“Blessed”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

April 8, 2018

Matthew 5:1-12

 

Today, as we enter into this new liturgical season, the season of Eastertide, which began with joyous Alleluias last week, we begin a sermon series on the reading we just heard, which is known as the Beatitudes.  For the next several weeks, we will hear this same reading each Sunday, and I will preach on different facets of the text, different parts of its meaning and message.  There is much to be said about this passage, and I am looking forward to exploring it together.

If you’ve read the gospel of Matthew recently, you may remember that the Beatitudes, the passage we just heard this morning, is the beginning of what’s known as the Sermon on the Mount.  This is Jesus’ opening address, his introductory remarks, his first major public event in Matthew’s version of the story.  Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River by his cousin John, and then he spends 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness, fasting and praying.  He returns to civilization and calls his first disciples, then travels through Galilee, preaching the good news and healing those who are sick, and he begins to attract a following.  And then, he goes up the mountain, and he sits down (in the traditional rabbinic posture for teaching), and he preaches a sermon that begins with the words we just heard.

If you’ve read the book of Exodus recently, you may remember that this is not the first time that a leader has gone up a mountain, and received instruction from God, and shared that message with the people.  Thousands of years before the story we heard this morning took place, while the Israelite people were wandering in the wilderness, making their 40-year journey from life as Pharaoh’s slaves in the land of Egypt to life as God’s people in the land of Canaan, Moses went up another mountain and received the Ten Commandments, which he brought back down to share with the people.  In fact, he received and shared not only the Ten Commandments, but a whole system of law and instruction that taught the people what it meant to be God’s people, how they ought to live in right relationship with God, and how they ought to care for one another as siblings in God’s family.  Moses going up Mount Sinai is a sort of unspoken backdrop for Jesus and his Sermon on the Mount.

If you’ve read the gospel of Matthew recently, you may remember that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, like the sermon Moses preached, goes on for a while.  And as Jesus preaches, beyond what we heard this morning, he gets to sections of his sermon that sound like the kind of instruction Moses was giving—instruction about how to live in right relationship with God and neighbor.  And he gets a bit demanding.

Jesus speaks of being the salt of the earth, the light of the world.  “But if salt has lost its taste,” he says, “how can its saltiness be restored?  It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.”

He speaks of fulfilling the law.  “For truly I tell you,” he says, “not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”

He reminds his hearers of the ancient commandments against murder, and then he takes it several steps further.  “But I say to you,” he says, “that if you are angry with a brother or a sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”

He speaks of fidelity in relationships and truthfulness in speech.  He speaks of turning the other cheek.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you,” he says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

He speaks of prayer, of almsgiving, of generosity with our earthly resources, of the way our hearts tend to follow our treasure.  He warns against worry, against judgment, against hypocrisy.  And the story says that when Jesus had finished preaching, three chapters later in Matthew’s gospel, the crowds were “astounded.”

Many Christians throughout history have turned to the Sermon on the Mount as a moral compass, a guide for life, a condensed version of the heart of the gospel.  Saint Augustine, a North African bishop in the 5th century, described the Sermon on the Mount as “a perfect standard of the Christian life.”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor, theologian, and Nazi resister, saw the Sermon on the Mount as the foundation of true Christian community and the primary impetus for his efforts to shift the direction of German society in the 1930s and 40s.  The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., quoted from the Sermon on the Mount in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, among other writings.  Mahatma Gandhi, from his Hindu perspective, was inspired by the Sermon on the Mount in his work of nonviolent civil disobedience and social change.  The moral and ethical claims Jesus makes in this, his first sermon, remain—a millennium later—astounding.

But that’s not where Jesus starts.  He does not start with demands.  He does not start with “You have heard it said, but I say to you.”  He does not start by setting out a standard that seems impossible for anyone to meet.  Those challenges will come, for the life of discipleship is not easy, or safe, or simple.  But challenge is not where Jesus starts.

He starts with what we heard today.

He starts with blessing.

He starts by reminding his listeners that God loves them, already and always.

He starts with a gentle word of grace for a people who were more accustomed to being beaten-down and trodden-upon than lifted-up.

He starts with “Blessed are you” when life is hard, when your heart is heavy, when your hands are empty, when all you have is absence and longing.

He starts with “Blessed are you” when you are sad, when you are poor, when you are hungry, when you are meek or timid or scared.

He starts by upending the conventional wisdom about who is worthy, who is valuable, who is loved, who is blessed.  Then as now, I am sure that the wealthy, powerful elite seemed a lot more #blessed than that ragtag group of nobodies who gathered to hear an itinerant preacher on a sunny afternoon near the Galilean lakeshore.

Yet the nobodies are the ones whom Jesus blesses.

The ones who are deep in mourning are the ones for whom he proclaims comfort.

The ones who are meek, and persecuted, and poor in spirit are the ones for whom he foretells a great inheritance on earth and in heaven.

The ones who are longing for that which feels out of reach are the ones for whom he promises abundance beyond their imagining.

Before he gets to the challenging teachings, before he gets to the difficult ethical demands, before he gets to the cost of discipleship, before he asks anything of them at all—he starts with blessing.  Because God’s love is not something we earn by striving.  Christ’s mercy is not something we achieve by our own effort.  Divine grace is not something we have to work for.

With God, love is always the first word, before anything else.  Mercy is always available, before we even ask for it.  Grace is what makes it possible for us to recognize when we, or our world, have fallen short, and it is what enables us to turn, to change our ways, to try again.

The first word is always love, always blessing.  So hear that word again.

Blessed are you…

Blessed are you…

Blessed are you…

Blessed.

Blessed.

Blessed.

 


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