then back at the new acorn and said, “What?”

So, the new acorn said it again: “WE are THAT,” and pointed back up at the tree.

“That’s ridiculous,” the other acorns said, “that oak tree has got to be at least thirty feet tall. It has leaves and roots. The tree is the mother of all acorn life and a home for beasts and birds. It has rough bark around the outside while we have these beautiful smooth shells. How can WE be THAT?”

So, the new acorn explained, “Inside of us, deep in our hearts, there is a seed. If we crack open our shells and plant that seed in the ground, it will grow into a tree like this.”

“This is crazy talk,” they said, “and treasonous blasphemy! We are trying to be the best little acorns we can be! We have spent our whole lives working on our shells! We’ve made them shiny and beautiful! They are the very things that make us acorns! How dare you say that we should crack them open? You’re undermining the very foundation of our acorn society!”

The little acorns were very angry at the new acorn. They beat her up until they had smashed her shell to bits. Then they kicked her out of the nice little acorn community, far away from the shade of the mighty oak tree.

But then something amazing happened. The new acorn planted her seed into the ground. And there, far away from the shade of the original tree, she grew into another mighty oak. And underneath this new tree, there grew another community of acorns. These new acorns were also very good acorns who polished their shells and wanted to be the best acorns they could be, until one day when another new acorn fell down from the tree and said, “Friends, gather round! I have something very important to tell you.”

The end.

I tell you this fable, which I have adapted from Episcopal priest and author Cynthia Bourgeault, because I think it is a very good illustration of the truth that Jesus is trying to tell his disciples in today’s gospel.

This passage, which scholars have long referred to as “The Beatitudes” (which is a Latin word for “Blessings”), is among the most famous of Jesus’ sayings. The Beatitudes begin the three-chapter collection of Jesus’ teachings known as “The Sermon on the Mount.”

In Matthew’s gospel, the Beatitudes mark the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in the same way that the Ten Commandments marked the beginning of Moses’ revelation of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. Matthew’s gospel makes a special point of emphasizing how Jesus’ movement was continuous with traditional Judaism. Jesus, according to Matthew, is like “Moses 2.0,” bringing the revelation of God’s Torah to God’s people.

The Beatitudes themselves, like the Ten Commandments, are a literary masterpiece. We could easily do a whole series of sermons on each Beatitude, although our Lectionary doesn’t allow us the time to do that. Instead, what I would like to do today is talk about the first Beatitude (“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”) because the rest flow naturally from it.

I’ll start at the end, with the phrase, “kingdom of heaven.” This is a central idea in all of Jesus’ teaching. When we hear it though the filter of our modern American minds, it sounds like Jesus is talking about the afterlife. “The kingdom of heaven,” so we think, is where good people go when they die. Understood through this filter, it sounds like Jesus is saying, “People who are poor in this life should be happy, because they won’t be poor anymore when they die and go to heaven.” While I agree that poverty is not a concern in the afterlife, I don’t think this is the point that Jesus is trying to communicate to his disciples.

“Heaven,” in first century Judaism, was not a destination in the afterlife but a respectful way of referring to God. So, when Jesus says, “kingdom of heaven,” he really means, “kingdom of God.” A kingdom, as we all know, is any territory where a monarch lives and has authority. The place where God lives and has authority is in our hearts. This is why Jesus says, in Luke 17:21, “The kingdom of God is within you.”

The kingdom of heaven is not a place in the afterlife, but a way of living in this world. The kingdom of heaven is the way this world ought to be, according to Jesus. Keep that in mind as we look at the rest of this first Beatitude.

Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Biblical scholars have spilled a lot of ink about this passage. They notice how, in Luke’s version, Jesus simply says, “Blessed are you who are poor.” Some of them, especially those of a more left-wing ideology, make Jesus out to be a good Marxist, fighting for the rights of the downtrodden against their evil capitalist oppressors. Others, especially those of a more right-wing ideology, emphasize Matthew’s version, where Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” They say that “the poor in spirit” are those who have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior, so their actual economic status does not matter. They think they can have material wealth and spiritual poverty at the same time. To be blunt, I think both of these interpretations are incomplete.

When I think of “poverty of spirit,” I think of the interpretation offered by Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine. The poor in spirit, according to Dr. Levine, are those who have the humility to admit they are the beneficiaries of abundant gifts and the generosity to pay those gifts forward to anyone in need. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., our great American prophet, says in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “All [people] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be… This is the inter-related structure of reality.”

Poverty of spirit is about knowing that there is no such thing as a “self-made person.” By a show of hands, who in this room can honestly say that they gave birth to themselves? No one. We were given birth by the labor of our mothers. In the same way, each of us is daily sustained by the free gifts of energy and nutrients from the Sun and the Earth.

The “kingdom of heaven,” as Jesus meant it, is any place and time where people realize this basic fact of our existence and act accordingly.

The “kingdom of heaven,” as Jesus meant it, can be here and now.

The “kingdom of heaven,” as Jesus meant it, is the way things ought to be.

This, I think, is what Jesus meant when he said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

This world will be the way it ought to be when those who have much realize that everything they have is a gift, and the God of heaven commands them to share what they have with those who have not. This world will be the way it ought to be when, in the words of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, “Love is the way.”

“When love is the way,” he says, “No child will go to bed hungry ever again… poverty will become history… Earth will be a sanctuary… When love is the way, we know that God is the source of us all, and we are brothers and sisters, children of God.”

My friends, I’m here to tell you that God’s kingdom will come, “on Earth as it is in Heaven,” when we live our lives according to the words that Jesus said. God’s kingdom will come when we become the kind of people that Jesus was.

This is the meaning of the parable of the acorns: Jesus came to show us that we are not self-made individuals, but mighty oak trees. We are capable of more life and growth than we could possibly imagine. If we can break through our fragile shells of status and privilege, we will discover within ourselves the “kingdom of God,” the life-giving power to make this world into the way it ought to be.

All we have to do is let go of our shallow and fragile egos and embrace our true identity as children of the living God. When we do that, we will understand what Jesus meant when he said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Redefining Success

Károly Ferenczy [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


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.

My (re)Ordination

My leap over Hadrian’s Wall is now complete!  I am a minister of the Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Click here to read the bulletin from the service.

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.