‘Where Were You Lord?’ Sunday message from Pastor David Mueller

The Rev. David and Gigi Mueller

[Editor’s note: Again this week, as we remain separated by the Coronavirus pandemic, Pastor David Mueller and John Lasher, director of music and worship arts, have collaborated to provide a message and special music for the fifth Sunday in Lent. Pastor’s message is drawn from John 11: 1-45.]

With the link below you can listen to Pastor’s voice as you read the text.

Listen to Pastor Mueller’s message here.

As we begin, please allow me a few brief if also redundant announcements:

  • Those of you with email, our bulk emails often go to spam. Please check yours daily.
  • It is extremely important that you mail in your green sheets. The Transition Team is meeting regularly so as not to get too far behind during the crisis.
  • We hope all St. Markians are joining in prayer between 6 and 6:10 p.m. daily. We are adding a prayer component at the end today, but will be praying in general as we want to avoid publishing names and conditions.

We begin now with prayer.

Dear Lord, during this critical period for the whole world, we ask that You enable us to keep the faith, indeed, grow in the faith. Through these humble efforts that we are making as a congregation to communicate and celebrate with each other, enrich and deepen our gratefulness for grace, mercy and love, which we know You are blessing us with. Guard and protect us from severe impact of the virus upon us, others dear to us and all the unknown people who also are cared about by You. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ!

During the year I was in a Clinical Pastoral Residency at the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville, a book was published by an adjunct professor at the university. Dr. Raymond Moody was the author; “Life After Life” was the book. Inevitably, upon checking patient needs with nursing staff on any of the units to which I had been assigned, I would be asked: “Chaplain Mueller, so what do you think of ‘The Book?’”

My answer was consistent and most often met with bewilderment and disappointment: “I don’t care!” I suppose folks expect something a bit more spiritual from a Chaplain or Pastor. So I would go on to briefly explain: “There are certain mysteries in life and in the faith which I simply believe must be left alone. Preserve the mystery, even mysticism, of the sacred. After all, St. Paul wrote (Romans 8:24, 25): ‘Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.’”  

I believe in eternal life as a gift from God in Jesus Christ by grace through faith, to put it in pure Lutheran/biblical language. If I did not believe that, I had to be lying at literally hundreds of funerals. It is well beyond my pay grade to make judgments of any kinds about other than Christians getting in. Doing so feels like being the Commandant at a German Concentration Camp, saying: “You go to the right into the fields or factory; you go to the left and into the ovens!”  

Also, the issue of eternal life or “life after life” CAN be a distraction from other more pressing and current issues which require our attention. Here I am talking specifically about matters Jesus would have us attend to.

Turn to John 11:1-45 about Lazarus, which I invite you to read on your own later.

The first thing I notice is that the Disciples were reluctant to go back to Judea because “The Jews were just now trying to stone you” (7) on the one hand; and “… many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother” (19) on the other hand. I simply must point out that any speaking of “The Jews,” which is characteristic of John, can never be thought of as “all Jews.” Jews can too easily be the enemy for Christians so we must remember that most Jews were not bad guys. In 11:45, we read: “Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.”

Lazarus, whose name means “God Has Helped,” brother to Mary and Martha, had become ill. The sisters sent for Jesus. Curiously, upon hearing about his friend’s sickness, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Since it is said that Lazarus was four days dead and a stench had developed, it is safe to presume that it took about a week for Jesus to get there. I bring this up because one of the issues we take hardest when it comes to the promises of God is the time it takes for God to get things done. Even back then, now was too late.

Jesus finally arrives and each of the sisters takes a turn at receiving him with words that are often read or thought of softly, when it was more likely theyAn arrow that says: Where were angry with him for being so slow to act. “WHERE IN THE HELL WERE YOU?” might have been more like it. In the meantime the Jews were doing the consoling.

Jesus and Martha have a brief discussion about resurrection of the dead, the conversation ending with Martha confessing that she believed Jesus was the Christ, which at that moment changed nothing; Lazarus was still dead NOW!

After encountering the two sisters separately, Jesus goes to the tomb, prays to the Heavenly Father “for the sake of the crowd” to believe and then shouts: “Lazarus, come out!” With the burial cloths still hanging on him and the stench not yet worn off, out came Lazarus!

The incredible thing is that from then on, we hear nothing from or about Lazarus. If one stands at the top of the Mount of Olives and looks down toward Jerusalem, immediately behind about two miles is Bethany. Am I to believe while Jesus was soon suffering in Jerusalem, Lazarus was too lazy or unappreciative to come and lend some support? And, by the way, why is there no book of the Bible written by Lazarus about the post death experience? Inquiring minds want to know! One would think that Lazarus especially would wait outside the tomb of Jesus genuinely believing that he too would be raised from the dead!

The Bible works that way, however, that is certain people come on the scene, do their part, and leave never to be seen or heard from again. Think about Joseph the carpenter. What on earth happened to him? Another mystery! And really, just how much time need we spend on trying to figure it out?

It is interesting that in Luke 16:19-31, another Lazarus is featured in a parable of Jesus. God helped him too, but for the rich man who failed to see let alone help the poor Lazarus, it was too late. He asked to go back to warn his five brothers to get their act together, for not caring about others must have been in their genes. They have Moses and the Prophets and if they don’t listen to them, “neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

The resurrection of the dead is not in a biblical sense a feat performed by God just to prove God can do such a thing. Clearly, it is a promise of a holy and heavenly hope for us who believe. The promise is in the now, however, so we can be free to live in the now in worship and in service. The rich man and his brothers had Moses and the Prophets and we have the words and will of Jesus to be His disciples in the world as it is: dangerous, diseased, war-ridden and the like.

To that world, in the event that we have not already come on the scene and performed our purpose, which is highly unlikely, we can bring help, healing and hope. We are alive and in Christ free to live creatively, generously and lovingly! While we cannot be absolutely sure, my hunch is that Lazarus learned quickly and surely to live that way. Amen.

Post Script: Any number of books have been written and movies have been produced in recent years about Heaven. Since Dante’s “Inferno,” however, few if any have written about hell. Have any of these been helpful? Perhaps to some! For the most part, such concepts remain a mystery. Even after the 43 years since Life After Life and my comments about it, the mystery is still fine with me!

That said, deaths due to COVID-19 are on the rise and are projected to skyrocket soon. There are those arguing that we older ones ought to sacrifice our lives for the sake of others or the economy or both. There is nothing in our beliefs to suggest that anyone ought to be in a hurry to go to glory. Were that the case, why not let more of us, young and old, be willing to die and “go to that better place?” Since that is ludicrous, all of us can do what we can to preserve lives and, in due time, discover “Life After Life,” as Moody entitled his book.

‘There are still some issues remaining:’ Sunday message from Pastor David Mueller

Pastor David Mueller

Editor’s note: Pastor David Mueller and John Lasher, director of music and worship arts, have been meeting to record Pastor Mueller’s sermons while St. Mark’s is closed to help curtail spread of the Coronavirus pandemic. We include a link to the audio here and also the text. We’ll be back together soon!

Here’s the link to the audio:

Sermon by Pastor David Mueller

We still are unable to meet this Sunday for corporate worship. Once again, therefore, we are providing the members of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church a sermon and a song, something to keep our spirits fed during this very unusual and frightful time. We will provide these weekly until the crisis is passed. As is our usual custom, we begin with prayer.

