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Monday, January 30, 2017
A Sermon on the Beatitudes
by Jared Slack
For the People of First Austin:
a baptist community of faith
On the Fourth Sunday following Epiphany
January 29, 2017
Let us pray,
Now oh Lord, as we allow the light of your words to shine brightly and honestly into our lives, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts here in this place be pleasing to you our rock and our redeemer. AMEN.
“You should try and make it about stewardship.”
This passing comment made in the middle of staff meeting last week is the surprise marching order Griff gave me as I was looking ahead to preaching this morning.
Now, while at first this little addendum seems entirely innocent, you should know that it came some 3 weeks after he’d already gotten me to agree to preach on this day… a day, that up to this point I’d actually been looking forward to.
You see, today’s crop of scriptures is celebrated by more than a few commentators as brimming with possibilities as they represent some of the most heavy hitting, well known passages in all the Bible.
Earlier in our service, Griff read the prophet Micah’s iconic, words calling us to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. We could have chosen to meditate on Psalm 15 and its invitation into a life of goodness and charity in the faithful presence of God. Or we could have learned a lesson from the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians about the power of the Gospel shown to us through the seeming foolishness of the cross. And just now, from Leigh we’ve heard some of Jesus’ most important sentences taken from the most famous sermon he ever preached.
I’ll confess to you, a few weeks ago, I actually found myself at moments naively smitten, with a grin on my face and warm fuzzy feelings in my heart towards our great pastor, and all-around good guy, Reverend Doctor Griff Martin who so generously and graciously handed over this potential soft ball of a Sunday where I get to engage with endless options and avenues for sermon writing.
But then last week he slipped in that I should “try and make it about stewardship.” a phrase that could easily sit atop any list of phrases that NO Pastor ever wants to hear.
And I’m sure you’re all well aware without me telling you this, but I’m not exactly your best option to be the poster child for a campaign of any kind, let alone the leadoff batter in a church’s stewardship drive.
That’s a job best fit for someone with a far fancier wardrobe and a far less cynical outlook.
Having worked with Griff only a few months now, I’m beginning to think there’s a real good possibility that he finds a sort of secret pleasure in complicating my life… because, to be honest with you, there’s probably nothing more life complicating than putting me behind a pulpit with stewardship as my message.
But alas, here I am today to give this a real shot, your quintessential Millennial, or at least somewhere in the near vicinity of being a Millennial, with little to no attachment to institutional memory and a pretty potent aversion to anything resembling nostalgia and thinking about how things used to be way back when… here I am to talk to you about being stewards of this place we all call home.
I was talking about all this with Rod Machen this past Wednesday night and he reminded me of a story from Pete Rollin’s book, The Orthodox Heretic, about the nature of institutions and the their rituals….
There was once this wise teacher who would go to the temple every evening to pray with his disciples. And by the temple there was this stray cat that would wander in every evening and disturb those gathered to pray and disrupt the peace. So, each evening before prayers the wise teacher would tie this cat to a tree outside before entering.
Now this wise teacher was quite old at the time and passed away only a few years later. So his disciples continued to tie the cat to the tree each evening before prayers.
Well… eventually, the cat died, too.
So some of the disciples immediately went out and bought a new cat so that they could continue the ritual. After a hundred years or so the tree died and a new one was quickly planted so that the cat (by now the 18th generation cat) could be ceremoniously tied to it each night.
And over time they saw a need to form a committee that would manage the daily cat-tying responsibilities, another one was put together to oversee important tree maintenance and upkeep, and then another committee was tasked with putting together the annual fund-raising campaign meant to ensure that for years to come there would big beautiful trees and enough rambunctious cats to tie to them.
Now of course, I’m not comparing what we do here at First Austin to cat wrangling, but you have to admit that there’s something about this that sounds eerily familiar, right?
How through years and years of rituals and routine we can so easily lose connection with the deep story of why we do the things we do… so we settle for a safer narrative of just keeping the lights on, the ship afloat, and doing things because that’s just the way we’ve always done it.
And for me, what this inevitably does is it morphs the real deal of calling ourselves to be faithful stewards of a place and people into a sanctified “sales pitch” of sorts. A flashy kind of spiel about all the things that our church has to offer and all the resources it takes to keep it all going in hopes that you’ll respond in kind with an appropriate to you and your family financial commitment.
