This is the message I preached on Sunday, January 27th, at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC I hope it blesses you! If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us! Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC. We also have Bible study most Wednesday nights at 6 PM at our fellowship hall.
“I am Not Throwing Away My Shot”
Call to Worship (inspired by poem by Rev. Pauli Murray )
Hope is a crushed stalk
Between clenched fingers
Hope is a bird’s wing
Broken by a stone.
Hope is a word in a tuneless ditty —
A word whispered with the wind,
A dream of forty acres and a mule,
A cabin of one’s own and a moment to rest,
A name and place for one’s children
And children’s children at last . . .
Hope is a song in a weary throat.
Give me a song of hope
And a world where I can sing it.
Give me a song of faith
And a people to believe in it.
Give me a song of kindliness
And a country where I can live it.
Give me a song of hope and love
And a child’s heart to hear it.
Matthew 5:1-20, New International Version
Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them. He said: 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.
13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
These are the words of God for the people of God. May God open our hearts and minds to see and know what God is saying to us in them this day. In Christ’s name. Amen.
What stands out to you in these words of Jesus?
“I am not throwing away my shot / I am not throwing away my shot / Hey yo, I’m just like my country / I’m young, scrappy and hungry / And I’m not throwing away my shot”. So begins the play Hamilton. This play dramatically sets to music the story of the founding of our country, and the struggle our founding fathers went through to write out our constitution and our bill of rights, documents which flesh out exactly what it would look like for their dream – of a land where all people are created equal, with freedom and the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – what that looks like put into practice.
This week is a time we think about how dreams become reality, too, as we reflect on the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, who famously said “I have a dream” during his march on Washington, calling in that speech for a time to begin when people of all races and backgrounds could be welcomed as one, being treated as equal, in every part of human life.
Our responsive reading today is based on a poem by another dreamer, the Rev. Pauli Murray of Durham, who was a civil rights leader working for that same dream almost a generation before King’s struggle and who, like King, was also jailed for her stands against racial prejudice and discrimination here in the South. Unlike him, Pauli lived to a ripe old age, continuing even after his death her fight for this dream, by working as a writer, then a civil rights attorney, and finally as one of the first black female pastors ordained into the Episcopal Church USA.
In a way, when Jesus climbs atop the mountain in today’s Scripture reading, he is also announcing and fleshing out what the dream he has been proclaiming– the dream of “the kingdom of heaven” – looks like and how we can change our lives to help make it a reality here and now, which is, after all, what he means when he says repent and believe.
Those who followed Jesus up the mountain to hear his “Sermon on the Mount” which follows would have automatically gotten the point, remembering that it is on such a mountain that Moses first delivered the 10 Commandments, the laws that were the centerpiece of Moses’ fleshing out of what it would like for this rag-tag band of freed slaves he led out of Egypt to become a free people, the nation of Israel. And those gathered listening to Jesus’ sermon would have remembered how the prophets imagined that a day would come when the same thing would happen for all people. Those prophets dreamed of a time when the mountain of God’s house would be set up, and people of all nations – not just Israel but anyone and everyone – would come to it, to learn God’s ways, learning how to beat their swords into plowshares and study war no more. They would have known that Jesus was getting ready to flesh out what that dream looks like, in practical terms, the dream of becoming people individually and a community together that brings the healing of the nations the prophets promised, making this world here and now more as it is in heaven.
With that context, I wonder, does anything stand out to you about the picture Jesus paints of what this might look like?
First of all, it is important to notice what the foundation of this dream or vision for Jesus is not. It is not a set of rules to obey, but instead having the heart of God. I think this is an important fact we often overlook, and goes against the grain of what we expect. When God calls that rag-tag band of freed slaves Moses led out of Egypt to become a nation, God does so through giving them a set of laws: The Ten Commandments. I think often we look up, expecting the same thing from Jesus today: for God to hand us a list of rules, some IKEA instructions or how-to manual on building God’s church or community, or building a Christ-like life. This is why, on the one hand, we often end up feeling inadequate wondering how we can ever live up to who we need to be if we want to be close to God and, on the other hand, why so often churches end up judging and excluding people who don’t always fit their image of what they think a good Christian ought to look like: when we think following Jesus is about keeping a list of rules we often end up trying to push ourselves and others to fit into boxes, predetermined images of what following God looks like, which may painfully not fit.
This is why Jesus says our righteousness must surpass that of the Pharisees and other teachers of Biblical law, who were the key religious leaders of his day. They could quote the Bible front to back, but had turned it into a set of rules to keep people in line, and often instead of setting people to be free to be who God made them to be, it became in their hands just another force pushing people down. Jesus’ kingdom is different than this – it is expressed by Jesus’ promise that the Spirit of the Lord is upon me; and has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, deliverance to the captives, freedom to the oppressed, recovery of sight to the blind, and proclaiming that the day of God’s favor or pardon has come. It is a revolution of freedom that draws people out of fear and into close friendship with God, and pushes people to break every bond that oppresses them and others.