Heavenly Father, good and gracious God, hold all of us, our families and friends, and people the world over in Your hands and allow us relief from this unseen, silent, but lethal enemy. Give us the courage and confidence of faith to face our realities, personal and collective. Grant us a renewed sense of the Holy Spirit so that we might be agents of hope, healing and helpfulness in the times ahead. We ask in Jesus’ Name. Amen.

Grab your Bibles and turn with me to the appointed Gospel from John 9. Please take a quick gander at this chapter, which I will not read now but hope you will read in its entirety later.

One of the issues of life that causes us concern and consternation is suffering. I have previously shared while at St. Mark’s that suffering comes from more than one source. For the Christian, there is suffering for what is right and just. We fight for righteousness and justice in the world for others as well as ourselves and risk trouble for it. We suffer for Christ, although in our culture and political context, the risks of suffering for Christ are few for most believers; not so in other cultures and political contexts throughout history.

We suffer because we live in a fallen world. Here on the planet, there are consequences. If we smoke, there is a good chance we could get lung cancer. If we drive recklessly, we could hit a tree and get hurt badly or killed or worse, hurt or kill others. If we consume too much alcohol, we could get cirrhosis and other social problems. Oh, there are exceptions, like some old guy in Arkansas who when asked about what his secret to living for 104 years is, replies “a cigar a day and a pint of good whiskey.”

Then there is suffering by coincidence: being in the intersection when someone blows a stop sign or red light; sitting on the front porch when a bullet meant for someone else hits you; walking in the woods when a tree falls on you, etc. It is perfectly acceptable to refer to these sorts of things as “bad luck.” There are accidents: slipping on ice, a ladder falling, etc. And finally, there is the issue of bad genes, picking the wrong parents.

The suffering questioned most often is of coincidence. We need a cause even if it is cruel or wrong. The Disciples were like that, except they looked for causation in another place: “Whose sin caused this man’s blindness, his own or his parents?” This was a typical notion in those days: the cause must be the sins of someone. Obviously, they had a lot to learn. The verse was also true for Pharisees: “Whose righteousness was responsible for their success and prestige?” Why their own, of course. It was a simple if inaccurate way of looking at the people of their world: black and white, absolutely no ambiguity or mystery.

Can you imagine persons being so cold and sure of themselves as to be simply incapable or unwilling to celebrate a man born blind regaining his sight? The Pharisees interrogated his parents and got nowhere with them because they really didn’t know how their son received his sight. They then threatened them with being thrown out of the Synagogue, whatever that meant? Sad, sorry and spiritually bankrupt this was!
Pastor David Mueller's Bible
The man, formerly blind, knew! It was Jesus who did it with a healing touch of his eyes. He did not, however, know who Jesus was when asked, but later came to know when Jesus revealed Himself to him! Is it not truly amazing that this man was given no time, due in large part to the hang-ups of others, to just look around at his world, to see for the first time the parents who raised him, to enjoy the sights of trees and flowers blooming, to wonder about how the many building he now saw could ever have been built? The Pharisees drive him out; thank you Lord for the capacity to keep sinners out and unable to influence our well-being!

Oh my, what a sinner this Jesus must be, to help and heal on the Sabbath! Horrors! In a very real way, the Pharisees were more blind than the formerly blind man. The “Sabbath” issue is another sermon.

Might we be able in faith to make the quantum leap of two millennia and from blindness affecting one person to a virus affecting the whole planet? Let’s try!

Already there are those who know exactly why the Lord is so inflicting us or who are the main targets of wrath even if a slew of others must take some hits. It is inevitably and invariably those other sinners, whose sins the “knowers” of God’s will gladly confess. It also could be yet another demonic plot to deceive us or to distract us from other real societal or human issues. Unfortunately, Pharisee-like Christians are still around in force. That is what is so demonic or “wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing” like. Jesus warned us to be weary and worried about false prophets.

Back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, I was a member of the Institutional Review Board of Christiana Care, having followed Carl Sachtleben, by the way. Over supper, between screening treatment protocols, interesting conversations would take place. For instance, Northern Delaware and its surrounding valley has a high incidence of breast cancer in women and prostate in men. Is it due to chemicals buried in the ground decades earlier or poisons in the air or streams? Good guess in our region, except that most people in Delaware at least, were not born and raised here. Could it be that people who have moved here brought with them a predisposition for these cancers?

Who will get very sick and possibly die from Coronavirus and why? There are some hints: age, health, social contacts, etc. Yet within those categories, there are many exceptions. How can we deal with the mysteries of it all? Together! Instead of Pharasaic blaming, shaming, gaming and judging, this can be an incredible opportunity to care for and about each other: doing the unusual and not doing the usual for our own and the sakes of others. If the good Lord has anything at all to do with this, it is jumping in and trying to get all of us to reorder our priorities in life. The Disciples finally would come to learn this but the Pharisees never did!

Just as with the Samaritan woman at the well and the “living water, welling up to eternal life” last Sunday, so also with this formerly blind man: “I believe” meant that his sight was not just restored but his relationship with God was sealed forever. Amen.

Ash Wednesday

Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return

Please join us for a special Ash Wednesday worship service as the Lenten season begins. Pastor David Mueller will be preaching.

We will meet for worship every Wednesday throughout Lent.

Beatitudes: Blessed are the persecuted

Christ is your righteousness

[Editors note: This is the eighth part of an Adult Forum series on the Beatitudes, a class  Pastor David E. Mueller taught. To find the previous classes, search for “Beatitudes” in the search box.]

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:10-12) 

The litany of difficult, dangerous and disastrous problems in the world is not one we need to reiterate or elaborate upon, for even the slightly attentive among us know of them. All of us to some extent will know the stress and strain of it. Some are hurt badly.

Decades ago, the book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” was a top seller. We call bad things tragedies, but often feel persecuted if the bad thing happens to us. “Why me?” That is an incredibly difficult question to answer, but ask it we will; and answer it we will try. It is especially hard to accept living in a world where things can and all too often do get rough without some sort of reason.

Jesus got this and spoke to it on any number of occasions. He invites us to cast those burdens on him. Human beings have a friend in Jesus who helps them their grief and sorrow to bear. Woven into the fabric of the Beatitudes is the righteous management of living in a complex and evil world, about surviving, indeed, thriving in a hurting world.

As things turn nastier, it is essential that we know well that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:39). The link, established by God’s grace and received in faith, is eternal. “The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” (Romans 11:29) Nothing or no one can separate us, but some will try. Leaving God’s presence heart-bent on healing and peacemaking in the world is bound to occasion resistance at least and rage at most. We cannot attempt to sabotage the world’s warring ways without the warriors fighting back.

If indeed we have taken Jesus Christ seriously on the mountain, then things are going to get pretty rough in the valley below, far rougher at times than had we not taken the hike.

It saddens and maddens me when Christians, some quite prominent, proclaim: “Get Jesus and everything will go just fine. From finances to family, from early education, employment to retirement, from birth to grave, all will be just swell.”Bunk! This is false promise and prophecy. Chances are if Jesus gets you, which is a far more appropriate way to put it to begin with, your troubles may just expand and intensify.

When Jesus is Lord and Savior, then our climb up and down, that is, “paths of righteousness” will take us to the “valley of shadow and death” as well as by “pools of still waters.” (Psalm 23) His leading is ALWAYS on paths of righteousness, no matter what may be along the paths. If one doesn’t want to accept the risks of danger, possible death, at least persecution “for righteousness’ sake,” then go walk the flatter, wider, smoother and safer path. Just know that it leads to destruction. Whatever one escapes by walking it, one gets back multifold at the path’s end.

