Sunday, January 29, 2017

Sermon: Blessed Are...

Grace Presbyterian Church
January 29, 2017, Epiphany 4A
Micah 6:1-8; Matthew 5:1-12

Blessed Are…

I remember my first teaching job. I don’t mean the kind of teaching one does as a graduate assistant; I mean my first real, away-from-grad-school teaching position with an actual title – Visiting Assistant Professor of Musicology. At Texas Tech University. In Lubbock, Texas.
At this point in my life I had never driven past the Mississippi River, save for a few academic trips to LSU. But here I was, making the drive from Tallahassee to Lubbock for a one-semester teaching job. Julia was remaining in Tallahassee so the sense of displacement was heightened just a bit.
I drove through an ice storm in the Panhandle, spent a night in Shreveport, Louisiana, and then entered Texas, which, as the ads used to say, is like a whole other country. Once I got past Fort Worth all the green stuff stopped; it was as if I was driving off the edge of the world. A Mars rover was at that time sending pictures of that planet back to Earth, and having seen a few of those pictures in the news I thought I recognized what I was driving through. And between Midland and Lubbock my car actually got hit by a tumbleweed.
But I got there and it was time to get to work. First day of class, in this strange new place, with two different courses to teach, and it was time to begin. I don’t think I’ve ever had a more self-conscious day in my life. Is my hair going to stay out of my eyes? Do I have my lecture notes? Is the media equipment working? What am I forgetting? Man, oh man, my throat is dry…(that’s still a problem, sometimes…).
Eventually I got through it and ended up having a pretty enjoyable time that term.
“Firsts” can be rather nerve-wracking. Being conscious about doing your job but also about “making an impression,” or just trying not to embarrass yourself, can be exhausting. I invite you to remember such “firsts” in your own life as we begin to explore this, Jesus’s first public sermon as recorded by Matthew.
You might remember last week’s scripture, the last half of chapter four, followed Jesus setting up shop in Galilee, calling his first disciples, and healing a great many people – his first action, so to speak, which revealed Jesus as an upsetter of the order in which the people had been burdened and oppressed. This sense of revealing of Jesus and about Jesus continues a theme we can trace all the way back to the Epiphany story, when the child Jesus was visited by those eastern sages, being revealed to the world, so to speak. Continuing with Jesus’s very public baptism by John and the work of healing from last week, Jesus continues to present himself, or to reveal what his ministry is about, to an unsuspecting world.
The numbers of people who came for healing, from all around Galilee and beyond, meant that quite a crowd had accumulated around Jesus, and the presence of those crowds seems to have prompted Jesus to decide it was time to begin the long process of educating his disciples, and the people as well. He goes up the mountain (understood as a place of holy instruction at least since Mount Sinai), sits down (a position of teaching authority in that culture), and begins to teach and preach.
And the first words out of his mouth are “Blessed are…”
Just a few verses ago, back in chapter four, Jesus had been taking up John the Baptizer’s message, the one that started with the word “Repent…”
But now, “blessed are…”
Of the Beatitudes (as they have come to be know) much has already been said in Christian literature, sometimes not to best effect. I recall from my younger days a book, written by a preacher well-known from the televised program from his rather ornate church out in California, purporting to offer a practical application of the Beatitudes, with possibly the worst title possible for summing up their actual import: The Be-Happy Attitudes.
Um, no.
Before going anywhere with these eight statements, we need to get one thing straight: “blessed” and “happy” are not synonyms. Not remotely.
Let’s remind ourselves who is being blessed here: “the poor in spirit,” “those who mourn,” “the meek,” “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” “the merciful,” “the pure in heart,” “the peacemakers,” “those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” and finally “you, when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”
These are the ones who are called out as “blessed” here. But in the midst of any of those situations, “happy” isn’t very likely the dominant feeling going on. I don’t think any of you are typically “happy” in the midst of mourning, for instance. Being in the position of being a peacemaker typically means some kind of conflict is going on, and people who are happy about that are frankly awful people. And those who are somehow “happy” in the midst of being persecuted are frankly crazy people. And the blessings promised in each case, amazing and wonderful blessings all, you will notice are mostly paired with future-tense verbs – “will be comforted,” “will inherit the earth,” “will be filled,” and so forth.
