Differentiation

A Sermon for 2 February 2020 – 4th Sunday after Epiphany

A reading from the gospel of Matthew 5:1-12. Listen for God’s word to us.

“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

 

I feel like I’ve asked ya’ll this before, maybe you remember: about that part of Sesame Street that goes: “One of these things is not like the others. One of these things doesn’t belong.” On the screen bobs four different shaped balloons. Three are red. One is blue. Another time there are four things we put on our feet. Three small children’s shoes all in red. One large adult red boot. Kermit the Frog even gets on in the lessons, asking viewers to distinguish between three different kinds of bird and one frog. Then one blue shoe, a saw, a pliers, and a hammer. The song continues: “Can you tell which thing is not like the others by the time I finish this song?” We could debate the merits behind teaching young children that something different doesn’t belong. We could wonder suspiciously why such an emphasis was a part of seemingly every episode of the beloved children’s show that began in 1969 when so many felt like the world all around was falling apart. But, what strikes me about this part of Sesame Street is the importance of being able to differentiate. It took keen observation. Critical thinking. A discriminating eye that was able to tell the difference between things. Which actually is a necessary function we all need in order to develop into healthy adulthood. Not that knowing that red balloons are different from blue balloons is all that important to our daily lives. But being able to figure out things like: helping is different than hurting. Sharing leads to a different outcome than hoarding for self. It is essential to be able to differentiate between things like behavior that tears down human trust and actions that bring life – true life to one and all. I like to think that the makers of Sesame Street knew how important it would be for their little viewers to gain sure

It seems Jesus would agree. Today the gospel of Matthew takes us right into the start of a lengthy sermon. Jesus’ teachings from a mountain – at least as the scene is recorded in the gospel of Matthew. Here comes the one baptized in the Jordan as God’s Spirit descended upon him like a dove dive-bombing from the heavens. Wilderness-tested, which goes to show he’s grappled with some of life’s biggest questions. He’s ready to go around the land telling others what he knows of it all. How he’s experienced the Spirit of God working through his life. Totally One with the Father. The Son, able to be the Voice speaking the Word, enacting the Word, being the Word as he invites others to join the Divine dance too.

He’s called a few brothers to come follow, at least as the gospel of Matthew tells the story. He’s right there in Galilee – the part of their country invaded again and again. And what he has to say. How he has to heal. All he’s proclaiming about God’s kind of kingdom is reaching so many ears. Great crowds seek him out. At last, according to Matthew’s gospel, he finds the top of a mount. Believed to be right along the northern tip of Sea of Galilee. So that the land itself will allow the words to echo stereo-like for hundreds if not thousands to hear. Make no mistake, the placement of his body as he teaches is significant. Remember the Mountain of Sinai? There, we learn in Exodus, the people of God received God’s word to them. God’s will for their lives together as the great prophet Moses told them, after his encounter with God while on high. Jesus sits to teach – as all rabbis sat to teach. Those seeking to learn from him – those who were his disciples, gathered close to hear. The crowds settle in next to catch what he has to say.

We cannot forget that Jesus was sitting in occupied land. Rome ruled an empire nearly as large as the land mass of the United States. At its height stretching northwest to the isle of Britain all the way to Egypt in the southeast. Rumor was that the second emperor, Tiberius, wasn’t afraid to expand the empire by force as one of the greatest Roman generals. Those of Rome who got in his way were put on trial for treason, many to be executed. Things got a little squirrelling during his reign – especially after he stole away later in life, not really wanting to rule. What of Rome’s happenings reached Galilee may never be fully known – instant newsbreaks didn’t scroll across any devices in those days. Meanwhile, the Jewish stand-in for Rome in their land wasn’t really worrying about the welfare of those who would have been in the crowds gathering around Jesus. And honestly, it wasn’t like there ever has been one monolithic – single view of God and God’s will. From the start of the Old Testament itself, we can trace different views of God from those who see God with human kind of tendencies (J), to those who have a much more mysterious view of a holy Other (E), to those concerned about the law (D), to those concerned about sacrificial ritual (P). Can you imagine the response when in a lengthy sermon from a mountain – recorded in Matthew’s gospel as Jesus’ first major teaching to all in earshot to hear. Can you imagine the impact of The Word proclaiming the Word about who’s really blessed by God?

The kingdom of God belongs to those poor in spirit,” the Man of God proclaims. The One speaking for the LORD God of heaven and earth says, “comfort comes for all who mourn. Meekness inherits the earth; how blessed by God those who embody it. Hungering and thirsting for right-relationship with God and each other will fill you right up! And blessed – specially honored by God – are all who are merciful: granting release instead of harm. Those with pure hearts – honest intentions – actually see God. Peacemakers are blessed; for they act according to the very Way of the Great Father – spreading Shalom as children of God” (paraphrase of Mt. 5:3-9). The words weren’t intended as a list of moral behaviors to follow. Instead, Jesus was proclaiming the good news – God’s Word. So that no one would be confused. He wasn’t here teaching a road to power over others, force when necessary, fear incited in every heart. Very different from what they might have been seeing by those in authority all around them, Jesus was proclaiming what God really is like. Upon whom God’ blessing rests. He was preaching it. Living it. Passing it along to those who would come after so that every last one would be able to differentiate for themselves: God is this, not that. Like these, not those. Thus: walk in the Way of the LORD.

If ever we get confused, these Beatitudes are right here. Words from the One who lived it that we all might live it too. Able ourselves – together with one another’s help, those of our Reformed Theological Tradition would remind. Differentiating God’s will for our lives today. Clear in order to discern better tomorrows for us all.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2020 (All rights reserved.)

 

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