How Are You?

All my life, I’ve known people who, when you ask how they are, will answer, “I’m blessed.” Every time. And all my life, I have wondered at these people. Because I have seen their lives. For the most part, these have not been lives that looked, to the objective observer, to be particularly blessed. Most of these people have been poor women, almost all of them African-American. The widow woman next door when I was growing up, who was raising her granddaughters on a fixed income. “How are you today?” “I’m blessed.” Zettie Kitts, who lived down the holler from my mother in East Tennessee, who had worked her hands raw all her life growing tobacco and raising every bite of food her family ever ate, who now cared for her both her aging husband and his developmentally disabled sister. “Good morning, Miss Zettie. How are you?” “Oh, sugar, I’m blessed.” The woman here in Franklin County who grew up going to a one-room schoolhouse with the rest of her family, with used books, and no heat, because she was black. Who had to go to St. Louis to go to high school because there was no black high school any closer. Who has lived here all her life and is still afraid to come into Washington or Union or St. Clair after dark. “How are you, ma’am?” “Honey, I am just blessed.”

I have always wondered at these people because, by every conceivable worldly metric, they are clearly not blessed. If they were blessed, as the world would like to see it, they would have money, health, power, fame, something to show that they had been blessed. And yet they have none of that. According to the logic of prosperity, worldly logic, you know someone is blessed because you can see evidence of blessing. And blessing means that they have been given stuff – something to show the world how blessed they are.

This thinking is not new. It was at least as prominent in the world of Jesus’ time as it is now. Which is why this beginning to the Sermon on the Mount is so scandalous. Everyone who is listening knows what blessing looks like. The healthy, the wealthy, the powerful, the strong. If you are sick, it’s because you have done something to deserve it. If you are poor, it is because you have done something to anger God. If you are reviled and persecuted, it is because God has explicitly not blessed you. Blessing is, by this logic, for those who deserve it. And those who are obviously not blessed, obviously do not deserve it.

And yet, Jesus says they are. Quite plainly, and without equivocation. Blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, the mourners, the merciful, the reviled, the persecuted. So what if there is something more going on here? What if, rather than giving us a prescription for how to behave, Jesus is giving us a description of God’s Kingdom come? What if this is a description of what it looks like when our prayers come true, not as we would have them come true, but as God would. This is a description, not of who we have to be in order to be blessed by God; this is a description of who God is making us to be, who God is forming us into, how we are being constructed as the people of God, as the Body of Christ.

We are being blessed, before we even begin. When God shows up in the world, blessing follows. And blessing looks like this: the meek, the poor in spirit, the mourners and the persecuted, all those who society would shun, they receive what society would not give them: blessing.

When God shows up, when God begins bestowing blessing, God starts, not with the strong, the powerful, the mighty. God starts, not with kings and courts, or even with those who have kept the law, the scribes and the Pharisees. God starts here, on this mountainside in Galilee, surrounded by, as the verses just before this tell us, “all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics.”

But here is God, handing out blessings, and starting, not with the mighty and powerful, those obviously favored by God, those who clearly had received blessings. No, God starts with those that most need God. God claims them as God’s own, and names them blessed.

And Jesus has come to remind them. Here at the beginning of his public ministry, in his first major sermon, he begins by reminding them of who they are. These beatitudes aren’t a job description for who’s allowed into the kingdom; they’re a description of those who are already there. They are a naming and a claiming of each and every person as a part of God’s in-breaking Kingdom. Not just those who are already obviously blessed, not just those who clearly deserve God’s favor, not just those who already appear to have it, but everyone.

Which sheds an entirely different light on those people who would answer my “how are you” with “I’m blessed.” Because they weren’t answering my question. Not as I asked it. They weren’t telling me how they were. They were telling me who they were. They were claiming their identity as God’s own people. They were telling me that they were planning to do justice in this world, to love kindness where they could, to walk humbly with God, to live out their lives as manifestations of God’s own kingdom.

How are you? I’m blessed. And the blessed are the ones who remember – who remember what God has done. Who remember that God brought them up out of the house of slavery, out of Egypt. Who remember that they were once strangers in a strange land themselves, and welcome the stranger in need. The blessed are the ones who remember who they are – those who have been named and claimed, and who have been transformed by that name. Those who long to share that name with the world.

Who are you? You are blessed. And the blessed are the ones who see where God’s kingdom is breaking in, and who participate in that in-breaking kingdom.

This is the Kingdom that Jesus has come to announce, and it is not a kingdom of the powerful, the rich, the well, the whole. It is a kingdom that sees the world as it is, and offers it a blessing. It is the Kingdom of God, and that is good news for the poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed, the hurting, the grieving, the broken. The world.

This is the Kingdom that we are called to participate in. This is the Gospel, the good news, that we are called to announce, to share, to live. It is not a program of personal moral improvement. It is not a litany of how I have to behave in order to receive blessing. Instead, it is a protest. A protest against everything in this world that stands against God’s kingdom. It is a protest against everything that stands against God, against justice, against equality, against righteousness, against the poor, against the meek, against those who mourn, against the merciful, against peacemakers, against the persecuted, against the cross.

It is foolishness, this protest, this cross. Because in this cross, we find God naming this world for what it is – a broken, hurting, needy place; it is foolishness, this cross, because at the foot of this cross, we are named for what we are – people in need of blessing; it is foolishness, this cross, because on this cross, God shows us God’s intent for us – that in our brokenness and need, God is not only present, but God is busy pouring God’s own self out for us, pouring God’s own self into the world, and raising us to new life. Sending us to proclaim the cross, to protest against the logic of this world, to live out this foolishness — to name the world for what it is, and to pour blessing into it.

