A Faith that Swings

Jan 22, 2023

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A Faith that Swings

A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA

A Faith that Swings
A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
On January 22nd, 2023

Matthew 5:1-20

Today, as we continue our journey through Matthew’s Gospel, we arrive at the beginning of what is known as the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus, who was baptized at the river Jordan in the text we heard two weeks ago, and faced temptation in the desert in last week’s passage, has gone from Judea to Galilee and settled in Capernaum. Jesus has called the four fisherman, Peter, Andrew, James and John and he’s traveled all around Galilee proclaiming the good news of the reign of God and healing all sorts of people. News about him is spreading everywhere and great crowds of people are following him around.

In the text we’re about to hear, Jesus goes up a mountain and begins to teach his disciples. One commentator calls it the keynote address of the new age that Jesus came to inaugurate. As we hear the very first part of it, listen for the beatitudes. Take note of what types of people Jesus calls blessed and what he promises is theirs or will come to them. Then hear how Jesus calls the disciples salt and light. Finally, pay attention to how Jesus tells them that their righteousness must “exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees” if they are to enter God’s kingdom.

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.
‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

It caught my ear this past Wednesday.
NPR’s Morning Edition had a segment on the Science of Swing,
That feature of some music that gives it a certain je na sais quoi
A feel that you can’t quite pin down,
but you recognize when you hear it.
If you’re like me, you agree that it’s nice to hear.
It somehow makes you want to tap your feet and move your body.
Apparently, some physicists think they’ve come up with the answer to the secret of swing. It all has to do, they say,
“with subtle nuances in the timing of soloists.”
Christian McBride a Grammy winning jazz musician,
who was interviewed for the segment,
Says that there is more to it than that.
Swing is a feel. There’s a language and a rhythm to it.

It seems that there’s more to swing than simple syncopation.
Not that syncopation is ever simple for some of us, right?
All of you have to do is watch a bunch of WASPY Presbyterians
Try to clap and sing with Gospel music to know that
It can be hard to resist the urge to come in precisely on one and three.
According to the scientists, what makes swing swing
Is the physics of miniscule, teeny tiny timing delays,
But there’s more to it than that.
It’s a feel—a human feel—that happens when musicians
Interact as they do a piece.
There will always be an element of mystery to it.
Computers can get the science of swing,
But they can’t quite capture the spirit of it.

When I think about today’s portion of the Sermon on the Mount,
And the allure that Jesus had for the crowds that followed him around Galilee,
And indeed the power of being vitally engaged in a community of faith,
I hear music. Not just any music, but music with some swing to it.
Part of that has to do with the fact that forty years ago I first read that quote from Frederick Buechner on today’s bulletin, and it has stayed with me ever since. I can’t read about Jesus telling the disciples that unless they’re righteousness exceeded that of the scribes and the Pharisees without thinking about the piano student whose exasperated teacher tells him he hasn’t gotten it right.

It’s not that the student isn’t holding his hands the way he’s been told. As Buechner puts it, “His fingering is unexceptionable. He has memorized the piece perfectly. He has hit all the proper notes with deadly accuracy. But his heart’s not in it, only his fingers. What he’s playing is a sort of music, but nothing that will start voices singing or feet tapping. He has succeeded in boring everybody to death, including himself.”

Jesus’ critique of the scribes and Pharisees of his day is that you can not slip up on a single do or don’t, and still miss the main point—which is love and compassion. You can hammer away on the keys of life in 4/4 time, expecting everything to come to you comfortably and predictably on a downbeat, and not realize that there are and will be circumstances that call for different time signatures and even improvisation. As John Lennon said, “Life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans.” You can woodenly play the music without somehow making the music your own, which is a point more than one person made at our Friday night kickoff event for this year’s confirmation class. It’s our hope that they will make their faith, their engagement with life through the Living Divine, their own.

I think what Jesus invites those who would follow him into
Is a faith that sings and swings, that involves creativity and improvisation and not just going through the motions.
It’s a faith that happens in community, even as different people step up to take the lead from time to time.

It’s a faith that beckons us into sharing our own selves—our gifts and talents and hearts—for God’s sake and the sake of the world and not, as Jesus says, hiding our light under a bushel basket. Or never trying to play a note, or sing a song, or paint a scene, or take a photo, or knit a shawl, or write a card, or pay someone a visit, because we’re afraid we won’t do it just right (which is the dark side of Buechner’s quote about the teacher and student—the way we can feel crushed by someone telling us we’re not doing it correctly).

One of the great joys of pastoral ministry is witnessing what happens as people move into sharing their gifts. The way a community can rally around a member in grief or in physical pain, as so many people have for Pat Velander in the past week. Hearing someone sing a solo for the first time. Seeing people take leadership on a committee or team. Learning about how people went the extra mile to help our guests at hypo get their cars fixed, or how one person literally gave away his belt so that hypo guest could keep his pants up. Watching people be confirmation mentors or Sunday School teachers or lead Bible and book study groups. Noticing how people’s worldview has grown to become more expansive, more welcoming, more willing to adapt and adjust to a changing circumstances. There’s something beautiful, even intoxicating, about seeing somebody whose life veritably sings, whether they can carry a tune or not, this little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine. And it’s just as wonderful to know that, when somebody doesn’t feel all that shiny for a season, there are others who pick them up, coming alongside them to listen or pray.

