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 Here is a secret. I like food. Usually I eat when I’m hungry, but sometimes I eat just because I think I want something. Jesus must have known this would be the case. Here we are talking about the beatitudes at lunch during lent and today’s beatitude tells us “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”

 Unfortunately, I know that my appetite for righteousness is not always as strong as my appetite for these sandwiches we’re eating here today. My appetite for righteousness is not always what it should be.

 Mom and I celebrate our birthdays just two days apart. On account of that we have often shared birthday celebrations. Sometimes we have gone out to eat. While growing up, eating out often meant a place like Wendy’s. On special occasions, we might have gone to the Ponderosa. But on one memorable birthday, when I was in my teens, it was decided we would go to the Red Lobster.

 We had driven past the Red Lobster many times. We knew what it was, it was a place for other people to eat while we were at Wendy’s. But not on this birthday. On this birthday we were Red Lobster people. Our family of six walked in like we belonged there. It was exciting. It felt like going to the fair or some other event. This was a special occasion.

 We received the menus, we looked them over, and when the server came Dad ordered a sampler. The sampler was good. I tried lobster for the first time, crab for the first time, scallops for the first time. But we had not really done our homework, this sampler was not intended for a family of six, and we couldn’t afford Red Lobster prices. It was the hungriest birthday ever. I think we left that night and went to Wendy’s.

 But I knew from that day that I loved seafood. I had enough of a taste to make me want it again. Perhaps that is why I join a group of friends who share this love and occasionally drive down to the MD border just to eat seafood. Honestly, its too far to drive and costs too much, but still we do it because we have a hunger for seafood.

 That gets us on track for what Jesus is talking about. When he talks about a hunger and thirst for righteousness, he is not talking about choosing righteousness off a menu as if there are other options just as good. Jesus is interested in a hunger that makes you willing to drive too far and spend too much. Jesus is interested in a hunger that causes you pains until you get your fill. Jesus wants to know if after sampling small portions with your family of six, have you developed a lifetime appetite for righteousness?

 To hunger and thirst for something implies some risk. To hunger and thirst implies there is something you need or else you will die. Jesus is suggesting you can’t live in the kingdom of God without this righteousness.

 These beatitudes come to us as blessings and they help us to understand what it is like to live in a different kingdom – the kingdom of heaven. This kingdom is marked by people who live in certain ways. And this beatitude tells us the kingdom of heaven looks like people who want righteousness so badly they can taste it. And once they get a taste for it, they want more of it, they would be willing to drive far and spend much just to have it. There is nothing they want more, they would sell everything just to have it.

 Jesus wants us to become this kind of people. He doesn’t want us to wait until heaven to behave like this – he prays “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus wants us to desire this stuff now.

 Righteousness becomes important in the gospel. Not too many verses later, Jesus says “blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness.” Then, “your righteousness should exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.” Then, “don’t practice your righteousness in order to be seen by others.” And then, after telling us not to worry about food and drink and what to wear, he says, “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness… and these things will be added.” As it turns out, this righteousness is very important stuff.

 Perhaps a starter definition is in order. With help from Scot McKnight, here is a place to begin; 1) righteousness is listening to Jesus, 2) righteousness focuses on God first and not on the approval of others, 3) righteousness is the way kingdom citizens live in a world full of people who do not live that way.

 Welcome to the world of righteousness! Or as Matthew would say “Welcome to the kingdom of heaven!”

 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” God knows what we need. God knows we need food and drink (maybe even some occasional seafood), God knows what we need in order to live and wants us to know that greater than any other needs is our need for righteousness. Perhaps the question for us is “how far are we willing to drive for that?”

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“Oh remember my darling
When spring is in the air
And the bald headed birds
Are whisp’ring ev’rywhere
You can see them walking
Southward in their dirty underwear
That’s Tennessee Bird walk.”

 Why doesn’t anyone sing that one anymore? Anyway, it is spring. We know this because of the birds. And its not because of the robins. Let’s stop spreading the myth that robins are the first sign of spring and start singing “Tennessee Bird Walk” again.

 It is true, the equinox has occurred and that officially welcomes spring on our calendar. What that really means is that the days will start lasting longer than the nights. It is true, the Full Worm Moon was last night and the morning rain will further soften the ground so the worms will start to emerge (that oughta bring the spring birds out).

 But the fact is, the signs of spring have been around for a while. One day, I am in a tree above the Conodoguinet and watch three Common Mergansers float by (true migrators, unlike robins). Mergansers are divers and it is fun to watch them go under and try to guess where they’ll come back up. From the same tree I hear a familiar song and find a bluebird, then another, and another. (Not migrators, but I hope this activity suggests they are males out looking for a spring nesting site).

 On this same hike, I find a giant sycamore, splotched with patches of grayish brown and white. Sycamore bark lacks elasticity, does not grow with the tree and instead peels revealing its white underneath. (Kind of like showing its underwear. I have mentioned underwear twice in the same blog post, don’t tell my mom). Anyway, in this tree was a large nest and in this nest was a large bird with a white head. Why have I not known this Bald Eagle was here before now?

 Another day, I hear a commotion caused by a Belted Kingfisher. I love these birds and am drawn to the raucous. He is hovering in mid air and obviously upset. Then I notice a harrier perched nearby. I don’t know if the harrier was in his spot or if the kingfisher just doesn’t like harriers. I watched for a while, admiring the attitude of the kingfisher who was obviously overmatched in this duel.