Jesus speaks to this reversal of immediate and ultimate: “Woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” (Luke 6:24-26)

The world can stand peacemakers and true lovers of humanity, as God loves humanity, only so long. Turning the cheek may result in getting smacked even harder on the other. If you do give one of two coats to one who has none, you could end up cold yourself. If you do pray for those who persecute you, you might just make them madder than hell. If you really do operate on Christ’s behalf and for righteousness’ sake, then you will be accosted verbally if not physically. All kinds of evil and false accusations will be flung at you because the world cannot and will not accept the truth.

Please note that what is so offensive to the world is our utterly outrageous claim that God in Christ really does forgive sins. Forget the moralizing we are truly tempted to fling back at the patently immoral and amoral sinners in our world. It is about forgiving the immoral and amoral before anybody can genuinely change.

While I hesitate to bring it up because it is one of those issues which could take us off on an incredibly long tangent, the Chik-fil-A matter cries out for comment here. Company management, claiming a Christian duty, pronounced gay behavior outside of God’s will, a position for which they evidently have gotten massive public support. Gays are crying “bigotry” and calling for a public demonstration of an outrageous sort. How can we, as Christians willing to accept persecution and accusation, bring healing to this matter? Merely taking a side will most assuredly only muddy the matter.

The world gets enraged with us because we are right. We are NOT right because we have learned to behave. We are NOT right because we have come to control our unrighteous impulses. We are NOT right because of correct political inclinations, right racial backgrounds, right breeding, right upbringing, right sexual attitudes and actions, right anything in ourselves. We are right because we have been declared right (Romans 3:21-22) in Christ Jesus, washed in the blood of Christ Jesus, given by the Holy Spirit faith in Christ Jesus, and sent to share Christ Jesus in the valley where anyone and everyone can also be right in Christ Jesus.

None of this is easy and there simply has to be resistance throughout your body and soul by now in this sermon of Jesus Himself. We can take no enjoyment or glee in what could come our way because of our eternal Christian connection. We do not have to go looking for it as if it has some sort of sacramental value.

We are attracted to a smooth sweet happiness without hassles, truth without trouble, hope without horror, peace without problems, joy without justice. None of us wants to suffer.

We prefer a “bless this mess” Jesus to a “master this mess” Lord. We like the god who allows us to “do what you want to do, say what you want to say, think what you want to think and, if it is wrong, I’ll forgive it!” “Go right ahead and be too ashamed or afraid to speak a word of healing, love and peace in the hurting, hating, hostile world. I understand!” “I will stick up for you even if you do not stick up for me.” THAT GOD IS A FIGMENT OF VIVID BUT SORRY IMAGINATIONS.

What we are invited to do by Christ on this spiritual pilgrimage up and down the mountain is not to rise above the world’s issues in order to better deal with them down below, but to know and believe that theirs is NOT the real world to begin with. Fighting, drugging, cheating, stealing, killing, spouse abusing, family faithlessness, grabbing, stabbing, nabbing and all the rest of it are NOT God’s design and therefore cannot produce happiness. Neither can the simple opposites of all the above. It has been said: If you win the rat race, you are still a rat.

We will take our hits knowing that earth and heaven belong to Jesus and He has promised them to us. No amount of hype or hurt can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. No amount of radical ridicule, ridiculous reviling, or rambling rationale will make rats of us. We are and will forever remain fully human.

Now watch closely what happens here. I have emphasized that we are together on this holy hike. It is a communal effort. We are not alone. The Lord gives us wonderful spiritual and social company.

In the first eight Beatitudes, the designation is “blessed/happy are those who….” But this last one reminds us that we are loved and led personally as it is said, “blessed/happy are you when you are…” persecuted for what is right and for Christ. The “good news” of Christ Jesus has cosmic, communal and deeply uniquely personal implications.

As a Christian Pastor, though I have known you and you me for mere months, I genuinely desire your spiritual, physical and total well-being. I truly want you to be happy/blessed. But I will not — because I cannot — offer cheap alternatives, false promises, easy answers, when Jesus has offered to us what truly lasts even if along the way it hurts.

The formal interim process, with which I trust we will become increasingly familiar, is not pain-free. Being changed in Christ cannot come without natural resistance. Being the gathering of Christian believers together for mission and ministry into the future, will require far more of all of us than might have been anticipated. None of this, however, is without blessedness/happiness. There can be nothing more important and meaningful than praising the Christ with our lips and serving the Christ faithfully with our lives.

As we close this series on the Beatitudes and spend next week on the Lord’s Prayer, also from this sermon of Christ Himself, may your faith in Him be deepened, His eternal love for you received and His care for the world shared no matter what! Amen.

Adult Forum class: Believe

Cover of the Book 'Believe'

“What you believe in your hearts is what you become.” Randy Frazee

Knowing what we believe and why we believe it is essential to a living faith. The Adult Forum class “BELIEVE,” led by Margie Dodson, is based on the book, video and study guide by Randy Frazee. The goal is to allow God to walk into our lives anew. We will study the core beliefs of the Christian faith to become spiritually strengthened, increasingly mature and able to communicate what we believe to others searching for God.

Join us in the Seminary Room Sunday mornings at 10 a.m.

The Beatitudes: Blessed are the peacemakers

A dove on a branch.

Editors note: This is the seventh in an Adult Forum series on the Beatitudes, a class with Pastor David E. Mueller. We meet at 10 a.m. on Sundays (between the 9 a.m. service and the 11 a.m. service). Join us in the Great Room!

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9)

Traditionally, military personnel wear uniforms, which identify their nation, the service they represent and the rank they hold. They are paid; it is their job as well as their duty. Their purpose is to kill enemy combatants in the event of a war and be ready in the meantime.

Peace “freaks” and “niks” are often viewed as scruffy folk, young and old, who hang out in public places displaying signs and shouting slogans. They often appear as if they do not have anything better to do or cannot find reasonable work. If they do work, most do not use their lunch hours to protest. If they did, they would most assuredly not be wearing expensive business suits. “Peacemakers” seem to have an image problem.

I am fully aware that in all the Beatitudes, there are political ramifications, especially to this one. With wars going on, most of us have serious and sincere political opinions. Most Christians of any depth do NOT want to hear partisan political posturing from the pastor. I will not violate that boundary this morning. My political, military and other opinions are not the point here and neither are yours. If a genuine and complete peace is what we seek, then it is God’s and not our will which must be discovered and heeded.

Our task today is not to discuss peace keeping but Christian peacemaking. THIS IS NOT OPTIONAL! Mercy was the last thing known and shown before reaching the top of the holy hike and seeing God. Mercy is what flows with us as we descend back to the valley below. To refuse peacemaking obligations for the Christian is no less a failure in duty than a soldier refusing to fight. In both cases, it is cowardice.

I have to believe that those who have faithfully climbed and seen God are now descending with a powerful and beautiful sense of God’s presence and promise, short-lived though the audience may have been, and terrifying as it may be to face what lies below. As we descend, peacemaking as children of God is far removed from what is usually thought to be peace. The world at war will refer to us by all kinds of names, but “children of God” is not one of them. All periods of world history involve war.

Christians are not to be striving for the absence of conflict or for simply treating a particular tension. Peacemaking is both the most difficult and dangerous exercise there is. The dangerous part we will need to address next Sunday. The difficult part is that peace, by Biblical definition, has to do with all and not some aspects of life. It is, therefore, very long and hard work. It is comprehensive!

