Sunday, March 30, 2014

Agents of Heaven (3/30/14)

The Agents of Heaven
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

March 30, 2014
Fourth Sunday of Lent

Matthew 5:1-16 (Scholars’ Version)
Seeing the crowds, he climbed up the mountain, and when he had sat down, his disciples came to him.  He then began to speak, and this is what he would teach them:

Congratulations to the poor in spirit!
The empire of Heaven belongs to them.
Congratulations to those who grieve!
            They will be consoled.
Congratulations to the gentle!
They will inherit the earth.
Congratulations to those who hunger and thirst for justice!
They will have a feast.
Congratulations to the merciful!
They will receive mercy.
Congratulations to those whose motives are pure!
They will see God.
Congratulations to those who work for peace!
They will be called God’s children.
Congratulations to those who have suffered persecution for the sake of justice!
The empire of Heaven belongs to them.

Congratulations to you when they denounce you and persecute you and spread malicious gossip about you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad!  In heaven you’ll be more than rewarded.  Remember, that is how they persecuted the prophets who preceded you.

You are the salt of the earth.  But if salt loses its zing, how will it be made salty?  It’s then good for nothing, except to be thrown out and stomped on.  You are the light of the world.  A city sitting on top of a mountain can’t be concealed.  Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a bushel basket, but instead on a lampstand, where it sheds light for everyone in the house.  That’s how your light should shine in public, so others can see your good deeds and praise your Father in the heavens.
-- Robert Miller, ed., The Complete Gospels Fourth Edition

During the season of Spring we honor the spiritual path or the life path of justice and compassion or the via transformativa.   This Latin phrase is taken from theologian Matthew Fox.  His definitive text on Creation Spirituality is called Original Blessing.  In it, he outlined four paths.   I will offer the Latin phrase and a translation in English:

The via positiva or the way of awe and wonder
The via negativa or the way of letting go and letting be
The via creativa or the way of creativity and imagination, and
The via transformativa or the way of justice making and compassion

For the past several years I have structured worship services around these four paths.   One path corresponds to each season.   During summer we emphasize the via positiva with its vibrancy, Fall and the falling leaves remind us of the via negativa, Winter as the days grow longer call to mind the via creativa that works underground, hidden, and Spring as life bursts forth gives expression to the via transformativa to the transforming possibilities of new life, new creation.   

We are now into Spring.   The way of justice-making and compassion.   Questions for us are

1)   how are we being transformed and
2)   how are we agents of transformation?   

The invitation through this series of sermons and through this season is to personally reflect on those two questions.   How am I being transformed and how am I an agent of transformation?   

This isn’t an intellectual exercise or a watching from a distance exercise.  This is participatory.   To get the most out of this, I suggest doing the brave thing and ask of the text and of the experience of worship, “What is being said to me?”    Another way to put it is, “How is my affliction being comforted and how is my comfort being afflicted?”   Being transformed by the Divine Presence is both affliction and comfort.   We need both at one time or another.    The thing we must be careful about is that we never know what someone else needs.    We trust that others get what they need not what we want them to get.   In general, we know that we all need challenge and comfort.    A steady diet of one or the other does not lead to transformation.

A symbol for this season of transformation is the realm of God.   This has been translated as kingdom of God or empire of God or God’s domain, or in Matthew’s gospel, the empire, kingdom or domain of heaven.    Matthew uses the word “heaven” instead of “God” out of respect for not uttering the word “God” but it refers to the same thing.

Jesus used the phrase (basileia tou theou)  empire of God more than any other.   The empire of God was the content of his preaching and the focus of his action.     What is it?  It was something that was present even though hidden and also coming.    What is the empire of God?  I don’t want to say too much.  When Jesus was asked a question like that, he would answer,

·      It is a mustard seed that grows into a shrub and birds nest in it.   
·      It is a woman concealing leaven into fifty pounds of flour until it is all leavened.  
·      It is the prodigal son coming home and the invitation to the favored son to come to terms with that. 
·      It is your enemy who helps you when you are in the ditch. 
·      It is a shepherd who risks leaving 99 sheep in search of one. 

You get the idea.   It is metaphor taken from life about life that is infused with divine possibility and promise.   We can play with the metaphor, by comparing it to the empire of Rome, or to the kingdom of Herod.    It is as if Jesus is saying, “You know all too well what the empire of Rome and the kingdom of Herod are like.  You know who runs the show and who gets run over.”  In the empire of God, it is all upside down or right side up.  

