Rev. Sarah M. Varnell
INTRO: UMW Sunday- scholarship, mission, invitation to join.
The heart of UMW is for mission, especially to children and women throughout the world. It is my hope that their example will set the pace for us as we consider our role in God’s kingdom.
The scripture passage from Matthew that we just heard is famously referred to as “The Beatitudes.” Maybe you are as familiar with these “Beatitudes” as you are with the Apostles’ Creed, perhaps you are like “what in the world is a beatitude?” It might be helpful for me to ease your wondering, because if you’re like me, just because you “know” doesn’t guarantee you are jeopardy worthy. The word “beatitude” is latin for “blessing.” Blessing is something we encounter in our culture in a variety of contexts...
Bumper stickers are interspersed throughout the morning rush hour that read: “God bless America,” and then there are the seemingly rebuttal bumper stickers that read, “God bless everyone, no exceptions.” Politicians are even expected to end their speeches, “God Bless America.” Banners hang from public venues that pray, “God bless our troops,” and Big Lots readily sells metal signs to hang in our kitchens that read: “God bless our home.” We also “Bless” people when they sneeze, a tradition leftover from our ancestors, and in casual conversations we refer to “blessings in disguise.” Many of us believe that the fruit of God’s favor and blessing is success and luxury. “Wow,” we say, “they sure are blessed.” And then, of course, there’s the southern version of sugar-coated insult that precedes, and somehow cancels out gossip... “God bless his or her heart...”
I think I’ve confessed this to you all before, but I love to listen to controversial talk radio and TV, including famous and obscure preachers. Much to my kind-hearted husband’s chagrin, I especially love anyone with whom I might find disagreements, and I spend precious brain cells arguing into wide open air that doesn’t respond to my passion. As you might imagine, growing up, my parents accused me of being able to argue with a barn door.
Recently I watched the opening of the famous, Joel Osteen’s mega church, in which he said, “We have full victory in Jesus to live our best life now, to have victory in family and work and finances!” Thanks to my sermon preparation; I grabbed the bible on our coffee table and started to recite, and pray even... But Jesus says to us today, blessed are the poor in the spirit... Blessed are those who mourn... Blessed are the meek...I don’t think that is what Pastor Osteen had in mind in his christian-lite pep talk.
Blessing means: to be in favor, to sanctify, to consecrate, to protect, to extol. Abraham and Sarah were blessed, but I doubt the experience of full-blown baby labor in Sarah's 90 was their idea of a good time. The Israelites were blessed, but I doubt that being enslaved by the Egyptians or wandering around in the dessert felt like favor. Often, “to be blessed” is to be assured of God's presence in our lives.
Jesus, surrounded by the women and men that followed him, went up on a hillside and began a very long sermon with a comforting and grace-filled set of promises. These are not meant to be principles, but an oasis of spiritual water in the midst of a dry age. Like most of Matthew’s community, the people that gathered at Jesus’ feet in this moment were Jews, living under Roman occupation, forced to pay high taxes with little benefit, making their living in labor intensive jobs, and they relied heavily on the Rabbis of their day to teach them the holy scriptures.
They were Jesus’ present community, but let’s not forget the future of those who would hear... as we are also invited to lean in on the edges of the circle. For as much as we have in our society today, for all the luxuries, technology, and opportunity...it is never enough. For all the food that we create, and the medical miracles we perform, we cannot solve the world’s problems, we cannot find peace, and we cannot prevent the pain and death of our loved ones.
We, like the earliest disciples, are in need of an oasis of spiritual water in the midst of a dry age. Join me with your own thoughts, in God’s grace, as I humbly offer some definitions and distinctions...
Jesus begins, “ Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The Message, a paraphrase of the bible by Eugene Peterson, modernizes “poor in spirit” to “people at the end of their rope.” Does that tap on the heart of anyone among us?
He continues, “ Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Some of us know what it is to wake up with a headache and an empty heart, because our mourning spilled into our sleep. We have lost grandparents, mothers, fathers, spouses, friends, and children, and our hearts constantly ache. Some of us mourn our past discrepancies, unable to open our eyes to the light of tomorrow. Some of us just mourn the pain and brokenness of the world.
Next, Jesus proclaims, “ Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” These are those that the world deems weak, or spineless. We are the trampled, and the last to be acknowledged. Some of us feel this all of the time, some of us feel the powerlessness of it less often. Jesus says, its the meek who will inherit what others do their best to take from us.
Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.” Who doesn’t wish for fairness, especially when they hold the short straw? Or, the families that know first hand the pain of this world’s inequities that perform violence on their loved ones. We are the rule-followers, people who struggle with judgement, and they are also those that hunger for the day when all will be well. Jesus promises, satisfaction.
He continues, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy,” these are people that give us a break when we don’t deserve it. John Wesley calls the merciful the “tender-hearted,” those whose heart bleeds for other people’s pain and who want nothing more than to offer a cup of sugar when their neighbor comes knocking.
Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” This is not unscathed heart that has not felt or seen or carried difficult things, because purity is something God gifts us with...and with purity comes a new pair of spiritual glasses to see and name God’s movement in the world around us. As CS Lewis is attributed to describing God as the wind-we cannot see the wind, but we can see where it has been.
Jesus continues, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God,” peacemakers implies an active role, it is not the passive peacekeepers, often, these are the everyday people who step outside of ourselves long enough to provide for another rather than take from another.
And then finally, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” In the words of Martin Luther King Jr, “It is not the words of our enemies that we will remember, but the silence of our friends,” These are those who live their lives with the conviction that silence is not an option when faced with injustice in the world. These are people who live in the kingdom of heaven, and live their lives as though it is in its full reality.
As I was preparing this sermon, I was up to my eyeballs in commentaries, asking the question, “What does this have to do with the 21st century Christian?” Wrong question, I should have been praying, “I’m listening and looking,” and I would have seen that this is God’s grace in Jesus Christ, hoping and promising.
In one of the commentaries on my shelf, which belonged to the Rev. George Armbrister, guidance lifted off of the page from the past in a segment that he underlined, it read: “Jesus’ righteousness is more than the sum of his commandments: it is a total attitude of mind, body, and soul, a particular kind of character. Those who are praised in the Gospel are men and women that are not yet perfect, but they are converted.”
Lord knows that our presence today is a step toward our conversion...we bring our poor spirits, our sorrows, our weaknesses, our hunger for justice, our mercy, our purity, our peacemaking, and our persecution. We are citizens in the kingdom of God, living in the kingdom of this world.
May we have enough conviction to take one more step forward into God’s future.