Posted in Sermons

Picture This: a sermon on Matthew 5:8

Mt 5:8 CEB “Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God.”

“Hola! Mi nombre es Anita. Yo estudio en seminario de Vanderbilt. Soy de Michigan, pero yo vivo en Nashville, Tennessee en Estados Unidos. Traigo bendiciones de la iglesia bautista glendale.”

This is how I introduced myself all last week at the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America~ Bautistas por la Paz Summer Conference in Toluca, Mexico. Today, I am going to blend this week’s beatitude text “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” with some reflections from a trip some Glendalers made last week to Mexico.

First, as a reminder, the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America~Bautistas por la Paz, is an international organization that works to support peacemaking efforts around the world. We have a four-nation identity, with the majority of our membership coming from the United States of America, Canada, Mexico and Puerto Rico. I say the majority of our membership comes from these places because there are people living on continents other than North America who find a spiritual home with us from as disparate places as Indonesia, Kenya and Ukraine. We have members who represent the Alliance of Baptists, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, American Baptists, National Baptists and many other denominations–some are not even Baptist but are Methodists, Anabaptists, Quakers, and others, but they, again, find spiritual friendship among us. I don’t want to speak for everyone, but I think all of us were amazed at what we experienced this year.

So, let’s get to the good stuff. This year our summer conference, fondly called “Peace Camp,” took place at an old Spanish mission built in the 1700s that has been rehabilitated into a retreat center and community center in the region northwest of Mexico City that was and still is the home to the indigenous Mazahua people (you’ll see some photos and hear more stories soon at one of our Wednesday night programs). Though the BPFNA has existed for almost 30 years and has called itself a 4-nation organization for almost that long, this year was the very first Summer Conference to be held in Mexico. The first one. All the other conferences have been in the USA or Canada. And it was the first one where programming was almost completely in Spanish. The theme of this conference was “Arropandonos con esperanza/ clothing each other with hope,” the latest in our 5-year plan to work our way through the story of Matthew 25, following “when did we see you in prison? Breaking social and structural injustice” and “no longer strangers: crossing borders for peace.” So, now, I invite you to get comfortable, whether that involves closing your eyes or not, and imagine with me.

Picture this: Waking up at 4am to drive to the Nashville airport, taking 2 connecting flights and changing land altitude about 9,000 feet over the course of the day. Riding in an old, rickety Suburban over 70 speed bumps (called “topas”) between the airport in Toluca, Mexico and Campamento Mazahua, the site for Baptist Peace Camp. Not knowing how to ask for something so simple as a fork so that we can eat your yummy lunch–which, coincidentally, we also were not sure how to name. Losing a suitcase at the airport in Monterrey, Mexico AND not having a local phone number AND not speaking Spanish AND not being sure how we were ever going to get it back. Using headsets with headphones during plenary sessions, workshops and worship times, so people whose first language is English could understand all the programs and speakers who mostly spoke Spanish. There being no English translation to song lyrics or Bible passages projected onto the screen for worship, but you’re pretty sure you’re saying something about loving Jesus. Finding a scorpion–yes–a scorpion on your pillow in your dormitory with 20 bunkbeds.

So, after all that, after all those things that were less than perfect, I’m not so sure that my heart is pure (I seem to be lodging a lot of complaints)…but I have seen God at Peace Camp this year.

Picture this: 217 people from the USA, Canada, Puerto Rico, México, Cuba, Argentina, Colombia, Brazil, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Honduras, evenly split between USA/Canadian participants and Mexican/Central- and South-American participants. Brushing teeth at night time in our communal bathroom while trying to carry on a conversation between an English-only speaker and a Spanish-only speaker concerning how we see God with our hearts. White-haired Canadian women dancing salsa with young Mexican guys while a veterinarian from Mexico City sang dressed in his mariachi outfit. Sitting with pastors and seminarians from across the Western hemisphere who tried to fashion a new theology of the cross that doesn’t involve atonement. A certain pastor who loves to weave examining the handiwork of weavings made by a local indigenous woman. A wacky and touching talent show that involves both a Mexican seminarian miming and a farmer from Ohio who sings, “De Colores” backed up by a collection of twenty musicians from all over North and South America. Lying in hammocks and sharing trail mix snacks with youth and young adults from Mexico and the USA, talking about our hopes for the world and the fear that the USA’s government instills in people on both sides of the border. Attending workshops about the separation of church and state, a historical Baptist concern, and how this idea has impacted the political landscape of both the USA and Mexico. Praying with our feet as we walk the trails of the beautiful Campamento mission land, learning words and plant names in Spanish as we pointed to different objects.

