Sunday, January 29, 2006

Toronto Scarborough Presbytery Pulpit Exchange

Matthew 5
1And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him: 2And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying,
3Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
5Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
6Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
7Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
8Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
9Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
10Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.
12Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

The challenge is called 'name that movie.' Here are your clues:

Holds record for most weeks at top of the movie charts: 15
2nd most total of number 1 weekends: 15 (ET: The Extra-Terrestrial holds the record with 16 weeks)
Fastest movie to $500m gross: 98 days
Fastest movie to $600m gross: 252 days
All-Time Box Office Rank: 1
Academy Award Winner, 1997 Best Picture
Last clue: The film ends badly

If you guessed Titanic, you are correct. If you can explain this success, I'm all ears. It's not that I didn't like the film, because I did. The special effects were remarkable, the attention to detail was admirable, and the acting...well. Let's just say that something else was going on. Something else that led teenage girls to the theatre ten times and led some of the same girls to stake out a solitary grave in a Halifax cemetery and imagine that it belonged to a fictional character in the film.

I know of at least one scholar who has a theory, and her name is Kenda Creasy Dean. She wrote:

True love, as every teenager knows, is always worth dying for. Passion is the truest love there is, a love worthy of sacrifice, a love so rare, so life-changing that it is the stuff of legends. It is Jack and Rose in the Titanic.

She begins with Jack and Rose and then continues with other films and other characters such as Mufasa and Simba (The Lion King), Sam and Frodo (LOTR). I am certain we could add a list of others. The defining characteristic of this love, the thing that sends kids to the theatre ten times to see the same three-hour movie, is that the love is "to die for." As a matter of fact, if you have spend anytime with younger people, you will know that the words "to die for" define a type of passionate response that we may no longer experience, but is still very much a part of their world.


Blessed are the poor in spirit; Blessed are they that mourn;
Blessed are the meek; Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness; Blessed are the merciful; Blessed are the pure in heart; Blessed are the peacemakers; Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake; Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.

I want you to ponder these blessed ones before I say anything about them, and while you are pondering, I also want you to imagine with me the greatest single threat to the church as we know it. Any thoughts?

Awhile ago a group of academics conducted the National Study of Youth and Religion and asked a series of questions to young people and their parents. Questions such as "does religion make a difference in the way you live your life?" or "does it influence the friends you choose?" and so on.

After sifting through all the data, and comparing the results of kids and parents, one overall approach to religion emerged, an approach shared equally between the generations, an approach the authors summarized with the phrase "benign positive regard." In other words, church is okay, but it doesn't really matter. Another scholar, taking off from the language of his subjects, called this phenomenon "whateverism." If the youth of the nation, and if the parents of the youth of the nation get together to give the church a great big "whatever," we are in bigger trouble than we thought.

Benign positive regard. Whateverism (A new favourite word). These didn't just arrive at our door one day and take over. They were cultivated. And I would argue that they didn't start out there among the people who choose not to darken our door, but rather the tragic story of whateverism began here, inside the church, among us who continue to show up week by week.

I want to share with you a very unscientific and very scary anecdote that happened a while ago. I asked a young woman in her early 30's, a woman who did many years of church school, to summarize the message she received through all of those years of religious instruction. Her answer: "Be a good person and you don't need to go to church." That was her summary, recall: no one (I hope) said those exact words. My next question was a little more personal: Why did you stop going to church? Her answer: "Be a good person and you don't need to go to church."

Message received and message acted upon. In a rather graphic example of benign positive regard, the church was useful in imparting an affirming message that led people straight out the door.


Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness; Blessed are the merciful; Blessed are the pure in heart; Blessed are the peacemakers; Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake.

After all our pondering, I am going to suggest that the people Jesus describes in his sermon on the mount are precisely the passionate people we need to the save us from ourselves. The vulnerable, the broken, the peacemakers, the persecuted, the pure of heart. These people live outside the sting of "whateverism" and experience life with all it's challenges and vicissitudes. They have passion.

Kenda Creasy Dean, in her article, reminds us that "passion" comes from the Greek word pathos meaning "to suffer."

The words original meaning had less to do with pain than with vulnerability, for passion meant to submit, to undergo an experience, to be completely affected or overcome by another.

And while the Greeks were unwilling to imagine a God that could experience any sort of vulnerability, early Christians saw the opposite. They believed in a passionate God who was willing to enter human experience, to suffer as we suffer, and to even taste death on a cross. It is little wonder then that the events of Holy Week became known as Christ's passion, not to emphasize the pain he endured, but rather his willingness to be vulnerable and enter all that we endure. (Dean, p.2)

The beatitudes themselves can be approached from a variety of perspectives. They are comfort for the afflicted and a source of hope. They point to the "great reversals" that may come when time ends and the human way of ordering things is turned on its head. They show us a new worldview, God's view, where it is not only God that hungers and thirsts for righteousness, but some of us as well. Mohandas Gandhi read the beatitudes and immediately folded them into his developing idea of "non-violence." Dr. King did the same.

And this is the challenge that the beatitudes set before us: Use them to change your perspective. They are not a moral code, at least not in a way that anyone could easily apply to their everyday living. They are a worldview, a philosophy, a way to imagine the "first ministers" in God's government, and the first ones to get the Order of Heaven when the Kingdom comes.


The greatest single threat to the church is whateverism. Jesus is "to die for" as Kenda Dean likes to say, but would you know it from a visit to any one of our churches? Out there, in the world, storytellers are offering Jack and Rose, Frodo and Sam Gamgee. They are describing passionate love that allows people to risk their lives for the sake of others, or some higher ideal, or to save the world.

Why can't we save the world too? Didn't Jesus ask us to save the world? Shouldn't we share the message that with Jesus at the head of our church we can save the world? I'm not talking about mass conversion, although there are many in our midst who are crying out for it. I'm talking about a planet intent on destroying itself. I'm talking about greed and consumption and global warming and individualism and war and all the things that our hearts break over because God's creation is "to die for."

We need passion. We need passionate leaders to remind us that Jesus is "to die for" and we need to get this message out to the streets that surround our churches. May we, with the Spirit's power and the Spirit's help, carry this message forward, in Jesus' name, Amen.


Post a Comment

<< Home