First Congregational Church
November 13, 2015
26th Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
This morning’s scripture passage is yet another example of what it means to “wait on God” and listen to the Holy Spirit. The lectionary assigns Matthew 5:1-12 for All Saints Sunday, which was last week, and again for use in the season of Epiphany. But last week, it seemed that the Spirit was leading us to the tiny book of Jude, so that Matthew 5 could be for this week. Continually, as the week unfolded, I saw the reasons for this course, and perhaps you will, too.
I’d like to jump right into it, but the passage also deserves a little setting up. According to Matthew’s gospel, after Jesus was baptized and tested in the wilderness for forty days, he began his preaching and ministry of healing after calling the disciples together. I would imagine that his baptism by fire, so to speak, was rather exhausting, and coupled with the fact that huge crowds were gathering around him, Jesus was up for a little personal time. So naturally, the disciples crashed his day off. And Jesus graciously gave them one of the greatest sermons of all time.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Thank you, John. As I thought about the passage, I wondered if - when Jesus saw the crowds - he purposefully chose to go up the mountain, so people could look up, so people could see whence came their help. As a rabbi, Jesus certainly would have known the Psalms, and maybe it was to make a physical point - a reminder of Psalm 121. I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from? 2 My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. Maybe he was insinuating a relationship to the Trinity?
I had to chuckle when I looked up the meaning of the word “blessed.” One of the ways it is used as an adjective is in “mild expressions of annoyance or exasperation. So naturally, the part that Matthew didn’t include about this passage came to mind - the part where it says,
Then Simon Peter said, "Are we supposed to know this?” And Andrew said, "Do we have to write this down?” And James said, "Is this on the exam?” And Phillip said, "Is there an answer guide in the library?” And Bartholomew said, "What came after poor?"
And John said, "The other disciples didn't have to learn this!” And Mark said, "Don't take the power point off yet.” And Matthew went to the restroom. One of the Pharisees who was present asked to see Jesus' lesson plan and inquired of Jesus, "Where are your anticipatory set and your objectives in the cognitive domain?” ...And Jesus wept.
Jesus is still probably weeping because of beatitudes written by other people. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst, for they are sticking to their diet. It was comic writer, Paul White, who said, “Blessed are the bike riders, for they shall be recycled.” Famous brother, Groucho Marx said, “Blessed are the cracked, for they shall let in the light.” Herbert Hoover said, “Blessed are the young, for they shall inherit the national debt.”
Prominent historian and Yale professor, John Boswell wrote one of my favorites, “Blessed is he who has learned to laugh at himself for he shall never cease to be entertained.” If anyone knew how often I laugh aloud - alone - I might begin shopping for designer straight jackets.
American writer, Kurt Vonnegut sheds some light on the real reality of what we call the Beatitudes. “For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes (Matthew 5). But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course, that's Moses, not Jesus. I haven't heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere.
And one of my favorites preachers, sociologist and professor, Tony Campolo, hit the nail straight on. “If we were to set out to establish a religion in polar opposition to the Beatitudes Jesus taught, it would look strikingly similar to the pop Christianity that has taken over the airwaves of North America.”
(pause) I don’t mean to belittle “pop Christianity,” as Tony calls it, because it has a place in the world. But it’s not the Christianity to which I think God calls us. The Christianity to which God calls us, I think, is here in Matthew 5.
“Blessed” is a strange word, because we think we know what it means, but the way Jesus used it, and the way Matthew used it, can bring some flexibility if not uncertainty. In the ancient Greek, the word for blessed means ‘praise’ when it is associated with God and ‘happy, when it is associated with humanity. Going back to the idea of pop Christianity, some folks separate the b from the attitudes and add an “e” to the b, to get the gist of the phrase. So instead of “Blessed are the poor in spirit….” it is “Be poor in spirit,” “Be mournful,” be meek and so on. While that is a little helpful, it doesn’t go to the depth of what Jesus is saying here.
When Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he didn’t just end the sentence. He added the reason for it, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” On the surface, that reason may seem clear as mud, but you have to change the place of the words or phrases. It’s easier to understand with the second one: “Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.” Comfort is the reason - the blessing for those who mourn. And that sounds as goofy as a three dollar bill, too. We don’t need to conjure up a mournful event if we are needing comfort. We need to ask someone for a hug or a listening ear. But when we are mourning, we are needing comfort, which is why we have the body of Christ, this family, why we need to be mindful of encouraging fellowship, so that we have those relationships on which to fall back.
