January 30, 2011--Epiphany 4/Year A
Rebuilding the Remnant Event, Concordia College
ELCA Worship, Hawley, MN
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.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
Later this year I will observe the 30th anniversary of my ordination as a pastor, and that means I’m officially long-in-tooth. I’ve served Christ and his church long enough that nothing much should surprise or fluster me…and there shouldn’t be too many things that intimidate me in ministry either.
But, truth be told, I still feel like a babe-in-the woods in many of the tasks of ministry, and that’s especially true whenever this gospel lesson, the Beatitudes, pops up in the church’s lectionary.
I have never felt right about preaching on these gorgeous, overflowing verses from the 5th chapter of St Matthew. I love reading the Beatitudes—it’s preaching on them that bugs me.
And with good reason. These verses, after all, are already part of a sermon….a sermon that Jesus delivered….a sermon from the One whom we confess to be “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God” (Nicene Creed)…..so how, I wonder, can a little Minnesota farm-boy possibly dare to preach a sermon based on a sermon by Jesus? It just sounds ridiculous!
But there’s more: the other reason I’ve shied away from preaching on the Beatitudes is that they always seem to induce in me a desire to turn them into a moral crusade of some sort. We hear the Beatitudes and we imagine that they are a “call to arms” to transform our lives and “do something.” And for Lutherans like us that is always a troublesome, even dangerous place to be.
So I have often “ducked” when asked to preach on this gospel lesson. And I might be inclined to duck this morning as well, were it not for the fact that two proclaimers of God’s Word have helped me, opened my eyes to see the Beatitudes for what they truly are and what they might yet be in our eyes of faith.
So, in these few moments, I want to share what I have learned from others wiser than I am.
First, someone (I have forgotten who!) declared that the Beatitudes aren’t so much a strategy for moral improvement as they are Jesus’ own version of the “I Have a Dream” speech.
The Beatitudes are Jesus’ “I Have a Dream” speech. Mull that one over for a moment, especially with the memory of Martin Luther King Day still fresh in your mind.
The Beatitudes are not about self-improvement or even “making this a better world” as much as they are a chance to hear from Jesus, very early in his ministry, a vision of how he sees the world—both now and in God’s future.
The Beatitudes are framed as promises throughout, promises of what is and what shall be, in the tender compassion of our God.
What does Jesus see as he looks out over the crowd? What does God see there?
Jesus sees a graced, gifted, blessed life where others—you and I—might see only pain, heartache, deficit and loss. Jesus beholds poor souls seemingly bereft of riches….Jesus envisions sorrowful mourners, humble nobodies, hungry hearts….Jesus sees the simply sincere, the makers-of-peace, the persecuted….and everywhere around them, Jesus pronounces, Jesus promises a circle of God’s blessing. Those whom this dying world ignores, bypasses, even curses—all of them blessed by God, blessed to be blessings.
And this isn’t something they really should do something about. This is something that they already ARE in the mercy of God.
“I have a dream,” Dr. King announced….and then in soaring rhetoric that still captures our hearts….Dr. King shared a vision not of what he hoped might happen if everybody got their acts together….but Dr. King imparted a vision of what God was already up to, what God was surely going to bring about…..a future in which all God’s children would sing—with one voice—“Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty we are free at last.”
That, or something very much like it, is what Jesus was doing when he sat down on a mountainside and delivered this sermon. Not a strategy for moral action, but a panoramic vista on the future that God is surely bringing into our lives and our world, even now.
That’s the first new thought I’ve been given about the Beatitudes….
….and here’s the second insight, which I received earlier this month at a bishops’ meeting, from our Bible study leader Dr. Martha Stortz who teaches religion at Augsburg College.
Dr. Stortz began by recognizing this particular moment in our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. She said—honestly and directly—that there’s been some “breakage” in our church, and all of us bishops uttered a silent Amen.
But then Dr. Stortz showed us how here in the Beatitudes (and indeed through the Scriptures) God is always, always, always dealing with “breakage.” In fact, it is second nature for God to take the breakage in our lives and transform it into blessing. What else should we expect, after all, from the One who took the breakage of the Cross and transformed it into the blessing of Easter?
And then Dr. Stortz went on to show how each of the eight beatitudes begins with some sort of breakage in the lives of ordinary folks like you and me. So when all the sources of your security are broken open, you become “poor in spirit,”….and when all your hope for heaven on earth is broken open, you become someone who constantly “hungers and thirsts for righteousness”….and when you dare to name the hope that is in you—a hope that runs against the grain in this world—you are broken open in the act of suffering, being persecuted for being out of line with the world.
Each of these beatitudes begins with some experience of brokenness….a brokenness that leaves us open to God whose greatest delight is to fill our brokenness with blessing.
Does that resonate, does that connect with how things have been for you and your community of faith over the last year or so? There’s been a lot of breakage in our churches. Some of you have seen that, been part of that, “up close and personal.”
You are understandably weary, maybe discouraged, surely wondering what—if anything—good God might be bringing out of all this breakage.
Here is what God in Jesus Christ has to say to you: You are blessed. You are the apple of my eye. You are my heart’s joy and delight. You will not be disappointed. In my good time—in the future that I alone hold in the palm of my hands—in that future your future is disclosed, for the sake of my beloved Son, Jesus Christ.
It would be great—wouldn’t it?—if blessings came in a less painful way. It would be wonderful if God doled out blessings the way Ed McMahon used to pull up to some unsuspecting schlump’s house, scrambling out of the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes prize van, with an over-sized check for a million dollars.
But in God’s Kingdom, it doesn’t work that way. In God’s Kingdom we are broken open, so that God might redeem and restore and bless. Blessing comes into all our “breakage” and makes everything and everyone new, in Jesus Christ.
But even that is not the end of the matter.
Martha Stortz added one more thing to what she had to say to us bishops about blessing. She said, “God’s blessings are always ‘leaky’.” God never blesses any of us in such a way that we hang onto that blessing purely for ourselves.
No, blessings tend to “leak”—out of our hands, into the hands of other broken ones, all around us….and in fact, that’s what we’re here for in the first place: to leak our blessings so that others might hear Jesus’ own “I Have a Dream” speech…and hearing that, to be blessed forever.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.