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Posts Tagged ‘Sermon on the Mount’

A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett at Central United Church, Sarnia, Ontario on February 6, 2011

Scripture: Matthew 5: 13-20

When we baptize people in this congregation, we lay hands on their heads and say, “May the Spirit be upon you, child of God, disciple of Christ, member of the church.” Mary Anne takes some oil and marks the forehead of the person being baptized, following the ancient rite of the church. We give the baptized person (or the baby’s parents), and say to him or her the words from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “Let your light so shine before all people that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” All these actions signify the gift of God’s Spirit that is given to us in baptism.

The Spirit of God is God’s breath, God’s power, God’s energizing life and presence in the world. In Genesis, the Spirit of God hovered over the watery void, preparing creation to spring forth at God’s command. Throughout the First Testament, the Spirit was given to leaders within the covenant community so that they could lead God’s people in God’s ways. The Spirit descended upon Jesus at his baptism. The Spirit then shoved him into the wilderness. From that time of testing, Jesus emerged ready to begin his public ministry. After Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, the Spirit descended upon his disciples. Forty days earlier, these same disciples had cowered in fear, had run away at the first sign of danger, and had denied even knowing Jesus when he needed them the most. Empowered by the Spirit, Jesus’ disciples found the courage to speak boldly to skeptical crowds. They took the gospel message all across the Roman Empire and beyond. They faced derision, persecution, and even death. Through it all, they transformed lives and changed communities with the healing, empowering presence of God.

The Spirit: God’s breath, God’s life, God’s energizing power that propels God’s people into the world. The gift of God’s Spirit in your baptism is your ordination into ministry. The health and vitality of congregations suffer when the baptized people of the church think that only certain people are ordained into ministry. It is detrimental to the health and vitality of this congregation when you think that I am a minister and you are not; that Mary Anne is a minister but you are not.

Some people are saying, “Central United Church doesn’t need two ministers.” They are right. Central United Church does not ned two ministers; Central needs 374 ministers because that is the number of people who claim that they are members of this congregation. Mary Anne and I are ministers to this congregation. Our work is to tend to the corporate life of this community. We are ordained to build up the body of Christ in this place by equipping you to be ministers: ministers to one another; ministers in this neighbourhood; ministers in this city; ministers around the world. (Ephesians 4:11-13)

Your ministry is holy work. It is the way that God transforms communities and changes the world. I know that talk like this intimidates some of you. You feel inadequate to have your life be a witness to the reign of God in the world. You feel ill-equipped to be God’s ambassador in the places where you live and work and play. You feel untrained for such holy work.

This is a good thing. Feeling inadequate, ill-equipped and untrained will drive you to your knees. It will drive you to prayer. In prayer, you open yourself to the Holy Spirit — God’s gift to you to empower you to do the work that God has given you to do.

Sometimes, when we think about that work, we make the mistake of thinking that only actions that are spectacular or outstanding qualify. That is not true. Read the book. Our God has a peculiar preference for working through people who are very ordinary and who often seem quite ill-suited to the task. Weakness, smallness, ordinariness are traits with which God works best.

The United Methodist Church in the United States has a practice of marking one Sunday a year as Laity Sunday. Ordinary people stand up and speak about their ministry in the world. Willimon and Hauerwas (Where Resident Aliens Live, p. 108-109) tell of one church where three people spoke one year.

The first was a young woman, the wife of a medical intern. They had three small children. She said her life mainly involved bringing up their children as part of the church. She did that by teaching them the stories of the Bible, bringing them to worship and Sunday School so that they would be reminded of their baptism, and helping them learn what it means to be a member of the Body of Christ. “I know that is not much, but right now I think that’s what God wants me to do,” she said.

The second speaker was a young man who was a bureaucrat in a government agency. He said that the counted on the church to remind him that Christians do not lie. He needed such reminding because every day at his job he was surrounded by lies. He needed help in resisting becoming part of a system of lies. So he came to worship, hoping to renew his speech so that he would not lie on the job. He said, “It may not lead to my advancement, but I would rather be a Christian.”

