Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | January 29, 2017

2017.01.29 “Blessed Indeed” – Matthew 5: 1 – 12

Central United Methodist Church
Blessed Indeed
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 5: 1 – 12
January 29, 2017

sermon_on_the_mount_carl_bloch

The Sermon on the Mount by Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834-1890)

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, The New Revised Standard Version

In a congregation of travelers and immigrants, is there anyone here who has not at one time or another experienced culture shock?

Culture shock is what we experience when we go to a foreign country, where life is different than the life to which we are accustomed. The language is different, the culture is different, even the food is different. At first, it can be new and exciting, but soon, it loses its novelty. And so you may find yourself anticipating a meal at McDonald’s, or searching for an ex-pat English-speaking bar, as I once did in Paris, even if the other patrons are British or Australian; at least they are speaking English, more or less. To experience culture shock might be described by the title of Robert Heinlein’s 1961 science fiction classic, Stranger in a Strange Land.

The experience of culture shock; or feeling like a Stranger in a Strange Land, describes how many of us are feeling this week in our own country, in this first week of the new administration. Many of us likely thought that once the campaign was over and the reality of governance begun, President Trump would moderate his views, even as he suggested in the vacillations of his own statements.

But this week, we found out that is not the case. He does intend to build that wall between the US and Mexico, estimated to cost $14 billion. (They built one of those in China centuries ago; and in Berlin, decades ago; both failed.) He intends to abolish the Affordable Care Act, which will not only make everyone’s health care cost more, but more importantly, will take medical insurance away from 20 million people, many of whom are his supporters. Even as he threatens to “send in the Feds” to quell Chicago’s gun violence (761 deaths last year), it has been conservatively estimated that demolishing the Affordable Care Act without a replacement would result in 44,000 deaths a year. Which number most warrants “sending in the Feds?

But so far the most dramatic reversal was this: President Trump’s executive order on immigration reverberated through the United States and around the globe yesterday, slamming the border shut for real people: an Iranian scientist headed to a lab in Boston, an Iraqi who had worked as an interpreter for the United States Army, and a Syrian refugee family headed to a new life in Ohio, among others. As many as a half million legal immigrants, out of the country, find themselves locked out of the United States. But stay tuned: a federal judge has already issued a stay, if not yet on detainment, at least on deportation. I apologize to those with us here this morning who have come from such places as Iraq and Syria. We know you have suffered so much already, only now to find this: the country that has welcomed you, has now closed the door on your people, your friends and even family.

This led one of my friends to post a picture of the Statue of Liberty on Facebook, with these words: “Dear France: Thanks, it’s been great, but we’re done with this now. What address should we ship it back to?”

This week we have been reminded, of what we sometimes forget: that as Christians, we are subjects of two kingdoms: the Kingdom of God, and whatever earthly Kingdom we find ourselves in, in our case the United States of America. There are times when the values of the Kingdom of God (Christian values) and of our government align; there are other times when those values conflict. For those Christians who follow the values of Jesus, now is one of those times.

I am not talking about popular cultural understandings of Christian values, which in our country are primarily political and cultural, rather than Christian, which partially explains why 81% of evangelical Christians, 58% of Protestants, and 52% of Catholics voted for President Trump. What I’m talking about are the actual values of the Kingdom of God, as stated by Jesus, which are nowhere made clearer than in our Gospel today. Sadly, either many Christians have never read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount; or ignore them.

In these first 12 verses – known as the Beatitudes (blessings), the question Jesus addresses is this: Who are the people blessed by God? Surprisingly, they are not the people we might think.

Surely, these words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount are some of the most beautiful and influential words in the whole Bible.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

These and the beatitudes which follow, 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 earthly kingdoms: not the powerful and the prosperous, 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. I do not think this was intended to be a comprehensive list – these and these only – but rather a representative list: these are the kinds of people God blesses.

And what does it mean to be blessed, anyway? Does it mean to be showered with success and prosperity, health and happiness? To be blessed feels like standing in sunlight, surrounded by cold and darkness. To be blessed is to have someone’s highest regard, to know that you are appreciated and honored and unconditionally loved by them. Blessed means that you are special; not because of something you did or might do someday, but because of who you are.

What Jesus is teaching is radical concept; counter to popular religious teaching both then and now. 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, but that if you are sinful or poor or a loser or gay God hates you. But as we see in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, nothing could be further from the truth.

I think it is easiest to understand if we imagine the people to whom Jesus was speaking. Those gathered to hear Jesus weren’t the high and the mighty, but people like shepherds, fishermen, poor widows, the sick, the powerless, the exploited, the kind of people Jesus loved hanging out with, his kind of people. Imagine a rural pastor speaking to her small congregation of farm folk. Imagine an urban pastor (like me) speaking to a small but diverse group of people. These are the kinds of people Jesus pronounces blessed. In other words, the people Jesus pronounced blessed that day, were people like us gathered here today.

I think back upon the five congregations I have served, and yes, there have been well-to-do people; but more of them have been ordinary people. They were people who struggle with faith and finances and relationships, even their relationship with God, not a few who struggled with both physical and mental illness. As St. Paul once wrote to the Corinthians, “Take a good look, friends, at who you were when you got called into this life. I don’t see many of “the brightest and the best” among you, not many influential, not many from high-society families. Isn’t it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these “nobodies” to expose the hollow pretensions of the “somebodies”? Amazingly, surprisingly, Jesus says these are the kinds of people God blesses. (Rev. Dr. Dawn Chesser, #Blessed: Preaching Notes, UMCDiscipleship.org, January 29, 2017)

By extension of Jesus’ words in the Beatitudes, it is not a stretch to believe that in God’s kingdom, God blesses all who come before God, hungry and needy in spirit: saints and sinners, those poor in wallet and poor in spirit. God blesses the blind, the lame, the imprisoned, the outcast, the leper, and the prostitute, refugees and immigrants. God blesses Jews and Christians, Muslims and Hindus, Buddhist and Baha’i. God blesses Democrats and Republicans and Independents. In Jesus, the blessing of God does not discriminate: God’s blessing is for you and for me and for us all. No matter who we are and what we have done, we are blessed and welcome in the Kingdom of God.

Hearing these words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, hearing what kind of people God blesses, how can we not look around, to embrace those around us, and to look upon them not with resentment or hatred, but empathy. When we do this, God’s kingdom becomes not a spiritual place far away, but whenever and wherever we bear each other’s burdens, bind each other’s wounds, and honor each other as God’s children. To be human is to be fragile and vulnerable, and so it turns out that the surprising grace of God is not to reject these things but to gather them into a divine embrace. (David Lose, Epiphany 4A, Recognizing Blessing, In the Meantime, January 24, 2017)

This is why we grieve and are angered by the recent actions towards refugees, people who have suffered so much already. It brought to mind Robert Kennedy’s words in a speech to the Cleveland City Club on April 5th of 1968, in which he said:

“But we can perhaps remember – even if only for a time – that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short movement of life, that they seek – as we do – nothing but the change to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can. Surely this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men [and women] and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our hearts brothers and countrymen once again.” (Robert Kennedy, Speech to the Cleveland City Club, April 5, 1968)

If we can do this, we will be blessed indeed. Amen.

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