Sunday, January 29, 2017

Homily: The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany [January 29, 2017] St. Luke's, Monrovia CA

It is a great pleasure to return to St. Luke’s this morning. Those of you who have been around for a while may remember that in the summer of 1979 I spent a month here as the vacation replacement for your then-rector Ev Simson. A parish family generously loaned us their spacious house in Arcadia and a car to go with it. As a native Angeleo, I found it hard to return to Michigan when August was over that year. It’s good to be back.
And of course it is great to reconnect with Neil Tadken, your rector. I’ve known Neil since our time together at All Saints, Pasadena over 25 years ago. He still looks like he did then. Me, not so much.
Our gospel for this morning is the passage which begins Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount—the 10 sayings commonly called “The Beatitudes” [Matthew 5: 1-12]. Sitting in the chapel of St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue in New York City several years ago, I noticed that there were ten stained glass windows in the chapel, each depicting one of these sayings. As my eye moved along the row of windows, it stopped at the third, arrested in disbelief. Instead of the words, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” I found the phrase rendered, “Blessed are the debonair . . .” I was probably not the first pewsitter who snickered at the way a Park Avenue church had made Jesus sound like someone right out of the Social Register. Where else would the New Testament appear to equate meekness with savoir faire?
Knowing a bit of French, I went home and looked up debonair in my French-English Dictionary. The preferred modern meaning of debonair in French is the one we’d expect, “of a nonchalant elegance”(very much like your rector). But there are older meanings of debonair that the French translators of the Bible must have had in mind. When Jesus says in our English Bible, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” it is rendered in French as, “Happy are the debonair, for they shall inherit the earth.” In this context, debonair means something like, “of good manner”. This doesn’t mean that the “debonair” are fashion forward (again, like your rector). It suggests that they are humble, gracious, and self-effacing. And that, says Jesus, is a pretty good way to go through life.
These opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount are commonly called "The Beatitudes" because of the repeated use of the word we translate as "blessed". That same Greek word can also mean something like "happy". For many of us who seek to follow Jesus, The Beatitudes serve as a warrant for action. When Jesus says that the poor, the meek, the peacemakers, the merciful, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are "blessed" or "happy", many of us hear those words as a to-do list for our ministries. If we want to follow Jesus, we say, we need to be about serving the poor, being peacemakers, and hungering for righteousness.
That understanding is a good one. But let me suggest another that might stand beside it. Jesus's Beatitudes are not only, or even primarily, a set of marching orders for setting the world right. They are an announcement of what Christians have always called “the gospel”. They are a proclamation of the good news. In the Beatitudes Jesus is not so much telling us what we ought to do as he is telling us what God is already doing. These verses are an announcement of what God is up to in the world. This "kingdom of heaven" that Jesus talks about is not some future blessed state up in the clouds someplace. The kingdom of heaven is breaking in on us even now in the ministry of Jesus and in the community that gathers around him. The kingdom of heaven is made up of people quietly, humbly, sometimes even subversively living as Jesus would in the here and now.
In Jesus’s day, as now, human values were massively messed up. First century Jewish Palestine was an occupied territory, and people were taxed and starved beyond the breaking point to support the imperial Roman state. Into that culture of oppression and scarcity, Jesus came and announced that people could have lives that were both free and abundant if they would gather together in community. People followed Jesus not only because he was a great teacher but primarily because he was a healer and liberator who embodied the freedom and generosity of God.
In other words, in stepping into the Jesus community, you stepped into a space or place or zone where life is lived as God intends that it be. Jesus did not come to found an institution called "the church". In fact, the word we render as church—ekklesia—is a Greek term which means "the called". It's a newly coined word for the New Testament because the older words-synagogue, assembly, temple— couldn't quite name the reality of what the Jesus movement was about. The church, the ekklesia, the called, is the body of those called into the Jesus community to make real in their lives and the world what Jesus calls the reign of heaven. The church is the gathering of those who want to live life on God's, not Caesar's, terms.
Living life on God’s terms means, of course, that we will try to live out those Beatitude values in the world. Living life on God's terms means standing with the people Jesus names in these verses—the poor, the peacemakers, the persecuted, the mourners. Living life on God's terms means naming Caesar and all Caesar's successors as impostors, pretending to an authority that belongs only and finally to God. But we will be neither authentic advocates for those up against it nor credible critics of empire if we can't love and accept and forgive and celebrate each other right here first.
As we gather this morning in a divided and confused nation and world, Jesus's Beatitudes call us to rekindle our awareness of what it is we're doing when we get together in church. We are coming together, as did those gathered around Jesus, to step into that zone where life is lived on God's terms. We are coming together, as did those gathered around Jesus, to share in the good news that we can critique and change the world only to the extent that we can love it and each other first.
The French Beatitude I saw in Manhattan is but one of many translations of Jesus’s words. One of the most interesting versions occurs in the New English Bible.  Here is how that Bible renders the first saying:
How blest are those who know their need of God;
the kingdom of Heaven is theirs. [Matthew 5:3 NEB]

There is a lot of wisdom in these words. Perhaps the truest thing you can say about us Christians is that we, whatever you call us--the Jesus community, the church, the communion of saints,—are the people who know our need of God.  Caesar does not know his need of God, nor do those who organize their lives around power, achievement, success, or money.  You might say there are two kinds of people in the world:  those who know they need God, and those who think they don’t. The most pervasive lie our culture promotes is the idea that you are or should be totally independent of others, that you can somehow be both self-sufficient and self-made.
Those of us who seek to follow Jesus know that we all finally need each other.  Those of us who make our way into the Jesus movement are united not by what we think about theological or social issues. We are united in our shared knowledge of our need for God.  We are all mortal, dependent creatures.  True wisdom lies in accepting and celebrating the fact that we are finite and human, and in finding ways, together, to make life better and richer and deeper or maybe even just bearable not only for ourselves but for each other and the world.
“Blessed are the debonair, for they shall inherit the earth.” “How blest are those who know their need of God; the kingdom of Heaven is theirs.” What is God up to in the world and in your life? If we believe Jesus, God is making a world in which each of us can find true joy and meaning in life by accepting our need for God and each other. True admission of our shared need makes us “debonair” in its deepest sense—it makes us humble and gracious and self-effacing. Given everything that’s going on in our world right now, being humble and gracious and self-effacing is a pretty good way to go through life.
We often make being a Christian or following Jesus harder than it really is. If we look to Jesus as a setter of impossible standards, we will feel defeated before we begin. But if we look to Jesus as one who knows his need of God and finds life’s fulfillment in making common cause with others, we will see him as our brother and companion on a journey of generosity, compassion, and joy. So, for this morning, let’s forget those impossible standards. Let’s begin by admitting our need for God. Let us gather around God’s table and be fed and blessed and assured that God knows and responds to our need. Let us come together to love and support each other. And then let us go out of here together, intent on sharing this love and support with our neighbors. If we can give all that a try, we may none of us become perfect, but we will each and all of us, become truly debonair.  Amen.

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