I would say that the empire of God is more than a critique of political, economic, and social realities.   But it isn’t less than that.     If we wish to speak meaningfully about the realm of God, the meaning of life, and of spiritual matters we must take seriously these earthly matters.   The metaphor itself, empire of God, is a political one, and Jesus spent a great deal of his time teaching about earthly things and enacting his earthly vision.    That said, one could certainly affirm that the empire of God points to transcendence.    It won’t do to restrict or reduce the metaphor.  Let it be as expansive and open-ended as parable.

In light of the spiritual path of the via transformativa, the way of justice-making and compassion, the empire of God is also about transformation of mind and heart.   There is no text in the Western literary canon that speaks to that possibility more than the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew.  This text even impressed  Ghandi.  He said:

 "The message of Jesus as I understand it is contained in the Sermon on the Mount unadulterated and taken as a whole... If then I had to face only the Sermon on the Mount and my own interpretation of it, I should not hesitate to say, 'Oh, yes, I am a Christian.' But negatively I can tell you that in my humble opinion, what passes as Christianity is a negation of the Sermon on the Mount... I am speaking of the Christian belief, of Christianity as it is understood in the west."

We are going to spend some time with the Sermon on the Mount.   With the exception of Palm Sunday, Easter, and Pentecost, the sermons for the next three months will be on this text.   

First some preliminaries.  The sermon takes up three chapters in Matthew’s gospel, chapters five, six, and seven.   It is the first big collection of the teachings of Jesus in Matthew.    Directly before the sermon, Jesus was baptized by John and tempted in the wilderness.  As soon as the temptation ends, he learns that his friend, John the Baptist has been imprisoned.   Jesus, then according to Matthew, begins to proclaim,

“Change your ways, the empire of heaven is closing in.”   

He gathers Peter, Andrew, James, and John as disciples.    He begins a tour of Galilee teaching about the empire of God and healing as the text says, “every disease and every ailment the people had.”   People come to him from all over for healing.  

Then he goes up the mountain, sits down, and his disciples come to him.  He opens his mouth and speaks.   He gives what has been called the Sermon on the Mount.    Is this what happened historically?  Probably not.  This is a literary construction created by Matthew at least fifty years after the fact.    It is drawn from remembrance of oral tradition and reflection on this remembrance.    

How do we know that?  Some of this sermon has a parallel in the Gospel of Luke and some of the sayings are echoed in the Gospel of Thomas.  Scholars believe there is a previous source from which Luke and Matthew borrowed.   It is called Q, which is the first letter of the German word, Quelle, which means “source.”   

In Luke it is called the Sermon on the Plain and it is much shorter than Matthew's sermon.   There are things in common in both sermons.   Some of blessings are in common as well as the teachings on

loving enemies,
judging others,
trees and their fruits,
and the parable of the builders are all found found in both gospels.   

Those teachings would have belonged to an earlier part of the Jesus sayings tradition.     With that in mind, how much of today’s text, Matthew 5:1-16 goes back to Q?   Did Matthew change any of it? 

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus said:

Congratulations, you poor!  God’s empire belongs to you.
Congratulations, you who weep now!  You will laugh.
Congratulations, you hungry!  You will have a feast.  

In Matthew’s gospel Jesus said:
Congratulations to the poor in spirit!  The empire of Heaven belongs to them.
Congratulations to those who grieve!  They will be consoled.

Congratulations to the those who hunger and thirst for justice!  They will have a feast.

Notice the difference.  Luke has Jesus speak directly, second person plural:  “Congratulations, you poor, you who weep, you hungry.”

Matthew, on the other hand makes it the third person.  Congratulations to the poor, then adds, “in spirit.”    For Matthew, Jesus doesn’t address actual hungry people, but those who hunger and thirst for justice.    For Matthew Jesus is talking about  qualities of character.     

It is likely that Luke retains the earlier version, the version that resembles the historical Jesus.  Jesus was addressing the poor, the hungry, and those who mourned loss due to injustice, that is the oppressed.     Matthew takes those sayings and changes them. 

Matthew also adds congratulations to the gentle, the merciful, those whose motives are pure, and those who work for peace.    Again, those are all qualities of character.

Luke adds, “woes” or as the Jesus Seminar translates it “damn” as in:

Damn you rich!  You already have your consolation.
Damn you who are well-fed now!  You will know hunger.
Damn you who laugh now!  You will learn to weep and grieve.
Damn you when everybody speaks well of you!  Bear in mind that their ancestors treated the phony prophets in the same way.

That is likely not original to Jesus.  Luke has Jesus speak of the reversal of fortunes throughout his gospel.   Luke has Mary, Jesus’s mother, say that the poor will be lifted up and the powerful thrown from their thrones as en example.   The woes or the “Damn yous” are an invention by Luke.