A third person spoke of a quilting group she had started which had attracted a number of young women from Japan. Through them she discovered Japanese Christianity. Her quilting tied her to Christians around the world.

I remember hearing of an accountant who understood his work as holy work. He explained that our economic system depends upon people being able to trust that those who handle their money are doing so fairly and honestly. If you do not have that, corruption sets in and people get hurt, especially the weakest and most vulnerable members of society. His work as an accountant was to help keep people honest and the system trustworthy, and so to protect the weakest members of the community.

I believe it was Mozart who wrote write at the top of every sheet of music which he composed the letters AMGD — Ad Majorem Gloria Dei — “to the greater glory of God”. In doing so, he consecrated all his work. He made it a holy offering to God. You could do that. At the top of your calendar, you could put AMGD. It would remind you, “This day, whatever I do, I offer it up to God for service in God’s mission.”

Some of you will be saying, “I am too old. I do not have the energy to do very much anymore.” Here’s a test to see whether or not the holy work given to you by the Spirit in baptism is done: if you are alive, it isn’t. Even if you cannot do very much, you can pray. The work of prayer is critical. This congregation will not be able to do whatever work God wants it to do unless it is undergirded and surrounded by the persistent prayers of faithful people. You can pray. You can take the bulletin home and pray for those among us who are in hospital. You can pray for each activity that happens here during the week, asking that God will work through each one. You can take the Annual Report home and pray through it. You can ask that we shall receive the wisdom and insight to take what we have done in the past year and make it a steeping stone into God’s future. You can take the photo directory and pray for each person in turn, one or two a day. You can pray for the churches of this city and of this Presbytery. You can pray your doubts, your questions and uncertainties, your loneliness and your joy. Pray. Pray. Pray.

When you find yourself in a place where you have no prayers of your own (because that happens sometimes in this journey), sit quietly and receive the prayers that others are praying for you. Sit quietly and let the Spirit take your groans and your silences to the throne of God. That, too, is the Spirit’s work. (Romans 8: 26)

“Let me tell you why you are here: You are here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavours of this earth. You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colours in the world.” (Matthew 5, The Message). This holy work is given to you in your baptism. God’s Holy Spirit is upon you an within you and working through you to give you the energy and the courage and the strength to do that work. Wherever you go this week, whatever you do, this Spirit is upon you. “Let your light so shine before all people that they may see your good works, and give glory to God who is in heaven.” (Matthew 3: 16)

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A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett at Central United Church, Sarnia, Ontario on January 30, 2011.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
“Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.”

How many of you memorized the Beatitudes when you were young? I had to memorize them in elementary school. At that time, I thought of them as bits of good advice for getting along in the world:

“Blessed are the meek . . . nobody likes the schoolyard bully or the office psychopath.”
“Blessed are the peacemakers . . . everybody should try to get along and it’s even better if you’re the person who helps them do that.”
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy . . . what goes around comes around. Give someone a break now and, down the road, they will return the favour.”

Helpful sayings.

I did not think any more about it until the mid 1980’s when I was leading a confirmation class. I thought we would review of the basics of being a follower of Jesus and explore what those basics meant. I had the group read over the Beatitudes. To my surprise, they did not really know them. Then, I asked the class participants what they thought of the Beatitudes. Without blinking an eye, they told me that they disagreed with them.

In their experience, it was not true that the meek inherit the earth. The rich and powerful inherited the earth and pretty much everything else as well. In their experience, the poor in spirit probably suffered from low self esteem and they had better fix that quickly before they got trampled by people who knew what they wanted and were determined to get it.

