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 the meek

Image of lamb and lion by Jeff Jacobs from Pixabay

Editors note: This is the third 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 and then again after the holidays. Join us in the Great Room for the class and check out the text on our website if you miss any sessions.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5)

A series allows us to dig deeper and look closer at a section of Scripture than is otherwise possible. I have taught on the Beatitudes as a whole, but eight lessons are more instructive and inspirational if the listeners and (or) readers keep up. Each Beatitude leads into the next one. We need to grasp grace in each and all of them.

We started out “poor in spirit” that we might become enriched. We then mourned the loss of whatever spiritual baggage we had left behind. While the mood was somber, we heard Jesus say: “Happy/blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.”

Today the mood is restful, relatively relaxed, tranquil. This is what often follows mourning. Once grief and loss are adequately attended to, there is a sense of calm. The wind and rain come and batter our spirits and then the sun shines again. If you appreciate the calm, then hear Jesus: “Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.”

We climb higher today. When we reach the top in a few weeks, we will be higher than Mount Everest. Yet we need no ropes, pulleys, hammers and spikes. Those of all ages and physical capacities can make this exciting climb as we are all God-led and lifted, God fed and filled. Today, those who truly desire spiritual wholeness and are willing to trust will be separated from those who are playing spiritual games and cannot last.

I readily admit to having my own difficulties being genuinely meek while trying to preach and teach about being meek.

Meekness is presented by Jesus as a blessing against the background of all its opposites in the world at any given time: wars, skirmishes, conflicts, tensions, sin.

MEEKNESS, PLEASE NOTE RIGHT NOW, IS NOT WEAKNESS.

Weak and not meek men harm their wives. Meek men die for their wives, while weak men kill. (See Ephesians 5:21ff.) The weak and not meek harm children. The tranquility of meekness is contrasted with the tension of weakness. The militancy of the moment, horror of the hour, however constituted, is contrasted with genuine meekness. Why? Because the earth belongs to the meek. Their names are on the deed. We simply do not have to fight and scrap, cheat and steal, for that which is already ours. That changes everything!

The world context in which Jesus speaks is a context of war and human passion for fighting where strength is thought to be in iron: spears, arrows, chariots. Humanity, by our time, has advanced within the realm of iron to tanks and missiles but not beyond it. Iron is still used far too often to destroy.

Meekness in Matthew and Paul (Mark and Luke do not use the word) is to be viewed as gentleness. Paul asked the Corinthians: “What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?” (1 Corinthians 4:21) Here “gentleness and meekness” is the same word. Weakness is not implied in either case. We might think of meekness as “quiet strength.” It is active and not passive, deliberate and not reluctant, acceptance even of seeming injustice or harsh reality. Again, why? Because the earth is the Lord’s (Psalm 24) and He has promised it to the meek.

Decades ago, one commentator, whose name escapes me, thought of meekness as descriptive of the frontal of a war chariot, which, even if decorated, needed to pass the 25 mph crash test, withstand battering of all sorts and protect the rider. It was not a moving but strong and stable part of the chariot. It was neither fancy nor noisy. Meekness is quiet and gentle strength. Weakness is the squeaky wheel or the noisy or broken part.

Footwashing scene on a door, from Pixabay

People not on this holy hike with us may think of us as tetched, just as those who are perishing see the Cross of Christ as foolishness (2 Corinthians 4:1-5). In his letter, the Apostle James (1:21) wrote: “Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word which has the power to save your souls.” To keep the wickedness is to welcome the weakness.

Faith is seasoned here with redeemed intelligence. Why participate in the craziness of the world’s way of doing things, warring, wickedness, wantonness, worry, and the like, when it is all going to be ours in the end anyway? We are far enough up the mountain to be able to notice below the fruitlessness or utter failure of so much back down there. Isaiah (29:19) reminded his hearers: “The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord and the neediest of people shall exalt in the Holy One of Israel.”

This also means that the meek are free to be generous of themselves and their resources. If we are not expending energy and effort to keep what we have or to gain even more, we are free to give all the more. Giving is living; taking is fooling, forsaking and killing self.

When it comes to banks, Wall Street and other institutions economic, where is the meekness? There is none! Should there be? Or is that which masks and presents itself as success weakness or worse? “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” (Luke 6:24). “At the end of the day” (I hate this overused expression), it all belongs to the meek.

It is an extremely unfortunate reality in our day that there is so much non-meekness, to put it kindly, utter weakness, to put it honestly, masked as righteousness. Those who, for instance, are either for or against war or corruption or greed can both be utterly secular even if they employ religious language to state their case. Look for meekness.

We will be speaking to genuine peace-making in a Beatitude on our way back down the other side of the Mountain. In the meantime, when it comes to meekness as blessed/happy, we are called upon by the Son of God, whose word, way and will neither I nor you can discount, to refuse to let temporal circumstances define us or tempt us away from our walk/climb. One of the great and grave dangers for Christians these days is falling into the trap of becoming like those who hate us. Hate militant Muslims, even if they hate us, and we lose!

None of this, for holy hikers, precludes the support of their Nation, when for just reasons, it goes to war. Nor does war for us, dilute our meekness. The more significant war we must wage is a spiritual one. It is with spiritual and not iron weaponry that we fight it.

