Sunday, January 30, 2011

Blessed Are You...

Sheepscott Community Church January 30, 2011

Micah 6: 1-8

1 Cor, 1: 18-31

Matthew 5: 1-12

Blessed Are You...

You may recall that during the administration of George H.W. Bush, he called for people to volunteer in their communities and thereby be as a thousand points of light. That noble theme was actually spoken and outlined 2000 years earlier in a concrete way by Jesus, who illuminated his nine points of light, the beatitudes, and practiced what he preached––the kingdom of God come into the world.

The proclamation of the beatitudes as presented in today’s gospel of Matthew is written as though the Sermon on the Mount were a single unique event. In fact there were probably several such events and the sayings of Jesus would have been gathered up into this one event, which the gospel writer lays out. The probability of the beatitudes having been preached on several occasions rather than on one as presented shouldn’t distract us from their importance. If anything the writer wants to call attention to these important foundational teachings of Christianity laid out by Jesus, and so he takes the literary liberty of gathering them up into this one signal event.

The mountain from which Jesus speaks is an indication of the loftiness of the material he is propounding and recalls for us the Mount of Transfiguration or Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments. In an earlier translation than ours, Jesus “opened his mouth and taught them.” The use of the term “opened his mouth” is an indication of the utterance of solemn truth. That he sat down to teach was an appropriate posture for a Jewish teacher, and fitting for so important a discourse.

So we note three things: Jesus goes up to the mountain, he opens his mouth, and he sits to teach, all signals from the writer of the gospel of Matthew that there is something very important about to be spoken and we would do well to pay close attention. The location of this discourse, at the front of the Gospel of Matthew, is also an indicator of its importance. The content of Jesus’s sermon on the mount is nothing less than the statement––a new statement––of what righteousness is, especially that righteousness that characterizes the kingdom of God.

Far from being a passive or mild restatement of religious truths, Jesus in essence threw down the gauntlet before the world’s accepted standards of the time. We can see this more clearly when we set the beatitudes over against their opposites. For example, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” would be opposed to the proud in spirit. We’ve see that beatitude dramatized in the parable of the publican and the pharisee, haven’t we? The pharisee stands at the front of the Temple thanking God that he is not like other men––robbers, evildoers, adulterers. He fasts twice a week and gives a tenth of all he has. Meanwhile, the publican or tax collector stands in the back and would not even look up to heaven, but instead beats his breast and says, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus tells his listeners––and us––that that man in the back, rather than the one in the front, went home justified before God. Blessed are the poor in spirit, as opposed to the proud in spirit.

Given the constraints of time, I’ll focus only on a few of the beatitudes, first expanding a bit more on that first beatitude, because in essence it incorporates all the others. “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” In the gospel of Matthew, the gloss “in spirit” is added because poverty in and of itself is not a blessed state. In fact it can embitter a person’s spirit. A gloss is an added interpretation of the text, and if we will accept Matthew’s gloss of “in spirit,” we can say that that word poor covers all who would learn, who would come like children to the great book of life. It covers those who are satisfied with the simple things of life and not consumed with acquisition. It covers all those who are the spiritual descendants of those who were in Jesus’s time the peasants of Galilee, the ones who hungered and thirsted after Jesus’s words. His words were matched by his acts of healing, which the poor couldn’t have paid for and which in fact had no price. Healings were freely dispensed out of the compassionate well of Christ’s being.

These peasants were the despised “folk of the soil,” the anawim as they were called in Jesus’s time, but it was just those despised ones whom Jesus called blessed. Something to ponder. If pride is the root of all sin, and it is, then poverty of spirit is the root of all virtue. Those who are blessed because of poverty of spirit are humble before God and never presume. They have a spiritually healthy sense of their own emptiness before God, which God can fill with that One’s self, and whereby the kingdom comes. The person does not cease to be but indeed becomes his true self, which is always hidden in God and waiting to be revealed.

Let’s consider the second beatitude for a few minutes. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” That seems at best a paradox. How can those who mourn be blessed? First of all, in order to mourn, we have to care about something or someone outside of ourselves. And I expect we have all mourned at one time or another, because we have cared for someone and have lost that someone to death. It doesn’t feel like a time of blessing, does it?. Maybe we need to adjust our own understanding of what the word “Blessed” means and of what mourning can encompass.

