Sunday, November 30, 2014

Advent I

Mark 13

32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard! Be alert[c]! You do not know when that time will come. 34 It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.
35 “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. 36 If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”

You wake in the night and the debate begins.

You could ignore the bedside clock and somehow will yourself back to sleep, but I think we all know that’s not going to happen. Or, you could look at the clock and learn where you are in the hypothetical eight-hour sleep allotment that everyone seems to think we need.

The first option sounds far-fetched, and the second option will only draw you further away from the blissful sleep you crave since it’s suddenly all about math: ‘It’s 3 am, four hours so far, alarm set for seven, every minute I’m awake now will defeat my goal and tomorrow will be ruined...’

If this sounds familiar, I need to introduce you to Thomas Wehr. Years ago, he conducted a sleep experiment on a group who were willing to spend 14 hours a day in complete darkness for a month. At first, the subjects mostly slept, owing—it was assumed—to a large sleep debt.

By the end of the month, however, a pattern emerged among the the test subjects. Most settled into something called ‘segmented sleep.’ Sleep four hours, awake for one or two, and back to sleep for four hours. Everyone ended the study happy and well-rested.

Another researcher, an historian, decided to build on this finding by looking for references in the past to segmented sleep. He found 500 of them, and confirmed that until the 19th century segmented sleep was more-or-less assumed. References abound to first and second sleep, with countless activities recorded for that wakeful hour in between. People read, they prayed, they took a stroll, or just lay there pondering their dreams.*

So for a million years we practiced a pattern of sleep that included a time of wakefulness, then someone said ‘you’re doing it wrong’ and we’ve been anxious about sleep ever since. So embrace it, I say: use the time and don’t worry about your sleep debt. Don’t start mowing the lawn or looking for a 24-hour Walmart, but use the time to ponder and reflect.

The ultimate confirmation is finding first and second sleep in the passage Mary Lou read this morning, with Jesus’ warning about watchfulness:

“Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘watch!’”

The night is neatly divided into segments that allow for watchfulness, a rhythm that would have made prefect sense to the first audience who received this message. But watch for what? Jesus uses a household metaphor, something familiar and understandable to convey something that was decidedly less familiar and understandable, found at the beginning of our reading:

“But in those days, following that distress,
“‘the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’
“At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.

‘Yes, yes, we say, but what does it mean?’ Is this how the world ends? How did we go from heaven and earth shall pass away to a story about a returning householder and the need to be watchful? How did the extraordinary become so ordinary so fast? I think it has to do with the way we receive news.

There is a common question that excludes those of us born after November 22, 1963—but I know it can be equally applied to other notable events in the recent past. And while most are not on the scale of the assassination of a President, they nevertheless fit the common question ‘where were you when?’

On January 28, 1985, someone burst into our class to say that the Space Shuttle Challenger had exploded. The class was called The Science of Flight, one of those entry-level science courses that Arts students were compelled to take. The professor, both a flight instructor and a physics specialist, set aside his lecture that day to spend 90 minutes explaining how the disaster was inevitable and how other disasters would follow.

So ‘where were you when’ is about the ordinary becoming extraordinary. We remember in great detail an ordinary moment that is interrupted by something extraordinary, something world-altering, something that halts a moment and fixes it in our memory. And this, of course, is not limited to what we hear on the news, or read on Twitter or however it is that people get important information these days. It is also personal, this method of marking time and events.

Receiving personal news, both good and bad, has the same effect. Even the OLG tries to exploit this phenomenon with pictures of fancy cars or boats superimposed on the moment that the newly-rich person received the news that they had won the lottery. Of course there was no Lotto Judea (that we’re aware of) but the point stands: you know neither the hour nor the day when something extraordinary will break in on the ordinary moments of our lives.

So we’ve answered the ‘how,’ with regard to watchfulness, but what about the what? Why are we looking at ‘the end of the world as we know it’ at the beginning of Advent, when all we really want to think about is angel costumes and kids in bathrobes pretending to be wise men? How does the sky falling help us prepare for the birth of Jesus?

Part of the answer is to consider this question of Jesus’ birth. I’m pretty sure that Jesus would be deeply uncomfortable with the celebration of his birth. He was, after all, a religious reformer and not a founder. He didn’t set out to start anything—he set out to bring us back to God.

Jesus predicted or promised—depending on your perspective—that there would be a final consummation that would bring us back to God. There would be an appropriate amount of ‘world-ending’ drama, and in the end we would be somehow reconciled to God. The hour or the day was unknown, but the goal of a powerful return would stand.