Then both Luke and Matthew have Jesus congratulate “you” second person plural when people persecute you.   That goes back to Q and perhaps to Jesus himself or at least to the early followers of Jesus. 

I take time to do this Bible study to make the point that each gospel writer shapes Jesus.   It takes work and debate to distinguish the historical Jesus from the various interpretations of Jesus within the New Testament itself.    That doesn’t mean that we only care about what we think is the historical person.   It is good to know that this is complex and ongoing.  The message of Jesus is fluid.  It is able to be shaped by others to fit their context. 

Take for example Martin Luther King, Jr.  He spoke in the 1950s to African-Americans as his primary audience who were suffering under segregation in the Deep South.   That was his historical context.   Now nearly 60 years later, we have a national holiday for him.   He symbolizes more today than he did in his own time.  He is a symbol, among other things, for non-violent resistance and liberation for a variety of social causes that might not have been on his radar screen.    His dream can apply to those who were not his original audience.  His message is shaped and transformed by contemporary needs.   That isn’t a bad thing.  It means his message is alive.   We would be careful to take it too far.  We always want to keep in mind his original setting so we don’t utilize his message in a way that becomes a blatant distortion. 

Similarly, Matthew’s gospel was written 50 years or more after Jesus lived and died.   The community would have expanded beyond those whom Jesus knew, likely the poor and dispossessed.    In Matthew’s community, there are people who are not poor or hungry as well as those who are.    Matthew remembers and reshapes the message of Jesus so that can challenge and influence a wider audience.    Mark, Luke, John, Thomas and other texts even those long lost to us would have done the same thing.  The Nicene Creed and the various ways Jesus is used today demonstrate that his symbol is alive.   Again, we do well to go back to the source, to the original context as best as we can to understand the historical person so we don’t distort him too much, or at least if we do distort him, we do so consciously. 

Matthew, whoever that was, the name Matthew was attached more than a century after the fact, shaped Jesus to fit his contemporary situation.   You could call this the work of Spirit, that is making the message present.  Matthew created, by shaping remembered words of Jesus and adding others, a profound ethical text.  

“Congratulations!”  That is pronouncement language.   “Congratulations, Mr. President for toppling your enemy!  You, Mr. Emperor, are the ruler of the free world!”  We know that.  We give them medals and build libraries in their honor. 

Except in Matthew’s case the favored ones in God’s empire are not those who hunger for power and whose ambition is dominance, they are those who hunger for justice.   They recognize their poverty of spirit rather than gloat in their hubris. 

In God’s empire, the gentle or non-violent lead the charge. 

In God’s empire, the merciful and compassionate direct public policy. 

In God’s empire, the pure in heart, those whose motivations are not corrupted by the largesse of the wealthy, direct the vision.  

In God’s empire the peacemakers, those who have learned war no more, and don’t give the latest military conflict justification and excuse, are called the sons and daughters, the flesh and blood, the kin of God.    The peacemakers are those who work tirelessly for alternatives to violence, who stand in front of bulldozers, who speak for and who work for justice for all people, not just the privileged.

In God’s empire, those who are mocked, ridiculed, and hassled for speaking these truths need to recognize that as a badge of honor.  Congratulations!  Do it again.   When the powerful call you names and try to silence you and discredit you for calling them out, you are on the right track.   That is what has happened throughout history.  

As you are transformed by the vision of God’s empire for all people to live in peace with justice, to have access to healthcare, to have a home to live in, to have food on the table, to have freedom to speak, to have control over their own bodies, to have the right marry whom they love, to live sustainably with the abundance of Earth’s bounty, to share the land, the holy land of Earth, then Dear Beloveds, as you are transformed by that vision, as you take it to heart, then be the salt of transformation to the world.   

Speak your truth.   This world needs a salting.    It needs light to shine in the darkest corners of cynicism.   Put it on a lampstand.  

Jesus wasn’t speaking to great orators, authors, or politicians.  According to Matthew, Jesus was speaking to fishermen.   He spoke to laborers.   He told them, “You are salt and light.”  

The great truth that I think the historical Jesus knew and I think it is the real reason his vision and his symbol made an impact, is that he trusted that it was possible.   The Empire of God is hidden for sure behind all the corruption, injustice, violence, and pain of this world.   But just because it is hidden, that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.    I think the historical Jesus believed that everyday people can bring it out of hiding by their actions and words.    The Empire of God is participatory.    We are transformed and are agents of transformation as we participate with each other and with the Divine Mystery that pervades all the universe itself.   

As we speak it and act it, it becomes. 

Salt the world, Beloveds. 

Light it up.


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