“God’s Promise of Blessing” – Sermon for Jan. 29, 2017

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“Contemporary Justice and Child”, mural in the Great Hall, Department of Justice, Washington DC

“Contemporary Justice and Child”, mural in the Great Hall, Department of Justice, Washington DC

“New Year, Same Promises:  God’s Promise of Blessing”

A Sermon on Matthew 5:1-12 (with 1st Cor. 1:18-31) for the 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A; preached January 29, 2017, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister

 

It’s hard to believe, sometimes, just how many problems can come with just one little section of scripture. Yes, that’s right: problems. Perhaps you’re a little surprised that I would say such a thing today, after this scripture reading from Matthew. After all, this passage, this collection of “Blessed are” statements together known as the “Beatitudes”—it’s been one of the most believed snippets of the Biblical scripture over the years, right up there with the 23rd Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer.

That, actually, is among the problems with this reading. Its sheer familiarity can stand in the way of a fresh and relevant word being heard from these verses. Not only that, but the addictive drug of sentimentality tends to get mixed in with that elixir of familiarity, resulting in a deadly cocktail capable of terminating the liveliest of texts. By the time you have cute needlepoint wall-hangings adorned with the words, they probably have lost their ability to shock or even mildly surprise.

Another problem with the Beatitudes comes from the fact that we’re not even quite sure what that ever-important word means, or even how to best translate it. “Blessed”, of course, is the way we heard it this morning, and is the familiar translation from the old King James Version and on down through its descendants. A number of well-known English translations these days, though, have it as “happy”! Happy are the poor in spirit, happy are the peacemakers, and so no. Famously, the French edition of the New Jerusalem Bible translates it as “debonair”. As a colleague of mine put it, “When I consider the beatitude ‘debonair are the peacemakers,’ I picture Cary Grant at an antiwar protest, wearing a bowtie as he hoists a placard overhead.”[1] But this same colleague of mine pointed out that this word we usually think of as “stylish” or “suave” really comes from its parts: de bon aire—of good disposition.

Now, while such translation questions can be fascinating, and occasionally important… even if we stick with the traditional “blessed”, what does that actually mean? What does it mean to be “blessed”? That’s yet another problem with this beloved passage. Does “blessing” simply mean receiving some reward, some gift or payment or prize from the one bestowing the blessing? What sort of reward might that be?

And in the case of the Beatitudes, does that mean we are supposed to strive after the qualities listed, in order that we might achieve the promised reward? On one hand, that sounds plausible—that we are supposed to try to be meek or strive to be peacemakers—but doesn’t that fall apart when we get to “Blessed are those who mourn”? Are we supposed to try to be people who mourn? I mean. I suppose you could dig into that at some level—I’m thinking about what it is we could be called to mourn, or whether it could be a call to some sort of compassionate tenderness of heart—but that seems to me to be stretching things a bit farther than should probably be necessary.

I suppose, my biggest problem with this passage, with these Beatitudes, has its root in the sentimentalization of them I already mentioned. This beloved passage walks right into the trap, so often, or merely being “Pie-in-the-sky” wishful thinking. Oh, you’re mourning right now? Don’t worry because in the “sweet by-and-by” you’ll be comforted. Don’t fret over how you’re being treated in this world, because in the next one—wherever and how-ever-long-away that may be—you’ll get your reward.

Such a mentality has plagued many versions of popular Christian piety for hundreds of years—really about 1,700 years, ever since the emperor Constantine turned Christianity from a persecuted sect of resistance and alternative world view into the official religion of the empire.

But you see, “Pie in the sky in the sweet by-and-by” doesn’t square with what Jesus himself said or did. Just last week, as we heard the story of Jesus calling his first disciples to follow him, we also heard the proclamation with which he began his ministry: “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” Jesus’ gaze is not fixed on some celestial realm floating on clouds or paved with gold streets. The kingdom of heaven—the reign and realm and reality of God—has come near. It is something to be seen and recognized and lived-into here, now, today.