 And then, this week I was walking around the lake when I mistakenly got too close to a pair of Canada Geese. The gander stepped toward me and hissed. That is a sure sign of spring.

Our elementary school music teacher was Miss Connell. We didn’t know it at the time but she was doing her best to add some culture into our lives. While we thought we were just going to class, she was introducing us to musicals. I suspect most of us were seven and eight years old when she had us singing from Annie Get Your Gun. I remember because we sang “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better.” I remember my friends singing loudly, the boys trying to sing louder than the girls. The girls trying to sing more convincingly than the boys. We all sang with gusto. Miss Connell must have been pleased. Though I have never seen the musical, I figure Annie Oakley did it better. However, the way I remember music class, the boys always won.

Religion’s fascination with earth’s politics is not new. Reinhold Niebuhr writes about a Dr. Frank Buchman, an evangelist who founded the Oxford Group. He was quoted, after returning from Europe, as saying “I thank heaven for a man like Adolf Hitler, who built a front-line defense against the anti-Christ of communism… My barber in London told me Hitler saved all Europe from communism… Think what it would mean to the world if Hitler surrendered to the control of God… Through such a man God could control a nation overnight and solve every last bewildering problem”

It was 1974. I had heard about hippies and had some knowledge of Woodstock. Admittedly, my knowledge was limited, I thought these things had something to do with some sort of anti-American revolt. No matter how accurate or inaccurate my thoughts were, I was pretty sure that hippies were a thing of the past.

That was when I began attending a new school. Though I didn’t know anyone in my class, they appeared normal to me. They definitely didn’t look like hippies.

But I did meet someone with hippie like ideas. She was fascinated with native tribes and enjoyed criticizing Americans for the way they treated them. She introduced me to some sixties folk rock that I had never heard before. And she was almost militant about the role of women. At times it seemed she was against men.

I met someone else who said things I would have never repeated at home. On one occasion, he convinced a gathering of my peers to see how many slang terms we could think of for intercourse. Another time he lit a marijuana tablet and passed it around so we could all smell it.

Both of these people, who I am now certain were hippie holdouts, were teachers I met on the first day of seventh grade. Later, another teacher assigned The Catcher in the Rye for us to read. I now know it had been censored in more schools than any other book at the time. Critics claimed it encouraged teenage rebellion. I didn’t know it at the time, but I am certain now I was going to school with hippies.

I am a pastor. I serve with the folks at Christ Reformed Church in Duncannon (a borough named after the family Duncan, it says so on the sign when you enter town). Christ Reformed Church is a small church (a church named after, well I think you can figure that one out). I have come to realize it is silly to argue over the size of a church (an argument more natural in the world than the church). Small is not better, nor is it worse, it is simply our present reality. When we take a look at the kingdom, small churches are the most common expression of the kingdom (and I suspect that has always been the case). 

Karl Vaters says that “Small churches are like the cockroaches of the Christian world.” Though it may not sound like it, he means that as a sincere compliment. “After whatever cultural nuclear bomb comes along to destroy all other visible expressions of the church, small congregations will scurry out from under the baseboards. When the money runs out, small churches will find a way to keep going. When there’s a failure of leadership, small churches will lead themselves. After denominations topple, small churches will rise up.” 

I don’t know why I haven’t heard of this Vaters guy before, I agree as he goes on to say; 

After what’s cool and new starts feeling cliched and trite, small churches will still matter. After most of our church buildings, both large and small, are empty, demolished or converted into hipster apartments, small churches will find somewhere else to meet. After we’ve grown sick of programs and events, small churches will remind us of our essential need for relationship. After we’ve torn ourselves apart with politically-charged rhetoric, small churches will still be there to bring God’s people together. After persecution has come, small churches will meet in secret. After our plans have failed, small churches will still be a big part of God’s plan.” 

Obviously, some of what Vaters says is true of churches no matter the size. Still, it is true of small churches. Not better, not worse, just our present reality. And whatever comes our way, even when cultural bombs go off and if hipster apartments rise up all around us – we remain a big part of God’s plan.

Enjoying February

Somewhere between Jacks and Shade Mountain, there is a half mile shaded lane that is still covered in ice. Back there is a fire in the fireplace. There is a buck still walking around with antlers. Undoubtedly, he will be dropping them soon. There is a red fox who enjoys playing in the snow as evidenced by plenty of tracks, appearances on the trail cam, and the fact he is coming into the yard to leave his scat (as if cleaning up after the dog wasn’t enough). There is a Great Horned Owl who loves to sing before dark.

On this day, there is also venison cooking on the grill. That is good news on its own but when combined with smoky smells of meat over fire and the background sounds of Good Company by The Dead South it makes it even better.

I know how most of this will play out. The lane will eventually thaw and we will be navigating through a lot of mud to get to where we’re going. I will spend some time trying to find those antlers after they fall. I will hope the red fox stays to play when the snow is gone. (I do hope he leaves his scat somewhere else). I will gladly listen to that owl for as long as he continues to sing.

And I’ve already started to eat that venison. Mom, who claims not to be a big fan of venison, even claimed to like it. Sliced and added as a protein to a salad with Boston Lettuce, peppadew peppers, red onions, and feta cheese or some combination of that on a taco is a winner. Of course, so is placing it directly into my mouth. Maybe it should be eaten with Good Company.