What we have been picturing, what I have described, felt like the kin-dom of God. Last week’s Peace Camp truly felt like nothing I have ever even dreamed of.

You see, as a board member, I was privy to conversations planning this conference. I heard the hesitation when our executive director announced that she thought it was time for us to have Peace Camp in Mexico. “But most of our membership is from the USA and Canada–won’t they be uncomfortable if everything is in Spanish?” “But how will we have that many translators?” “Can the camp handle that many people?” “Will people from Mexico even come?” Over and over again, board members and membership and people who heard about this idea of having Peace Camp in Mexico for the very first time said,”We can’t. This won’t work.”

But it did. We paid for translators for the English-speakers, but so many people from all countries involved stepped up to translate one way or another. Half of the attendees were from primarily English-speaking countries and half were from primarily Spanish-speaking countries. Fabulous activities were planned that got people connecting in many ways besides spoken language; visual art, dance, music and games were offered alongside workshops about politics, theology and practical community-building skills. The camp administration and staff worked tirelessly to prepare food and clean for us, but many Peace Campers also stepped up to assist and support the staff by serving food, cleaning bathrooms and organizing rides back to the airport.

And we, on the board, learned an awful lot about trust. The organizer of the Summer Conference, a friend of mine, is a seminary student in Mexico City who has served on the board for six years. When it became clear that the spirit was moving us in the direction of planning camp in Mexico, it also became clear that my friend was the person to make this happen. But skeptics raised their voices, questioning her ability to understand English (when she’d been attending board meetings held almost solely in English for six years). What would we have missed out on if we had not swallowed our pride and buckled in our seatbelts to accompany the BPFNA on this wild roller coaster of learning to trust people who don’t look or think or speak like us? We would have missed out on the kin-dom of God that was near, so plainly alive among us. By letting fear and apprehension about new experiences and our desire for comfort fortify barriers between us, we would have missed out on purifying our hearts such that we would see God in each other, crossing borders and breaking down walls for peace.

Many walls are built between the countries represented in Bautistas por la Paz, built with the intention of separation and isolation and reinforcing the status quo. They are built with bricks labeled “capitalism” and “colonialism” and “Trump’s Wall” and have stamps from the US Immigration Custom Enforcement organization on them. The mortar that holds these bricks together is concocted from a thick mixture of “prejudice” and “fear.” But last week at Campamento Mazahua, it looked a lot like a whole bunch of white USAmerican and Canadian folks trying to put as many dents in those walls as possible. What tools did we use? How can we truly knock down walls glued together with the mortar of fear that is one thousand times stronger than Gorilla Glue?

Practically speaking, this took the form of being aware of how our bodies were positioned in the spaces we occupied. For me this meant I asked the following questions of myself: am I only sitting with people from my church or from my country or with my skin color? Am I spending most of my mealtimes conversing in English or am I challenging myself to bridge language barriers and try out my Spanish? How can I center non-white, non-American people when I serve food at my table/when I line up for communion/when I am walking through the camp? Breaking down the walls that systemically divide us involves the USAmericans and Canadians being uncomfortable–physically (accommodations this week were a little different from the cozy 2-person dorm rooms that we usually occupy when Peace Camp is held on university campuses); and intellectually. Speaking for myself, it takes a lot of energy to be in a place where I don’t easily understand what is going on around me. It is tiring to be the stranger who doesn’t speak the language and doesn’t know the local customs. It is tiring to be an outsider. This is part of an important experience that many USAmericans and Canadians had at this Peace Camp, a turning of the tables and a lesson in seeing God in the life of those we often label Other.

