Blessed are the Unpopular

By Rev. Rebecca Messman

Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke, VA

February 27, 2022

 

Matthew 5:1-2, 9-11

1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Will you pray with me and for me? Gracious God, Prince of Peace, uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen.

 

I am an early riser. I love to hear the cardinal who starts his morning song while it is still ink black. When I go out to get the paper, I love to see the brave daffodil pressing its green head out of the crust of the ground when it is still freezing cold. And usually I see my neighbor Fran, out walking her dog like she always does. She is a quirky woman who infuriates the neighbors because even though her dog is a 14-year-old Golden who wouldn’t hurt a flea, he lumbers behind her off leash, sometimes leaving “gifts” behind him in people’s yards that Fran doesn’t pick up. It has caused strife. Fran is Presbyterian, sigh, and she knows I am too, so when she passes, she’ll often say “Peace be with you…” so of course, I say, “And also with you.”  I truly mean it for her and our street. And, I wonder if we are peace-makers in that moment, or if peace-making might be a conversation with her about picking up after Scout more often or with others who level more blame on her than might be due.

As you can tell, I’ve been thinking about peace a lot this week. It happens more often than you’d think, that the pre-chosen text for Sunday rings out like a bell, the peal that startles us out of the gray headlines and summons us to God. And so it is that today as headlines thunder and smoke, we hear “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”  

And so it is that today, as history signals with the haunting siren that we have seen brutality and aggression like this before, we hear “blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” 

And so it is that today, as another generation wonders whether it is worth doing the right thing when it just leads to more work and real enemies and a ton of disparaging words in the comments section, we hear “blessed are you when this trolling and this assault happens on my account, rejoice and be glad, it will be noted on heaven’s paycheck.”  As Jesus spoke these words during the Sermon on the Mount, I wonder if the disciples felt shivers up their spines, not surprised one bit that he left these particular beatitudes for the very end of his list. 

Jesus was cutting to the chase: The Jesus way is no popularity contest. It is no stride down the red carpet. If you follow Jesus, people will say you are naïve and unrealistic. They will say loving your enemies is dangerous and eating with folks on that side of the aisle is a complete waste of time and Sunday worship conflicts with too many activities. They will say extending welcome to the stranger can be a security threat. Some people might revile you for being too religious and others might revile you for being not religious enough.  You may be called to the front lines, some of you truly have been, but more likely, the way of Jesus means attempting to love people who soil your yard, it means speaking up for the least of these when it would be easier to go with the crowd, and it means refusing to live only by the light of statistics or the fluorescents of despair, because you are squinting hard to follow the light of Christ.

And an important clarification: in our country practicing our faith may feel challenging, awkward, uncomfortable. but for most of us, it does not actually involve persecution. To be sure, persecution of Christians is still a real thing in our world. According to The New York Times in December of 2021, Christians in India have faced increasing violence and imprisonment, and there are anti-conversion laws on the books in half of the country (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/22/world/asia/india-christians-attacked.html). The Washington Post in February of 2021 reported that Christians in Russia have been tormented mercilessly. In 2017, Jehovah’s Witnesses – who are pacifists and do not vote or participate in military service – were outlawed as “extremists” in Russia, such that a 69-year-old woman named Valentina and her 46-year-old son Roman had their home ransacked, had their Bibles confiscated, and are currently in jail serving a 3-year sentence (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/jehovahs-witnesses-russia-persecution/2021/02/28/980b4c06-76d8-11eb-9537-496158cc5fd9_story.html). When I lived in Guatemala, a Pastor named Jorge Colindres told me that in the ‘80s, the Bible was considered a subversive book and he had to hide his for many years. I asked him why that was, and his chest heaved, “Haven’t you read it? The Bible is about holy freedom and Christ-like love for the poor and wild hope that won’t be tamped down. Dictators don’t like that.” He did the hand motion of a bomb going off. 

Peter, James and John – disciples of Jesus – faced that kind of persecution. The Apostle Paul perpetrated that kind of persecution until his own conversion and then he faced that kind of persecution. They were all martyred. And of course, sadly, professed Christians have persecuted other Christians and Christians have persecuted people of other faiths. Members of 16th Street Baptist in Birmingham and Mother Emanuel in Charleston and Tree of Life in Pittsburgh know that all too well.

