O God, may your Word speak to our hearts today. Amen.
Today’s Gospel reading forms Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, which we also find with some expansion in Matthew. Seeing that there are two forms of the list, I believe it provides just a little more leeway in the presentation and interpretation of this teaching. Therefore, I would like to offer now “The Pastor’s Modern Beatitudes.”
Blessed are those who are willing to teach our youth, or at least are good sports and will give it a try.
Blessed are those who fill in wherever they’re needed and even when it comes with a moment’s notice.
Blessed are those who volunteer to make hospital calls and can carry a large bouquet carefully across a frozen parking lot.
Blessed are those who hear everything that’s said in the church restrooms, but choose not to gossip.
Blessed are those who come to worship regularly and take it in stride when their customary seat is already taken.
Blessed are those who support the congregation generously and always find just a little extra when challenged to give.
Blessed are those who reply positively whenever they receive a desperate call from the Nominating Committee.
Blessed are those who have strong opinions on subjects, but elect to dialogue rather than to argue.
Blessed are those who bake double batches of brownies with walnuts for the hungry at coffee hour. (That one’s my favorite!)
These particular beatitudes may not be directly traceable to Jesus but, despite the attempt at humor, are not really out of keeping with some of the things that Jesus believed. They lift up attitudes of acceptance and obligation, hospitality and helpfulness, cooperation and compassion. Surely these considerations should be central to congregational life. They represent what it is to be a community of faith, to be followers of Jesus Christ. They are, or should be, the heart of who we are together.
We’ve all seen the jewelry and shirts with the initials WWJD on them, which is shorthand for “What would Jesus do?” This expression was picked up all over the country in the 1990’s. It found particular acceptance in church youth groups and, of course, you still see it used widely today. The phrase itself goes back much further to a novel published in 1896 titled In His Steps.
This book is now second in total sales among all religious books, with an estimated 50 million copies having been printed. In fact, only the Bible itself exceeds this well-read book by Charles Sheldon. You may not know anything about the author, but perhaps you ought to become acquainted with him because he has an historic tie with us in this church.
The Rev. Charles Sheldon was pastor of Central Congregational Church in Topeka, Kansas, from 1889 to 1919. Motivated by a strong sense of Jesus’ mission, Sheldon taught that if people would only follow in Christ’s example then the world could indeed be changed for the better. As such, he looked at all people with equity and with a dignity due them as children of God.
In order to better understand the conditions under which some people were relegated to live, Charles Sheldon would sometimes take off his clerical robe and hire out as a common workman to understand the challenges that unskilled laborers and their families faced. Other times he lived among the homeless. His Sunday sermons advocated that Christians must be prepared to apply their faith to the pressing social problems of the time.
Charles Sheldon and Central Congregational started the first kindergarten for African-Americans west of the Mississippi. Later, when the United States Supreme Court heard Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education, one of the lead attorneys who argued this case that challenged segregated education in America was a descendant of a student in that early kindergarten. The attorney’s name was Scott: Charles Sheldon Scott.
In 1900, with his book now a top seller, the editor of the Topeka Capital-Journal offered Charles Sheldon the opportunity to be its editor for one week and to shape its content for that period in the image of “What would Jesus do?” The newspaper had an average circulation of 11,000 but, for that week, it shot up to 360,000. Susan Wharton Gates, in a dissertation on Sheldon in 1998, noted that his greatest support came from a fellow pastor, Washington Gladden, with whom he shared leadership in the Social Gospel movement.
Central Congregational built the Sheldon Community House as an outreach center when their pastor retired. Might they have been aware of the Gladden Community House organized here in Columbus a decade earlier? I rather think they did.
Today Central Congregational is active with many partner ministries just as we are and, like us, they live out their commitment to inclusion by being an Open and Affirming congregation of the United Church of Christ. Maybe Kansas and Ohio are not that far apart on things that are truly important.
Today let me add a second question of faith and practice to that of Charles Sheldon’s. This one we might refer to as WDJB or “What did Jesus Believe?” It’s not only what Jesus did that should be of concern to us as disciples, but also what he affirmed. Ultimately, what we believe shapes our actions. It gives form to whatever we do.
Our Gospel passage today opens Jesus’ great teaching sermon, which Luke later ends in this way:
I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house."
Belief and action are intrinsically tied together as the twin pillars of faith. So it is that you can’t believe what Jesus did and retaliate against those who have wronged you. You can’t believe what Jesus did and tolerate oppression and discrimination against others. You can believe what Jesus did and ignore the plight of a neighbor. You can’t believe what Jesus believed and support aggression and the conditions that make for war.
You can’t believe what Jesus did and allow others to exploit the poor and powerless. You can’t believe what Jesus did and let people go hungry and sleep without shelter, You can’t believe what Jesus believed and not share that good news you’ve found with all the world.
What Jesus believed is the standard by which our own beliefs are formed and measured. We have to listen for his words in the scriptures, but we also must open ourselves to his leading in our lives. “What did Jesus believe?” and “What would Jesus do?” are really the key questions for right living.
A rabbi and a soap maker went for a walk one day. The soap maker asked, “What good is religion? Look at all the trouble and misery of the world after thousands of years of teaching about goodness, truth and peace—after all the prayers, sermons, and lessons. If religion is good and true, why should this be?
The rabbi said nothing but just kept walking along. After a while he noticed a child playing in the gutter and said to his friend, “Look at that child. You say that soap makes people clean, but just look at the dirt on that youngster. What good is soap? With all the soap in the world, the child is still filthy. Why is this the case?”
The man protested, “But, rabbi, soap can’t do any good unless it is applied and used as intended.”
“Exactly my point,” replied the rabbi, “So it is with religion. You’ve got to first take it up and then do something with it.”
So, friends, I suggest to you today WDJB and WWJD. They’re not radio station call letters. They’re not some kind of secret code. What they are, in truth, is reminders of what we should ask ourselves many times each day. These questions will put us on the right course and keep us there if we choose to use and apply them.
I believe that both Sheldon and Gladden understood faith in this simple summary: Trust in Jesus. Believe what he believed. Do what is required.
Trust in Jesus. Believe what he believed. Do what is required. Discipleship is as simple, and as challenging, as that.