So then we reach this moment in the story, when Jesus sits down to being teaching those first disciples—and perhaps the crowds too; it’s not entirely clear whether his teaching, his so-called “Sermon on the Mount” of which this is but the first section, is addressed to the whole crowd of only to the disciples seated at his feet. Either way, though, here we meet Jesus beginning to lay out just what those who would follow him need to know. And that foundation for Discipleship 101, it would seem to be being able to recognize blessedness. If you are to follow me, Jesus seems to be saying, you need to know how things really are. You need to know the truth.

Obviously, “the truth” has become a hot-button topic these days. In a mere 10 days, the new executive administration of this country has gotten us into a swampy abyss not simply over policy positions but over the very nature of truth and reality itself. And this, I believe, is one of the places where we, as Christians, as followers of Jesus, must take a stand. You can be Christian and have various views on certain policies—on abortion, on the role of government versus other sectors of society in addressing poverty, and so forth. Now, I would say that Christian faith and the teachings of Jesus probably ought to lead us to certain perspectives on such things—after all, for anyone who thinks faith shouldn’t be political, we need only to recognize that the Bible speaks more about money that just about any other topic… and that the one we claim to follow died at the hands of the empire by means of a punishment reserved for their worst political dissidents… so don’t tell me that religion and politics don’t mix.  Nevertheless, though, I recognize how faithful seeking on any number of issues might lead to a diversity of perspectives (even if I may not always agree with the interpretations of the faith that got you there.)

What I do not think… no scratch that… What I know we cannot abide, as Christians, is the destruction of any sense of truth itself. Perhaps we should not be quite as shocked as we have been, though, by the assault on truth itself, on the promulgation of so-called “alternative facts.” Our world has always dealt in alternative facts that counter and contradict true reality. Famously, we remember from the way the gospel of John tells the story of Jesus’ passion and death, we remember that time when Pontius Pilate says in response to Jesus, “What is truth?” But even beyond that, we know—and, in our better moments, we admit—how our world deals in the untruths of scarcity-thinking, and violence-mongering, and the dehumanization of those different from ourselves.

Here at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is setting out for his disciples just what is true, ultimately and definitively. And we know that this is the case, that what Jesus says here is true ultimately, and ultimately true, because of who it is that says it. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor who led significant resistance to the German Protestant Church’s complicity and cooperation with the Nazi regime, testified in his seminal work on Christian Ethics, that: “The Sermon on the Mount is the word of the very one who is lord and law of reality… action in accord with Christ is action in accord with reality.”[2] That is to say Jesus—as we know by faith—is that very Word of God present from before creation itself. “Through him were all things created,” the gospel of John reminds us.[3] And so that which we do that is in accord with him is in accord with reality itself. You can’t get more “true” than that which fits with, follows, and embodies Jesus himself.

It would be easy in a week like this one to wonder whether and how such quaint-seeming statements as the Beatitudes are even relevant in the world today. But we are invited today to enter into the truth of the world they proclaim—not alternative facts, but actual facts; not virtual reality, but actual reality. And in this real world, we hear and know that these ones Jesus lifts up—the poor in spirit, the peacemakers, the meek, the ones hungering and thirsting for righteousness (which I hope is all of us)—these are blessed, now. The beatitudes are present tense. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are those who are persecuted from righteousness sake.

So, my friends, let us ground ourselves in that truth.  And moreover, let us ground ourselves in the One who is the truth, the way, and the life. And so grounded, then let us live it. In fact, we have no choice. For as that same Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his famous work on discipleship, “The followers of Jesus are no longer faced with a decision. The only decision possible for them has already been made. Now they have to be what they are, or they are not following Jesus… their discipleship is a visible act which separates them from the world – or it is not discipleship.”[4]

Blessing and honor, glory and power, be unto God, now and forever.  Amen.

 


[1] Katherine Willis Pershey, “Epiphany Series: New Year, Same Promises,” in A Preachers’ Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C, ed. Jessica Miller Kelley (Louisville, KY:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 17.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, trans. Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, & Douglas W. Stott, ed. Clifford J. Green, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 6 (Minneapolis, MN:  Fortress Press, 2005), 231; cited in Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI:  Brazos Press, 2006), 60-61.

[3] John 1:3, paraph.

[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, trans. Geffrey B. Kelly and John D. Godsey, ed. Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 4 (Minneapolis, MN:  Fortress Press, 2001), 113.

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