Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | January 30, 2011

2011.01.31 “Blessed” Matthew 5: 1 – 12

Central United Methodist Church

Pastor David L. Haley

“Blessed”

Matthew 5: 1 – 12

January 30, 2011

“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.”

– Matthew 5: 1 – 12, New Revised Standard Version

       One of the things I like about international travel is that it allows us to experience a culture different than our own.  Out of that experience, it allows us to envision how our world might be different, by living differently.

        For example, even when I visit Paris, I am reminded that while the French are like us in many ways, in other ways they are not. Take, for example, the concept of body space, especially while eating.

        At our first lunch there, we went to a small café next to our hotel. There were five of us, and there was a table for seven, except that two young women were already sitting there. In Paris, no problem. We were seated with them, so close I could have put my arm around the young woman next to me, except that Michele wouldn’t let me do that. All my body space alarms were going off, but for the young women, it was no problem.

        Welcome to France, where they do things differently. That is, after all, why we travel, to experience life differently; which then allows us to envision living differently than the way we live.

        Today, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus invites us to do something similar; he asks us to envision a world – God’s world – where we live and treat each other differently. In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, Jesus helps us envision a community, practices, and a way of life that embody God’s saving presence, the kingdom of God manifested on earth.

        Sadly, though it is one of the most famous and most important of Jesus’ teachings, in a survey taken several years ago, less than half of American Christians were able to identify Jesus as the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount. (No, it was not Billy Graham.) It’s kind of like, “Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?”  Who preached the Sermon on the Mount?  Jesus!

        This may be because in more conservative Christianity, the Sermon on the Mount is essentially ignored. In all those controversies about posting the Ten Commandments on courthouse walls, did you ever hear anybody argue to include the Sermon on the Mount?  But then again, in a courthouse, who wants to hear about being merciful, being peacemakers, or God forbid, loving your enemies?

        Although through the centuries, there have been varying interpretations of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the best way to understand it is to take it seriously, as I believe Jesus intended it: to enable Christians to imagine life as it might be like if shaped by God’s reign; and to therefore live accordingly.

        Before we hear the first part, the Beatitudes, there are two important contexts we need to note: the literary context of Matthew, and the social context of the Roman Empire.

        While Luke has much of the same material in what’s known as the Sermon on the Plain, Matthew presents the Sermon differently.  Quite clearly, Matthew sees Jesus as the New Moses, delivered from Herod by exile into Egypt, spending a period of forty days in the wilderness, going up on a mountain to teach. Matthew even presents Jesus’ teaching in five groupings, corresponding to the five books of the Moses. 

        Let me just say, despite the way Matthew groups the material, no one knows whether Jesus actually delivered this sermon in one place at one time.  It might well be that as with most teachers and speakers, Jesus may have used bits and pieces in different ways, at different places and at different times, as indeed Luke presents it. 

        Of course when you go to Israel, you can go to what is thought to be the Mount of Beatitudes. Dennis Dewey, who has memorized and performs the Sermon on the Mount, says the day he visited, the wind was howling so bad he could hardly hear the tour guide. He says he imagined Jesus starting to speak and saying, “Blessed are the . . . blessed are the . . . “let’s all come back and do this tomorrow.”

        The second context is equally important: the social context of the Roman Empire.  Like most empires, it worked great for the 3% or so of those who were powerful and wealthy; not so great for the remaining 97% of the population. Like all empires, including our own, power and wealth were honored, and generally flowed upward. The golden rule according to them (not Jesus) was (and still is): “Those who have the gold make the rules.” Just ten years before Matthew’s Gospel was written, the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple, and in the time when Matthew wrote, both Christians and Jews were floundering, sometimes in opposition to each other. And so, against the context of empire, Matthew presents Jesus’ Christian alternative.

How does it begin?  “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.”

        These and the seven beatitudes which follow, surely one of our favorite texts in the entire Bible, are nothing sort of stunning.

What Jesus is saying is that those honored in God’s kingdom are the exact opposites of those honored in the imperial kingdom: not the powerful and wealthy, but the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those persecuted for righteousness’ sake.

This is what “blessed” means: “God is pleased with; honored or esteemed.”  The word meaning blessed or honored (makarioi in Greek) is plural, not singular. The beatitudes are directed to communities, not individuals: all those who are poor, all those who mourn, all peacemakers, and so on.

The first beatitude, for example, falls on a most unlikely group of people in the Roman world, the poor in spirit. In an empire the important folks are the ones at the top: the whole world is organized to bless and honor them. But this first beatitude asks disciples to imagine something different: that God’s favor falls not on the high and mighty, but the poor.  Those are the ones God honors. 

It should not to be spiritualized. They aren’t the humble or the voluntary poor or the deserving poor or the lazy poor.  They are the literal poor, the destitute, those without options and resources, who are 97% of the empire’s population.  People like shepherds, fishermen, poor widows, the sick, the powerless, the exploited, the kinds of people Jesus mingled with, ministered to, even called to be his disciples. These are the people – those likely standing before him that day – that Jesus pronounces blessed. 