The techniques and strategies for war are studied. We have military academies and other institutions for that purpose. Can the techniques and strategies for peace be studied and learned? Why don’t we have peace academies? We do! They are called “Christian congregations.” This congregation is a peace academy or is not fulfilling its purpose.

War has to do with two or more sides fighting for death. Peace has to do with working for life. Both cost time and money. War destroys property and people by its nature; peace builds and preserves people and property by its nature.

War can be waged on the ground, in the air, or at sea. Peace is to be in relationship to everything. “Shalom” in Hebrew; “Salaam” in Arabic; “Pax” in Latin; “Erineis” in Greek, all speak of peace in every way, in everything with everyone, even if those who use those languages have difficulty equal to our own in achieving it.

It is especially difficult and demanding for Christians to be called upon to make peace where there exists conflict: between nations, neighbors, spouses, races, political parties.

Imagine the six-pointed “Star of David.” Peace with God and with oneself in Christ is at the center of the star. To whatever point in the star one turns, there is opportunity for peace.

Every family has disputes. One could take a side, cast the problem aside indifferently, establish a tough position of one’s own, or prayerfully seek to make peace. This is true with neighbors, friends, enemies, work and schoolmates, and all other points of the star. Are we stars who shine brightly in peace or people who whine nightly in conflict?

Peace, as Jesus gives it, and as we are to make it, is not as the world gives (John 14:27) precisely because it is peace on every front. As we will note next week, much of the world’s people will despise us for being serious about achieving true and complete peace.

Christians, whether we like it or not or are called upon to participate or not, fully understand that war happens. When war is unavoidable, it must be fought with killing and not kindness. Evil is real in our world and cannot be ignored.

Today there are Christians who believe that Jesus is returning to rule the earth for a millennium either before or after a period of tribulation. I am not judging this; Christians can and do differ on Biblical interpretation and theological/ethical position. I wonder, however, why so many of these seem so merciless about the punishment to be dealt out when Jesus returns? For some, even peace is the sign that things are wrong and not right. Why then, does Paul write unconditionally, “Pursue the things that make for peace.” (Romans 14:19) What did Paul have in mind when he wrote: “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:18) David the Psalmist sang: “Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace and pursue it!” (Psalm 34:14) Are these authors of holy writ trying to fool us?

What Christians ought to share above all else is the love of Christ, deep and abiding prayer in Christ, and the peacemaking Christ Himself has given us to do. It is this “peace that passes all understanding and keeps our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Philippians 4:7) It is the absence of this peace expressed which has caused many outsiders to be stressed about Christians. Jews can rightfully ask: where is the peace?

I served as a “Mediator” for over 15 years in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. I was formally trained as a “Peacemaker.” Peacemaking is at the top of a curve, with slippery slopes on each side of the top. On the one side is “peace faking,” which at its extreme leads to suicide. On the other side is “peace breaking,” which leads to murder. Clearly in the conflicts I have been asked to mediate, neither of the extremes were realized and on occasion, genuine peace making was experienced.

Christians, who know the healing of their own relationships with God, self and others, see the potential for peace in the relationships of others as well. Some marriage partners in conflict would seem rather to kill than heal. Just read any newspaper. We know some nations at war would rather kill than seek peace. Just read any newspaper. We Christians keep believing in the “Prince of Peace,” and would rather die for him than kill. We break nothing, we fake nothing, we make peace.

The symbol of our peace is not an eagle with olive braches in one claw and arrows in the other, although I, like you, respect that symbol for what it means. Ours is not a buzzard, which feeds on death, a hawk which looks for prey, or a duck which quacks, but a dove which lights gently on hearts burning to heal in newness and life.

Luther initially wrote the tract: “Can a Soldier be saved?” because his friend, Assa von Kram, a soldier, had a conscience problem and was unable to reconcile his Christian faith with military service. Luther concluded that military service was not inherently in violation of Christian conscience. This is a decision, however, which each Christian must make in his or her heart. Some might in conscience choose not to serve and seek alternative service to military service. THERE IS NO CHOICE IN PEACEMAKING. IT IS OBLIGATORY!

Here also, is a piece of what Luther wrote in his commentary on this Beatitude: “With an excellent title and wonderful praise, the Lord here honors those who do their best to try to make peace, not only in their own lives but also among other people, to try to settle ugly and involved issues, who endure squabbling and try to avoid and prevent war and bloodshed … (others) have no other goal than to stir up unrest, quarrels and war. Thus, among the priests, bishops and princes nowadays practically all we find are bloodhounds. They have given many evidences that there is nothing they would rather see than all of us swimming in blood. If a prince loses his temper, he immediately thinks he has to start a war … they cannot rest until they have taken their revenge and spent their anger, until they have dragged their land and people into misery and sorrow. Yet they claim to bear the title ‘Christian princes’ and to have a just cause.”

Note that Luther had no patience or respect for either secular or spiritual leaders gone awry. He went on to write: “All this comes from the shameful, demonic filth which naturally clings to us.” He further pointed out how Christians must be peacemakers in both their personal and communal lives.

Things have gotten far worse since Luther, in terms of the numbers, nature and nastiness of conflicts and in the amount of damage that has been and can still be done, most usually in the name of good and not evil. This is the very nature of evil, that is, deception. Perhaps the Psalmist is most timely today as we hear: “Depart from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.” (34:14) Maybe Paul was right on when two millennia ago he commanded us “to pursue the things that make for peace.” (Romans 14:19)

Take peace out of the Scriptures, cut the word out every time it appears, and watch the Bible begin to look like Swiss cheese.

Unfortunately, wars and rumors of same will continue to increase. It is the nature of fallen humanity. Christians will not be blessed by being agents of conflict and war. We are told nowhere in our Bibles to go and wage war. Even President Dwight Eisenhower said that every bomb built, whether dropped or not, is bread and butter taken from the mouths of children. But there is hope and we need to be agents of peace in anticipation of it.

Possibly one of the most troubling matters these days is the apparent complicity of the Syrian Christians with the Assad regime. They seem to be saying little or nothing about injustice and violence on both sides. German Christians were similar 75-80 years ago. And what of us right now?

Listen to this: “Let me hear what God the Lord will speak; for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts. Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land. Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet, righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” (Psalm 85:8-10)

The Beatitudes: Blessed are the pure in heart

Climbers reach the top of the hill

Editors note: This is the sixth in an Adult Forum series on the Beatitudes, a class with Pastor David E. Mueller. We meet at 10 a.m. on Sundays (between the 9 a.m. service and the 11 a.m. service). Join us in the Great Room!

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (Matthew 5:8)

With all the Beatitudes but especially this one, I need to rely entirely on the promises of Jesus Christ. I am utterly unable to make God appear.

In time, each of us wants to be in the presence of God. This is our ultimate hope realized fully when temporal life ends and eternal newness in Christ begins. While “hope that is seen is not hope” (Romans 8:24b), “we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:25b).

The presence of God in the meantime eludes us when we seek God and can spook us when God shows up unexpectedly. We are perhaps more comfortable with the “real” world down below, despite imperfections and even evil the likes of which occurs every day. The presence of God is almost too much to take. Just yet!

