Wednesday, 11 November 2009 17:55

November 8, 2009 Sermon

“Rivers of Blessing”
Matthew 5:1-12
A Sermon preached by The Rev. Douglas M. Donley
November 8, 2009
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

Back when I was in Hartford, Connecticut serving at my first church, we had a midweek breakfast Bible Study. We called it "Go to work with the Sermon on the Mount". Over bagels and coffee, we poured over this three-chapter sermon from Matthew’s Gospel verse by verse. The stalwart few who showed up consistently were especially intrigued by the first ten or twelve verses of the Sermon. The beatitudes.

But there was something else special about that group of people. All of them had spent some time in the hospital for mental illness.  As the cobwebs floated around my pre-caffeine head, I saw a glimpse into their tormented lives. I also saw their genuine desire to better themselves and the constant setbacks that accompanied mental illness.  I saw their desire to have God help them to make a new life.  And I saw the way they cared for one another, like comrades in the fox-holes of life.

One of the men in the group gave me a book about the Sermon on the Mount called Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing.  The book candified Jesus’ harsh and challenging words and I must admit having some trouble stomaching a good bit of the writing. But it was authentic to Danny, the one who gave the book to me. He was very interested in receiving blessing.  He really, really needed it.

On some level, we are both intrigued and uncomfortable with the concept of blessing. We are intrigued because when one is blessed by God there is clarity. There is a sense of confidence.   We all want that clarity—that sense that we’re on the right path, on the right stream, doing what God wants.  We need that sense of blessing.  And yet, we also know that some folk use “blessing” as a self-righteous crutch faying that if they are wealthy or employed or happy, it’s because God is on their side.  This “prosperity gospel” concept of blessing is antithetical to Jesus’ teaching.

Very often in the scriptures, we find passages where God or a king or a prophet gives a blessing. I think of when Jacob wrestled with an angel back in Genesis. He wouldn’t let the angel go until he received a blessing. Jacob received a limp along with his blessing.  It meant that God was on his side, but his past life was ever-present.  God didn’t simply take away all responsibility or consequence.

Blessings and curses are often put together. Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount has blessings and curses. Some translators call them woes, but the message is the same. Matthew’s version is the Robert Shuller "possibility thinking" version. There are no woes, only blessings.  At our Sunday evening Bible Study last week, someone mentioned that Matthew wins for poetry and Luke wins for finger-pointing.

The beatitudes hold prescriptions for how one is blessed or how one can receive congratulations and praise. The Greek word makarios is translated by some people as "blessed are…" by others as "happy or fortunate or joyful are…" In Greek poetic philosophy, makarios was often used to signify the attainment of an ideal life.

Over and over again, this scripture tells us who is blessed, happy, joyful and fortunate—who has an ideal life. But it’s kind of counter-intuitive to our understanding of happiness.  It’s another example of the last shall be first and the first shall be last theme of the Gospels.  If we were to seek to be happy or fortunate, would we use these categories?

Maybe receiving blessings is more than just a prescription for getting what we want or need.  Maybe there is something deeper going on.

First of all, we ought to notice that Jesus never gives a commandment.  He doesn’t say, “be poor in body or spirit.”  Be meek.  Be pure in heart.  Be a peacemaker.  Instead, he begins his most famous sermon by describing who is joyful, blessed.  He is describing what happens when we live by the way of Christ—receiving all of the grace and blessing that comes along with it.

Hear this translation from Minnesota native and Baptist theologian Glenn Stassen:

Joyful are (not the poor in Spirit, but) the humble poor who know their need of God, for theirs is the very Reign of God.
Joyful are (not those who mourn, but) those who are deeply saddened to the point of action, for they will be comforted.
Joyful are (not the meek, but) those whose wills are surrendered to God, for they will inherit the earth.
Joyful are those who hunger and thirst for (not just righteousness, but) restorative justice, for they will be filled.
Joyful are (not just the merciful, but) those who practice compassion in action, for they will receive God’s compassion.
Joyful are (not just the pure in heart, but) those who seek God’s will in all that they are and do, for they will see God.
Joyful are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.
Joyful are those who suffer because of working for restorative justice, for theirs is the reign of God.
Joyful are you when they criticize, persecute, and slander you, because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in God.