I’ve preached whole series of sermons on the Beatitudes, those blessed are yous at the start of today’s passage. The temptation would be to go down each one and give you the ins and outs of why Jesus calls each group listed there blessed. I have lost of thoughts about exactly why those who are poor in spirit, and those who mourn, and those who are gentle, and those who hunger and thirst to do what is right and loving, and those who are merciful, and pure in heart, and are peacemakers, and persecuted are blessed. It’s worth revisiting the beatitudes regularly—and there are plenty of good books on them that I could add to my own old sermons. But what occurs to me today is that one of the reasons Jesus says all of these people and groups are blessed is that they are somehow invested in life. They’re part of the music that doesn’t always unfold just the way we’d expect.

They can’t go it alone—they need the help of God and others.
They love enough that it sometimes hurts.
They long to see and do what is right and kind and merciful.
They don’t hide their light.
They have a faith that swings.

You know by now that David Crosby, of the Byrds and Crosby, Stills and Nash fame, died this week.

I don’t want a Balanced life
I want a #DavidCrosby harmony
Where the highs bring up the lows
And the lows make sure
you don’t float away
I don’t want balance
I want the sweetness
Of a mustached note
Calling you to join
To blend
To be easy
An acoustic guitar
Strings leading and following
A life
that even when it hurts
sounds beautiful
I want a Crosby harmony
Weaving past and present and
Yet to come
Memories and hopes
Barefoot on a warm summer night
I don’t want balance
I want poetry layered on
Celestial rhythms
When it’s all done
After the windows
To my soul’s very fine house
Have shuttered for the last time
After I’ve taught my children well
Been fed by their dreams
And know they love me
Give me
A melody
A harmony
Just a song before I go

The story of Jesus being tempted by the devil is almost guaranteed to catch a church-goers attention. First off, there’s the sheer drama of it—the back and forth that begs to be acted out. Jesus, fresh off his baptism at the River Jordan, tired and hungry after 40 days of not eating, going toe to toe with the figure of a Tempter in the Judean wilderness. Then there’s the whole notion of the existence of “The Devil” in the first place, which is a hook in itself and makes most people who find their way into mainline churches like ours lean forward in the pew a bit to listen for just exactly what the preacher is going to do with this. Right? There’s the popular culture’s depiction of a person trying to decide what to do in a given situation. You know—the little red devil with a pitchfork and horns whispering one thing in the person’s ear, and a tiny angel clad in white whispering the opposite.

While we may be too sophisticated to believe in the personification of evil like that, we are also students of our own experience enough to know that sometimes we encounter destructive impulses within ourselves that can take on a life of their own. The yearning to get even, the compulsion to cling to resentment, the anxiety that tells us we will never have or be enough, the depression and despair that keep us focused on worst case scenarios rather than believing in the possibility that even though our todays and tomorrows surely won’t be perfect, they could still contain some blessings, some love and even joy.
Ask any addict. Heck, consider the attitudes and behaviors that you yourself are inclined to give into that are not healthy for you or others. There are urges that seem to come from beyond that are destructive to our own and other’s well-being. We see evil writ large in genocides and acts of terror and wars of domination, but it comes, too, in the quiet whisper that says, not just, go ahead and take that drink, but go ahead and despise your neighbor. Look down on the poor. Forget your connection to the one’s Jesus called the least of these. Forget that you, too, are beloved and worthy of being treated that way.

You don’t have to believe in the existence of a literal devil to know that all of us face temptation in life—and that the temptations we face are often bigger than whether to sneak an extra piece of chocolate cake or to give the one finger salute to the person who cut us off in traffic.

Of all of the temptations in life and faith, I think one of the most insidious is to look at our relationship with the Living Divine—and at the living of life itself—as if it were all just a series of transactions, rewards and punishments for behaviors. The very idea is sort of baked into a lot of religion and certain religious perspectives. You know, you do good, you get good. Keep your nose to the grindstone, say your prayers, believe in the existence of a higher power, be a reasonably kind person—and nothing too unfortunate will ever happen to you or people you love. The trouble with that viewpoint is that sooner or later it runs up against the truth that, as the Bible puts it, the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. It runs up against our experience that sometimes what we would deem to be bad things happen to people we would consider to be basically good. But nevertheless, the idea that life and faith are or should be transactional is a powerful drug.

Nadia Bolz-Weber, that tattooed former stand-up comic Lutheran preacher, described that mindset as the notion “that God set life up to be like a moral reward and punishment system. Like we are all rats in some kind of cruel cosmic lab experiment—receiving shocks from God for going the wrong way and little reward pellets for going the right way in an existential maze.”