Travel back with me to an incident in the Hebrew Scriptures (Exodus 3:1-6). Moses was out and about keeping sheep. On Mount Horeb, he encountered the burning bush. He was intrigued and looked closer, at which time the Lord called out and said: “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground. I am the God of your father … Abraham … Isaac … and Jacob.” Moses then “hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.”

A few thousand years later, Jesus invited Thomas to touch His post-resurrection wounds. Jesus went on to speak about the blessedness of those who do NOT see and yet believe (John 20:29). While at first seeming to be a contradiction, Moses not touching and seeing is complementary with Thomas getting to touch and see. We need to explore this!

With today’s Beatitude, the pure in heart are promised an audience with God that is visual. We must be careful, however, not to make more of the sense of sight employed than the presence of God enjoyed. Moses was to take off his sandals so that he might feel the sacred earth beneath his feet. Feeling God’s presence, hearing God’s word, knowing God’s will, smelling and sensing the holiness and majesty of God are at work here, too. Our whole being needs to be engaged in experiencing the presence of God.

Remember that this Beatitude is the highest point of a hike that included five previous stops. This one, like the others, builds on, flows from and requires the previous ones. Each needs and leads to the next. We arrived at this point having made the whole holy hike. We are on holy ground. How are you doing? How are those around you? We are in this together. We may not all be in the same faith place right at this moment. This, however, does not change the nature of the moment. This is a communal and not merely a personal encounter.

The promise of Jesus is utterly essential. I would never try to conjure up God. We do not practice some goofy form of Christian voodoo. This is not about saying the right words because this is not about words. The marvel of this moment is beyond comprehension and verbal expression. Are you seeing and otherwise sensing God? If not, the clouds blocking vision are not on the mountain but in your eyes: spiritual cataracts perhaps.

Like a pilot waiting to take off, we need to go over the checklist one more time. Have you shown and known mercy? Is there something going on in you that you do not believe God forgives? Are you holding back on forgiving someone else?

Ophthalmologists can look into your eyes with precise and expensive equipment to determine if you have heart disease, which your cardiologist may not have picked up on. Speaking of hearts, the organ of note here, plaque can clog an artery, throw a clot and cause great damage, even death. Sin is like that. It blocks the view and (or) can cause a heavy heart to die and faith to fail. Mercy is the spiritual surgery you need. Jesus died for every sin of every person every where in every time. Believe that or there is no seeing God. A small sin is an impurity; only the pure see. “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” (James 2:10) The only way to be absolutely and completely pure in heart is to be purified.

God is not hiding. God wants you to see! Again, this is not my promise but that of Jesus. “The blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sins.” (1 John 1:7b) Either “all” is all or all is nothing at all. This is a time to take sin seriously and to take mercy faithfully.

Have you been hungering and thirsting for what is right and just or for something else? The “something else” may be blocking your spiritual vision.

How is the meekness coming? Non-meekness is genuine weakness.

Is the mourning over what and who was given up to take this hike? Tears of grief and fears of grace can affect the sight every time.

Do you remain humble and poor in spirit? Only the poor in spirit can be lifted to pure in heart. You have to be perfect at nothing here. Jesus is the perfect one. The Holy Spirit is working hard to allow you, move you, empower you to set aside that which blocks you from being purified and seeing clearly.

You SEE, the audience is on God’s terms and not ours. We are NOT forgiven our sins and empowered to see God in order to continue on our silly, sick, and sinful ways.

This hike is distinctively Christian. We are NOT as Christians to be judging others: (Luke 6:37 & Romans 2:1-11), including Jews, Muslims, Hindus or atheists/agnostics. It is our responsibility to witness to others. “Believe like us or you lose!” “Drop your pagan ways, misguided theologies, conceptions of God which flow from vivid but limited imaginations.” Is that our testimony? Fine, but what credibility and integrity do we have if we fail to follow the very teachings and leadings of Christ ourselves? DO WE REALLY BELIEVE IN AND DO WE PRACTICE SPIRITUAL POORNESS, MOURNING, MEEKNESS, RIGHTEOUSNESS, AND MERCY? We are judged for being Christian rather than for avoiding the pitfalls of other faiths.

The Ten Commandments, or “The Law” in Biblical language, are thought by some to need promotion anywhere and everywhere. But do WE keep them? The whole seventh chapter of Romans, along with many other Christian Scriptures, proclaims that we do not and cannot. With the Law comes the increase and not the decrease of the sin. We tend to judge others who break laws we are good at. That’s hypocrisy! We may be judging others in this very room right now for doing something other than what we feel we do right ourselves. It is blinding us, deafening, numbing, dumbing, destroying us.

The Commandments are demands on us which we cannot fulfill adequately. The Beatitudes are a trip Jesus takes with us to encourage us, empower us, enjoy us. He picks us up when we fall or fail along the way. He draws us together in community not of competition but cooperation, not of duty but of delight, a community of faith and not fright. He dies for us that we might walk with Him in newness of life (Romans 6:4).

Listen to this wonderfully appropriate portion of Romans 7 (4-6): “In the same way, my friends, you have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God. While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.”

It ought to be fascinating to us that the Christian life begins at Baptism, a moving down into the depths of water. Here, however, we have climbed in faith to the pinnacle, the height of holiness, where only those who have been washed are pure enough to see God.

This “holy hike” is not a one-time excursion into the incredible mysteries of God, but a daily journey into mysteries that in Christ have been revealed. There is nothing cryptic or complicated about any of it. It is as plain as day.

We are invited by Jesus to follow Him, empowered by the Spirit to believe in Him, freed and forgiven in His blood to serve Him. If anything else in this precious pilgrimage is also clear, it is that we need to make this trip together. You cannot believe for me, but you can believe with me. It is only together that we can see God. I actually need to go one step further. It is only in each other than we can see God.

It has been said that spiritual sight is not like a camera shot of a panorama as much as a surgical scope that a physician might use. With the scope there is more precision and perspective. The camera is more of a broad angle. We could translate all the Beatitudes as “Blessed are the focused, for they will be forever fixed.”

What has happened or should have is that the distractions are gone. We are here looking up and not back down. I like panoramic views, but this is NOT one of them. As we look up to view God, God invites us to look at one another. What we see, indeed, who we see, are not sinners, but saints. We are living saints, “holy ones” not holy in ourselves but having been washed, cleansed, declared holy by THE HOLY ONE!

Down below, in the valley to which we shortly must return, people often look at each other and note the nastiness, focus on the flaws, failures; the fights and the blights and the dark nights. Down there, it is rare to treat others as we would be treated. People are too busy being rude, crude and causing a feud. In all too many instances, there are senseless deaths. Is there any question that at times we can see the devil in certain individuals?

Not us, not up here! We are too near the presence of God. God calls us to look upon each other as He sees us, forgiven; given a new chance. We belong to God; we were “bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:20). We belong to each other because we have bought-ness in common. The “unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3) holds us together with God and one another. We see God in each other.

How could it be different? “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. NO ONE HAS EVER SEEN GOD; IF WE LOVE ONE ANOTHER, GOD LIVES IN US AND HIS LOVE IS PERFECTED IN US.” (1 John 4: 9-12)

In closing, there are two things I would ask of you:

1. Close your eyes and imagine being on the top of the mountain on a clear, crisp, beautiful day. It is in the silence that God is: no volcanic eruption, no thunder and lightning. Let there be silence! “Be Still and Know That I am God” as the hymn goes and as the Psalmist says (37:7).

2. Look around at each other! Let go of the past and the arguments over whatever! Look into the eyes of each and every person here, redeemed in the Christ, and see in Christ’s people here, God! The future of this congregation depends on your faith in Christ and your love of one another.

