We’re one month into 2017 and if there’s one thing we’ve learned it’s that there is a lot happening in our world – and most of it feels uneasy. After the election, the divisions exposed among us feel like canyons and finding the bridge between liberals and conservatives, between Republicans and Democrats, seems more and more difficult. And, in the most local sense, here in this congregation, a different—though thankfully less harrowing—transition is afoot. Yet even transitions in church leadership can engender feelings of unease as we process the past to prepare for the future. Much of our lives in the world today feels uneasy, maybe even lacking a sense of peace.
But, for the last several weeks, we have slowed our pace here at Takoma Park Presbyterian Church. We have slowed down so that we might listen and over the din of the world and the unease that we experience, we might hear Jesus’ Greatest Commandments – to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. By slowing our pace, by intentionally listening for God’s Word, we have taken an active role in tilling the garden of our faith as disciples. And, these commandments have become for at least me, and perhaps you too, the fertilizer that catalyzes the courage and bravery needed to live a life of love. And, today, we’ll take our first step out into the world equipped with these commandments back into the Revised Common Lectionary to listen for how these commandments might be enacted throughout the Scriptures and therefore throughout our lives. Our first step is to the side of a mountain, where Jesus is preaching one heck of a sermon.
So, I invite you to turn with me to the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 5. We’ll read together the first 20 verses of the chapter and I’m going to need your help. Please take out your pew Bibles and we’re going to read the passage together. You’ll read the odd numbered verses and I’ll read the even. So, I’ll give you a minute to find the passage, then I’ll pray for us and then I’ll prompt you all to start reading together.
Let us pray: Startle us, O God with your Word of Love. Open our ears that we may hear your blessing. Challenge our hearts that we may be salt and light. Amen.
Matthew 5: 1-20
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.
‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
This is the Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God.
Sermon on the Mountain by E. Thor Carlson
So, before we dive into the theological meat of the passage, I want to start from the beginning – with the language. Coming off of a month of dwelling in language written in the imperative tense – language which is instructive, commandments – we are experiencing something different in this text and I want for us to be prepared. You see, the Sermon on the Mount is not a commandment. Rather, the Beatitudes are written in the indicative tense – which means that we as readers or hearers of these words are not commanded to join the populations Jesus highlights. We shouldn’t try to make ourselves mournful or persecuted in order to receive the blessing of the kingdom of God. These aren’t if/then statements. What is important for us to hear in this indicative tense is that Jesus is articulating to whom he has come to offer his grace. The Beatitudes are not calls to action – these are promises in which we find hope.
For Matthew, for the author and the original audience, history was divided into two distinct ages – the present evil era that God would soon end, and the coming realm when God’s justice and love would prevail. There was a strong belief that there would come a time when history would be interrupted and the old ways of injustice would be gone, and love and justice for all would be the new way of life. Throughout the rest of this year, should we continue to follow the Lectionary, we will be exploring the Gospel of Matthew and as we do, this paradigm will become increasingly apparent. You’ll see how Matthew is full of parables with harsh and judgmental language, delineating between those who are righteous and those who are not. And, when we wrestle with these texts, we need to be mindful that this passage, the one we heard today, is the anchor for what is to come. It is our context for living in the realm that is ‘not yet’.
This framework has a direct impact on the word “blessed” that we read over and over in our text today. You see, this audience, those sitting on the mountainside, they weren’t terribly different from us sitting in these pews today. They were not looking for a feel-good message from Jesus. They weren’t looking for empty platitudes. They acknowledged that they lived in a broken world and they were looking for meaningful hope – that God’s realm of justice and love would prevail. So, when Jesus spoke and said the word ‘blessed’ it was clear that to be ‘blessed’ wouldn’t mean that one would be ‘happy’ or ‘fortunate’ – words that we, today, identify as being synonymous with ‘blessed.’ Rather, the blessing that Jesus speaks of here, is the blessing of being included in the coming realm of God’s justice and love, and the hope that is articulated in this blessing is shocking.