What would this world be like if we all lived by the beatitudes?  If we were always merciful, meek, peacemakers, hungering and thirsting for justice, willing to stand up to the opposition that this world gives?  Sure, there are all sorts of prescriptions out there to say how to obtain a blessing.  But how closely do they conform to the model that Jesus gives us?

How do people say that folks are blessed in today’s world?

Think about it: What do our commercials tell us?  If you are thin, you can be glamorous.  If you have money and have a fancy car, people will fall down at your feet.

What about the church?  If you join this church, you will be blessed by God.  If you give your money to the latest televangelist, he will pray for you and you will be blessed. Worst of all: If you are perfect, everyone else will recognize it and your troubles will be gone.

And what is the side message to all of this?

If you are poor, it’s your own fault—as evidenced by programs being cut back which served the neediest of society.
If you are sick, you’re on your own.
If you are meek, you are a wimp.
If you are merciful, you are a bleeding heart.
If you are pure in heart, you are boring—only the good die young.
If you are a peacemaker, you are probably a terrorist apologist.
If you are put in jail for standing up against injustice, then you get what you deserve.

But remember, Jesus was a radical subversive who wanted us to experience a kind of spirituality that would change us and by extension change those around us, maybe bring this sin-sick world closer to God’s purposes.

So let’s look at those nine things again briefly and try to unpack them just a bit.  I am aided by a little book on the Sermon on the Mount written by Clarence Jordan, founder of Koinonia Farms in Georgia (Sermon on the Mount, Judson Press, 1952)

There are nine blessings that Jesus lifts up—nine categories of people.

The poor in Spirit: In Matthew’s version they are not necessarily the physically poor.  That is much more Luke’s concern.  In Matthew they are the poor in Spirit.  They might be contrasted with the rich in Spirit.  The rich in Spirit think they have it all together.  They have no need of anyone or anything else.  The poor in Spirit, on the other hand are the humble, those who don’t think they can do it.  They are those who know they are vulnerable.  And they know they need God.  When you know that you cannot do it on your own—know it in your bones, then you are blessed.   I have seen this in some of you, especially those who have lost jobs.  And when you ask for prayers, it’s from the heart.  You know where true power comes from.  Sometimes we don’t realize that until we experience some sort of trauma.

Those who mourn: The Bible depicts people weeping in the Bible.  Jesus weeps, Mary weeps.  Many of us weep for the fresh losses we have felt.  It’s all we can do to hold it together sometimes. But a mourner does more than simply weep.  Someone who mourns shows deep concern.  Clarence Jordan said that realizing our spiritual poverty and our need for God is not enough.  We must be concerned about the bankrupt condition of this world and it must make us mourn.  And that mourning springs us to action.  It’s the compassion that makes us advocate for health care reform, so that their mourning does not have the last word.  The mourning, the deep concern for the state of the world, spurs us on to action.

The meek: We immediately think of the nameless children who are in the way and collateral damage of our violent campaigns.  The Bible actually identifies two people as meek:  Moses (numbers 12:3) Jesus (Matthew 11:29); A meek person is not a wimp, but someone who forsakes their will and knows that their life is in God’s hands.  Then they have the true power.  They are willing to sacrifice their own creature comforts so that others might have life.  This takes courage and focus.

Those who hunger and thirst for justice: Many of us have been hungry and thirsty.  It is a daily occurrence for many people.  A hunger or thirst is a basic feeling.  Hunger and thirst demand satisfaction.  Jesus says we ought to be hungry and thirsty for the right things.  Seek to satisfy that hunger.  You can’t ignore hunger or thirst.  It must be satisfied.  When we hunger and thirst for justice it’s more than something we give lip service to.  It’s as central as our nutrition.  It needs to be that kind of constant companion.

The merciful: Jesus is big on mercy and so should we be.  We must watch our methods of making the world right.  We need to exercise mercy to our adversaries as well as our friends.  This is where the love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you comes in.