The Beatitudes: Blessed are the merciful

Hands released from handcuffs

Editors note: This is the fifth in an Adult Forum series on the Beatitudes, a class with Pastor David E. Mueller. We have been meeting at 10 a.m. on Sundays (between the 9 a.m. service and the 11 a.m. service). Join us in the Great Room!

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” (Matthew 5:7)

For any of us who have made a long trip by automobile, especially one made a time or two previously, there is often a milestone or place near the end of the trip which signals being nearly there. For children the classic question is, “are we there yet?” On this holy hike, we are near enough to the very top to say: “We are almost there!”

It has been a productive trip for me once again, studying and praying along the way, being renewed in my grasp of grace in contrast to how graceless life down below can be, perhaps more these days than ever. Being with Christian people like you is a privilege but not pain-free. Growth of any kind, especially spiritual growth, often comes out of pain. There is grace in pain, when it is shared with fellow climber believers.

This, therefore, also has been a truth trip. I remember well an Argus poster of long ago with a contorted Raggedy Ann in an old fashion crank wringer, the caption reading: “The truth will set you free but first it will make you miserable.” It also has been said: “Hell is truth seen too late.” It is not yet too late for us!

Perhaps you have sensed in the Beatitudes the mood swings or, better yet, mood developments. The poor in spirit are empty, their mourning is somber, meekness is calm, hunger and thirst are intense. Today the mood is utter elation, celebration, anticipation. We have made it close to the top and this plateau is a place to stop and rejoice. “Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy.”

In virtually every gathering of Christians, there is, because there must be, mercy. Every time we together approach God in worship, prayer, instruction, there is mercy. The same is true when we approach God individually. There is no getting to God except through mercy. The over-riding and underlying truth is that God is merciful.

One reason some folk do not know mercy is because they have not come through what proceeds it: spiritual poverty, grief, meekness, hunger and thirst for the right and just.

In Matthew 9:10-13, Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners and in predictable fashion is questioned about the company he keeps by Pharisees. Jesus responds: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” (9:12) He then suggests that these know-it-alls “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice’ for I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (9:13)

This is not new. The Prophet Hosea (6:6) said: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” The Prophet Micah (6:8) reported: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.” When Jesus says, as reported in Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount (6:36), “Be merciful, just as your father in heaven is merciful,” we are asked to be who God is in doing what God does. Mercy is at the very center of God’s essence.

If we try to enter at the center, however, without first having known its prerequisites, we can easily cheapen mercy, discount it and end up delaying and denying it to ourselves.

Two convicts were reflecting on a recent visit to the prison by the governor. The one said: “You know, I actually bumped into the governor himself.” “Oh yeah, what did you say?” asked the other. “Pardon me, Governor!” “And then what did the Governor say?” “He said, ‘Certainly!’ but I failed to get it in writing.”

Mercy has to do with kindness, but not without justice. We cannot simply bump into God, say the right words and expect to get off scot free. Justice and mercy go together. Real, honest, complete mercy requires payment. Mercy is not sweeping reality under a legal, moral or spiritual rug. In essence, when someone in temporal life leans on the “mercy of the court” the court on behalf of the people, including the offended party, pays the price in risking another chance or lighter sentence for the offender.

God, as judge, has latitude, choice. We cannot pin God down and demand a free ride. At any given time, God could convict and sentence us, and there would be justice. We all break God’s Law with commitment and constancy. Instead of extending wrath, God chooses to extend mercy, but not mercy without justice.

A boy once said to his teacher, “Is it fair for someone to be punished for something he didn’t do?” “Certainly not,” replied the teacher. “I’m glad you feel that way,” the boy said, “because I didn’t do my homework.” Cute, but mercy is never ever getting away with something.

As we collectively make our way to this plateau on this holy hike with Jesus, we learn and grow but none of it is complete or sufficient. That is what is so exciting about this point on the climb. After having gotten this far, God could say: “Well folks, nice try but not good enough; get out of my sight!” God chooses to be merciful, to pay the price with the blood of Jesus, not only for our wrongs but for our quite pathetic attempts to do what is right. We are free, therefore, to celebrate the moment and joyfully anticipate what still lies up ahead. It is exciting, happy/blessed but it is never cheap. It cost God His Son, His priceless, to pay for mercy grounded in justice.

Both before and after this merciful moment on this majestic mountain plateau, mercy is to have been known and shown by us. It is interesting in the extreme that mercy here is received by those who first offered it to others, primarily to each other on the hike. It is not the natural but new reaction of folk who have gotten this far even if they still fall short. We have hungered and thirsted for Christ’s righteousness because it is obvious that our own does not suffice. When we look around at others, we see those, who, just like us, need Christ’s righteousness. To a person, each is so far behind Christ that it is only by His reach and push that we could ever get this far. We either could have judged one another, complained, compared, contrasted and blasted each other or believed together in the One who was, is and forever will be perfectly righteous, just, loving, caring, compassionate and good.

None of this is without risk to us. Possibly the heaviest and scariest of the parables of Jesus is Matthew 18:23-35. A master forgives the $10,000 debt of one of his servants who then goes out and violently tries to collect a dime owed him by one of his fellow servants. “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”

If mercy is NOT what is flowing through and to us, then we have gained absolutely nothing from this hike, and would be better off not having made it at all. You can look up for yourself in Matthew 18 what happened to this merciless monster mentioned above. It was not nice. Judgment received for mercy not shown is justice deserved.

If we are in the process of grasping what is going on here and in faith seeing the potential for living very differently and more humanly, then we see in Scripture all kinds of examples of merciful kindness. Merciful kindness is righteousness in its redeemed way.

The familiar parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) is all about mercy or the lack thereof. The robbers obviously were merciless in robbing the victim and leaving him for dead. The priest and Levite who walked by were merciless in no less a way. The Samaritan was “the one who showed him mercy,” in the very words of the Lawyer who was testing Jesus to begin with. The battered Jew in the ditch surprisingly did not resist receiving mercy from an extremely odd source. The story is all about mercy.

“Have mercy on us” is the cry so frequently heard extended to Jesus, by the blind (Matthew 20:30), lepers (Luke 17:13) and many others. From hell the rich man who mercilessly failed to respond to Lazarus on his doorstep, cried out: “Father Abraham, have mercy on me!” By then it was simply too late for that.

We have no worship service or any other Christian encounter without mercy as central because it is so central to God’s nature and so central to our need. It is central that mercy be extended through us or there is simply something absolutely essential missing in us.

One doesn’t go to a car dealer to buy linens, a post office to buy celery, a hardware store to buy cookies, a theatre to find nuts and bolts. One does not go to a Christian Church to simply get morality. Strict morality is more apt to be found at a Mosque. In the Church we get and give mercy or it is not a Christian church.

Mercy is as close to God as one can get without actually being in His presence. Next week, having known and shown mercy this week, we get to see God. Truly and eternally blessed are those who do!

The Beatitudes: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness

Steep mountainside

Editors note: This is the fourth in an Adult Forum series on the Beatitudes, a class with Pastor David E. Mueller. We have been meeting at 10 a.m. on Sundays (between the 9 a.m. service and the 11 a.m. service). The series resumes on Sunday, January 12. Join us in the Great Room for the class!