As I sat there, listening to them, two thoughts crossed my mind: 1) I had not idea what I was going to do next. Whatever I had prepared was not going to work with this crowd, and 2) somewhere between my childhood and theirs, the world had shifted. The culture had stopped co-operating with the church in the task of forming Christians. Instead, the culture had been aggressively evangelizing these children into a very different set of convictions, a very different view of the world. The church and the culture were no long even pretending to co-operate. They were in competition for people’s hearts and minds, and the culture was winning. The Beatitudes were no longer ‘good advice for living well.’ They sounded strange, impractical and just plain wrong.

In a context such as ours, we are probably closer to hearing the Beatitudes in a way similar to the way the disciples of Jesus fist heard them. They are not pithy sayings to help make children moral. They are an introduction to a view of the world that turns our world upside down. The Beatitudes invite us to live in the world in a radically new way.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says all sorts of outrageous things about the way the world works. He says, “This is reality. This is the way the world really is because this is what God is doing in the world.”

Malcolm Muggeridge was a British journalist in the 20th century. He hovered on the edges of Christian faith for most of his life. One of the things that attracted Malcolm Muggeridge to Christianity was ‘its sheer absurdity.’. “I love all those crazy sayings in the New Testament — which incidentally turn out to be literally true — about how fools and illiterates and children understand what Jesus was talking about better than the wise, the learned and the venerable; about how the poor, not the rich are blessed, the meek, not the arrogant, inherit the earth, and the pure in heart, not the strong in mind, see God.” This is not how most of the world think the world works but, those who dare to live in the world imagined by Jesus in the Beatitudes find them unexpectedly true.

Malcolm Muggeridge’s favourite example of the unexpected truth of the Beatitudes was Mother Teresa. What she did and what the Missionaries of Charity do is, of course, patently absurd. They take homeless, dying people off the streets. They wash them, feed them, care for them until they die. Sometimes that is only for a few hours. Sometimes it is for days or weeks. It does not matter.
Why do they do it? When the needs of the living are so great, why spend time and energy on people who are not going to get better, whose death nobody will notice anyway.
She said, “I want them to have the comfort of seeing, even for a few hours or minutes, a loving face and the comfort of receiving loving care instead of closing their eyes on a world that is hostile or indifferent to their suffering.”
“But why do it?”
Because, “in every single suffering human being I see the suffering of Christ. So, a grizzled head, a stricken face laid low in the gutter, is He to whom all care and all love are due.” (Christ and the Media, p. 71)

One of the reasons I have enjoyed taking people on mission trips is because it gives us, who lead such privileged, coddled lives, an opportunity to glimpse the truth of the Beatitudes. We are constantly being converted by television and other media to believe that the only way to have a good life is to make lots of money, to have connections with the right people, to wear the right clothes, to possess the right things. On these mission trips, we get away from all that for a week or so. We live in a community where children sometimes don’t have shoes to wear to school. They sit at worn-out desks and do their school work with little stubs of pencils. We worship among adults, many of whom are unable to find regular work. Many of them cannot access adequate health care. We experience among them a profound joy that wells up from gratitude for all the blessings God has poured upon them. They stand up in worship and say, “I want to thank God that I woke up this morning and am alive today.” One will tell of some trouble that she or he has experienced but will finish by saying, “God is good.” The congregation will response, “All the time.”

The people who go on these trips usually think that they are going there to help people who are less fortunate than themselves. Instead, they are overwhelmed by the blessed they receive. They come back changed because they have experienced the blessings that Jesus talked about in the Beatitudes.

It is almost always hard for them to come back into our world. They find it hard to come back into a life pre-occupied with concerns and values that now seem superficial, shallow, unimportant and less real.

I do not want to romanticize the lives of those whom we visit. There are many problems that come with such poverty. Also, I am acutely aware that we need to be grateful for all the opportunities and comforts that come to us through our wealth as North Americans. Nevertheless, the gift of such trips is that we catch a glimpse of the truth of Jesus’ claim that the poor, the meek, the pure in heart are blessed. Somehow the conditions on the trip open us to God whose will for us is life, true life.