By the time he preached the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus knew humanity was a boiling stew of goodness and sin, and the good news … the headline of this story…is that he blessed us anyway.

Today, Jesus’ blessing makes direct eye contact with us. It shifts from the global third person “blessed are those who” to hyperlocal second person, blessed are you. And whew, I feel it deeply. Blessed are you when you have felt bombarded with falsehoods. Blessed are you when you have witnessed so much nastiness. Blessed are you having seen so much evil that it is tempting to hole up in the bunker of cynicism, tempting to hide in the basement of overwhelm, tempting to take up arms in the foxhole of vengeance, or tempting to pull the blinds on everything for the sake of your sanity. Good news. You are siblings with every person who has ever breathed and wept and spilled coffee and lost something they can’t get back and behaved stupidly and needed a second and a third chance and who nevertheless deserves not to be bullied, harassed, or attacked.

When you work for real peace, Jesus says you are on your way to the Kingdom of Heaven. Oh, one more thing, that means you are not on a Disney Cruise. These beatitudes are the voice over the intercom of our lives, saying the captain has illuminated the fasten seat belt sign and there will be turbulence. These are words for when we are gripping the armrest. But even if we are scared, our job is to trust the Prince of Peace anyway. We trust that a greater hand is steering the vessel. We know that Christ went before us and faced all that we face and emerged shrouded in light and goodness. 

Today is called Transfiguration Sunday. It is when we remember that the disciples didn’t just hear the words of the Sermon on the Mount and go on their scary way. They also beheld Jesus in transcendent glory on the mount, next to Moses and Elijah. And you don’t forget something like that. That kind of luminous peace stays within you as you endeavor to make peace in the world. In fact, I think you need peace inside you if you ever hope to see it in the world.

What do you do when the turbulence of conflict comes? Do you pray? Do you breathe deeply? Do you remember the goodness and glory of God that can’t be tamped down?

This week, I reached for the sermon C.S. Lewis preached in 1939, shortly after Germany invaded Poland. He said, “this war creates no absolutely new situation. It simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it.” And our job is still to live every day ‘as to God.’ 

Then, I read sermons from Peter Marshall, preaching at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church when the US entered WWII. He said this country could never achieve internationally what it wouldn’t accede to individually, nationally, locally. He said, “A different world cannot be created by indifferent people.” 

And finally, I read what Apostle Paul preached. There weren’t armrests enough for the turbulence he faced — shipwrecks, floggings, being jailed at least three times. And still he wrote, Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 

In their words, I heard something deeply true. Peace-making is as local as it is global. It is as personal as it is universal. It is as theological as it is situational.

Earlier this week, Fran made her way down the street again, and I prayed for the peace to see this situation differently. And that’s when I saw her stoop down to pick something up. I thought this might be a turning point for our street. The moment she cleaned up her ways. And it was, but not in the way I thought, because what she did next surprised me. She was picking up the newspaper from the sidewalk in front of the Georgiadis home. Lord knows that family has faced so many health problems lately. I wondered if she was going to “borrow” their Washington Post bag. But instead, she tromped the newspaper all the way up their icy brick stairway so that it would be placed neatly on their doormat when they woke up. And on down the sidewalk she went, Scout lumbering freely behind her. And in that small interaction, I felt blessed, blessed by a turn of events I hadn’t counted on. I felt a peace, peace that surpassed the understanding I had previously held about my neighbor.

Apparently, the wall of Shishu Bhavan, a children’s home of Calcutta operated by the Sisters of Charity, Mother Teresa’s order, reads: 

People are unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered.  Love them anyway. 

If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.  Do good anyway. 

If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies.  Succeed anyway. 

The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.  Do good anyway. 

Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.  Be honest and frank anyway. 

What you spent years building may be destroyed overnight.  Build anyway.

People really need help but may attack you if you help them.  Help people anyway. 

Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.  Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.

For you see, in the end it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.

 

What a great summary.

The cardinal sings in the dark. The daffodil rises in the cold. The world is messy and broken and beautiful and surprising. The headlines are grim but when Ms. Georgiadis opens her door the paper will be right there and she won’t necessarily know who helped her but she’ll feel blessed anyway. 

The Great Reversal: Blessed are the Powerless

By Rebecca Messman
Burke Presbyterian Church
February 13, 2022

Matthew 5:1-2, 5-6

1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
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.