But there was another tool, another way that we put dents in the wall. It had to do with the youth-led worship service that traditionally takes place the last night of Peace Camp. Some of Glendale’s youth were among those who dreamt up this idea for the worship service. Picture this: the sanctuary was split in half down the middle, with rows of pews facing each other across the gap in the middle of the room. There was a long table down the middle of the gap. Slowly, the youth build a wall on the table using chairs, so that soon all I could see as I was seated on one side of the sanctuary were slivers of friends’ faces through the bars of the chairs. Then the youth invited us to write what causes us to create walls in our own lives as a sort of confession.

And so we all wrote down on small, brightly colored pieces of paper, “race,” “class,” “fear,” “not enough time,” “I’ll look stupid,” and so many other things that perhaps we had never shared or named as creating walls. And we all placed the small colored papers on the wall of chairs, each of us moving reverently in silence. Then the youth invited us to say what gives us hope for breaking down walls, what builds community across borders, and they said, “Watch what happens.” As people called out in English and Spanish, “listening,” “learning about each other,” “being willing to be uncomfortable,” “making new friends,” “playing together,” the youth led us in removing the chairs that formed a wall between us. As people called out how they envision the kin-dom of God, how they envision a community where we don’t even cross borders but we eliminate them, the wall melted away and we could see the other side clearly.

So I have a question for you all: What do you envision as you imagine what the kin-dom of God is like? How do you hope to see God among us? 

Friends, we have spoken these words aloud. We have called them into being. By listening to each other and hearing these hopes and dreams for the kin-dom of God, we have chosen to enter into relationship with each other and with God. I’ll leave you with words from BPFNA founding director George Williamson, who tearfully shared this sentiment at the closing worship on Wednesday of Peace Camp, “We can’t go back now, we need each other. This gathering is beyond our wildest dreams.”

Today, let us go forward in trust and hope, purifying our hearts of all those ideas and thoughts and systems that threaten to (and often do) divide us. When we break down barriers by hearing each other’s stories, learning what impact our bodies and our lifestyles have on other people, and embracing each other to clothe each other in hope, we are getting closer to picturing the kin-dom of God. We can’t turn back now that we’ve seen God.

This sermon originally preached July 30, 2017 at Glendale Baptist Church in Nashville, TN.


Posted in Sermons

Impractically Practical: a sermon on “blessed are the humble”

Some of you know that I am spending my summer doing a field education internship with the Vanderbilt University Hospital chaplains. I have been spending time visiting patients and sitting with families and praying with countless people with a variety of ailments since May, and, though I am new to this, I have been deeply humbled to do this work…and the other day, I received a blessing.

I was going on rounds on the trauma wing, and it was time for me to visit a man I shall call Larry. Earlier that morning I had seen Larry lying in the ICU hooked up to several machines, looking quite forlorn. But now, here he was in front of me, sitting up in his hospital chair with his son at his side, looking pretty chipper and announcing to me that “It was almost time to go home!” Of course, not all chaplain visits go like this, but sometimes they do, and that is what I call a miracle.  Larry and his son and I chatted for awhile about Larry’s time in the hospital, about the wonderful trauma team at Vanderbilt, and about what Larry was looking forward to doing when he returned home several states away. After a bit of this chitchat, Larry asked me to pray, and the three of us prayed together. As I exited the room, I shared my usual “I will keep you in my prayers and may God bless you in your healing.” My body was halfway out the door when Larry stretched out his hand towards me and said, “May God bless you and keep you and give you peace.” He said some other things, but I was too surprised in the moment to remember the words.

See, I was under the impression that I was the chaplain, that I was in the business of doing the blessing. Well–oops. I forgot that annoying tendency of humans to surprise us, and found myself in that moment wondering what to do. What could I do? I nodded and bowed my head and thanked Larry graciously. I was humbled to receive a blessing from a patient.