What Jesus did not know, or did not seem to know, was the extend to which the extraordinary would be lodged in the ordinary. He was describing the way in which something incredible would happen to interrupt our everyday without realizing that it already happened at the moment of his birth.

And when we go and look for the ways that we can be ‘brought back to God’ or reconciled to God we tend to go to the cross, and ponder the mystery of that other moment the earth trembled and the sky went dark. But the message of Advent seems to be ‘look over here too.’ The moment God chose to be with us in Jesus was the first moment of reconciliation, the first moment of a return to God, when God chose to be with us in a completely new way.

And for us, the moment returns each year. We never really celebrate Jesus’ birthday, we celebrate his birth—a moment when the ordinary stopped and everyone took note of where they were when.

In many ways, the call for watchfulness is a call to keep on finding the extraordinary in our ordinary moments. In the full light of day or in that wakeful hour in the night, we look for reminders that God is present to us—in dreams, in the kind words of another, in birth or death or any other moment God calls holy.

May we remain watchful: finding God and allowing God to find us, in Jesus’ name, amen.


Sunday, November 23, 2014

Reign of Christ Sunday

Ezekiel 34
For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. 12As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. 14I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. 16I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.
20 Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, 22I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.
23 I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. 24And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.

You hear a prophetic utterance, and all I can think is steak.

Maybe it’s our proximity to lunchtime, and maybe it’s a fruitless longing for barbecue season, but when I read “you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns” from the passage Taye read this morning, I immediately thought of steak.

Yes, I know the passage is sheepish, but flank says steak to me, so I went to the “Joy of Cooking” (aka the other bible) to see where exactly flank and shoulder are located. I know, you’re thinking ‘I can’t believe his ignorance of basic bovine anatomy,’ but I took welding instead of home economics. Odd, considering I cook everyday and haven’t welded since 1979.

So shoulder is located at the shoulder, of course, and the flank is lower middle. Thank you, Irma S. Rombauer. Sadly, my revised copy doesn’t have the detail I was looking for, so I found

Sometimes labeled as London broil or chuck steak, [shoulder] steak is a great value for cost-conscious cooks. Although cut from the shoulder, it is relatively lean, with a moderately beefy flavor.

I love the last part. Beefy flavoured beef is a nice touch.

Flank steak, aka jiffy steak, is a large flat cut from the underside of the cow, with a distinct longitudinal grain. Flank steak is thin and cooks quickly, making it ideal for the grill. Although very flavorful, flank is slightly chewy.

I should have labeled this sermon ‘not safe for vegetarians.‘ Nevertheless, even vegetarians can appreciate that there is a bit of a lost art here—understanding cuts of meat—and it only underlines the extent to which we are increasing disconnected from what we eat. So if you take anything away from today, I might suggest you skip flank and shoulder and go straight for sirloin.

However, we are supposed to talk about sheep. And while they share the same basic anatomy as the cow, sheep have transcended field and farm to become a leading biblical metaphor. So famous are sheep in the Bible, I would argue that listeners are just as likely to think Psalm 23 when they hear the word ‘sheep‘ as think of the critter themselves. Ditto for Matthew 25 (“the sheep and the goats”) and the Parable of the Lost Sheep, perhaps the most famous of the lot.

And while we ponder these, it is remarkable how each seems to also appear in Ezekiel 34. Spot the reference:

For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. (think Luke 15)

There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. (think Psalm 23)

I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down. (more Ps 23)

I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep...and I will judge between sheep and sheep. (Matthew 25)

Our intrepid scholars, of course, have been immersed in our study “Forgotten Bible” for three weeks now, and they would tell you that is looks like a case of ‘rewritten Bible.’ So what is it? In a nutshell, rewritten Bible describes a group of Bible texts that closely resemble other texts, clearly rewritten to address changes in context or situation.

In other words, Ezekiel writes with the words of Psalm 23 in mind, and Jesus shares parable and prediction with Ezekiel in mind, and we begin to mash all these together as we look for deeper meaning. But that would be jumping ahead. Before I get to that, I need to say a word or two about our friend Ezekiel.

Ezekiel is considered a major prophet, in the same company as Isaiah and Jeremiah, as compared to the minor prophets such as Joel, Amos or Habakkuk. Fun to say, Habakkuk. So he’s major league, and he also deals the same theme as his colleagues Isaiah and Jeremiah, namely the Babylonian exile and it’s aftermath.