Let us pray. Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

When I lived in Atlanta, I attended Trinity Presbyterian Church where a pastor named Joanna Adams dazzled people with her sermons like a theological Olympian. Her sermons were in preaching textbooks. Every Sunday, I would scribble notes on my bulletin. Once I waited in the receiving line and finally greeted her with the nervous energy of a child finally greeting Santa at the Mall. I said, “I truly appreciated that message. See, I wrote notes all over my bulletin.” My voice trailed off. And she said, “Oh, I am so glad to hear that… But are you are going to walk out with the hymnal too?” I went flush. There it was, under my scribbled bulletin. I was caught red hymnal handed. “No, I, um.” I laughed meekly. “I used it to bear down on…” She blinked. Then I said something very parochial like, “Peace be with you” and went back in the church to return the hot hymnal. 

In today’s text Jesus continues his sermon on the mount with two more surprising blessings. Blessed are the meek. The Greek word is proates. It’s a word we don’t use too often in English, but it also means humbled, gentle, those with the right blend of force and reserve. Here are some definitions I would add: The meek are not the ones who will argue until they are blue in the face. Nor the ones who write in all caps. Nor the ones who always direct the conversation back to themselves. Nor the ones who trick out their car so that it can be heard from a mile away nor those who interrupt every sentence. No, blessed are the meek, the ones who think it through, who take a beat to process, who would prefer to get something right more than to be right, and perhaps those who felt the warm wash of humility, while singing from a hymnal or nearly making off with one.

Then, Jesus continues in that spirit so that we don’t miss the point. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for a better way for everyone than to appear better than everyone. Blessed are those who can feel in their bones what is righteous and fair and yet who do not spend a lot of time wanting credit it for their own virtue. Blessed are those who don’t try to leave a long shadow. But instead shine a bright light.  After the dust settles, Jesus says the meek will inherit the earth. Even after the attention shifts, Jesus says those whose souls grumble for righteousness find themselves filled. 

Today we are ordaining new church officers. And usually an event like this is paired with one of the robust stories of windswept fishermen pushing out to the deep. Or the call of Isaiah to speak even when the words are as hot as a burning coal. We often want muscular texts for ordinations. Chuck Norris texts for ordinations. The ones that make ministry out to be a white water romp down the rivers of righteousness. Maybe that is our inclination because the culture in which we live blesses almost the opposite of what Jesus blesses. Our culture might say: “Blessed are those who take down their foe with a roundhouse kick to the face. Blessed are those who destroy that person’s argument on Twitter. Blessed are those with the largest arsenal, the largest rings on their fingers, the largest following. Blessed are those willing to burn it all down because righteousness and repair take too long.” On its face, it seems like Jesus is blessing the very ones who have the least cultural power or tactics or bravado to enact the vision he has for the world. But the more we listen, we realize Jesus is upending the whole premise that might makes right, challenging the whole assumption that the one who has the gold makes the rules. He is confronting the entire attention economy. 

Now I am not usually one for pithy rhyming sayings. But today, I hear Jesus saying, “Meekness is not weakness.” That is why I think these are ideal blessings for today’s church officers. Jesus acknowledges that it takes a lot more strength to hold people together than to divide them. It takes a lot more vigor to be repairers of the breach, as Isaiah called it, than it does to dominate people. It takes more courage to offer a solution and craft a fledgling budget and build an imperfect team than to decry what has or might fail us. It takes more stamina to hang in there after the excitement has worn off than to build something lasting. But that is the Jesus way. The way of gardens and vineyard that require tending. The way of oddball teams who learn to work past their annoyance with each other and inherit something that is better than they expected. That is why meekness, this same word, is considered a fruit of the Spirit in Galatians. It is a posture of maturity, not timidity or avoidance. 

Meakness is not weakness. There are actually a few key Biblical characters who are described as meek. Meekly raise your hand if you think you know who they are. First, Moses. In Numbers 12:3, Moses is described the as meekest man ever to live. I bet that is not the superlative he wanted in high school. But all those things that seemed to be disqualifiers became part of his great strength. Think about it. It wasn’t the Egyptian palace life that made him impressive. It was when he stared down all that he had been trying to avoid… a traumatic childhood, a criminal record, a season of making ends meet while in the equivalent of his in-laws basement in Midian… at his meekest moment, he was called. When he quit trying to fill his hunger with quick fixes, he was called to his life’s work which freed thousands of others.