You see, I come from a generation that takes quite a lot of pride in our ability to pretty quickly sniff out when someone is trying to sell us something, and the second we catch on that you’re giving us a sales pitch of any kind, is the exact same moment that we promptly and resolvedly tune you out and possibly walk out the door never to be seen again.
Because like many of you, we know all too well the gimmicky nature of our world, full of quick fixes and empty promises of solutions to life’s difficulties that it just so happens can be paid for with money or a membership.
Which makes me think that had I been there that day listening to Jesus preach on the mountainside that I might have turned a deaf ear when he began to rattle out his litany of promises.
Because like many of you, I know all too well the stark contrast between the world you and I currently live in and the version of the kingdom that Jesus is trying to sell.
The beatitudes paint a picture of the world where the poor receive an inheritance, where the hungry are satisfied, where those who mourn are consoled, and the pure in heart get to see God.
Now I'm only 34, but I’ve been around long enough to see firsthand that in our world… the merciful get trampled by the merciless, those who mourn find themselves debilitated by their grief, the purest among us eventually walk away from God, the people who earnestly hunger and thirst for what is right in this world literally just hunger and thirst, and refugees get turned away at our borders.
Which might be why Jesus’s words of blessing are more important than ever, simply because of just how seemingly impractical they are for a world where the only blessings being given out are to those who succeed at the expense of others. Where being poor in spirit, peaceful, merciful, and meek gets you nothing and nowhere in a culture grounded in competition and fear.
But equally so even though when we look out into our world and see that things out there are the exact opposite of Jesus’ vision in the Beatitudes, you and I know something deeply true and deeply beautiful… that these words of Jesus describe for us the present reality of what can and certainly does exist in this beloved community we call First Austin.
Because in a world hell bent on only blessing the strong and the powerful, we get to be the place that hands out blessings to the weak and the unwanted.
The Beatitudes don’t serve so much as a description of how things will be in the future, but instead as our very own marching orders for what we are working to create right now amongst us… they are a prophetic declaration for how things MUST BE in this place and wherever it is in this world that you and I exist on a daily basis.
In Jesus’ words, we receive a much needed clarification of the calling of First Austin to be a “blessing community.” To be a church that sets this identity at the center of our mission. To be a place and a people who stubbornly and resolutely stand against the tide of a world that reserves blessing for an exclusive, elite group, to be a prophetic voice of welcome to the powerless in a world that only wants us to admire the strong.
Here at First Austin, we are the heralds of the kingdom that is coming. We are living, breathing, walking around in this world Beatitudes and together, you and I, are creating together, dreaming with one another, and making manifest this kingdom of Jesus… one upside-down, against the norm of our world, blessing at a time.
Together we get to support a place where those who’ve reached the end of their resources, who can’t sustain hope on their own, the forgotten and discarded of our society are remembered and cherished.
Together we’re creating a home for those who mourn and weep over the hurt in our world, where those who are keenly aware of the chiasmic difference between the way things are right now and the way God desires them to be are comforted and cared for.
Together we are standing strong against any rhetoric that seeks to politicize through fear the welcoming of the immigrant refugee into our communities.
Together we are a safe haven where the marginalized and easily cast aside are given a seat at the ever expanding, ever embracing table of God.
Being a faithful steward of this community, of First Austin, is an act of planting yourself in the ever-flowing, ever-moving stream of Jesus’ vision for our world not because doing so will result in blessings of your own or because I can guarantee that you’ll be giving to a winning cause but because you and I both recognize that the present challenges of this world and the rampant disregard of what is right and good are far too severe and seemingly insurmountable to do anything less.
Being a steward of this place means hoping against all present circumstances and defying all the odds stacked against us to create a place where the hungry, the merciful, the peace making, the doubting, the disbelieving, the lonely and left out, the ones that no one notices and no one speaks up for, the unimpressive, the underemployed, the burnt out, the put down, the non-traditional, and the ones who really aren’t all that sure if the church is the right place for them can and will be blessed… because come hell or high water, we’re going to be the place that proves that it’s possible.
These Beatitudes of Jesus welcome us to stop settling for things as they’ve always been, but instead to pony up to the table and bravely walk towards making Jesus’ hopes and dreams for our world into a tangible, reach out your hand and touch-able reality.
And that might be the best I’ve got to offer for our stewardship campaign… just a list of blessings and promises that seem way too good be true that are as dangerously impractical as tying a cat to a tree and then me asking you to reach deep and live generously.
So for better or worse, that’s my pitch. AMEN.