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.” (Matthew 5:6)

Our “holy hike” with Jesus Christ thus far has taken us through some fairly deep forest as well as steep incline. We have remained below the tree line, so to speak, but the going hardly has been easy. We were stripped of our typical concerns and attitudes about the world, especially the spiritual ones, and became “poor in spirit.” We attempted to mourn the loss of what and who we may have left behind. We have hopefully gained new insight as we learned the quiet strength of meekness. Obviously most if not all of what we are experiencing on this trip up the mountain is different from and at times in direct conflict with what we have been used to. Yet each step along the way we have been assured by Jesus Christ regarding the “blessedness/happiness” of it all.

We are not quite out of the woods yet and the climbing gets particularly tough today. The incline is steep, even cliff-like. Increasingly we need to hang together, as physical mountain climbers must. Here again we realize that we cannot make this climb alone. Jesus puts us in developing community. We have become poor TOGETHER; faced mourning TOGETHER; realized the power of meekness TOGETHER. Today, therefore, we hear Jesus share, “Blessed ARE THOSE who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”

The direction here is clearly onward and upward. “Righteousness” is something to be reached for. There remains a strong temptation to look back and go back down. Righteousness, however, is ahead and not behind. The image is a very natural one. People making a long hard climb become naturally hungry and thirsty, for nourishment, sustenance, a continued filling of hearts left empty at the journey’s beginning.Woman drinking from a pitcher

As is often the case within the Kingdom of God, asking the right questions is far more important than having simple, and often false, answers. A difference between those making this holy hike and those not, may be in our willingness to ask appropriate questions. Please risk looking back down where we had been just this once.

In your past what have been passions for you? To hunger and thirst for something is being driven to it; finding it difficult to deny and live without it.

Many people bounce from pleasure to pleasure, position to position, success to success, cause to cause, etc. to etc. At a distance, it may seem challenging, exciting, satisfying. Up close another story often surfaces. It can be a horror story about people on the run. The running is not so much to the next thing, whatever it may be, as away from the last, having looked for, hungered and thirsted for, perhaps coming close to but never quite having that place or space to call home. It is a tale about those who desperately wish to but cannot stop and genuinely say: “This is it! This is where the running stops. I have found my satisfaction and fulfillment. I am really where I want to be.”

In some ways and to some degree this is about all of us. Granted, age and life-stage may have much to do with this. Chances are, the older one is, the more settled one is. Is settled, however, mere capitulation to reality? The main question remains: Are you settled where you want, need and desire to be? Have you hungered and thirsted for what matters to you and finally gotten satisfied?

We all have our dreams, notions, and images and also fears about the future. It may be in the right lane and not the fast lane that we have been traveling, but it is still an interstate. It is not a relaxing and pretty country drive for most of us. There are those who for various reasons gave up their Eastern or Midwestern roots and moved South or West to find their dream. Some are still in transit! Others have driven off into the sunset and experienced not their dream fulfilled but their worst nightmare revealed.

To walk and climb with Jesus is NOT merely an escape from what was, however enjoyed or detested, but an opportunity to discover something genuinely new and different. It is a chance to experiment with a life style many might think of as strange, but one which can be exciting, challenging, fulfilling, satisfying, even passionate, a chance to be home?

Another way of asking an appropriate question here is: Does what you have committed yourself to satisfy and fulfill you? Honestly? Do those places, people, positions in which you have invested time, energy and money produced the anticipated outcomes?

Is righteousness your primary passion? Do you enjoy the company of righteous people? Clearly at this point in the holy climb, righteousness is up ahead and not yet. It is to be seen but not yet sensed otherwise. But has it become the driving force to go on? Are you weary and famished but aware of the banquet feast soon to be realized? Can you grasp, in deepening as well as heightening faith, that righteousness is well worth having given up all else, that righteousness is the prime thing sought? But what is righteousness in the mind of Jesus?

There are those who define righteousness in moralistic or pietistic terms: good behavior; the avoidance of the nasty, naughty, sometimes truly nauseating behavior all too characteristic of our world. It is deeper than that, however. It is never just personal.

I bow to Martin Luther here:

“That man is righteous and blessed who continually works and strives with all his might to promote the general welfare and the proper behavior of everyone and who helps to maintain and support this by word and deed, by precept and example.” (LW, AE, Vol. 21, Page 26)

He wrote further: “It is not by accident that He (Jesus) uses the term ‘hunger and thirst’ for righteousness. By it, He intends to point out that this requires great earnestness, longing, eagerness and unceasing diligence and that where this hunger and thirst is lacking, everything will fail.” (Page 27)

Finally, he wrote: “The command to you is not to crawl into a corner or into the desert, but to run out … and to offer your hands and your feet and your whole body, and to wager everything you have and can do. You should be the kind of man who is firm in the face of firmness, who will not let himself be frightened off or dumbfounded or overcome by the world’s ingratitude or malice … one that looks for nothing and cares for nothing except the accomplishment and maintenance of the right, despising everything that hinders this end.” (also, Page 27)

Happiness/blessedness eludes most folk because they are looking in all the wrong places, not just morally wrong, but incomplete, unsatisfying. Righteousness is what is lacking and needed most in our world, seasoned obviously with justice. This is what Christians are to long for in the deepest regions of their hearts. We need to talk about love as Christians. Love, without what is right and just, is just another four-letter word and a vulgar one at that. We must speak of peace. Making peace is what the children of God do, but if peace does not come from joy over what is right and just, then it is spiritual hype and not hope.

We need to talk about love as Christians. Love, without what is right and just, is just another four-letter word and a vulgar one at that. We must speak of peace. Making peace is what the children of God do, but if peace does not come from joy over what is right and just, then it is spiritual hype and not hope.

Look at the movement of things here again. Before Jesus spoke of righteousness, we had to shed ourselves of our self-righteous, self-serving, self-satisfying spirits, grieve their loss, accept with meekness the promises of Christ. Then and only then could we open the door to what is truly right.

How about this statement of Jesus not long after the Beatitudes: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of God.” (Matthew 5:20) One of the revealing observations Jesus made about Pharisees is that they were like “white-washed tombs.” (Matthew 23:27). At least this means that they looked good on the outside but stank on the inside. The righteousness we are to hunger and thirst for is inside/out, where the hunger and thirst exist. How about this one: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)

Jesus Christ has put together this journey and has personally invited us to take it with him. Along the way everything is grounded in him and makes utterly no sense without him. We are speaking today of his righteousness. It is not just good behavior but commitment to what God has established as right. It is getting in touch with God and becoming rich in His Spirit and knowing comfort in Him. It is discovering true strength in meekness and not in physical, financial, national, or any other muscle. It is willingness to die for what is right and good and just.

It is willingness to die with fellow righteous seekers within the community of climbers/believers. We are coming to taste righteousness, goodness, love, joy and peace and have plenty left for the rest of the world. We hear the cries from the valley below: “Where is justice? Where is love? Where is righteousness?”

“Here it is!” we call back, “with Jesus and his people. Here is where it is hungered and thirsted for, practiced, fulfilled and satisfied.” Is this what we are saying to our world?

I cannot resist in closing wondering out loud: Do Lutheran Christian people hunger and thirst for a new future which will be “right,” based not on what you want, think, feel, but on what God in Christ knows is right and what is righteous for you? I hope each and all of you are nearly parched and famished for Christ and the future even before you know what it is.