Meekness is not weakness. The other person who is called meek is Jesus. In Matthew 11:29, “Gentle am I,” same word. “Humble in heart.” Then again in Matthew 21:5, on Palm Sunday, Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey when the leaders of the day entered on tricked out war horses. I might now refer the triumphal entry as the Preakness of Meekness. Jesus calls himself meek. He would be barely visible in the attention economy. Think about it: The only words he ever wrote were in the sand. The only meals he attended were in the homes of people who were distasteful for one reason or another. He built no buildings. Raised no money. Won no athletic competitions. Offered people stories and questions and parables rather than think pieces or slogans or studies or rants. He greeted every power of the known world, including death itself, unarmed and exposed. And at his meekest moment, a whisper in a borrowed tomb, he was called to rise. And freed us all. And his inheritance is the earth herself, his hunger leads to a fullness that has outlasted all other powers.

I think the world is longing for leaders like this especially in the noise of unmeeekness. We are tired of leaders who hide their scars with arrogance and aggression and we are weary of those tactics in ourselves. We are weary of trying to white knuckle through a global pandemic and we feel that beatitudes hunger for things to be right, not just for us but for the teen in the lunchroom and the gentleman with Parkinsons in the wheelchair and the people of Afghanistan and Ukraine and Honduras and the woman who fell during the Olympics and the people who cross through our parking lot day after day and lonesome kid in our own mind. We want things to be right in God’s eyes – the word for that kind of righteousness is dikaiosune – we want that for all of them. Deeper than bumper stickers. More lasting than yard signs. And so we need to continually ask ourselves if we are blessing the ones that Jesus is blessing. Are we able to muster the meekness of Moses and Jesus and lead with a sacrificial love? Could we build an attentive economy?

I think of wild popularity of Ted Lasso, a mini-series that featured Jason Sudeikis in his new role as coach of a premier league football club, aka soccer, when his experience was in midwestern American football. It was a show that elevates kindness and celebrates goofiness. He says things like “I shouldn’t bring an umbrella to a brainstorm.” And “I feel like I fell out of the lucky tree, hit every branch on the way down and ended up in a pool full of cash and sour patch kids.” Ted is genuinely humble, and over the course of the show, you find out why that is. His heartaches make him an unusual kind of strong, strong in lifting up other people and a strong radar for the heartaches of other people. At one point he is being mocked, challenged to a game of darts by the philandering former owner of the team, and he responds: “Guys have underestimated me my entire life. And for years, I never understood why. It used to really bother me. But then one day, I was driving my little boy to school, and I saw this quote by Walt Whitman, and it was painted on the wall there. It said, ‘Be curious, not judgmental.’ I like that.” The dart sticks in the triple segment. 

“So I get back in my car and I’m driving to work and all of a sudden in hits me. All them fellas who used to belittle me, not a single one of them was curious. You know, they thought they had everything figured out. So they judged everything and they judged everyone. And I realized that their underestimating me, who I was had nothing to do with it.” Another dart sticks. “Because if they were curious, they would have asked questions. You know. Questions like, have you played a lot of darts, Ted? Which I would have answered. Yes, sir. Every Sunday afternoon at a sports bar with my father from age 10 to 16 when he passed away.” Bulls eye.

And I think of Amanda Gorman, a young African American Catholic woman from South Central Los Angeles, who grew up week in and week out as a child lay reader at St. Brigid’s and became the poet laureate of the United States. She said, “Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true: That even as we grieved, we grew. That even as we hurt, we hoped. That even as we tired, we tried.” 

Let’s all remember that meekness is not weakness. Whether you are a child of this church or feel like one in your faith, I hope you keep asking questions. Your rainbow connections and Godly play wonderings and IMPACT songs and musicals and term as an elder or deacon make a difference on this earth. Like salt and yeast, like candlelight and mustard seeds, like Moses and Jesus Christ, God chose you just as you are. At your meekest moment, God blesses you so that you might bless the world. These blessings are yours to take with you from this church into all the world like a hot hymnal to teach an angry world a new song. A song of peace, and hope, and hunger for righteousness.  