These blessings are, to use a fancy seminary word, eschatological. In the future, maybe even in the end times. These Beatitudes are not about turning us into perpetually smiley-faced, shiny happy people all the time. If anything, quite the opposite is true: Jesus knows his disciples are going to face hard times just for being his disciples, and these blessings are part of getting through the hard times to come. Forewarned is forearmed, so to speak.
You see, each one of is most of these things at one point or another. I am going to guess that most of us have known mourning, all too frequently. I frankly hope you have longed, even hungered for righteousness, or have been in the position to need to show mercy. Frankly I hope you have not been persecuted for righteousness’s sake, but these days don’t rule it out.
At some point or other we find ourselves in many of these places. Jesus knew that those disciples were going to face these hard things, and his very first teaching to them is about preparing them for these hard things, and equipping them to remember that even in the midst of these hard things, they are blessed.
This probably isn’t what Andrew and Simon and James and John were expecting back when they jumped off their fishing boats as fast as they possibly could and followed Jesus. It’s hard to know what they were thinking, maybe thoughts of fame and glory, or of some kind of perpetual blissed-out existence, or maybe just anything but the backbreaking work of fishing, but probably not anything along the lines of “know that you are blessed when the hard things come.”
And yet that is precisely what these Beatitudes say to these disciples: know that you are blessed when the hard things come.
This leads to another point that we should take from the verses: the hard things will come, if you are truly following Christ.
If indeed you are submitted to the will of God, being led by the Holy Spirit, and striving to live in the way Christ taught and lived, hard times will come. You will be reviled and persecuted and have people utter all kinds of false things against you. And the most distressing part will be that, if your life follows anything like the path that Jesus walked, that reviling and persecuting and slander will come, and it will come from other people who call themselves Christians. And coming from your supposed brothers and sisters in Christ, it will be far more venomous and bitter than any Muslim or Jew or Hindu or Buddhist would ever be towards you.
But our call, our mission, is to follow, to be so submitted to Christ and so overtaken by the Spirit that we live up to these Beatitudes not because of our own effort, but because we as so following Christ that we don’t know any other way to live. The reviling and persecuting and slandering will come, it will come because when we live in Christ and are possessed in heart by Christ, when these words and others like the amazing words from the prophet Micah are written on our hearts, we won’t be able to keep quiet about rampaging injustice being practiced in the name of patriotism. We won’t be able to stop ourselves from receiving the stranger, no matter what country that stranger comes from. We won’t be able to sit still when prejudice is passed off as prudence and enshrined in law. And when we can’t shut up or sit still or stop ourselves, we will catch Hell, in the most theological sense of that word, and we’re pretty likely to catch it from others who call themselves by the same name we call ourselves. Hard to believe that meekness and mercy and hungering and thirsting for righteousness could be so divisive, but they surely can.
So there it is. This is how Jesus introduces himself to the world, by promising that those who follow him will be so contrary to the way of the world and the way of empire that they will live regularly in the crosshairs of the world. And he calls them blessed for it.
And then he tells them to rejoice, because the prophets before them were treated the same way. Like Micah, with those amazing words about doing justice and loving kindness and walking humbly with God, you’ll catch heat for it.
And you will be blessed, and yours will be the kingdom of Heaven, and great will be your reward.
For these utterly backwards blessings, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#749            Come! Live in the Light
#419            Lord, Who May Dwell Within Your House
#172            Blest Are They
#700            I’m Gonna Live So God Can Use Me

Credit: -- and that's a REALLY GOOD QUESTION, isn't it?

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