So all three books concern themselves with disaster and restoration, with Ezekiel having the added distinction of being—in the words of one commentator—decidedly ‘trippy.’ Fun word, trippy, coined in 1968 (of course) and defined by Webster’s as ‘relating to, or suggestive of a trip on psychedelic drugs or the culture associated with such drugs.’ You know, trippy. My only memory of the 60’s is my brother looking menacing over the lip of my crib, but some of you lived though the 60’s, and perhaps you can confirm the times were, well, trippy.

Most people, of course, know exactly two things about Ezekiel: The Valley of Dry Bones (Ez 37) and the theme of a famous song I won’t sing just now:

Ezekiel saw the wheel;
Way up in the middle of the air.
Now Ezekiel saw the wheel in a wheel;
Way in the middle of the air.

Ezekiel is also famous for being the subject of cross-disciplinary study, particularly in the area of psychoanalysis. Other-worldly visions, violence, sex, death: Ezekiel has it all. So it is no wonder that he has been the subject of much diagnostic speculation, no of which will help us today.

What will help is an overview from our old friend Walter Brueggemann, who reminds us that unlike his colleagues Isaiah and Jeremiah, Ezekiel’s take on the exile is quite different. Yes, the same outline of disaster and restoration are here, but the motivation changes in Ezekiel. It’s not a transition from judgment to compassion found elsewhere, this is about the reputation of God:

“Therefore say to the Israelites, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: It is not for your sake, people of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone...I want you to know that I am not doing this for your sake, declares the Sovereign Lord. Be ashamed and disgraced for your conduct, people of Israel! (Ez 36.22, 32)

Unlike Isaiah (40), there is no comfort here. More discomfort, for even in the midst of the saving acts of God, there is a reminder of what led to this turn of events in the first place. Disobedience leads to disaster, the prophets cry, and restoration will follow, but don’t think for a minute it will be forgotten.

In other words, the reputation of the Most High is at stake when the nation follows the path of destruction. You won’t just embarrass yourself, or the nation: even God’s reputation takes a hit when the people fall away.

So what does this have to do with the Reign of Christ? How can we draw a line from sheep to sheep to shepherd, particularly the Good Shepherd we worship? Well, it begins with Ezekiel’s symbolic look at kingship, the king always being regarded as the ‘shepherd of the people’:

I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

The shepherd’s reputation is based on caring for sheep, the king’s reputation on shepherding the people, and God’s reputation on the application of justice. For who would follow a God that does not care for the vulnerable, or thwart the strong?

We are on the cusp of Advent, and soon the Mary will visit with her cousin Elizabeth once more, and once more Elizabeth will pronounce Mary ‘blessed among women’ and once more Mary will sing of her hope, the hope for one “born a child and yet a king.” And just as the baby in her womb will leap for joy she sing of the same ancient hope of our friend Ezekiel:

My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered the proud
in the imagination of their hearts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.

Next week we will sing Wesley’s famous hymn, and we will begin to ponder this world made new: a realm that begins in ancient prophecy, that holds our deepest longing, and points to the glory of God:

Born thy people to deliver,
born a child and yet a King,
born to reign in us forever,
now thy gracious kingdom bring.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Remembrance Sunday

1 Thessalonians 4
13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.

Like most news in August, this news got little notice. The Hungarians were easing restrictions on travel to Austria throughout the summer, but in August they decided to dismantle most border defenses.

East German refugees in Hungary saw their chance. A long line of Trabants snaked their way to the border, only to be abandoned as the refugees crossed on foot. Thousands followed. Realizing their mistake, Hungary closed the border, but Czechoslovakia open theirs.

By mid-October Erich Honecker quit, still maintaining that the wall would stand for another 50 years. The flood of refugees continued heading east in order to go west, and protests broke out in Berlin. The largest, on November 4th, saw half-a-million people gather to press for change.

On November 9th, the politburo met and decided that the next day they would begin to allow people to leave directly from East Germany. The task of announcing the change fell to a local party boss, who wasn’t actually at the meeting when the change was discussed. He clearly had not read the memo handed to him before the press conference. Asked when these changes would take place, he said “immediately, I suppose.”

Announced on the 8 o’clock news, a huge crowd gathered at the border crossing demanding to be let though. Confused guards tried in vain to find a superior who would answer the question ‘do we shoot them or let them though?‘ At 10.45 the answer came: ‘Let them through.’ They were met on the other side with flowers and champagne.