And so it continues through the list. In each case, Jesus’ beatitude focuses on present situations, declares God’s blessing, and promises a present and future transformation, connected to how they live now.

According to Jesus, all those who mourn shall be comforted.  In Jesus view, it is the meek – not the powerful – who shall inherit the earth. In Jesus’ view, it is those who hunger and thirst for righteousness – those who, in the ancient words of the prophet Micah, “do justice, who love mercy, who walk humbly with their God” – who will be filled. In Jesus’ view, it is those who practice mercy who will find mercy, as indeed we are reminded every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” Imagine a world, says Jesus, where those who are peacemakers, instead of being labeled whistleblowers or made into victims, who are called the children of God.

But as David Lose, Professor of Preaching at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN, (WorkingPreacher.org, 1/23/11) points out, there is a trap hidden in the Beatitudes that we often fall into. The trap is simple as it is subtle: believing that Jesus is setting up the conditions of blessing, rather than actually blessing.

        For instance, when we hear “Blessed are the pure in spirit,” we think, “Am I pure enough in spirit?” or “I should try to be more pure in spirit.” When we hear “blessed are the peacemakers,” we think, “Yes, I really should be more committed to making peace.”  At least with “blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” we have the assurance of knowing that on those occasions when we mourn, we will be comforted.  But who wants to mourn more?

        Let’s be clear:  Jesus isn’t setting up conditions or terms, he is just plain blessing people; especially those – who, in most societies – are least likely to be blessed. Why? To proclaim that God regularly shows up in mercy and blessing just where you least expect God to be – with the poor rather than the rich, with those who are mourning rather than celebrating, with the meek and peacemakers rather than the strong and victorious. This is not where citizens of the ancient world looked for God and, quite frankly, it’s not where we do either. 

Do you understand how counter to popular religion – even popular Christianity – this is?  Almost all of us have been taught to believe a form of Christianity that says God helps those who help themselves, that if you are prosperous and successful you are in God’s favor, that if you are sinful or poor or a loser or gay God hates you.  As we see in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, nothing could be further from the truth.  If anything, such people are God’s “special” people, those whom God favors.

        Maybe our problem is that – really – we are far less eager to be blessed than God is to bless us. Maybe we have a hard time believing God wants to bless us. Maybe our picture of God is distorted, and that – as many of us were taught – we can only imagine God as a stern, demanding law-giver, so it seems out of character for God to bless indiscriminately, as Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount.

        Or maybe it’s not that we don’t know God, maybe it’s that we know ourselves too well to feel worthy of God’s grace. Knowing our weaknesses and limitations, our faults and failures, we find it hard to believe that God could love us unconditionally. We’re used to paying for our mistakes, paying our own way, toeing the line and reaping the consequences when we don’t, and so we find it not only unexpected, but downright unsettling, almost inconceivable to imagine that God behaves differently, showering us with blessing apart from anything we have done, earned, or deserve. But the message of the Beatitudes is, “Blessed are you”, even at those times of our lives when we may feel least blest.

        In the Beatitudes, Jesus invites us to imagine a different community, different practices, and a different way of life, one that embodies God’s saving presence in the world, as manifested by Jesus.  He does so not because it is impossible, or escapist, or fantastic, but because by so doing, we counteract the lies of popular culture, and we faithfully enact and embody God’s purposes, the kingdom of God on earth.

        Back in October, I went to a continuing education event where Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, Pastor of Middle Collegiate Church in New York City, was the leader. Middle Collegiate Church is described as a celebrating, culturally diverse, inclusive and growing community of faith where all persons are welcomed just as they are as they come through the door.  

        I appreciated what she had to say.  She said there are two stories in the world; one is the story “out there.”  We know that story, it’s often a story of hatred and racism and violence. But there is another story in the world, God’s story, and that’s the one we want to see when we come to church. We want to see it embodied in the people in the pews and the people on the altar, in the banners on the wall and the music we sing; in the preaching from the pulpit and as we gather around the table. It’s the story of God’s love and blessing and favor, the story we hear this morning from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

        Do you know the origin of saying “God Bless You” when someone sneezes?” One explanation is that in the middle ages when someone sneezed you said “God bless you,” fearing that their sneeze was the first symptom of the plague. That is, this mantra we repeat so often, was developed as a way to ward off the fear of evil, disease, and death.

        Perhaps, in light of what we learned today, we can reclaim these three powerful words to signify not fear but joy, not disease but delight, not death but God’s new life. In so doing, just maybe we can reclaim not only the beatitudes, but an essential insight of the Christian life: that God is a God who delights in creating, blessing, and redeeming, and we are God’s beloved and blessed children. God bless you!

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