I sensed last week a breeze, a holy breeze, holy wind, Holy Spirit. It is fascinating that the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) is: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness (MEEKNESS), self-control.” This is to be contrasted with the “works of the flesh” (Galatians 5:19-21), which include such things as: “… enmities, strifes … quarrels, dissensions, factions….”

Is a Holy or unholy wind directing us? Meekness is fruit of the former; may the latter not be happening among us! The Earth belongs to those who preserve it, not those who destroy it! It belongs to those who live for each other and not to those who kill each other. It belongs to those who believe in Jesus, yet those who believe in Jesus will be patient and meek with those who do not.

A few years back, Bill Moyer, commentator and ordained Christian minister, offered the baccalaureate address at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. He shared the Jewish tale of Shalom Aleichem, who lived the “Jobian” life of misfortune and tragedy, but who always went about returning good for evil. He died and even the angels of heaven rejoiced to see him. The Lord told him he could have any special favor he wished. He asked only that each day could begin with a hot buttered roll. Then, even the Lord wept! (The Christian Century, June 13, 2006). I am humbled profoundly that this was published on the 35th anniversary of my ordination. I have not become that meek. I, like you, have a long way to yet climb.

In Luke’s Sermon (6:17-49), we are reminded (commanded?) to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also….” (6:27-29a) Tough stuff? For the weak, yes; for the meek, no! For, indeed, we have a Holy Wind directing and empowering us and the love of Jesus forgiving us.

“Blessed/happy are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

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.

Vibrant Faith Goals

Jim LaDoux

Join us for a conversation with Jim LaDoux, executive staff with Vibrant Faith.

You may recognize Jim’s name, as he has been working with the Compass Team as a consultant on the strategic plan that team is working to develop. He is visiting St. Mark’s this weekend as part of a leadership retreat focusing on the work and communication that plan requires.

Today in our Adult Forum, Jim will talk about Vibrant Faith goals, including:

* Identifying your strengths and bright spots. Find ways to build on your strengths and use them to transform people’s lives and your community.
* Gain clarity about who you are, what you do best and where God is leading you.
* Create a plan. Develop a road map for moving forward that builds on your strengths and focuses your assets, actions and energies on the things that matter most in life and faith.
* Develop adaptive skills and strategies. Learn new strategies and approaches to address adaptive challenges facing the congregation.

A new chapter for Gail Rodger

Gail Rodger, director of faith formation

“To everything there is a season,” the writer of Ecclesiastes tells us, and our Director of Faith Formation, Gail Rodger, has announced plans to retire, effective April 30.

Gail has been part of the St. Mark’s staff for nine years, accepting the part-time position after more than 20 years as a music teacher and choirmaster in South Jersey.

“I felt God had drawn me to St. Mark’s,” she said. “My heart’s desire has been to help people grow — myself included — through studying God’s Word, discussion and talking to one another. So many Christians go to church and don’t think about how real God is and that he wants a relationship with them. That relationship grows through spending time with him and through our contact with our brothers and sisters.”

She loves the spirit of generosity and service she sees at St. Mark’s.

“Many at St. Mark’s put their lifeblood into service here,” she said, “in Sunday School, at Sojourners’ Place, with Lutheran Community Services, Family Promise and so many other efforts.”

Through the past decade, Gail has coordinated ministries including Sunday School, the adult forum, special services such as Candlemas, fun events such as “Trunk or Treat,” community service in Edgemoor and women’s ministries, including the quarterly brunch, and St. Mark’s partnership in Vacation Bible School at Presbyterian Church of the Covenant.

“Gail’s leadership as our Faith Formation Director has greatly impacted countless lives for the sake of Jesus Christ and her involvement in the community has connected us to our neighbors like never before,” said Pastor Scott Maxwell. “I am grateful for Gail’s willingness to share her gifts in ministry with our congregation. I will deeply miss her and her laughter, but I look forward to a continued relationship as she will still be a part of St. Mark’s. Thank you, Gail!”

The Human Resources Team will work with the Leadership Council to discern next steps, Pastor Scott said.

Gail said any successor “can expect a lot of freedom to dream together here and can expect a lot of support from the pastor and congregation.”

She hopes to spend more time with her family, especially her brother, Donald, who is seriously ill. She also plans to travel, do some writing and remain in fellowship with St. Mark’s.

“Thank you all for allowing me to serve God and you in this way for these nine years,” she said. “It will be hard to let go of a lot of things, but I’m excited to turn the page to the next chapter.”

Jewish-Christian Understanding

Peter Pettit

Peter Pettit, director of the Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., will visit to talk with us about efforts to build bridges of understanding between the Jewish and Christian faith traditions.

Dr. Pettit has been active in Christian-Jewish dialogue for more than 25 years, giving leadership in local, national and international settings.

He earned his Ph.D. and master’s degrees at Claremont (Calif.) Graduate University and a master of divinity degree from Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

More than 100 connect in Covenant Bible Study

What began as a mission to nurture the faith of one church has developed into something more meaningful for the greater community. The Covenant Bible Study – a community-driven exploration of the Bible – started Sept. 9. Eight groups now are meeting in six locations across New Castle County, reading the Scriptures and connecting with God and each other through discussion and prayerful study.

About 130 people are participating, including 19 group leaders and nine clergy from six congregations. Leaders facilitate group discussions and all contribute to the group’s growing understanding of the biblical concept of the covenant God established with his people.

Continue reading “More than 100 connect in Covenant Bible Study”