Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Between A Rock And A Hard Place

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Matthew 5:1-12:

Who does society say is blessed?  Wealthy?  Educated?  Those on the East? Athletes? Actors? Entertainers? White?  Men?  Powerful? Politicians?  These are who society says are blessed, and it is certainly the groups that seem to have blessings showered on them.  In addition, there are those who will claim that these blessed people have these characteristics because they are blessed by God, and because they are blessed by God they also have these characteristics.  It’s a circular argument.  But although that is who society is blessed, that is not who Jesus says is blessed, which is what we hear today in the gospel passage from Matthew:

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.

This passage is more commonly known as the Beatitudes.  Beatitude is a Latin word which means “happy, fortunate or blissful,” and in a moment we’ll talk about really how inappropriate that translation and that understanding of this passage really is.  But let’s hear that list again: Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are those persecuted for righteousness and blessed are those who are persecuted because they are followers of Jesus.  Are those on any of your lists of those who are blessed?  I’d guess not, because these are not people we would consider to be blessed, and indeed, as we already said, some would argue that the simple fact that they are in these positions proves that God is not blessing them, and so we would probably expect that Jesus list of those who are blessed by God would be similar to the list that we might compile.  And we even have witness to that in scripture, in looking at the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, or look at the kings like David or Solomon, or others, we are told that they became wealthy and powerful, and all the things we associate with being blessed, or that society says are those who are blessed, because they are in fact blessed.  But then Jesus literally turns everything on its head.

I think there is a great scene in from the Chorus Line that sort of sums this up.  Some of you may remember that it’s about 17 dancers who are trying out to become members of a chorus line in a Broadway show.  After spending the day auditioning for the roles, they are finally called to stand on the line for the final cuts.  The director, played by Michael Douglas, asks the dancers to come to the line and then he calls some of the dancers by name and asks them to step forward.  As they do, they begin to smile thinking that they have won the competition.  Diana Morales, one of the dancers, is called forward and then sent back and as he sends her back, her face drops and she is crestfallen as she thinks she has been eliminated, but then the twist comes as all those who thought they had been chosen, all those who had heard their name called and who had stepped forward, are told “dancers in the front, thank you very much.”  And they are dismissed.  Those that were called forward had thought that had been chosen only to find out they were not, and those who thought they were the worst found out, instead, that they were the best.  They were the ones chosen.  They were the ones elevated.  Such is it for those lifted up by Jesus.

This passage is the beginning of what is known as the Sermon on the Mount, which we will be making our way through over the coming weeks, and this is Jesus’ first sermon in Matthew, and in that sense it can be compared to what Luke records as the first sermon, and in many ways they are similar.  That sermon from Luke has Jesus quoting from the 61st chapter of Isaiah, in which he says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.  It has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  That passage becomes an overarching theme of Luke’s gospel, just as the sermon on the Mount does for Matthew, and this sermon is also heavily reliant on the same chapter from Isaiah, and the Beatitudes give us a vision of what the kingdom of God that Jesus has come to proclaim looks like, and it is a vision that is radically different from what society or the world says is important.

Now I think one of the problems in hearing what Jesus is trying to say here is that we don’t understand the meaning of blessing, and we often mistake being blessed and being happy as one and the same thing.  As I already said, beatitude means happy or blissful, which is from the Latin word, and some versions have translated the Greek word used here as happy.  But there are two problems with this translation.

The first is that happiness is a rather subjective state.  After the Super Bowl today, there is going to be one group that’s happy because their team won, and another group that will be upset because their team lost.  Of course another group will be happy simply because the whole thing is over, and I’m going to be happy because the Super Bowl means that we are just two weeks away from Spring Training beginning, and the start of the baseball season.  Happiness, therefore, is in the eye of the beholder.  What makes me happy, could make you miserable, or vice versa. Whereas blessed is objective.  Either God blesses you or God doesn’t.  While we might claim someone has been blessed by God, our opinion has nothing to do with the actual blessing.  The second, and bigger, problem is that the opposite of blessed is not unhappy or sad, which it might be if blessed and happy were synonymous.  After all we were just told that those who mourn are blessed.  Instead, the opposite of blessed is cursed.  This becomes very clear later in Matthew’s gospel when Jesus issues a series of woe statements, that begin “woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites.”   There are 13 such statements in Matthew.  Luke, the only other gospel to include the Beatitudes, although Luke’s version is different, has 14 woe statements.  To compare this, Mark has two woe statements, and John contains none.  So to be blessed is a gift from God and is a statement of relationship with God, it has nothing to do with happiness or unhappiness.

In addition, what separates this giving of a set of laws from the mountain top, like Moses did, is that whereas the Ten Commandments are about doing, or not doing depending on the rule, the beatitudes are about being of who we are in the world.  But, the other mistake we often make when we hear the Beatitudes being read is that we begin thinking am I meek enough? Am I pure  in heart? Do I thirst and hunger for righteousness?  Am I merciful? Am I a peacemaker?  That too misses the point.  While all of these are positive attributes, Jesus is lifting them up after all, but Jesus is not telling us to go out and seek to mourn or to be poor in spirit, nor is he saying to be meek.  Have you ever tried to be meek?  As one commentator said, “these are not practical advice for successful living, but prophetic declarations made on the conviction of the coming-and-already present kingdom of God.”  They are not commands of how we should be living, but statements about how things are already.  Notice that each blessing begins in the present tense and then moves to the future tense.  Blessed are those who are x, for they will y.  Blessed are the meek, current, present tense, for they will inherit the earth, future tense.  To which Monty Python adds, in their immortal portrayal of the Sermon on the Mount in the Life of Brian, “Oh, I'm glad [the meek] are getting something, they have a hell of a time.”

One final problem we encounter when we hear the beatitudes is that many of us are so familiar with what they say that they are too familiar.  Because we know them we begin to miss entirely what they are saying, so listen to this version from Eugene Peterson’s The Message:

"You're blessed when you're at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
 "You're blessed when you feel you've lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
 "You're blessed when you're content with just who you are—no more, no less. That's the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can't be bought.
 "You're blessed when you've worked up a good appetite for God. He's food and drink in the best meal you'll ever eat.
 "You're blessed when you care. At the moment of being 'care-full,' you find yourselves cared for.
 "You're blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.
 "You're blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That's when you discover who you really are, and your place in God's family.
 "You're blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God's kingdom.
 "Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don't like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.

Did you hear something different in that reading?  The Beatitudes are not about nine individual characteristics or human virtues, in fact they stand in opposition to what we traditionally hold as virtuous.  I challenge any politician to adopt these as their platform.  They would be destroyed in an election.  Instead, they are about the blessing that God gives to us, “contrary to all appearances” in our lives.  We cannot look at each statement individually, they must be seen as a collective whole.  This is what a Christian community looks like it is oriented toward the kingdom of God.

The Beatitudes are about the foolishness that Paul is talking about in the passage that we heard from 1 Corinthians this morning.  “For God’s foolishness,” Paul says, “is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”  Consider your own call,” Paul says.  Consider your call, “Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.”  But God chose you.

God has called us and blesses us, even us the broken and foolish, the meek, the mourning, and the poor in spirit.  God blesses us.  I want you to turn to the person next to you, or on both sides of you, and say “You are blessed.”  No matter where you are in your life, no matter what is going on, God is there with you and wants you, even you, to participate in the kingdom.  God’s blessing are available for each and every one of us, not just those that people think God should be blessing, but even us.  May it be so.  Amen.

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