Even as these events were unfolding, we in the west were feeling rather pleased with ourselves. Francis Fukuyama published his famous essay called “The End of History?” suggesting now that western-style liberal democracy had won, we would settle into a comfortable and boring future without the upheaval witnessed throughout the rest of the 20th century.

Sadly, a trail of events over the last 25 years has disproved Fukuyama, with new threats replacing old threats and those who serve to protect the peace we enjoy still being asked to make the ultimate sacrifice. Today we remember the fallen and pray for an end to war, hoping that one day we might see the end of history envisioned in 1989.

The early church lived in the same tension around the end of history. Jesus was very clear (Matt 13) with his followers that they were living in the last days. He would depart from their midst, but would return in glory to gather up believers and take them to himself. The hour and the day were unknown even to him, but the promise was sure.

For St. Paul, writing some 20 years later, there was a problem. Many in that first generation had died, leaving the thorny problem of what happens at the moment of Christ’s return. Would the dead remain dead? Did they simply miss that glorious moment, or would something else happen? The passage Lang shared was Paul’s answer:

13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of humanity, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.

‘The dead in Christ will rise first,’ he said, ‘and we that remain will be caught up with them and meet the the Lord in the air. ‘As these words are sure,’ Paul said, ‘they can be used to encourage each other in the meantime.’

What Paul didn’t expect, was the end of history delayed. Forget Fukuyama, this delay continues from the day someone in Thessalonica first opened the letter down to today. The mystery of death, and the question where salvation is located went from a short-term certainty to a medium-term question to a long-term problem. The location of salvation has troubled us throughout time, but Paul has an answer for this too.

Trust the clever Romans to prompt the answer. Paul introduced them the the idea of God’s grace: the forgiveness they would enjoy in relationship with God through Christ. But they wanted to know—how then shall we live? If we are already forgiven, do we need to go to the trouble of being upright? The grace Paul described seemed to some like some kind of free pass.

So Paul develops a response that answers both the question of how to live and the looming question of salvation seemingly delayed. And he did it in baptism:

Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? 4 Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.

In other words, when we emerged from the waters of baptism we were already raised with Christ in newness of life. We already met the Lord in the air the moment we left the former behind and embraced new life in Christ. The mystery of the end of history remains a mystery, but we live with certainty that salvation is here, in the present, through the waters of baptism.

And the Roman problem, the question of how to live, is answered in the same way. Raised with Christ in newness of life, you must live in that way—reflecting the glory that is already within you. The grateful response to the gift of salvation is a life well-lived, walking in the way of Christ.

And how well are we doing? I would say better than you think. I’m going to let Margaret Wente tell my final story:

“[An amazing video] was made a week after the attack on Parliament. In it, a York University student named Omar Albach and two friends set out to gauge people’s attitudes toward Muslims. They took their experiment to the streets of Hamilton, on the eve of Cpl. Cirillo’s funeral, where emotions were running high. One friend was dressed in a traditional Muslim robe; the other played an Islamophobic bigot. They wanted to see whose side people would take.

What they got wasn’t quite what they expected.

As the bigot berates the Muslim, the passersby get mad. “You can’t stereotype and judge people by their clothes,” one man says heatedly. “Or their nationality or anything else, you know what I mean?”

One woman tells the bigot that what happened to Cpl. Cirillo was “awful and tragic,” then says “I don’t think that’s any reason to persecute someone just because of what they’re wearing.”

Margaret continues: “You’ve gotta love the crowd. They’re pure Hamilton. Tim Hortons drinkers, guys in flannel shirts and baseball hats. The video ends abruptly when a bystander punches the bigot in the nose.”

While I don’t think a sucker-punch is best response to overt racism, it underlines the extent to which we are moving toward our own version of the end of history. People came to these shores to leave trouble behind, to join a nation known for both a spirited defense of the weak and for peacekeepers willing to step between warring sides.

The ability to be that nation was established in Vimy and Nijmegen, Suez and Cyprus, Bosnia and Afghanistan. The sacrifices made and the sorrow shared are set in the context of the life we now enjoy. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and in all ways we give thanks. Amen.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

All Saints

Matthew 5
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

The election signs are gone (for now) and we can all breath a sign of relief. Not everyone is pleased with the various outcomes, but I think I speak for most when I say ‘I’m just glad it’s over.’

So forgive me for taking you back momentarily, but I’ve been thinking about those signs and some of the messages shared. First off, colour. Of course there are no formal party lines drawn in a municipal election, but the proliferation of red, blue and orange signs seem to be saying some thing.

