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Sunday, January 29, 2017

Blessed – Happy – Fortunate: We May Not Be Ready for This (A Sermon)

Matthew 5: 1 – 12
Micah 6: 1 – 8
1 Corinthians 1: 18 – 31
Psalm 15                                                                                                               

We are sometimes told that God has blessed the United States of America – and even more – that God has “blessed this nation more than any other on earth” (Graham “Facebook” ). American wealth and power are cited as evidence of God’s favor on America. Franklin Graham has said, “We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven; we have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity; we have grown in numbers, wealth and power as no other nation has ever grown” (Graham “Defining Moment”). So it must be obvious that God loves us best and has blessed us the most. Right? Right?

But this is rubbish. This is not the gospel or, at least, it is not the gospel that Jesus proclaimed. Wealth and power are not values of the Kingdom of Heaven. Egypt was rich and powerful once. Assyria, Babylon, Greece, Persia, Rome – they were rich and powerful as well; they each ruled the world for a time. But time passed and where are they now? These were not the nations that God blessed, that God chose as his own. No. Wealth and might are not signs of God’s favor and blessing on a nation. America should never be confused with the Kingdom of Heaven.

The Kingdom of Heaven places value not in wealth and power, but in poverty and weakness. And this sounds foolish to most of the world. It always has. The message of the Kingdom, the gospel of Christ is in the cross, and this is foolishness to the world. (1 Corinthians 1: 18 – 31) We proclaim a Christ crucified. We proclaim a Kingdom that values the poor, the mourning, the meek, and the merciful. This is not an empire built on coffers of gold and backed with bullets and bombs. This is something altogether different.

Jesus saw the crowds that were beginning to follow him and he left them to go up the mountain. There, away from the crowds, he sat down and began to instruct his chosen disciples. The crowds were not ready for this. Maybe we aren’t either.

Blessed – Happy – Fortunate (Albright 45) are the humble and poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God. The difference between Matthew’s “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and Luke’s “Blessed are the poor” is very often noted, as it should be. But this difference does not get us off the hook. In America most of us are not poor. Not really. We may not be rolling in money. We may not be part of the 1%, but neither are we “poor,” not in the sense of the word that Luke uses.

We are comfortable, and so we cling to Matthew’s “poor in spirit” as a way to justify ourselves, and to include ourselves in this blessed category. “Luke’s blunt talk about the ‘poor,’ we are instructed, must be interpreted in light of Matthew’s fuller ‘poor in spirit,’ a classification to which we can all aspire since it has none of the rude realities of ‘material poverty’ (lack of food, clothing, shelter, employment) attached to it. ‘Spiritual poverty’ in fact becomes a Christian virtue, and we are encouraged to affirm a life-style that puts no premium on goods and possessions but equally does not suggest that we need to get rid of them (Brown, 89).” Reading the beatitudes only from the gospel according to Matthew is a way of letting ourselves off the hook without requiring any sort of compromise to our materialistic lifestyle.

But we must be careful not to “minimize Jesus’ gospel of liberation for the poor by interpreting poverty as a spiritual condition unrelated to social and political phenomena … a careful reading of the New Testament shows that the poor of whom Jesus spoke were not primarily (if at all) those who were spiritually poor as suggested in Matthew 5: 3” (Cone 79). The poor in spirit are the dispirited, the broken, the “losers” of this world.  Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the poor and humble in spirit, for theirs is the enduring Kingdom of God.

Blessed – Happy – Fortunate are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.  There’s a chorus that I remember singing in Sunday School as a child. I remember that it made me cringe then, and it still does, even more today:

I’m H-A-P-P-Y; I feel like I could fly.
I’m going to heaven; I’ll get there by and by.
My name is in the book; you’ll find it if you look.
I’m going to heaven by and by.

I hate that song, but I do not want to discredit the idea that there is joy in the Christian faith. Neither am I suggesting that a state of mourning is blessed in and of itself. Depression is not divine and no grief is good. But those who grieve and those who mourn are blessed in the Kingdom of Heaven. “The world says, ‘Enjoy!” Christ says “Grieve!’” (Buttrick 281). The world is a sharp and dangerous place. It wounds us. It cuts us to the quick. And we mourn. We grieve. Let no one tell you to “forget about it.” Ignore anyone who tells you to “just get over it.” Blessed are those who mourn, those who feel the wounding of the world for they will be comforted by God.

Blessed – Happy – Fortunate are the meek, for they will inherit the earth – though, with the way things are, it often feels like maybe the meek will inherit what’s left of the earth after the rich and powerful have sucked away its resources and nuked the ashes. But blessed are the meek. The world derides the meek as pussies, as pansies. ‘Step up and be a man! Be forceful and strong! Take what is yours!’ they say. But in the Kingdom of God, the meek inherit what they would never seize by force (Buttrick 281).