Sometimes the words “meek” and “humble” make me feel…weird. The dictionary says they mean things like “Overly submissive or compliant; spiritless; tame. Having a feeling of insignificance, inferiority, subservience, lowly.” And “Happy are the humble,” as our Scripture for today reads,  sounds to me like the kind of thing that someone might say to a woman who was acting “out of her place,” to a laborer who was asking for fair wages, to a soldier questioning the morality of orders. “Happy are the humble,” so you better get back to feeling “low in rank, subservient, insignificant,” as our Dictionary supplies. When I think about being meek or humble, I look for where power shows up in these situations: if someone can be “made humble” or “made meek” by a person with power over them, it opens the door to exploitation and abuse. The Beatitudes have historically been used almost as bludgeoning tools against groups of people whom Christians have tried to make subservient, like Jews and slaves. “Humble” does not always have good connotations, and we need to be aware of these.

But then there are times, like with Larry in the hospital, when the tables turn. When the one who we expect to be humble (wearing a hospital gown, attached to machines, unable to leave on his own volition) blesses the one who makes a new friend of humility. I was wearing my professional clothes, had a badge identifying me as staff, and was relatively in control of my time and location. Perhaps this blessing is like the kin-dom of God, unexpected, impractical and surprising. Perhaps this is what Jesus is talking about by saying, “happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth.” Perhaps he is talking about Larry.

Some people have talked about the beatitudes as imperative, or as prescriptive, providing a recipe for good Christian living. But this does not make sense for Jesus to say that it is only when we are meek/mourning/poor in spirit, that only then can we receive God’s blessing. Despite the powerful exhortations to welcome and move through grief with grace we sometimes hear, we have to admit that we don’t really want to grieve, so why adopt that as a prelude to blessing? No, we affirm a God whose blessings and grace are not conditional. So let’s tuck away that idea for now, and instead look at the beatitudes as indicative, or descriptive. They are not an outline for how to gain a blessing, but they are describing who is/has been/will be blessed. In this teaching, Jesus is telling us how the  kin-dom will be. Like most of Jesus’ teachings, the beatitudes can be a wake up call to the kin-dom.

Charles James Cook writes in Feasting on the Word, “Whenever we hear the Beatitudes, we are struck with their poetic beauty and, at the same time, overwhelmed by their perceived impracticality for the world in which we live. We admire the instruction, but we fear the implications of putting the words into actual practice. We live in a time when the blessings given are to those who succeed, often at the expense of others. To be poor in spirit, peaceful, merciful, and meek will get you nowhere in a culture grounded in competition and fear. Perhaps this is why most references to the Beatitudes imply that in giving this instruction, Jesus was literally turning the values of the world upside down. Who can survive in attempting to live into the spirit of the Beatitudes?”

He goes on to say, “The answer resides not in their impracticality but in their practicality.” Perhaps Jesus meant for the words of the beatitudes to be lived everyday by ordinary people like you and me. Cook says that often we hold up the giants of faith like Martin Luther King or Mother Teresa and the world-renowned peacemakers like Gandhi and Desmond Tutu as role models. We should look to these legacies and learn from them, but we must be careful not to construct them as models of unattainable perfection in our mind such that we would limit ourselves from even trying to participate in the work of justice, for fear we will fall short. Cook challenges us to think about the ways that the beatitudes can be lived, because they are so practical they appear impractical to our world as it is now. The words “blessed are the meek” and “happy are the humble” seem impractical because they do not line up with our understandings of power.

It doesn’t take a lot of sleuth-work to figure out that our Western USAmerican culture does not value humility.  No, with its capitalism and white supremacy and nationalism, how could it? The USA boasts of our independence, not interdependence; our freedom, not our justice; our pride, not our respect for all life. The meek and humble are not the ones who make it to the top in our world. They do not hold power in the form of money, land, personnel and respect. The world does not treat them as blessed. So how should we understand Jesus’ words that are so impractical for our time?