And here, finally, is where we get back to the story of Jesus being tempted by the devil in the wilderness. If you’ve ever wondered why this story is in the Bible in the first place—especially since nobody was there to witness or record it, aside from Jesus—I think there are at least a couple of reasons. One, the traditional view, which is embraced by the author of the book of Hebrews is that, in Jesus, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with us in our weakness, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are.” Jesus was a fully human being. But I’ve come to believe that the second, and even more important reason, this story is in the Gospels is to address and reject a certain if/then, transactional approach to life and faith.

Because what the Devil—this personification of evil, or the self and other destructive impulse in human beings—does is present a tired and starving Jesus with a bunch of if/thens: If you are really a child of God, then prove it to me by making stones into bread. If you are really a child of God, then jump off the pinnacle of the temple and let God save you. If you will just reject God, and worship me, then I’ll give you all of the kingdoms of the world. If, then—as if life were just one big Let’s Make a Deal. The way Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it, after saying that she doesn’t think that God sets up an existential reward and punishment maze for us, is this:

I am pretty sure the devil does. Because sometimes I feel trapped in an invisible maze of the if-then propositions.

Like some voice is whispering through the air vents psst … If you have done something bad then you are something bad.
If you really belong to God, then why is your life so hard?
If you just buy this map, or say this prayer, or “Manifest” this desire, then you can get yourself free.

That if/then drug is powerful. To a certain degree the notion that if we do good we will get good helps society run. But it has terrible side effects that become apparent when life really gets challenging. When we, as terribly human as we are, make huge mistakes, when we blunder in ways big and small, when we hurt those we love, when we, not to put to fine a point on it, sin—and all we can feel is shame. Or when life deals us hardship and loss that we never asked for or anticipated—and we begin to wonder if we belong to God, or if there’s a higher power at all, because life is no longer as easy as it was and the payoff for “being good” is no longer readily apparent. Or when we think if we just do this or that or the other, we can avoid hardship.

What Jesus does in today’s story is to show us how to resist the lure of the if/then—and he does it in at least three ways.

Number one, he remembers who he is. The Little Penguin. You are not loved because of what you do, or because you are behaving like someone else, you are who you are—a penguin, and that’s enough. You are not a child of God because things go well.

Number two, he responds rather than reacts. First thought bad. When we react, when we don’t take the pause. What we don’t know is how long the pause was, but I’ll bet you there was a pause.

Number three, he relies on the resources of the community. In that moment, he doesn’t have anyone else there with him. Even the angels don’t show up and minister to him until after the temptations are over. But what he does have is the scroll of Deuteronomy, which he has no doubt come to know by studying it in the synagogue with others. So the resources we have in the inevitably challenging times are not just the spiritual books we’ve read, and the ability to pick up the phone and call on human angels, but also…

a tired and hungry Jesus fresh off his baptism going toe to toe with this personification of evil

Why is this story in there in the first place?

The temptation is to think if we’re children of God, then we can make stones into bread, or a sow’s ear into a silk purse, or that we will always be comfortable.

Why is Jesus is tempted. There’s nobody there with a pad recording it as it happened. We need to know that there is something

Biggest temptation is to succumb to viewing everything in terms of reward/punishment. If this bad thing is happening to me, I must have done something to deserve it.

But it never works. And I say this maze of if-then propositions and empty promises is of the devil not to be overly dramatic but because in our Gospel reading, Jesus comes up out of the waters of his own baptism and the heavens open and God speaks of belongingness to God and belovedness by God – and in the very next verse Jesus is driven into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil – the waters of baptism are still glistening on his forehead and Satan whispers “if you are who God says you are THEN call down some power and cash and prizes for yourself. . . you deserve it.
In other words, the glitter of baptism was still shimmering on his forehead and Satan was like, can I interest you in a maze?

It’s like a maze

If/then. Conditional. Then nothing untoward will never happen to you. Then you’ll never experience any sense of lack, or hunger.
Then you’ll never be uncomfortable.
Then you’ll have the power in the world. Prosperity. Prayers will always eventuate in what you. Pay off.
The devil is the king of transactional faith.
So how do we deal with life’s inevitable challenges.
Here’s where Jesus shows us.
He remembers who he is. He doesn’t have to prove it.
He responds rather than reacting. First thought bad. Not rapid fire response, but thoughtful.
He relies on the resources of the community.

There are no angels, not right then. Only later.
Different order (Luke has serve only him second.
Bamboo that has to be rooted out.Life challenges us. We don’t

Temptation. I generally avoid temptation unless I can’t resist it. Mae West.Personifying the devil. Anthropomorphizing as a way of naming a reality. Wrestle with an impulse in himself.

Life challenges us. There’s no question about it. And when we are challenged, we can feel tempted. Tempted to feel like we have more control than we actually have, to seize control.

What do we do when we are tested?

We remember who we are.
Respond rather than react. Practice the pause.
We rely on the resources of the community.

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