This is the mission of Peace Lutheran Church – we are a people Bound by Christ, to Break Boundaries. We could make it shorter – we are a people Blessed, to be a Blessing. We are called, gathered, blessed, and sent – each and every week. Sent into a broken, hurting, needy world, to share our broken, hurting, needy selves, as a testament to this world, as a protest against the divisions in this world, foolishly challenging the chasms that yawn deep below our feet, threatening to drive us apart, threatening to push us away from one another, threatening to make fear and hatred our identity. But we protest. We know our name.We are Blessed. We are gathered around this table each week and blessed. We are fed with the bread and wine, and made to be the Body of Christ, and named and claimed. Blessed. To be a blessing.

How are you? I am blessed.

Who are you? I am blessed.

How are you? I am blessed.

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Let’s Get On With It

It’s been almost a month since Christmas day. Two weeks since Christmas ended with the arrival of the Wise Men on the Feast of the Epiphany. It’s time to get back to life. Return to normal. Pay the bills, go back to work, school, the gym. It’s time to get on with it.

That’s what Simon, Andrew, John and James are trying to do. Get back to work. To life as normal. They’re fishermen, and what they do is fish. Whatever else is going on in the world, they will get up in the morning if they can, go down to the Sea of Galilee, and throw their nets into the water. They will gather what catch there is, and sell what can be sold, so that their families can eat tonight. After all, the preoccupation of most people in the world is, how will my family eat today?

But for Jesus, there is no getting back to life as usual. John the Baptist has been killed by the empire, but the Kingdom is still breaking in. God is still busy fulfilling God’s promises, and normal is not normal anymore. And while the Kingdom may be coming near, the empire still stands very much in power; oppression and injustice are still facts of life, and there is work to be done, darkness to address. The Christmas season may be over, but the incarnation doesn’t end on Epiphany. It only spreads, like light that grows and fills dark spaces.

These dark spaces begin with Zebulun and Naphtali. For our modern ears, these are just archaic names for archaic geography, places that mean little or nothing. Just more weird biblical syllables to struggle through. But there is a story to those names, and Matthew mentions them for a reason. Jesus moves there for a reason.

See, Zebulun and Naphtali are no more. The have been invaded and occupied so often that they have been wiped off the map. Over the centuries the Syrians, the Babylonians, the Philistines, the Ninevites, the Hasmoneans, the Romans. Every invading army ever has come through the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali. To even find them on a map, you would have to go back at least seven centuries before Jesus.

And yet this is where Jesus chooses to settle. “In the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles.” Jesus could have settled in the halls of power, in Jerusalem, among the elites, near the priests and the scribes and the governors. But instead, he chooses to settle among the people who have walked in darkness. Because life will not be going back to normal. Once Jesus has shown up, life does not go back to normal.

Just ask Simon, Andrew, John and James. Minding their own business, getting back to normal, here comes Jesus, inviting them to follow him, and immediately they leave their nets and follow him. No period of discernment, no checking in with their families, no seeing if any better offers are in their inboxes no waiting to see what happens, if the darkness will really close in. Immediately, they follow the light. John and James not only dropped their nets, but also left their father and their boats. This is not getting back to life as usual. This is not even a new normal. This is something entirely different from normal. Something transformative. This is light shining on a land in deep darkness. This is foolishness that saves.

What else would it be to make ordinary men leave everything and follow? Foolishness. And yet this foolishness compels. It draws them forward. It stands in Galilee, on the road by the sea, in the lands that have been marginalized and oppressed, and it invites the sons of Zebulun and Naphtali to come and make a difference in the world. Invites them into relationship with the incarnate God, and through that incarnate God with the rest of the world. With Wise Men from the east and refugees from Egypt and Syria and marginalized and oppressed peoples everywhere. It invites the people who have sat in darkness to see a great light, and to be transformed by that light, so that they will become that light for the rest of the world. It is the foolishness of God, to love humanity so madly, deeply, crazy, that God would become one of us, come to us encased in humanity, to love and live and die as we do, and to transform this world just by showing up.

There is no normal. Not anymore. Whatever darkness you walk in, light is shining in. You don’t have to go looking for it. You do not have to change one single thing about yourself. Whether your permanent address is in Jerusalem or in Zebulun, whether you are just struggling to get by or whether your nets are full, whether you are grieving or celebrating or just kind of numb, God is busy showing up. Right where you are. God shows up there. And transforms you. For the sake of the world.

Right here. God shows up. At this table, week in and week out. God shows up for you. In your darkness, in your grief, in your exile, in your pain, in your fear, in your sorrow, in your life. God shows up in water and word, in a gathered community, in bread and wine. In you. Right here, at this table, week in and week out, you are gathered together, and you receive the living God into your body, so that you are transformed by the body and blood of Christ. Right here, at this table, week in and week out, you are made to be the body of Christ in this world, and you are sent out to become that body of Christ for the world. You are made to love humanity so madly, deeply, crazy that you would go out and meet them, and become a light for them, and invite them, the marginalized and the oppressed and the grieving and the fearful, invite them all into relationship,  into light, into love.

There is no normal anymore. There is only the work of transforming this world. It is foolish work, and we are being invited into it. It is hard work, and we are being invited into it. It is healing work, and we are being invited into it. It is God’s work, and we are being invited to get on with it.