The beatitudes confront this issue of time directly. Jesus is blessing and naming as “happy” those who are humble right now, whose lives may not be seen as worthwhile by the current society, those who have been made humble by unfortunate situations and circumstances of life like economic hardship, illness, addiction and exploitation. But Jesus is saying that their lives do matter now, that they are blessed now.  And not just now, but within the kin-dom that is expressed in visions of a nearby time: “they WILL inherit the earth,” there WILL be a time when their lives are seen as worthwhile. Just as God spoke the words “let there be light” and there was light/ “let there be day and night”/ “let there be land and waters”/ “let there be creatures that crawl/swim/slither/dance/walk the earth” and it was so—just as God created with these words and the whole creation trembled as it burst into life–just like this, Jesus’ words “The meek SHALL inherit the earth” made it so, put these words that indicate the coming of the kin-dom among us into motion. This WILL come to pass. Those who are weak, who have been made humble, who have been mistreated, who don’t know the value of their own life, whose bodies have been taken for granted and violated, those people–will inherit the Earth. Jesus, by sharing his vision for the kin-dom that is yet-to-be, declares that another world IS possible… (and author Arundhati Roy says, “on some days I can hear her breathing”).

Do we believe that this is possible? That the beatitudes are “for real”? How can other world come to be?

Rev. Nadia Bolz Weber, famous pastor of the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, agrees that the Beatitudes are descriptive, but suggests that they are also performative. Maybe, she says, “the pronouncement of the blessing is actually what confers the blessing itself.” Therefore she offers an expanded version of Matthew 5 verse 5:

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who no one else notices. The kids who sit alone at middle-school lunch tables. The laundry guys at the hospital. The sex-workers and the night shift street sweepers. Blessed are the losers and the babies and the parts of ourselves that are so small. The parts of ourselves that don’t want to make eye contact with a world that only loves the winners. Blessed are the forgotten. Blessed are the closeted. Blessed are the unemployed, the unimpressive, the underrepresented. Blessed are the teens who have to figure out ways to hide the new cuts on their arms. [And I would add, blessed are the hospital patients] Blessed are the meek. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.”

The Sermon on the Mountain was spoken by Jesus to teach his disciples. As we strive to be faithful students, are we learning what Jesus is teaching us? Are we greeting his words with an attentive posture, though we are separated by time and space from the mountaintop where these words first were spoken? Friends, we must humble ourselves as Jesus humbled himself–by recognizing that we cannot do life alone, that none of us is as good as many of us joined together. As we open our hearts to the teachings of Jesus–as we work on our own discipleship–we are tasked with participating in the reality that Jesus was working and living and loving to create. We are tasked with taking up the beatitudes for ourselves and our community, so that they are not just random words to us in the 5th chapter of Matthew’s gospel. We are to go about our lives blessing the meek, the mourning, those who labor right here, right now. We don’t need to wait for someone else to do it because we are scared that we won’t do it right; we don’t need to wait for someone else to do it because we don’t have enough time. Jesus’ words to us bid us to go and do likewise. We are to go about living the beatitudes so that they become truly descriptors of the world in which we live, move and have our being.

Friends, today let us dedicate ourselves to participating in the Beatitudes. In this world, it is impractically practical to share love, to build community, to forgive those who hurt us, to acknowledge when we have done wrong, to accept the progress of time, to practice awe and wonder. Let not our rank, status, race, class, ego get in the way of receiving blessings from impractical places. Let not our tendency to sell ourselves short, to underestimate ourselves, to hide our gifts, to cut ourselves down; let these not get in the way of our deep knowing that we, ordinary people though we are, are called to live the beatitudes by receiving Jesus’ blessing of the humble. Let us accompany each other in our journeys, giving and receiving in mutual love and care, pushing back against the world that sells isolation and individualism. May we always retain the capacity for surprise as others–as we–extend our hands in blessings that seem impractical, but that make all the sense in the world.

May it ever be so.
Sermon originally preached July 9, 2017 at Glendale Baptist Church in Nashville, TN.