The meek are not arrogant and forceful, they do not bully or belittle. They do not seek to destroy or defeat their enemies. Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth as a gift from God.

Blessed – Happy – Fortunate are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. This statement, like Matthew’s “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” has been used to justify those like ourselves despite our lack of actual hunger and thirst. But this is no easy escape, no cheap grace. To hunger and thirst for righteousness is to hunger and thirst for something more than personal moral rectitude; it is a desperate hunger for justice and an unquenchable thirst for “equity and humanity” (Buttrick 283). Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will never “get used to” those who would use their political power to abuse and mistreat the poor immigrant, and to close the doors on the refugee fleeing from war and destruction. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will not accept a status quo that leaves people starving for food and clean water while the wealthy and powerful minority live in profligate excess. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice and righteousness for they will have it.

Blessed – Happy – Fortunate are the merciful for they will be shown mercy. Oh mercy! But this is hard. “We do not train to be merciful here,” the world says. “Mercy is for the weak. Here, in the streets, in competition. A man confronts you, he is the enemy. An enemy deserves no mercy.” We are taught by this world to “Strike first! Strike hard! No Mercy, sir!” (Karate Kid) Mercy is foolish. Mercy says, “Father, forgive them,” even as they are killing us. But mercy is not pity. It is not a feeling. It is not a saccharine, sentimental sop. It is the recognition that all of us, at times, are cruel and selfish, proud and hateful and that God has loved us even still. Oh mercy! But mercy is hard. Blessed are the merciful for they shall be given mercy.

Blessed – Happy – Fortunate are the pure in heart for they will see God.  Blessed are those who seek truth, who honor and esteem truth as a treasure. Who can abide in the tent of God; who can ascend his holy hill? None but the pure in heart, only those who speak truth and will not slander. (Psalm 15) Blessed are those who value truth and not “alternative facts.” Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see the face of God.

Blessed – Happy – Fortunate are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God. Peacemaking is a “preventative task” (Buttrick 287) a preemptive task. Oh, we know all about preemptive invasions, do it to them before they have a chance to do it to us. But we know very little about preemptive peacemaking. We are reactive, responding to the outbreaks of violence with more violence, and still hoping to somehow make peace, instead of identifying those sources of unrest and injustice that lead to violence and correcting them before war breaks out. Instead of feeding the hungry and defending the oppressed, we allow them to suffer until they feel that violence is the only option.  We know something about peacekeeping, sorta’ but it’s a “peace through superior firepower” and that kind of peace does not last. We need to be peacemakers – building peace from the ground up. Blessed are the peacemakers for they are the children, the favored sons and beloved daughters of God.

I know that this sounds foolish, like a surefire way to end up broke down and beaten up. It is the foolishness and weakness of God chosen to shame the strong and wise of the world. If it were just the hippy-dippy, can’t we all just get along, “cloud of liberal optimism,” this would not be “good news.” It would be “a mockery of the present misery of the suffering” (Moltmann 59). This is something more than just the feel good musings of a bleeding heart liberal; this is the gospel of Jesus Christ and the gospel has teeth. It bites. 

I begin to understand why Jesus left the crowds and went up the mountain to speak these things to his disciples. The crowds were not ready for them. I’m not sure the disciples were either, and I’m not sure that we are, even today. I know my faults and failures. I know how far from these I am. They are hard. They bite. They challenge. They provoke.“To hear Jesus’ words of liberation requires a radical decision … a decision that defines theology as a weapon in the struggle of the little ones for liberation” (Cone 52). To hear these Beatitudes is to redefine our world and our place in this world. It is to reject the idea that wealth, and power, and privilege are our rightful blessings from God, and to accept the foolishness of the gospel of the Cross, and a kingdom that values the poor, the mourning, the meek, the merciful, the peacemaker.

Blessed – Happy – Fortunate, but we may not be ready to hear this.

Albright, W.F. and C.S. Mann, Matthew: Introduction, Translation, and Notes. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc. 1979. Print.

Brown, Robert McAfee, Unexpected News: Reading the Bible through Third World Eyes, Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1984. Print.

Buttrick, George A. “Matthew: Exposition.” The Interpreter’s Bible Volume VII. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. 1951. Print.

Cone, James H. God of the Oppressed. San Francisco, CA: Harper San Francisco. 1975. Print.

Graham, Franklin – “A Defining Moment for our Country,” February 8, 2016.
Graham, Franklin – Facebook Post, October 19, 2016

The Karate Kid. Directed by John G. Avildsen. Columbia Pictures, 1984. Film.

Moltmann, Jürgen. “Response to the Opening Presentation.” Hope and the Future of Man. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press. 1972. Print.

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