What You Can Take With You
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Matthew 5:1-12
Tuesday evening as my husband was driving home from teaching at Manchester College, a deer struck the side of our car. I’m glad my husband was driving; he keeps a cooler head than I do. There was minimal damage to the car: a small dent where a hoof likely struck; a broken piece of plastic molding where an antler may have struck; and a couple pretty significant scratches in the paint where antlers or hooves may have dragged across the side doors. I love my little car. It’s a 2015 Honda Fit. Britt and I purchase new vehicles about once every decade. Initially, I stood in the garage and looked at my little car. I was sad; its perfection was gone. It took me a little time to put things into healthier perspective. As already mentioned, had I been driving when the deer was struck, I may not have handled the car as well as my quick-thinking husband did. Aside from needing to address the scratches to prevent vehicle rust, I don’t really need to worry about repairs and their associated costs. Most importantly, no windows were broken out; no kicking hooves or piercing antlers entered the vehicle; my husband was safe and sound. We all know; if you drive a vehicle on the roadway, eventually it will get its share of dings and scratches. That’s how life rolls along. Yet I felt frustrated; life had brought change to my car and it wasn’t change I liked.
As human creatures, we don’t like to have change imposed upon us or our little corner of the world. The only people who really like change are the people who initiate it. The rest of us get drug along kicking and screaming. As human creatures, we become attached to things as they are: our houses, our cars, our relationships, even our physical bodies.
But in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus speaks from atop a mountain to proclaim an alternative way of living that helps us reorient our hearts and minds. Jesus proclaims the good news of the kingdom of God (though in Matthew, he refers to it as the Kingdom of Heaven). And, like an in-depth documentary that explores what life is like in a particular country and culture, Jesus reveals what we can expect it to be like should we choose to live, to dwell, in this kingdom or realm established and governed by God.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount begins with what we know as the Beatitudes; pronouncements of blessing. A Beatitude amounted to more than mere words. They are performative speech. The very speaking of the beatitude forged a new reality in place of the old one. Through these beatitudes, Jesus – with the authority of the heavenly Father – speaks these promises of blessing into existence. Jesus is proclaiming a new reality because these beatitudes don’t fit the standards or values of this earthly life or realm. In this world, people strive to secure themselves – to protect or insulate themselves from loss and suffering – by accumulating stuff: money, power, property, influence, control. But, in actuality, those things are ineffective. The market is fickle; one natural disaster can wipe out anyone’s dream home; and if we’ve ridden on the coattails of the person at the top of the food chain… well, their reign can end in any number of ways: resignation, retirement, failure, scandal, a vote of “no confidence,” even an indictment. Some manage to delude themselves longer than others; but, if we have any grasp on reality at all, eventually we will discover through personal experience and observation that there is really no “thing” in this world that is reliable in times of trouble and suffering and loss.
But life is different in that kingdom over which God reigns. Jesus proclaims the good news that life in the kingdom of God reveals that poverty of spirit and sorrow and gentleness and mercy and being peaceable are the way to ultimate and enduring security.
Today is All Saints’ Sunday and we will soon read the names of those saints who have passed on to their eternal reward. They are no longer subject to the fickle and unreliable terms of life in this world. We will celebrate their heavenly status, not with silly extra-biblical portraits of harps and fluffy clouds. Rather, heaven, the kingdom of God, or whatever name we choose to use describes what it means for their lives to now and forever be held firm by the one who governs not by intimidation or oppression; but by our heavenly Father, who assures us that we are at our safest and most secure when we stop striving and rest fully in his grace. In the kingdom of heaven, our Almighty God always has his way and gets his say about everything and that is a beautiful thing because when God gets God’s way, we have nothing to fear and nothing to lose. Being vulnerable before God is the very best and safest position to be in.
You might notice that all of these beatitudes describe states of vulnerability: being in a position of grieving, being in a position of poverty, being gentle toward others; seeking peace not retaliation or retribution. Sociologist and researcher Brene Brown describes the phenomenological reality of our struggle in this world and this life, saying: “The more vulnerable we are, the more afraid we are; the more vulnerable we are.”[i] If we live according to the values of this world, this life, it is a terrible vicious cycle; a cycle of moving erratically between fearful withdrawal and anxious vulnerability; humiliation and aggression. But, if we live within the kingdom of God – if we learn to place our trust fully and completely in the goodness of God, then we are set free from that burdensome cycle. We can embrace vulnerability as an experience of enduring security as we entrust ourselves to the faithful care of God. Life grounded in this world is a frantic scramble to get ahead. Life in the kingdom is one of security because we place our trust not in the obsolete stuff of this world but in God’s enduring providence and faithful care.
Today is All Saints Sunday and, together, we remember and celebrate the lives of those who have passed from death to eternal life. Death is the ultimate experience of vulnerability; eventually we will all succumb to it despite our best efforts to avoid it. But death is not the end when we live within the kingdom of God; when the foundation of our lives are built on those kingdom values that endure: mercy, gentleness, peace; when we have placed our trust in the God whose care for us is reliable and trustworthy and more than sufficient in every circumstance. Today we celebrate that we do not belong to this world and its value system. We belong to the eternal kingdom of God and, in that kingdom, we too are eternal. That is why in our funeral liturgy we affirm this truth for each saint when we pray the prayer of commendation: “Eternal God, you have shared with us the life of Ken and Lillian and Fred and Rosemary and Grace and Letha and Buford and Wendell and Philip. Before he or she was ours, he or she is yours… [So] for their life that in your love will never end, we give you thanks.”[ii]
Friends, when we live from a place of vulnerability and trust in Christ Jesus, we can live with continual peace and security. And what we value most will endure unto eternity.
[ii] The United Methodist Book of Worship; The United Methodist Publishing House; 1992; P. 157
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