Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | February 2, 2014

2014.02.02 “Blessed” – Matthew 5: 1 – 12

Central United Methodist Church

“Blessed”

Pastor David L. Haley

Matthew 5: 1 – 12

February 2, 2014

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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 4: 12 – 23, The New Revised Standard Version

Have you ever heard the saying attributed to Alan Greenspan, the former Chair of the Federal Reserve: “I know you think you understand what you thought I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”
There are words and phrases we church people use, which are slippery, words which we think we understand, words we think others understand, words others do not understand at all.
One such word is “blessed.” It’s one of those words in our religious vocabulary that’s easy to take for granted. “I am so blessed,” we say. But what is blessing; what do we mean by that? If a friend of yours who doesn’t go to church were to ask you exactly what a blessing is, or what it means to be blessed, how would you answer?

I did a quick search, and like many of the words we use without knowing where they came from, after you learn, you may not want to use it anymore. The verb “bless” came from Old English, meaning to “consecrate, make holy, give thanks,” which came from Proto-Germanic “blodison” “to hallow or sprinkle with blood.” That’s right, from blood sprinkled on pagan altars, to consecrate them.  So the next time someone says “a blessing on you,” if scenes from the horror film “Carrie” come to mind, there might be something to it.

That word “bless” was used in Old Testament English Bibles to translate the Greek “eulogein” and Latin “benedicer” “to speak well of, to praise,” which were used in Scripture to translate Hebrew “brk,” “to bend (the knee), worship, praise, invoke blessings.”  Over time, it’s meaning in Old English shifted toward “pronounce or make happy,” as in the word “bliss.” If you are “blessed,” you are in “bliss.”  Anybody here in bliss this morning?  After all, this is Illinois, not Hawaii.  Or are you like me, in blissful ignorance, most of the time?

Maybe, rather than attempting to understand the etymology, it would make more sense to ask, “What does it feel like to be blessed?”  How would you answer that question?

To be blessed feels like standing in sunlight, in the midst of cold and darkness.  It’s a word that’s almost always relational; to be blessed feels like you have someone’s regard, that you are loved unconditionally. It feels like you are not and will never be alone, but accompanied wherever you go. Feeling blessed feels like you have the capacity to rise above present circumstances, that you are more than the sum of your parts or past experiences.  Being blessed feels like you have sacred worth; not because of something you did or might do, but simply because of who you are.

Whether or not we feel blessed, may have a lot to do with our growing up and our family, even our birth order. Were we the oldest, the middle, or the youngest child? Did we feel blessed in our family, or cursed?  Has that sense of blessing, or lack of it, shaped us to this day?

Whether or not we feel blessed in life, up to this day, there’s still hope.  Let’s ask an even more important question, a theological question: “Who are the people God blesses?” Might it be me? The answer to this question is what Jesus definitively answers give us in today’s Gospel, from the Book of Matthew, in the most famous sermon ever preached, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

Before we see what Jesus has to say, let’s put it into context.  The theme of the Sundays after Epiphany, which we are now in, is the glory of God revealed in Jesus. That’s what Epiphany means, “revelation, or appearing.” We have seen God’s glory reflected at Jesus’ birth, at his baptism in the River Jordan, at the calling of his first disciples, and now today in his greatest sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, surely some of the most influential words ever spoken.

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, now going up a mountain to teach. Matthew even presents Jesus’ teaching in five groupings, corresponding to the five books of the Moses.

Despite the way Matthew presents the material, no one knows whether Jesus actually delivered this sermon in one place at one time.  It may well have been that Jesus used bits and pieces at different times and places, as Luke presents the same material.

