January 30, 2011
4 Epiphany A
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount takes up chapters 5, 6, and 7 of Matthew’s Gospel.
He begins the sermon with blessings.
We sometimes call them the Beatitudes, but perhaps we should just call them the Blessings.
Sometimes when we hear these Blessings, we hear them only as law.[i]
We think, “If only I were really poor in spirit, I would have the kingdom of God.
If only I could be more mournful, God would comfort me.
If only I were more meek, I would inherit the earth.
If only I were more pure in heart, then I would see God.”
But these are not conditional blessings.
Jesus does not say, “If you are really poor in spirit, then God will bless you.”
Jesus does not say, “If you hunger and thirst for righteousness just a little more, then God will bless you.”
Jesus does not say, “If you were more pure in heart, then God would bless you.”
No, Jesus simply blesses the people.
God bless you!
God bless you!
You know, when Jesus says, “God bless you,” it’s not because they sneezed.
People used to say “God bless you” when someone sneezed to try to ward off the plague or other diseases.
So “God bless you” meant something like “God protect you from catching a disease.”
That is not what Jesus is doing.
No, Jesus is announcing God’s blessing for the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted.
Jesus is saying, “God especially blesses you. You are blessed, you who do not feel blessed, you who are not seen to be blessed in the eyes of the world. God blesses you. God loves you. God has God’s eye especially on you, and will bless you in God’s Kingdom. You are not blessed because you are perfect, but because you are on the right path; by grace you are moving toward God.”
Even when harsh words and violent language seem to ‘work,’ to score points against others and draw attention to yourself, it is more blessed to be a peacemaker.
Even when holding a grudge and getting revenge feel so good, it is better to be merciful and forgiving.
Even when the aggressive rich seem to be taking more and more of the world’s wealth and resources for themselves, still it is the meek and gentle ones who will inherit the earth.
For example, it seems that the increase in food prices in the last few years, and the subsequent unrest, hunger, and starvation of many of the world’s poor, was not caused by a shortage of food, nor was it caused by farmers making more money.
Rather, much of the increase in food costs came from bankers and other wealthy speculators betting on food prices going up.
So the rich got even richer, while the poorest people of the world spent all their money just to feed their families, and often starved because of a lack of food.
In a world like this, Jesus’ blessings seem even more startling.
We all know that the meek seldom seem to get very far. At the start of his career, legendary showman P.T. Barnum displayed an exhibit entitled “The Happy Family,” which consisted of a lion, a tiger, a panther … and a baby lamb. People flocked to see it, and Barnum was asked whether he planned to keep the exhibit. “The display will become a permanent feature,” he is quoted as saying, “if the supply of lambs holds out.”[ii]
We often see lions eating lambs in our world today
And yet, Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek.”
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says it even more simply: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh” (Luke 6:20-21).
Jesus blesses people on the edge.
People on the margins, outsiders.
The quiet ones. The voiceless.
He says, “the first will be last and the last will be first.”
Jesus blesses the underdogs.
Not the popular and powerful.
Not the in-crowd.
Not the popular clique.
No, Jesus blesses especially those the world does not count as blessed.
And that is truly good news.
We especially need to hear these words in times like these, when we see unarmed people taking to the streets in Egypt, demanding nothing more than freedom and self government.
As Zachary Bailes writes,
“To escape a massacre Jesus, the newborn, his mother, and his father, escaped to Egypt. We must join Jesus and the holy family there, now, in spirit, in body, in love for change, for hope, for peace among all people. May we voice in our own way & echo the chant that fills Egypt: Jewish, Christian, Muslim, we’re all Egyptian.”
We indeed join our prayers with the prayers of millions of others, for peace and justice in Egypt, in the Middle East, and the world.
Many people in Egypt are paying the ultimate price as peacemakers.
Jesus calls them blessed.
We are also called to be peacemakers.
It starts in our homes and in our church.
If we can’t make peace in our homes or in our church or in our places of work, how can we make peace in our community and in our world?
Jesus also says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” The word for righteousness is the same word often used for justice in the New Testament.
It’s a hunger and thirst for what is right, for what God requires, for freedom and equity for all people.
Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount with Blessings.
- Blessing those who are real.
- Blessing those who are authentic, transparent, honest, open, and vulnerable.
- Blessing those who are connected to oneself, one’s neighbors, and one’s world.
- Blessing the nonviolent.
- Blessing those who do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with their God.
That’s really what it’s all about, isn’t it?
That’s all God really wants from us.
Even though the Old Testament has hundreds of laws about animal sacrifice, Micah the prophet said, “None of that matters. What matters is doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with your God. That’s it. And that’s enough.”
Today is my family’s last day with you here at Grace.
It’s been a good and fast five years.
My children have grown amazingly.
We have done much good ministry together.
I have learned much from working alongside you.
We finished building the new addition together.
We built up this congregation together.
We have faced challenges together.
We have said goodbye to good friends together.
Together, we celebrated the life, and mourned the death, of one of our soldiers, Troy Linden, a child of Grace.
I will miss you.
We will miss you.
But know this day that God will walk with each of us from this day forward and forevermore.
Know this day that God blesses you and keeps you.
God’s face shines on you with love.
God’s grace flows through you.
God’s mercy is showered upon you.
God will strengthen you for the journey ahead.
God “has told you, O [people of Grace], what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
[i] These reflections owe much to David Lose’s article, “God Bless You,” http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=450
[ii] Homiletics, 1/30/2005.