Always Present Living

[This sermon was preached for  Pleasant Valley NY Presbyterian Church on 11/1/2020,               All Saints Day. The biblical texts are Micah 6:6-8 and Matthew 5:1-12.]

It is so attractive. Who wouldn’t want to sign up? Believe in Jesus and get anything you want whenever you want. Follow Jesus and get rich. Trust Jesus and you’ll never have a bad hair day, never experience failure, never know heartbreak. There are TV preachers who attract millions of followers with this stuff. There are shelves full of books about being a success in one’s business, love life, sports—whatever—by claiming a Bible verse here and there.

They are not quoting the Beatitudes, as we have come to know Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:1-12.  

They might want to quote John 10:10, where Jesus says, The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” As I read the Bible, and especially the life and teachings of Jesus, the abundant life isn’t what a lot of people think it is or want it to be. Jesus talks of our taking up our crosses and following him—and he laid down his life for others. He speaks of denying ourselves and opening ourselves to God. He says that his followers will know hardship. Nowhere does he say it more clearly than in John 16:33, “In this godless world you will continue to experience difficulties. But take heart! I’ve conquered the world.” (quoted in “The Message”)

In the beatitudes we find that abundant life expressed in qualities, not quantities:

  1. Being poor in spirit //  and experiencing the kingdom of God
  2. Mourning // and being comforted
  3. Being meek // and inheriting the earth
  4. Hungering and thirsting for God // and being filled
  5. Being merciful // and receiving mercy
  6. Being pure in heart // and seeing God
  7. Making peace // and being called children of God
  8. Being persecuted // and experiencing the kingdom of God

I have the honor of teaching preaching at Northeastern Seminary in Rochester NY. I teach my students about the dangers of preaching more than one sermon at a time, but rather preaching one sermon with clear focus at a time. How shall I do that with these eight qualities of the abundant life of following Jesus? I will make some brief observations about the eight, then do my best to preach one sermon with clarity, so that you will remember the main thrust 30 minutes after this service is over. Of these eight qualities of the God honoring life, some involve being and some involve doing, and some both. Following Jesus always involves being and doing, with our doing growing out of our being.

Three of these strike me as more active, as something we are called to do. The first is about hungering and thirsting for righteousness. I confess that I don’t do that enough. It has been too long since I fasted a meal or more as an act of seeking God more than food. I need this reminder to let go of some good things in order to seek better things.

The second one is being merciful. Being merciful is seeing someone in need and doing something about it. Presbyterian deacons excel at this. Jesus was once asked about how to be in God’s favor for eternity. Jesus tells a story of beggar left for dead at the side of a road. Two religious types walked by and wouldn’t touch the man for fear of becoming ritually unclean. A third, a Samaritan, stopped and helped. Jesus asks, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

The third active one is making peace. I am troubled that there is too much war in our world and nations spend too much money preparing for war. I’m not naïve; I know that have a strong national defense can prevent war. But maybe it is enough already when a nuclear war between any two nations could wipe out the human race in a matter of a few days. But I think Jesus is getting more local and practical: peacemaking starts right where we live. In this contentious election season, there is need for peacemakers.

The other five beatitudes are not so much things we do as much as things we experience. None of these eight beatitudes are achievements or merit badges. These are life experiences to which we respond. These call us to be present to life as it is unfolding and responsive to God in the midst of life every day. The prophet Micah gives us a wonderful summary of this kind of living: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 5:8)

One of these qualities one is particularly apt for today, November 1, All Saints Day: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” We have just come through a devastating week in our journey with Covid-19. Nearly a thousand a day have died and an average of over 70,000 a day have tested positive in just the last week. We are dealing with death. Death is a reality every day in our world. Pastors know that well. One of the perks of being a long-term pastor was that I learned firsthand that death is real and has no age requirements. I cannot deny the reality of death and I don’t want to. My faith speaks to the great issues of life, including death. Our response to the reality of death: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” We follow Jesus, who wept at the death of a good friend, in mourning for our losses and those of others. And this Sunday is calls us to remember and give thanks for the saints that have gone before us. In your congregation we remember, what saints have died in the past year? Name them and give thanks for them.

I keep a journal every year, in which I jot down thoughts three or four times a week. At the back, I keep records: where I have preached, books I have read, movies I have watched, and a list of transitions, my word for friends and others that have died. In my journal this year, among many names, are these:

  • Kathleen Buckley, a college pastor I was close to some years ago before we moved to different places. We last talked just over a year ago. I should have called her more.
  • Freda Gardner, who was a moderator of the General Assembly of our denomination, and a friend.
  • George Floyd, who was killed on a street in Minneapolis, and whose death awakened millions of Americans to the violence visited on Black men in our country.
  • John Lewis, one of the great heroes of the civil rights movement in our country. I heard him speak in Rochester two years ago.
  • Jim Zuckermandel, a friend of mine. He was one of the best athletes I have ever known, with a generous heart and sweet spirit. He died a year younger than I am of a devastating form of Parkinson’s disease. When a friend who is younger than you dies, it is always sobering.

I give thanks for these and so many others that have influenced my journey of faith.

Jesus calls us to be present in life, cultivating the qualities of blessing. Being a baseball fan and a native of Los Angeles, I watched the recent World Series with great interest. It was needed break from national politics. I especially enjoy watching Mookie Betts play baseball. He excels at every aspect of baseball and usually with a smile. His manager, Dave Roberts, was asked about what it’s like to coach Mookie. He said, “Mookie is always present.” That grabbed me. I want to live always present. The way Jesus describes always present living in the beatitudes.

What is the one sermon I want us to hear and take home today? That we are called by Jesus to be saints by living his way, being present in all of life with him, present in every circumstance, present for everyone around us, present with Jesus.

Life is a precious gift. Let’s be fully present, following Jesus who is always fully present with us. “God has shown us what is good. And what does the Lord require of us? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.” Blessed are those that are present with Jesus in all of life’s moments and experiences.

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