"I'm what the world considers to be a phenomenally successful man. And I've failed much more than I've succeeded. And each time I fail, I get my people together, and I say, "Where are we going?" And it starts to get better." - Calvin Trager
Sunday, January 30, 2005 The Gospel reading today was the Beatitudes from Matthew. Both this morning at Holy Communion and tonight at Common Ground, I had a chance to hear them several times ... and both times, the same word jumped out at me:
Matthew has Jesus mentioning righteousness twice in the Beatitudes:
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
When I hear the word "righteousness", the image that comes to mind is triumphal ... a clenched fist, a stiff back ... images of sheer power founded in the justness of the cause.
When I hear the word "righteousness" in conversation, it is invariably used by people who are convinced of the justice of their cause ... convinced that their persecution for that cause will indeed earn them the kingdom of heaven. Convinced that their hunger and thirst for it will be sated and slaked.
And maybe they are right. But more and more, I'm realizing that in my own life and in so much of what I observe, "righteousness" is really self-righteousness. It's the arrogance of my own convictions. My conviction that I am right ... and my ability to link that belief to my beliefs about Christ and about the Gospel ... that is the foundation for much of my feelings of righteousness.
In my life and in much of what I observe around me, when the word "righteousness" is used or alluded to, ego isn't far behind.
What's interesting is that Matthew's Jesus clearly has another idea about righteousness ... and you only have to go back a little way to see it.
A few weeks ago, we celebrated the feast of Jesus' baptism and read Matthew 3:13-17, which reads, in part:
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented.
Jesus came to John to be baptized, but John, knowing who Jesus was tried to say "No way!" (Kind of a first-century Wayne and Garth "we're not worthy!")But Jesus didn't just tell him to get on with it, he chose his words carefully. Even though John was right that he needed to be baptized by Jesus, it was necessary for Jesus to take the subservient position of being baptized by John ... and it was necessary to fulfill all righteousness.
The righteousness of Christ. The righteousness of the Beatitudes. This is never self-righteousness. It is never the righteousness that is bound up in ego or supported by a clenched fist or a stiff neck. The righteousness of Christ is always the righteousness of humility. Of taking the role of the servant. Of teaching by serving. Of witnessing by serving. Of allowing yourself to be persecuted not so you can feel righteous, but out of love for your oppressor so that they may come to righteousness.
It is the righteousness of loving conversion not of vindictive vindication.
Dan Roschke, the intern at Lutheran Campus Ministry, was the preacher at Common Ground tonight and he used a piece of the Tao te Ching as an example of meekness but that also illustrates this incredibly well. It's from Chapter 76:
A man is born gentle and weak.
At his death he is hard and stiff.
Green plants are tender and filled with sap.
At their death they are withered and dry.
Therefore the stiff and unbending is the disciple of death.
The gentle and yielding is the disciple of life.
Thus an army without flexibility never wins a battle.
A tree that is unbending is easily broken.
The hard and strong will fall.
The soft and weak will overcome.
I think of Jesus ... and Gandhi ... and Rosa Parks ... and so many others who exemplify righteousness and yes, it is their steadfastness that is one of the hallmarks of their righteousness -- but it is also their humility, their willingness to yield, their willingness to accept blows with resilience out of love for the striker.
I hope I can hunger and thirst for that kind of righteousness. It's hard ... really hard. It feels so much better in the short run to be self-righteous.
Maybe those who are persecuted for true righteousness sake inherit the kingdom of heaven, enter fully into the realm of God, because it is those people who have fully let go of everything that stands between themselves and loving everyone ... even their oppressor.
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"Christ's example is being
demeaned by the church if they ignore the new leprosy,
which is AIDS. The church is the sleeping giant here.
If it wakes up to what's really going on in the rest
of the world, it has a real role to play. If it doesn't,
it will be irrelevant."