Here, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes it known that God is paying attention to the broken, to the laborers, to the ones who have been devalued in the realm that is ‘not yet’. 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 and those who are reviled for faith in Jesus – these are the ones labeled ‘blessed’ by God. Rather than praise the powerful and protect the privileged, Jesus offers blessing upon all who recognize that they are in need of God. He offers blessing upon those who see idolatry and injustice and pain in the world and mourn the absence of peace. He offers blessing to those who love kindness, to those who show mercy, to those who seek to understand others. These are the people that Jesus has come for. These are the ones God’s kingdom values. And, this blessing Jesus offers provides security that God’s rule of love and justice will prevail even in the midst of mourning, even in the midst of persecution, even in the midst of peacemaking in a troubled community. And, this is the Good News, indeed. Isn’t it?
I suspect few of us in this church today are waiting expectantly, like Matthew, for an apocalyptic moment to usher in goodness and peace. However, we, as Reformed Christians, we function in the ‘not yet and already’ space. We acknowledge the darkness and evil in our midst, and we strain to see God’s blessing in our world. We desire to see the fruits of God’s blessing – for the work is hard and worldly power can feel defeating. And, today, we hear this word from Jesus, and we ponder what this blessing might mean for us individually and as a community of of faith.
Oftentimes, we read these blessings aspirationally – rather than with applied practicality – and when we do so, we can easily become discouraged. When these blessings are singled out, we believe that life according to them becomes nearly unattainable – being poor in spirit, peaceful or merciful is extremely difficult in a culture that idolizes competition and fear and power. We start to think that only great saints are up to the task of hearing the blessing for themselves – the Mother Theresa’s, Martin Luther King Jr.’s, and Desmond Tutu’s of our world. But, you see, we must remember again that these are not commandments – these are promises of God for God’s people. These Beatitudes are a message of hope for those devalued and dis-empowered by the unjust structures of our world. They are a message of hope for those laboring for the ‘not yet’ world.
As followers of Christ, as children of God in need of God’s mercy and love, we are called to be salt for the earth and light in the world. And, we have every reason to be confident in this calling because Jesus has named who God blesses, and we stand in the world sure of the possibilities available to us through mercy, humility, peace and love. We, as a hopeful people, remain committed to the work of co-creating a world where homelessness is eradicated, where prejudice and discrimination against human identities according to race or sexuality or ability will be no more, where violence will no longer be habitual, where fear will not be wielded as a weapon, where wellness and freedom for all will trump politicking and posturing. We, church, we live in hope and we need not grow fearful nor cynical – for we know who God blesses and we now live accordingly.
The late Henri Nouwen offers this insightful word. He says, compassion “grows with the inner recognition that your neighbor shares your humanity with you. This partnership cuts through all the walls which might have kept you separate. Across all the barriers of land and language, wealth and poverty, knowledge and ignorance, we are one, created from the same dust, subject to the same laws, destined for the same end.” Friends, we share the gift of being created in God’s image with all people – and we therefore belong to one another. Compassion is not just acknowledgement of someone else’s journey independent of your own. It is an acknowledgement that the journey is also your own and as one receives God’s blessing, so all might be included in being blessed.
When we approach the words on the page of Jesus’ blessing, we must do so with simplicity in mind – to recognize that those in need of God’s love and hope because society has devalued or oppressed or forgotten them – these are recipients of God’s blessing. And, as we ponder if we, ourselves, are blessed by God, take heart. For we receive more courage than fear when we hear Jesus saying, ‘we are blessed in this life as we demonstrate humility, as we bring a peaceful presence, as we open our hearts to others and show mercy.’ And, it is hearing this blessing for ourselves that we might humbly show a sign of peace and begin to see how God’s promise of justice and love prevails.
Sermon preached at Takoma Park Presbyterian Church 2/5/2017.