Amen. 

Blessed Are the Spiritual Beggars

By Rebecca Messman

Burke Presbyterian Church

February 6, 2022

 

Matthew 5:1-4

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Let us pray. O Lord, uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen.

 

Today, imagine that I am a kind of journalist, giving you the who, what, when, where, why’s, from one of the most significant teachings ever to take place. The Sermon on the Mount. More significant than a TED talk with 50 million views. Or Steve Jobs giving a keynote address to his employees at Apple. Or the Gettysburg Address. Imagine words that are not intended as information, but formation. The blueprint of how humanity is and should be, according to God, spoken by the one in history who lived the words, who … was the Word. Imagine we are all there to hear that.

Where are we? On the mount, of course. Well, Luke called it a plain. But, probably it was a mountain that looked down over the Galilean countryside and the Sea of Galilee. There is now a church there that is called the Church of the Beatitudes. But it is important to know that Matthew’s hearers would have been abuzz at the notion of a leader, going up a mountain, giving a list, sharing a blueprint for how to live. The whispers would have been audible. That sounds like Moses 2.0! This is the new Torah! See, I told you we had to come!

When did this happen and who is there? According to Matthew, this address happened after the calling of the first four disciples. The band had been traveling together, healing people, and attracting large crowds, hence the need for a bit of a mounted pulpit.

What does he say? Certainly he is not selling a focus-grouped, piloted product that fixes things like spider veins or broken windshields. Nor is he touting some kind of be-happy-attitude, tagged as #blessed. He is challenging the culture itself. He is orienting his disciples to the Kingdom of Heaven, and teaching his disciples what – in light of that Kingdom – is unassailably true.

Was it well received? The people in the back loved it. But, the powers-that-be of the Pax Romana found it …problematic. Commentator James Howell said, “[Jesus] rudely crumpled up the mental map of the known world, and nobody in Galilee or Jerusalem seemed to appreciate having their traditional view of the world refolded and then redrawn, as if by some spiritual origami” (Howell, James C., The Beatitudes for Today, 2006).

Jesus offers this paper crane to us in the form of the beatitudes. (I am thankful to Rev. Jessica Tate for the idea of “offering a paper crane” and also for her research that deepened this sermon.) Nine declarations of blessedness (beatus) with powerful but indirect ethical imperatives. They do not ask for sad people to turn their minutes into moments nor find the rainbow in the rain nor learn their lesson. They pronounce shalom upon the very people who are in the emotional cheap seats, who drew the short straw of the soul. They declare the worthiness of those who feel like spiritual vagabonds. As Richard Rohr said, they elevate the weeping class.

Let’s start with the first one, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

Theologian Tom Long suggests a helpful translation of the poor in spirit might be “spiritual beggars,” by which he means those who have come to the end of their own resources. The poor in spirit can be interpreted as both those being crushed by economic poverty and those who are affluent but humbly reminded of their dependence upon God. No matter how much money they have, these are the ones whose pain can’t be fixed by a nice bubble bath or a credit card. But Jesus says that when your spiritual piggy bank gets busted, inside there is a ticket to the Kingdom of Heaven. This whole other way of being in the world is yours.

Maybe we know people who are affluent, highly-educated, type-A folks – leaders of industry or military or government, or classrooms which feel like some combination of all three of those.  Maybe we were taught from a young age that all things are possible with the right connections, the right mindset, at the right price point. And yet life can smack us in the face every so often—with death, divorce, job loss, drug abuse, infertility, a pandemic!—and then we discover that actually we can’t control it all and perhaps trying to control it all is what’s actually killing us.  The author Elizabeth Gilbert wrote, “You’re afraid of surrender because you don’t want to lose control, but you never had control. All you had was anxiety.”

I think this beatitude suggests that letting go of control that you never had anyway is the river that leads to the Kingdom of Heaven.  