In any case, when you visit Galilee, you can visit a place called the Mount of Beatitudes. It is (surprise) up a mountain, a mountain our poor rental car struggled to get up. At the top, in a garden, is a beautiful octagonal shaped church, the Church of the Beatitudes, each side representing a beatitude. Most spectacular of all is the view from the Mount of Beatitudes, from there you can overlook the Sea of Galilee and see – in one vista – all the places where Jesus’ Galilean ministry took place. It is an awesome view.IMG_2000 DSC_0008 IMG_2002 DSC_0006

I could easily imagine Jesus, there on the hillside with his disciples, surrounded by people from the area. Given the area, I can’t imagine there were many rich or powerful people there, but fishermen and farmers and women and children, people like the people we have known all our lives. I can imagine Jesus looking at them, speaking to them, and saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

That opening beatitude and the seven that follow – describing the kind of people God blesses – are nothing short of jaw-dropping. Imagine a rural pastor speaking to her small congregation of farm folk, or an urban pastor, promising not some theoretical people, but the small but diverse group of people gathered before him, blessing.

Even here, the word translated as “blessing” (makarios) is slippery. When you read various translations, you will find that in addition to “blessed,” it is also translated “fortunate,” “well off,” and “happy,” recalling Robert Schuller’s notorious commentary on them as the “Be-Happy Attitudes.”  They are more than that.

The most amazing thing Jesus says in the Beatitudes, is that the people God blesses, are the exact opposites of those blessed by the world: not the powerful nor the wealthy nor the warriors, but the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those persecuted for righteousness’ sake. If we have ever felt any of those things in our hearts, we just may be the kind of people God blesses, even if we don’t have any of the world’s blessings.  And so Jesus is speaking to us.

The beatitudes are not a call either to attitude or action; they are the pronouncement of the blessing promised by God, to people who already are what the beatitude describes.  What Jesus tells us is that God is a God who cares about the meek, the humble, those who yearn for right, the merciful, the single-minded, peacemakers, and those who are persecuted. Such people God will not abandon nor leave hopeless.  The more we are those kind of people, by the experiences life brings us, the more we will understand God’s blessing.

Do we appreciate how counter to the ways of the world this is, even in popular Christianity? Almost all of us have been taught to believe in a form of Christianity that says “God helps those who help themselves,” (which – by the way – is not from the Bible, but Ben Franklin), that if you are prosperous and successful and straight you are blessed, but that if you are sinful or poor or a loser or gay, you are cursed. As we see in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, such people – representative of those Jesus described – are God’s “special” people, those whom God especially favors, and “blesses.”

Why these people? Why are the people Jesus blesses, not the people society blesses? Maybe – subversive that he is – that is why he chooses them. Contrary to all of the pseudo-Christian, pseudo-therapeutic preaching of these verses over the years, in this sermon Jesus is not offering a recipe for success or the keys to happiness or a roadmap to your best life now.  Rather, he is demonstrating once again – as so often in the Gospels – that God shows up just where we least expect God, in order to give freely, what we can neither earn nor achieve: blessedness, which we also call, “grace.”

And why these qualities? Perhaps Jesus chooses these qualities because it’s exactly in our moments of disappointment or despair, that we are likely finally to abandon our illusions about blessing, understood as happiness, wealth, fame, or power. It is at such times that we are poor and humble and mourning and seeking, that we are more open to the presence of God, who gives without asking in return, and blesses us that we might be a blessing to others. Only when we find ourselves broken (in poverty of spirit or mourning) and vulnerable (eschewing the way of violence for peace), do we experience the blessedness God and God alone gives.

Jesus lived in a culture of honor and shame, and defied both, by offering blessing. We live in a culture of affirmation and blame, and by virtue of following Jesus, are called to defy both, by offering blessing. As Jesus did in the Sermon on the Mount, we are called to proclaim the Good News of God’s universal presence, God’s unconditional love, and with God’s love, God’s gift to us of love, honor, and respect.  In other words, blessing.

David J. Lose, who holds The Marbury E. Anderson Chair in Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, writes a commentary on the Gospel each week; I acknowledge my indebtedness to him for many of the ideas in my sermon today. When this passage came up a few years ago, he suggested closing the sermon or service with a blessing, either corporately or individually. He said that the response he received afterward – in terms of comments, emails, and conversation – was staggering. Why? Because, in our society, blessing is so rare.  (David Lose, On Beatitudes and Blessing, Dear Working Preaching, January 26, 2014)

So that’s what we are going to do today. Today, when you come forward to receive Holy Communion, I am going to give you a blessing. Because once you have it, you will know it.  God bless you.  Amen.

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