Next is the anti-message, or the reverse message that lights up your sub-conscious. One of our local candidates added the tag-line “I will listen.” And I’m thinking “Oh, I get it, that other guy doesn’t listen.” Clever. Or a certain ubiquitous set of signs with the logo “Respect for Taxpayers.” What are they suggesting?

Last thing is the surname, in BOLD letters, which may stick in your mind and reappear in your around the time you mark your ballot. The incumbents advantage is name-recognition, making it no accident that in the last nine US elections, a Bush or a Clinton has appeared on the ballot seven times.

So you need a colour, a tagline and a well-known name. And failing that, I’m told the latest thing is a professional statement of some sort. Back in my day you could get away with a diploma and a bit of experience, but now you need to go through a personal branding exercise, with a well-crafted single-paragraph manifesto to back it up. Even my poor son got caught in this, when a gallery owner said “your paintings are great Isaac, but you really need to work on your artist’s statement.” Here, and I thought the point of art school was learning to paint.

So this seems new, the personal statement, but it may not be so new after all. For if the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus platform, and the Beatitudes his manifesto, then surely his personal statement can be found in the previous chapter:

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (4.17b)

So clear away all the foundational material at the beginning of Matthew and look for the real beginning of the story, and you find this: “From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” He calls the disciples, he heals a few people, and then he begins to teach.

The lesson that begins with the Beatitudes is more comprehensive that we generally note, since we tend to take it in smaller, bite-sized pieces. But if you simply take the topics covered in the Sermon of the Mount, it becomes quite a list:

Salt and Light
The Fulfillment of the Law
Murder, Adultery, Divorce, Oaths
Seeking Revenge
Love for Enemies
Giving to the Needy
Prayer, Fasting, Treasures, Worry
And a final chapter (7) that’s too long to summarize.

And all of this, introduced and defined by a personal statement: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Now, I don’t generally engage in word studies, but it is instructive that different translations take a different approach to that final idea: some say the kingdom is ‘at hand,’ some say it is ‘near to you,’ and some go with the old school ‘the kingdom of heaven is nigh.’ Like that sign that says ‘the end is nigh,’ which would be brilliant if people knew what nigh is.

So how is the kingdom of heaven at hand if so much of Jesus’ manifesto in the future tense? ‘Will be comforted; will inherit the earth; will be filled; will be shown mercy’—all of these fit our definition of future hope, the time we long for and one day hope to see.

But that’s the thing about putting out a manifesto: someone may actually try to live it out. When Jesus said “blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” he was using the future tense, describing the his unique vision for human living, but his followers took it a step further. They took to heart his personal statement that the kingdom of heaven is at hand and began to live the beatitudes straight away.

And that brings us down to today. When you look at the list and imagine each is a task or a job description, you can see the ways in which we still try to live this out. The poor in spirit, mourners, the meek, seekers of righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and the persecuted.

And you can further take the list and begin to see how these descriptors are profoundly counter-cultural, then as now. Half, it would seem, are the vulnerable, the mourners, the meek, the poor in spirit and the persecuted. Then as now there is little reward in weakness—when the world continues to put a high value on strength and success.

Even suggesting that these vulnerable ones had a unique place in God’s care was to seek to overturn centuries of religious wisdom. May our love affair with the psalms continue, but too often they perpetuate the myth that success indicates righteousness and failure points to failure. But Jesus says what seems like failure may be blessing, by the God that stands with the unfortunate, the lost and the broken.

And the other half of the list, the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers and those who seek after righteousness, these children of God are the people who are busy caring for the ones on the first half of the list. In effect, it’s the church: a mix of caregivers and those needing care, the needy and their champions, the oppressed and the ones sent to defend them.

And underneath it all, a foundational truth within the church: our position is never fixed. We constantly switch back and forth between care-giving and needing care, serving the needy and having great need, defending the meek and discovering our own unique meekness in the moments we are most truthful with ourselves.

And this is the kingdom that is always at hand: the love of God is even near, whether we receive it or make it known, whether we tell the story or pause to listen once more.

And this, I think, brings us back to the long and varied list of churches that brought us to this place. It underlines at least two things: the first being the many shoulders we stand on as we continue this ministry of caring for the world and caring for each other. It took numerous generations of believers to bring us to this moment—nurturing us as we now nurture future generations.

And the final point: Congregations and denominations change, but the constant is the abiding belief that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, and we need to lend our hand to make it known. A church is never more than a vehicle for the kingdom, an ever-changing place with a never-changing mission: to love God and make God’s love obvious to all we meet. Amen.