A Sermon for 29 Jan. 2017
A reading from the gospel of Matthew 5:1-12 (NRSV). 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. 4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11“Blessed 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!
Before us today stand God’s blessings. Words so beloved that we might have them cross-stitched on a pillow or hanging on a placard on a wall in our home. I’m not sure I have any original insights to share about these blessings from God. But I do have a few stories. So listen for the word of God.
I once met a waitress when I was at a pub for a reading group. The woman was quite attractive and I noted how she flittered about joking flirtatiously with the male patrons. Halfway through our meal she noticed our books and let us know she was an avid reader. It was a heavy theological text so we were hesitant to tell her about it; but she was insistent. The content of the book had to do with the experience of so many who struggle with mainline Christianity. I told her about it while my colleagues at the table rolled their eyes giving off this “Jule, just stop talking” vibe! Before we knew it, the woman leapt into her story about being raised Christian but not really being a part of it any longer. She said she still let’s her parents take her daughter to Sunday School sometimes. Reading between the lines this beautiful, young, unmarried mother made it clear that she is met with disapproval in her small town. Though she may need them most, her church lets her know her actions are beyond their welcome. . . . “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus once said, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:3).
Last weekend while I was at my final intensive for Spiritual Direction training in Hendersonville, North Carolina; we heard from a man who is part Cherokee. I noted a sadness about him – a depth of pain he had known, partly from the details of his own journey. Partly from the history of the Cherokees, which his father and grandfather made sure he knew. We were at Kanuga Conference Center in the mountains of North Carolina where Cherokee Indians once roamed free. Our speaker returned often to the Removal of 1830 – an act passed by congress and signed into United States law by President Andrew Jackson. . . . Maybe it was the best policy for a burgeoning nation. Maybe there was no other way for differing groups of natives and settlers to get along with one another. Maybe we choose fear over love and allowed a strong, proud people to lose so very much. . . . According to the gospel of Matthew, on a hill one day, Jesus said: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Mt. 5:4).
Over twenty-five years ago when I moved from a small town in Wisconsin where everyone had enough, I started seeing things I’d never seen before – sights that continue to this day. One sign reads: “Homeless and hungry. Please help.” Another states: “Veteran: will work for food.” The worst are when you can see the wounds – the man with half a leg who’s out there near the Old Hickory Boulevard Kroger almost every Sunday morning. We don’t really know their stories – whether the signs are true or not. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. What strikes me every time is the posture: hung heads, minimal eye contact – which most of us drivers never mind. Have you ever stopped to wonder what’s going on inside? I mean standing there in frigid temperatures and the hottest days of summer too. Waddling along up the line of traffic begging for someone to give a handout. I imagine there’s gotta be some deep desperation inside. Most of us have too much pride to beg like that day in day out. Most of us do what we can to avoid being at the mercy of others. Imagine the humiliation carried as he sits, as she waits, as the young vet waddles along hoping someone will have compassion. . . . A man who would carry the humiliation of us all as he shouldered the cross once said: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Mt. 5:5).
Have you seen signs – often in neighborhoods – but ones we need all over the city that read: “Drive as if every child you see on the street is your own.” Change drive to live as if every child you see on the street is your own and it pretty much summaries the good news of right-relationship we come to know in Christ. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” Jesus said, “for they will be filled” (Mt. 5:6).
You don’t get to see the church Clerk’s Questionnaire completed each year for the General Assembly on behalf of the ministry you undertake. It starts off easy: name of the congregation, address where it gathers for worship. Moving on to things like number of active members – 85 for HPC at the end of 2016 – and average worship attendance – holding strong at the end of 2016 with an average of 53; question 44 finally asks this: “How many different individuals (nonmembers) do you estimate that your congregation served or ministered this year through its various ministries (events, programs, outreach, and visitors)?” Anyone want to take a guess? . . . If you assist with the Food Pantry, or help with outreach to Tulip Grove Elementary School, or wait each week for someone to come for financial assistance through HPC’s Good Samaritan ministry; then you may not be shocked to hear that in 2016 this small-but-mighty congregation of 85 active members ministered to the needs of 195 people – 195 strangers really whose lives you impacted for good through your generous welcome, your faithful gifts, and your deep compassion for the least of these. We don’t get to hear often enough about the difference made when folks needed just a little something to get them through to the end of the month, or somewhere to rest when the pressures of their lives are too much, or a circle of love to welcome them no matter the challenges they are facing. 195 lives impacted for good! You made that happen. You didn’t have to. But “blessed are the merciful,” Jesus says on that mountain. “For the merciful will receive mercy” (Mt. 5:7).
Pure in heart? A woman I know, who possess an incredibly beautiful spirit, wants to become an ordained priest. It’s not impossible in her tradition. She’s about my age with a supportive husband. Together they already are leading a different kind of ministry in a building someone has allowed them to use rent-free. They’ve created a community where people about their age or younger gather together for dinner once a week. Wine is served. Conversation is had. Folks who once were without any sort of connecting, caring community are finding it there. The woman I know wants to be ordained in order to be able to fully serve this widening community, and others like it, with the sacraments of faith: baptism into the way of Christ. Eucharist around the Table of the Lord. . . . “They will see God,” Jesus says of those who open their hearts in sincerity and honesty and pure devoted-love (Mt. 5:8).
In 2006, the book The Faith Club was released. After 9/11, three New York mothers came together to write a children’s book about each of their faith traditions: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. The Faith Club captures the fascinating, honest, conversations of Ranya, Suzanne, and Priscilla as three strangers come together regularly to discuss the core principles of their faith and the key struggles they experience with their own and each other’s’ religions. . . . Maybe it’s just a baby step, but “blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
I know a professor at a local church college. She’s there as a woman at an institution that sees women as inferior – unable to attain the same levels of authority in the church as men. It’s hard work, but she’s trying to show a generation of that particular shade of Christianity that there’s a different way to understand the world: one where our contributions are appreciated no matter our bodily form. I’ve listened in horror more than once to stories that show that she’s suspect if not from the administration, then from the students themselves. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” says our Lord, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:10).
Just a few stories for us to consider this week as we think about some of Christianity’s favorite words. God’s blessings . . . Whether they console or challenge, may they remain with us every day.
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
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