The Beatitudes: Blessed are those who mourn

Photo of a rose growing through a wire fence

Editors note: This is the second in an Adult Forum series on the Beatitudes, a class with Pastor David E. Mueller. We meet at 10 a.m. on Sunday (between the 9 a.m. service and the 11 a.m. service) through mid-December. Join us in the Great Room for the class and check out the text on our website if you miss any sessions.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4)

We began last Sunday at the foot of a mountain. I truly believe that thinking of the Beatitudes as a hike up and back down a mountain is the best way to experience and understand them. We started out naked, bared not so much in body as in soul, as Jesus invited: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for there is the kingdom of heaven.” We must shed ourselves of all our spiritual baggage for no one can ascend a mountain so encumbered. We began spiritually impoverished in order to become spiritually enriched.

We are now at the first plateau. We have not come very far yet. The steepest part is still ahead. One might expect a minimum of wear and tear and some remnant of the excitement and challenge that accompanied having made the decision to come along.

The scene, however, is quietly ominous. The hikers are depressed, despairing, dulled in mind and spirit. The tears from much weeping form a waterfall rolling down the mountain. If we are typically human, you and I are not looking up and ahead, but down and back. Already there is a sense of “Hey Jesus, what have you gotten us into?” And Jesus says: “Blessed are those who mourn….” Everywhere up and back WE WILL NOT be dealing with life as we normally would. Jesus is calling us to faith.

We need to discover what the mourning is all about, how the premise and the promise of Jesus differ so dramatically from what we are used to.

In Matthew 7:24-27, a little later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminds us to build our house on a rock and not sand. He suggests that there will be wind and rain threatening us, but shares how to withstand those forces. Jesus is Himself the rock. On Jesus we build our relationships with family, friends, job, career, economics, politics, and all else. If any of those things comes tumbling down, the house stands because it was built on THE ROCK. If lives have been built on family, fun, or finance, then a bad cardiogram, a shift in the stock or job market could bring down the whole life. This is why I mentioned last Sunday that if you believe yourself to be spiritually adequate or abundant, you would not make it to this week. Today’s Beatitude could pull the rug out from under a false sense of spiritual security really quickly.

The scene is sad with a profound sense of loss looming over everyone and everything. Mourning is the natural response to death or loss. The people with you on this journey are mourning and in their mourning are blessed/happy? Hard to believe? Absolutely!

For some years now, our world has been referring to death simply as a part of life. Human beings have developed practices, especially in recent times, to soften the blow: Funeral parlors with posh appointments and subtle lights. The old pine box has given way to shiny metal or expensive woods with crushed velour upholstery. Embalmers became cosmetologists and bodies get to look like someone out of Esquire or Cosmopolitan magazines so that family can feel better and friends can observe how well so-and-so looks. This all has gotten terribly expensive even if cremation lowers the financial blow for some. In either case, ashes to ashes….

Jesus’ message is different on the matter. On the one hand, death is NOT a part of human life, but the “wages of sin,” (Romans 6:23). It is a painful disruption, an unnatural end. We, too, play the cultural game, however, and preserve some fluff to go with the faith.

Grave markerOn the other hand, the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures makes some odd claims. I re-read Proverbs and Ecclesiastes this past week because so much of the Sermon on the Mount is rooted there. “A good name is better than precious ointment.” (Ecclesiastes 7:1a). We can agree with that one. “And the day of death than the day of birth.” (7:1b) That’s tougher! “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting….” (7:2a) Tougher still! “Sorrow is better than laughter” (7:3a) Ah, come on now! “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” (7:4) “Better is the end of a thing than its beginning” (7:8a). Now that is totally absurd! “Blessed are those who mourn!” There would seem to be in all this a celebration of death, a morbid festivity. Not quite!

Much of the world, though verbally referring to death as a natural end, in practice seeks to cover it up. Experts believe when done appropriately grieving will take six months. During that time friends will tell you to keep your mind off things (wrong!); keep busy; (“wronger!”); take the trip you always wanted to take (“wrongest!”) The doctor will prescribe whatever it takes to keep you calm and the insurance agent will assure you that you were prudent in increasing the life insurance policy a few years back.

In Jesus’ day, everything came to a grinding halt and for six to 30 days people took to the streets, whined, wailed, threw dust on their heads, ripped off their sackcloth not because of discomfort but disgust, defeat, and despair. That is blessed! It neither runs from nor covers up the truth of it, but neither is that truth the last word. The blessing is in facing the terrors head on!

By implication, Jesus is speaking of all losses: job, dignity, freedom, our dream of what we thought life was supposed to have been. If this hike is going to be holy, then we are bound to grieve the loss of the less than holy we left behind at the foot of the mountain: the nice soft bed; economic security, if there is such a thing anymore; family life even if it was dreadfully imperfect or possibly dysfunctional; availability of various forms of entertainment; the challenge of the more typical human responsibilities. When we look up at the trip ahead, we are tempted to look back and to go back, back to the way it was, imperfect, wrong, even unhappy but predictable, comfortable, typical. Enough!

Jesus knows well that it would be silly to go on if all we did was wish we hadn’t. There is blessing/happiness in attending honestly with our grief over losses taken in following Him. Mourn that stuff, miss it and then dismiss it, get it out of your system and bury it. If you are not grieving and mourning, you have probably not given up much yet, still committed to and saturated with what was and not actually open to what is and what will be. There are risks on the mountain too, by the way. People die along the way, fall by the wayside, fall into the precipice. Listen to Jesus in Luke for a moment: “Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn.” (6:25b) We need to mourn what was left behind, all of it, and move on. What is to be is far better, if not yet!

You may remember Lot’s wife! What did she do? She looked back and became a pillar of salt. She was rendered paralyzed, useless. Are you in the paralysis of analysis, wanting to go on but wishing to go back, wanting to have your cake and eat it too, and really getting neither?

Remember at this point that you are not alone! “Blessed ARE THOSE who mourn….” This holy hike, an image of the Christian walk, is communal. We clearly need Jesus, as personal Savior, an utterly essential matter about which we will deal more intensively later in the series. We need Jesus, also as Lord, our collective leader, whose purpose, especially in this Sermon on the Mount, is to draw us together with Him and each other. This is also what makes this holy hike so very important for Christian people right now… You need to mourn the past, righteous though it truly was in large part, and move on into your future, together with Jesus and each other.

In almost every cultural and religious context, death or some other loss tends to draw the support of one’s family, friends, and neighbors, like nothing else can or does. That is a blessing to be sure. Here, however, the blessing is assured because of ultimate comfort. “They shall be comforted.” The blessing is in the mutual circumstance shared and the mutual promise heard. God, in God’s time, will offer ultimate hope fulfilled to the group. In the meantime, we cry together, embrace together, and share together what God will do.

In the first, eighth and ninth Beatitudes, which offer the “kingdom of heaven,” the tense is present: “for theirs IS the kingdom of heaven.” Beginning with the second Beatitude today, including the next five, the tense changes to future: “for they will….” Some of the promises of God are experienced immediately; many are future. Just wait and see!

I sense a slight breeze blowing up here already, a holy breeze, holy wind, the Holy Spirit. My hunch is that we can anticipate more of the Holy Wind, not wind which batters us but Wind who blows to make faith happen in us.

In faith, push on, live on and do so together. We will experience, if we have not already, how a truly festive spirit develops among those making this holy hike. Looking up and on becomes not an escape from the present painful grieving moment, but a moving beyond and through it. Blessings to all of you as you mourn! As Jesus, in Luke, puts it in effect, “The last laugh will be yours.” In the name of Jesus.