Jesus knew very well that grief in itself, like poverty in itself is not blessed state, but there it is, only second in the lineup of beatitudes. What kind of mourning can be a blessed state? Blessed are those who accept their own sorrow with a resolve to learn from it. These are they who cannot conceive that life is given only for their comfort. Darkness may reveal stars, which the daytime’s sun can only conceal. Just so, they confront the fact of death and accept the pain that goes with it, in such a way, that they offer hospitality to a strange guest––and I do mean death itself––and perhaps thereby entertain angels unawares.

Those who mourn include those who don’t turn away from the world’s misery. They voluntarily share their neighbor’s pain. They are the ones who come to visit when there is a death in the house; who visit those in prison, aware that those in prison are not so different from themselves. Those who mourn are those who agonize over injustices, from homelessness, to concern for those who have no health insurance and remain untreated, to the countenancing and so tacit acceptance of domestic violence. The list of society’s wrongs is not quite endless, but close, and those who mourn with those who suffer because of those wrongs are the compassionate of the earth, and God knows it. Blessed are they.

And blessed are those who mourn for their own sins, and indeed for those of their neighbors. It is elect souls who mourn thus, counting themselves guilty in the common guilt. There is a companionship with Moses across the millennia, who in Exodus said to God, “Blot me out of thy book yet forgive their sin.” Better known, Jesus’s own prayer from the cross, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.” Two who associated themselves with sinful human beings: Moses and Jesus. And with all those who mourn. They are the conscience of their age, not as acid reformers, but as the heart of love that changes the world. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

I was hard pressed whether to choose the fifth beatitude––Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy––or the seventh––Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. So I’m going to touch on both; I can’t let one or the other go.

When Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful,” he was once again going against the ethical grain of his time. The Romans despised pity; the Stoics might offer help, but they looked askance at compassion. And the pharisees, so uptight in their self-righteousness showed little mercy. In fact, suffering at that time was generally viewed as deserved punishment for sin. So, you can see the revolutionary nature of Jesus blessing those who showed mercy, as he himself did and illustrated again and again. His parable of the Good Samaritan, the only person who showed mercy to the man set upon by robbers, is a good example. This was a new kind of teaching. It seems somewhat commonplace to us but that’s only because we’ve been hearing it much of our lives, as part and parcel of the religion of Christianity.

Mercy lays claim on us wherever and whenever there is suffering, and not just the suffering of human beings but of all creatures. Mere feeling or sentiment in the direction of suffering is not enough. Mercy needs to become translated into action or it becomes maudlin. What I admire and like about the merciful is that they are aware enough of their own sins not to judge anyone else for theirs. There is an awareness of the common ground, of the human condition.

And the seventh beatitude? Blessed are the peacemakers. The work of the peacemaker is reconciliation between groups and human beings at odds with each other. To expect peace to just happen spontaneously is fatuous.The peacemaker, whose most important work is the practice of the presence of God, can give peace from the overflow of his or her own peaceful heart. The work of making peace keeps the love of God at the center, because as long as persons are at odds with God, they are at odds with themselves and with their neighbors.

Think of the Truth and Justice Commission established by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa, following the dismantling of apartheid. People had a chance to speak about their experience under that oppressive system and to be heard. That opportunity for injustice to be exposed for what it was and is and consequent suffering to be acknowledged is one element on the road to establishing peace. That Desmond Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize was entirely fitting, as was the awarding of that prize to former President Jimmy Carter who has spent his post-presidency years as an ambassador of peace and justice around the world, traveling when and where he is invited to oversee elections in potentially inflammatory situations and places, being a visible working supporter of Habitat for Humanity, and working for the complete elimination of guinea worm in sub-Saharan Africa..

Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are they who mourn. They are all poor in spirit, which is to say, humble before God, listening to and watching for the guidance of the Spirit of God about how to go forward in service. The world needs all of us, for we are what the world has to embody the kingdom come. We can be conduits for God’s compassion, mercy and peace, if we are poor in spirit, not thinking so highly of ourselves that God can’t get through the noise of pride around us.

Jan read the often quoted admonition from Micah, “He has showed you, O man, what is good./ And what does the Lord require of you?/ To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” I recommend committing that to memory. It will bring to mind the beatitudes and maybe bring you back to study and think about them. Amen.

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