I’m reminded of the time, one of the times, the government shut down. Many people, men especially, in my former congregation were suddenly at home with no paychecks immediately coming in. They were worried and cagey and so frustrated. Driven by compassion mixed with boredom, quite a few offered to help at the Wednesday lunch we had for Spanish speaking day workers in Herndon. But there was a moment when Brad and Andy sat down next to Ramon and Nery, and the ache for work in the heart of every man at that table was slowly replaced with this fullness, that was partly Esther’s very filling chili, and partly the experience of metal folding chairs on linoleum scooching up to a full table, but ultimately, the taste of real community, unbroken by all the economic, language and cultural barriers that are almost always there. And from then on, those two in particular showed up over and over again to support that ministry. Blessed are the poor in spirit, theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

Renowned priest, Richard Rohr wrote, “Jesus praises the weeping class, those who can enter into solidarity with the pain of the world and not try to extract themselves from it.  That is why Jesus says the rich man can’t see the Kingdom.  The rich one spends life trying to make tears unnecessary and, ultimately, impossible…. The weeping mode allows one to carry the dark side, to bear the pain of the world without looking for perpetrators or victims, but instead recognizing the tragic reality that both sides are caught up in.  Tears from God are always for everybody.”  

And that leads straight to the next beatitude. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. There is a deep biblical tradition called lamenting. This is the community that does not resign itself to the present condition of the world as final. With Zion we mourn the systems of injustice, the pain and the brokenness, and we receive the assurance that our struggle for justice is not futile. A prominent seminary professor said it this way, “the hope is in the struggle.”  

And when I boil that down to a personal level, it sounds like “the hope, the comfort, is in admitting you are actually struggling.” 

I suspect we all are mourning, even those work conferences we used to dread, even as we realize how hard the before-times were on many people. Some of us are mourning specific people. As I have shared with you, my mom died on March 20, 2020. I remember holding fast to this particular beatitude like promissory note from Jesus directly to me, thinking to myself, “Blessed are those who have to put on this blessed dress and these ridiculous pumps and fill out this absurd paperwork and write this impossible speech and comb through belongings that smell like her that don’t fit at all but should not be thrown out either, bless my heart…I will be comforted. Somehow. I don’t know how. But somehow. I will be.” Real hope often looks pretty messy. 

But you know what, sure enough, I was comforted. I was comforted in specific and mystical ways. Comforted by cinnamon rolls someone dropped off and comforted by text messages from friends and people I hadn’t talked to in years. Comforted by singing Great is Thy Faithfulness in the same tiny chapel where I’d been confirmed as a teenager and comforted by hearing my Dad’s tenor voice carry on singing when I couldn’t.  Comforted by an interim pastor and the Biblical words he spoke that felt like searchlights on the dark floodwaters of grief looking just for me. Comforted by music and art that I understood in a whole new way, comforted by birds hovering around the feeder that my mom tended so well, comforted by bulbs she planted coming up again from the crust of March flowerbeds. And that comfort has stayed with me. Because you know what, comfort then also means comfort now which also means comfort for what will come. I trust that. When we admit the struggle, and let ourselves mourn, we also allow room for comfort to find us.

Frederick Buechner wrote that we tend to live our lives like a big clenched fist.  The clenched fist can do many things: it can work, hang onto things, impress, even fight.  But, “the one thing a clenched fist cannot do is accept, even from good God himself, a helping hand.” 

When the crowds left the mount that day, brushed off their pant legs, I suspect some of them realized that this sermon changed things for them. It was a syllabus for the rest of their lives. Maybe they realized that they were not meant to fear poverty or death of any kind. Their hands were open. They looked at the people in the crowd, from the wealthy man with a serious drinking problem, to the woman dressed all in grief, to the sunny face of a child who had been playing with lilies and chasing butterflies the whole time even in a dangerous Empire, looked at themselves, and realized something was forming. It’s as if the mount was not a mountain after all, but soil covering this massive bulb that was due to grow all over the earth, realized that they themselves were part of that somehow. They felt that growth in their fingertips when they helped someone who was suffering or let themselves be helped. They felt that growth in their toes when they did something brave and they felt that growth most of all when they broke bread with those they were not usually eating with before and opened their hands to receive bread they did not bake. And that is when they felt it. That is when we feel it too. 

Blessed.

Black & White Through the Pastor’s Lens

On Sunday, February 6, from 2:00-3:15pm, Rev. Becca and Dr. Vernon Walton of First Baptist Church of Vienna will talk about their personal experiences with race and wonder together about faith. Watch the livestream. Or, join them in the large sanctuary of First Baptist Vienna, 450 Orchard Street, NW. If you plan to attend in person, please let us know.