We are so easily deceived into worshipping gods who cannot save us. We are so easily seduced into believing fantasies. The Beatitudes keep us turning toward the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray:

God of life and of truth,
Your Son invites us to see the world through your eyes and we find ourselves disoriented:

You bless the poor
You bless the meek
You bless the pure in heart.
You turn our world and its values upside down.

We have signed on to follow your Son
but this is strange territory.
It doesn’t look anything like
the life we have been taught to yearn for,
to work for,
to believe will bring us happiness.

Yet, You know the despair that besets
so many of our young people
who fear that their future has been mortgaged
by our greed and carelessness.
You hear the cries of those who
have traded their souls for power and money
and now have emptiness as a friend.
You see those who are caught in lives that
lead only to weariness and anxiety.

Set us at Jesus’ feet
so we can learn to judge our lives differently.
Awaken in us that hunger and thirst for you
which will lead us to your will
and your peace.

Open our eyes to see your unexpected blessings.
Open our hearts to welcome you
when you come to us in strange ways.

Then make us into a community of blessedness
that beckons this neighbourhood
into your joy.

We ask these things in the name of Jesus
who blesses us with your living presence
and fills our lives with your life-changing truth. Amen.

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Reflections on Matthew 5: 13-20

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says to his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth”. In The Presence of the Kingdom, Jacques Ellul points out that salt is a sign of the covenant between God and Israel (Leviticus 2:13). The church’s mission is to be a visible sign of the new covenant God makes with the world in Jesus Christ.

This new covenant creates a new community that is centred on Jesus. It is a community where the grace, love, forgiveness and mercy of God are made visible so that the world knows that God is alive and active in the world. It is a community of people who are learning to trust, above every other power, the God who is revealed and present in Jesus of Nazareth.

Since Jesus’ power often looks like weakness and his action is often hidden, it is often a challenge to sustain such trust. We easily turn to other, more obvious, forms of power.

I’ve been thinking about these things in relation to the process of change in congregations. There is often a lot of resistance to some changes and a lot of frustration at that resistance by those who want to move things in certain directions. People are tempted to use whatever power they have to make their viewpoint prevail.

It is interesting to watch ministers and other leaders in congregations embrace ‘change management techniques’ and ‘conflict management strategies’ as a way of trying to control the process of change. While I have appreciated some of the insights of this literature, I have also experienced how manipulative this can be. The techniques and strategies can be used to silence alternate viewpoints. They can give the impression that something is happening and that people’s opinions are being considered when, in reality, the techniques are just a way for certain people to gain and use power. Techniques and strategies are used to replace the hard work of relationships — both the primary relationship of attending to God and to what God is doing and the other relationships we have with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Then, the process demeans the humanity of the people involved and it fails to build up the Body of Christ, the church.

This seems to me to be a particularly critical issue when we are trying to learn what it means for a church to move toward a missional character. ‘Missional’ is first of all about God’s mission and about becoming the kinds of communities that are signs, witnesses and foretastes of the Kingdom of Heaven. It is about being communities who show the world what ‘living in faith’ in the Triune God means. It is about relationships. Reliance upon techniques and strategies can lead us to become people who trust in something other than God — in our own ability to control change and manage conflict; in the power we can gain by being the one who uses the techniques.

Besides, I don’t think the strategies and techniques work particularly well in situations of discontinuous change — the current context in which we are called into God’s mission.

Faithfulness to a missional God means a long apprentice in the fine art of trust — which includes truth-telling and letting go of our illusions of control.

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Strange Territory

A prayer reflecting on the Beatitudes

God of life and of truth,
Your Son invites us to see the world through your eyes and we find ourselves disoriented:

You bless the poor
You bless the meek
You bless the pure in heart.
You turn our world and its values upside down.

We have signed on to follow your Son
but this is strange territory.
It doesn’t look anything like
the life we have been taught to yearn for,
to work for,
to believe will bring us happiness.