Before going on, back to the first blessed, it is for the poor in spirit, which a Catholic priest named Fr. Scott Courtney so appropriately called humility. In fact, there’s a little Youtube clip of his sermon on the church Facebook page and web site, and I’m sure you’ll love it. If you are not an online person, come let me know and we’ll get it played. But his point about humility being poor in spirit is much better than poor in spirit being any thing else.
Inheriting the earth is the blessing for the meek. And it’s true. Regardless of one’s purse, bank accounts or investments, when you sit in a boat or on a shore in the summer time, or stand at the top of a trail, are you not just about one of the richest people in the world? Or even in the depth of winter, and the wind is blowing up a blizzard, isn’t the simple comfort of a home and an oven or tv just about a blissful as one can get? The list can go on and on: bonfires, laying on the grass looking up at clouds, swinging on a swing, cheering for a hometown football team.
Being filled is the reason for hungering and thirsting after righteousness, to which some of us can attest - maybe even all of us; those occasions when we are filled to the brim and overflowing with God’s goodness and grace and peace and joy and all the other aspects of being one of God’s precious beloveds. Praying, reading, studying scripture - all those things that can quench our thirst and hunger for God, make us hungrier and thirstier for God, which fills our hearts and minds to overflowing. And God help those around us when we’re that filled, because we can’t help it flowing onto others.
Mercy is the blessing for the merciful. Some people call it karma, but it really is the idea of what goes around comes around. Except that this blessing is at a greater depth of heart than we may otherwise experience. The more we live our lives following after Jesus’ heart, the more we become like him, and that is nothing but good.
I’m going to skip the 6th one for the moment, because I’m going to offer a list of names, and I’d like you to think about their connection: Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Lech Walesa, and Oscar Romero. What do those individuals have in common? They were peacemakers, yes. But there’s also a sort of holiness about them, isn’t there? When a person wants to make a point about peacemaking, one of the people from that list is most likely to come into the conversation. But here’s the thing, God calls all of us children of God, so we’re all called to be peacemakers - and after this week’s election, maybe that will be our biggest job in the next while.
The kingdom of heaven is the blessing for those persecuted for righteousness sake, and that, one day, we will know with even greater certainty, the day we go home for eternity. Jesus talks a lot about the kingdom of heaven in the gospels, so we get a lot of glimpses into the blessing that waits even more so for those who should happen to be persecuted.
Gladness and rejoicing are the blessings of those who are wrongfully reviled and against whom evil is spoken. Imagine you were jailed for murder, and you didn’t do it, but somehow you are sentenced to decades of prison. And then, one day, out of the blue, something happens, and you are released with a clear record. You cannot reclaim the lost time, but talk about a new understanding of the gladness and rejoicing that would occur at such an instance. And mistakes - mistaken identities - mistaken verdicts happen all the time in our very human world.
Back to Beatitude number 6, seeing God is the blessing for the pure in heart. I don’t know about anyone else, but after last week’s election, my heart hasn’t been feeling so pure, and that would have been true regardless of who won. I want our world to be perfect, according to my idea of perfection, mind you, and there are so many variables and disappointments, that my heart is not so lily white these days. And maybe, just maybe, there are a few others who have been struggling, not just with our political scene, but maybe there is a divorce or relationship issue or resentment thing or whatever it is, it is discoloring your heart’s purity, and you really want it to change.
So God dropped this idea into my lap, after coming across some of the other beatitudes created by individuals - that we can - should write some of our own. For those who have missed it, on the inside of the bulletin insert, at the end of the announcements, at the bottom of the second page, there are three places for your to write your own beatitudes and their reasons. I took the format from Jesus’ words, ‘blessed are the,’ ‘blessed are those who,’ and blessed are you when.’ That last one I think is important because this cannot be a finger-pointing exercise, but one that causes us to think and maybe even pray about what God really has to say to each one of us. For those who feel compelled, you may email them to me or give them to me, and I’ll even put a start on them for you. But before you get to your homework, let us pray.
Gracious, Heavenly God, we come to you this day with hearts that could use blessing. For those times when we have failed to see your blessedness in our lives, we ask for your forgiveness. Help each of us to find that blessing in our circumstances, and help those situations become that which altars our hearts, that they become shaped after you. Show each of us the places where we can find our greatest blessings, so that we can become blessings in return to others. And all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.