The pure in heart: I think of Gandhi and other true believers who don’t waver.  Clarence Jordan said, “the pure in heart won’t hesitate to dump mammon, race, prejudice, militarism, egotism or any other jealous demonic gods which demand respect and obedience.”  When you are pure in heart, then you seek nothing for yourself, your status.  What we are concerned about is the condition of our world and what The Second Vatican Council called the preferential option for the poor.

The peacemakers: We talk about the peacemakers a lot at UBC.  We think of the Biblical figure Abigail.  We think of the assassinated Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero.  We can think of so many others, too.  Jim Wallis in his book God’s Politics says that we need to be more than peace lovers, we need to be peacemakers, too.  It’s the difference between being admirers of Jesus and being followers of Jesus.  When we follow Jesus and do the work of peacemaking, we take on the family resemblance of God.  Only then are we called God’s children.

Those who are persecuted: We think of Nelson Mandela.  We think of sister Rosa Parks who chose persecution in order to make change possible.  We think of people involved in civil disobedience.  We are inspired by their witness.

Leading the life of a Christian is a tall order; especially the way Jesus expects it to happen.

Jesus says all this—not to give us a set of commandments to which we must adhere.  Rather, he gives us an example of how a Christian life should be led.

Actually, if the truth be told, Jesus just tells us who receives blessings.  He doesn’t say anything about how to go about it. That is up to us.

Do not judge yourselves by this world’s standards.

Do not compete for a blessing, like Jacob and Esau did in Genesis.  But be honest, vulnerable, live with integrity.  Be meek, mourn if you must and strive with all your heart, soul and mind to live the kind of life that God wants you to live.  Be peacemakers and hunger and thirst for justice.

This is what living blessed lives is all about.

Jesus gives the promises of God:  If you live blessed lives, yours is the commonwealth of heaven; You shall be comforted; You shall inherit the earth; You shall be satisfied; You shall obtain mercy; You shall see God; You shall be called the children of God.  This is what being successful is all about.  That’s what blessing is all about.  That’s what being born again is all about.

The world and our advertisements tell us that we will be happy or fortunate if we obtain more power.

The Sermon on the Mount tells us that that very power which we seek is in our humility.  In our vulnerability.  In our compassion.  As soon as we admit our needs and try to honestly walk in Christ’s ways, we are on the way to living blessed lives.

The book of Revelation says that the people who have lived blessed lives who have gone before us are already at the throne of God.  They hunger and thirst and weep no more.  Those who have gone before us are watching over and rooting for us along with God. They want us to do our best to live lives that are blessed.

Do you know what?  We live blessed lives, but most of us don’t realize it.

Last night, we celebrated a birthday in our family with a sleepover of preteen young women.  They were at that place of transition from gleeful childhood to maudlin teenagers.  They ran through the house singing, laughing, screaming, hyped up on too much cake and blessedly no homework for at least one night.  They reveled in each other and their friendship.  I eventually retreated to my home office trying to put the final words on this sermon.  What I realized was that I was blessed, I am blessed by this family, by our relative health and their general joy.  But it was not only this.  Their glee reminded me again the responsibility that I have from God, to protect and create a world in which all children are valued and have a sense of being loved.  The screaming children reminded me of my priorities.  That in itself is a blessing.

I encourage you not to try to live blessed lives.  I encourage you to recognize the blessedness that comes from a faithful life.  Recognize the blessings from God.  Recognize them as rivers that flow through our lives.  Receive the blessings from God.  And if you are truly blessed by God, then that blessing will bear fruit in service to your fellow sojourners in this life.

Is there a poverty in your spirit that only God can fill?  Do you mourn for the state of our world?
Are you one whose will is so surrendered to God? Do you hunger and thirst for justice?  Is there some way to be merciful?  Is your heart unconfused and undistracted?  Are you a peacemaker?

I know you are all of these things from time to time.  You flow on those rivers.  The key is to be on the river of blessing.  Another name for that river is the commonwealth of God.  It’s another word for paradise.  It’s what we’re here for.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the commonwealth 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 the children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the commonwealth 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.” (Matthew 5:3-12)