God Only Knows

The following sermon was modified from a sermon that was to be preached at Connecting Point Presbyterian Church and was snowed out.  It is presented to you with y’all as the congregation.

sermon 020214[new low]

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.  Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.  “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.  “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.  “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 5:1-12


When I was in the last year of seminary I got a few gems I held on to.  One was enjoy that final year together with those folks that walked alongside of me the past two years.  I did enjoy them.  Between ordination exams, scrambling for what would be next, and writing those papers I should have at the beginning of the semester I savored the presence of these saints.  We held court nightly at the local watering hole.  We sang karaoke and tried bánh mì for the first time.  We explored Austin with a newfound passion.  We knew that our time here with each other, this special place that shaped us and forged a mind and heart of God that we trusted would carry us away from each other and towards the “not yet.”  I have never had a moment of time like that again.


I was also told to practice good self-care.  The physical, mental, and spiritual pressures that ravaged my body for three years did indeed take its toll.  I put on over 70 pounds, got pneumonia, chronic bronchitis, addiction problems, and an academic non-emotional faith.  Towards the end of seminary I did manage to join a gym, watch my diet (some), and quit smoking.  This did little to curb my appetite for destruction.  Much of this pursuit may have more to do with me getting married a week after graduation.


The last gem was that 50% of my classmates and cross-denominational colleagues would not make it past five years of service in ministry.  I always knew I would have to trail blaze a path towards the church I felt called to be a part of.  I imagined I was prepared for that.  I also did not worry, as I was going to pursue social work.


Colleagues prepared for parish ministry, sought work in parish ministry, or worried; I got in to social work school and scored a scholarship.  We moved to Louisville and things went array.  I stumbled into ministry and found myself abandoning my social work dreams.


The last gem of a 50% ministry dropout rate was replaced with ass scrambling to figure out how to transform and equip a congregation to move towards the emerging spaces of missional ministry.  With a largely senior population and with a motivated group of members we had some interesting experiences.  Moments of growth and moments of devastating loss.  For three years I grew, the congregation grew.  Then it came time for us to part ways.


Leaving was emotional.  I was not prepared for this transition.  I lost myself and woke up in darkness.  I hurt and could not shake it.  This was a moment I realized that I could not do this by myself.  I was isolated, felt alone, and scared about what lie ahead.  I was one of those that dropped out of ministry within five years of graduation.  I felt like a failure.  I proved all the naysayers correct.  I pondered if I was ever really called at all.  I lamented the debt I hold sans a viable vocational career.  I was low.  I was in Lo-debar.


I reached out to y’all.  I asked for prayers.  I vented.  I wrestled publicly with faith.  I lashed out and bit those I love.  I was a sour, salty piece of work.  Here is when I became aware of, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Here is when my poverty bound spirit received a gift of ears that hear and eyes that see.


A mentor of mine lovingly shared with me the pain of his life.  This was during a seminary-sponsored event of family celebration and welcome.  We sat there in his library, just around the corner of stories of misadventures and missteps.  He spoke kindness to me.  I listened with tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat.  I felt, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”  Comfort washed over me.  My warming heart knew I was not alone.  Courage began to creep in to my depressed and anxious soul.


Gone was the uninformed bravado of a green horned pastor of privilege.  The fainted victim posture gave way to something new.  I was naked.  All I had left was a trust that God was still here and wanted to chat.  “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”


I have never seen the difference between humility and meekness.  I have always seen meekness as weakness.  Humility was prostration before God.  In reality it was more of a deflecting all good and bad comments and praise away from me and towards God.  I could not dare allow for any praise or criticism to penetrate the armor of God.  A good solider keeps a tight defense and a watchful eye.


I would also include any emotions in this.  I could not let love or trust in as that would lead to disappointment and hurt.  God does not want me to hurt nor does God want me to have obstacles.  This was the good things happens to good people and good people are Godly people theology of my youth.  It is false and a cheap theology of an immature faith.


I used to believe that I had to guard my heart and mind from knowledge.  That the devil was bound up and hiding in progressive/liberal ideas.  I did not trust my mind to engage divine ways.  In seminary I awakened to, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”  I was told that I was smart for the first time in seminary.  I was encouraged to study and equipped with skills to research, study, critically think, and to listen.  My hunger for knowledge was no longer guarded.  A cocktail of Shiner Bock and cheese fries vanquished that dragon of doubt and fear as we argued and celebrated at “The Crown”, our other seminary classroom.


I fought the love of others for a long time.  I hardened my heart and was an unkind, masked fool.  When I began to receive the freely offered love of others, trust arrived, as did mercy.  For the first time in my life I was washed in the blood of the lamb (figuratively of course) as I read, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”


Mercy…grace…forgiveness…love.  “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”  I did see God. Not in my pursuit to shed the human inside me but in the imperfect communities that loved me in spite of my shortcomings and embraced me because I was me.  Pure in heart was not a procedure as much as it was a diagnosis.


The symptoms include loving kindness, loving mercy, and humbly walking with God.  Treatment includes community, relationships, loving the stranger, and seeing God everywhere you go.


Then you get, “Blessed are the cheese makers…This is not meant to be taken literally, but refers to any manufacturer of dairy products.” 


The Beatitudes are not meant to be a checklist of shit to do in order to get a blessing.  The beatitudes are a path towards being a blessing to others.  The heavenly reward can be debated.  In all honesty, I do not believe in heaven.  If I did my heaven would be Sam Cooke playing a set & welcoming Pete Seeger up to play along.  Thomas Merton & Dorothy Day occupy a table in the crowd & sing along.  James Brown is backstage warming up with Johnny Cash.  Sam Kinison is working the bar, as Judas orders another PBR.


The Cliff Notes version is blessed are those that bless the Other.  The bottom line is be kind to others, be kind to yourself.  Love others, love yourself.  The church is all fucked up and broken.  It is in decline and that 30-40 year career you dreamed of is not getting good odds from Vegas bookmakers.  Resources are dwindling.  It is tough to be the young adult representation and the pastor.  Everyone knows change needs to come but no one will take the first step.  Parish ministry seems more like hospital chaplaincy.  The connectional church feels more like the dysfunctional church.  The good news is that the church is so broken that we cannot make it any worse.  Whatever you are doing is better than what is going on now.  “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”  You are fearfully and wonderfully made creature of God.  Go and be your bad self.  And remember the self-care.  That’s important.