This is why instead of rules Jesus points to attitudes of the heart as his kingdom’s declaration of independence, constitution, or bill or rights: those who are blessed, who become the salt and light we are called to be if we are ones who live out Jesus’ prayer thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as in heaven, are not necessarily those who keep all the rules right or can quote their Bibles. That’s the righteousness Jesus says we need to get beyond. They are those who are pure in heart and truly come honestly before God just as they are, without pretense. They are those who recognize their own poverty and need before God, while also standing in solidarity with the needy and vulnerable all around them. They are those who mourn over the injustice in the world, its impact on others, and their part in it. They are those willing to count the cost and face loss themselves for working with God to set right what’s broken and hurting in our world. These aren’t rules – and there’s as many ways to live these beatitudes Jesus describes out as there are people and places in the world, so we don’t fulfill them by trying to fit ourselves and others into boxes where we and they don’t belong.
o, these beatitudes are what Gods’ heart is throughout the Scriptures, which tell us again and again that God hears the cry of the poor, lifts up the oppressed, cares as a father to the fatherless, the immigrant and widow; and is moved with compassion to the broken and hurting.
And we don’t develop God’s heart by gritting our teeth and trying really hard to blindly follow a list of rules or be someone we aren’t. Rather, God rubs off on us as we regularly spend time in God’s company, as we openly and honestly share our lives with God, letting God guide our thoughts and minds, our heart and intentions, each day. That shapes our hearts more and more into ones that beat in sync with God’s.
One Biblical image for this is of a tree. Psalm 1 tells us that a tree planted by streams of water will grow fruit in due season. As we open ourselves up to the living waters of God’s presence each day in our lives, in each person we encounter, in each moment, if we do it honestly, bit by bit we will begin to develop a heart shaped like God’s just like a tree planted by the water will naturally begin to grow its leaves, blossom, and ultimately grow fruit in due season. Our challenge then is not to ask what rule we must follow better but asking whether we are planting ourselves each day by the running water of God’s presence by spending time paying attention to God.
These qualities then are a picture of what cooperating with God as God works to bring God’s dream of healing, reconciliation, and hope into our lives and world looks like. I had a good friend of mine when I was a pastor in the Eastern part of the state who was a retired Jewish rabbi. He used to say when asked that the message of the prophets of Scripture was tikkun olam, or “you, go mend the world”. This is definitely what Jesus is talking about when he envisions the kingdom of Heaven coming near in our lives and in our church, with us being salt that heals wounds and adds flavor to the world, and the light that shows the way for those who’ve lost direction. As Bono, lead singer of U2, once said when asked why he kept arguing for people from wealthy nations like ours to help those struggling in poverty in the developing world, being kingdom people means to “Stop asking God to bless what you’re doing” and instead looking and listening to “Find out what God’s doing. It’s already blessed” so we can join God there, working together with God. Knowing the ongoing message of Scriptures about God’s heart we are talking about now, Bono goes further to say where is God? “God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house. God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives. God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war. God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us if we are with them.”
Ultimately, God is already at work in such places healing, reconciling, and setting free. If we can but open our eyes and see, we will know that God is extending God’s hand to us, inviting us on the adventure of going those places with God and joining in that work of mending broken lives and our broken world. Each day, as individuals, as a community, as a church, to be the people God has called us to be we have to ask how can we join God in what God is doing? How can we join God in mending God’s people and God’s world? And I would say this is especially important for us as a church now to ask, as we consider where we are moving together as a church in the future — we must move together with God, working together where God is working, caring for those for whom God is caring, not simply doing what meets our needs and keeps us comfortable. One path is the path that leads to life; the other to being that salt that has lost its savor. Let us answer that call to go out of our comfort zones, Hanks Chapel, to be salt and light.
This is why it is those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the peacemakers and the merciful that are blessed. These aren’t passive qualities which God wants to shape into our hearts. No, these are the qualities of those moved to action. As one commentator puts it, hungering and thirsting for righteousness is not in the Bible longing for being some holier than thou religious expert but instead it is a longing to rescue and release the oppressed and restore the powerless and outcast to their rightful place in the community. Likewise, being merciful is not just feeling sorry for others and going on your way but is instead us putting practical compassion put action. As Glen Stassen says in his Living the Sermon on the Mount, this speaks of “those who have … such compassion
toward all people that they want to share gladly all they have with one another and with the world”. And being a peacemaker is not just avoiding fighting or looking the other way without getting involved while conflict happens, but it is pro-actively going to those situations where people are divided and things could turn ugly, and helping people find constructive solutions that tear down walls between people, helping them move forward together, without threat of violence and recrimination. These qualities are good pictures of what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King meant when he said that God’s people needed to be not just thermometers reflecting the temperature of the climate around them but thermostats who set the temperature and climate for their communities.
Any thoughts about ways you see some of us already doing this here?
What about new ways we can strive to live this out?
Friends, let’s hear God’s call. Let’s be scrappy. Let’s be hungry. Let’s not throw away our shot, but let us take God’s hands, joining God in being people of healing, of peacemaking, of compassion and of justice – the salt and light we are called to be in God’s world. Amen and Amen.