Yet, You know the despair that besets
so many of our young people
who fear that their future has been mortgaged
by our greed and carelessness.
You hear the cries of those who
have traded their souls for power and money
and now have emptiness as a friend.
You see those who are caught in lives that
lead only to weariness and anxiety.

Set us at Jesus’ feet
so we can learn to judge our lives differently.
Awaken in us that hunger and thirst for you
which will lead us to your will
and your peace.

Open our eyes to see your unexpected blessings.
Open our hearts to welcome you
when you come to us in strange ways.

Then make us into a community of blessedness
that beckons this neighbourhood
into your joy.

We ask these things in the name of Jesus
who blesses us with your living presence
and fills our lives with your life-changing truth. Amen.

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Malcolm Muggeridge once said “One of the great attractions of Christianity . . . is its sheer absurdity. I love all those crazy sayings in the New Testament — which, incidentally, turn out to be literally true — about how fools and illiterates and children understand what Jesus was talking about better than the wise, the learned and the venerable; about how the poor, not the rich are blessed, the meek, not the arrogant, inherit the earth, and the pure in heart, not the strong in mind, see God.” (Christ and the Media, p. 71)
Charles Colson discovered this in prison. Colson was special counsel to President Nixon. He had spent his life cultivating power and influence. He was a lawyer who moved into politics. He sacrificed time with his family, vacations, his social life in his quest for power. The ironic thing, he says now, is that, at the moment when it was all within his grasp, on the evening when Richard Nixon was re-elected as President of the United States and Colson was one of two other people in the room with Nixon, he was overcome by a strange sense of emptiness and futility. Power had not given him the freedom, security or satisfaction that he had expected. He did not find those things until he ended up in prison for his role in the Watergate scandal. Then, all his power was taken away from him. There, surrounded by despair and suffering; eating, working and talking with the powerless people prosecuted under laws he had written, he began to see what power had done to him. He began to see what power had done, through him, to others.
He learned that power is not the same as justice. The power he had wielded had not accomplished justice in the courts and jails. People were there not because they were guilty of a crime but because the did not have the money, intelligence, or education to manipulate the system and stay out of jail.
As all the trapping of power were taken away from him, he learned that the Christian who breaks radically with the power of this world is far from powerless. When we surrender to God our illusions about power in the world, we find God’s true power working in our lives.
After Colson was released from prison, he formed Prison Fellowship. This organization works in prisons and with prisoners and the administration. They present the gospel; they advocate for decent conditions in prisons; they speak up against abuses. Ironically, he says, his powerlessness has been used by God to influence the criminal justice system far more than he did from his office of worldly power. (Loving God, Charles Colson)
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for their is the kingdom of God.” It seems absurd. Yet, it is more true than all the strategies for success that fill the shelves in book stores.

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Somebody said once that living into the world imagined by Jesus is like looking into a store window in which somebody has changed all the price tags. Expensive diamond rings are selling very cheaply. A child’s toy watch is very costly. A bar of soap costs $100. The latest television set sells for $1.00.
Jesus seems to have taken a certain delight in turning the world upside down. “The greatest among you is the one who serves.” (Matthew 23:11) “If you want to gain your life, you must lose it.”(Matthew 10:39) “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” (Matthew 19:13)
The Beatitudes (Matthew 5: 1-11) take us into that kind of a world. “Blessed are those who mourn.” “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.”
I have been wondering where in our churches we get to experience this kind of upside-down world.There are glimpses: I have seen those who mourn newly aware of both the blessing and comfort of their faith. I have seen young people on mission trips awaken to the blessings that the poor experience — blessings that take these young people by surprise since they have been trained to think that being rich is the greatest blessing to which they can aspire.
Still, the truth of the Beatitudes is often hidden for long periods of time. Another instance where we live by faith, not sight. What a challenge to find ways to help our young people live into this world imagined by Jesus.

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