Installation of Pr. Sheila Michaels, Lutheran Campus Pastor
White Earth Tribal and Community College
January 29, 2017--Epiphany 4/Year A
St Columba’s Episcopal Church, White Earth, MN
So let me begin this afternoon with a confession. For most of my 35+ years of pastoral ministry I avoided preaching on this beloved passage that marks the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
Although I’ve always loved reading the Beatitudes—it’s preaching on them that has been a stretch.
And with good reason!
These verses, after all, are already part of a sermon delivered by Jesus himself. Who am I to create a sermon based on a sermon by Jesus? What could I possibly add to or clarify in what Jesus has already uttered?
How could a Minnesota farm-boy possibly dare to preach a sermon based on a sermon by Jesus? That’s just ridiculous!
What’s more, the Beatitudes have always seemed to be calling us to some kind of moral crusade or a course of self-improvement.
Too often we hear these verses and imagine them calling us to transform our lives. We have the sense that Jesus is saying to us: “Don’t just sit there: do something!” Be more humble, practice mercy, make peace…and much more..
And for Protestant Christians that is always dangerous place to be—whenever the good news of Jesus comes off like good advice from Jesus.
So for most of the time since 1981 when I was ordained I simply “ducked” whenever this gospel lesson popped up in the lectionary…..until two preachers wiser than me opened my eyes to what’s going on here in the first twelve verses of Matthew 5.
One of these wise preachers suggested that the Beatitudes aren’t so much a strategy for moral improvement as they are Jesus’ own “I Have a Dream” speech.
The Beatitudes are Jesus’ “I Have a Dream” speech. Ponder that for a moment—perhaps with Martin Luther King’s soaring speech in the back of your mind.
The Beatitudes are not about self-improvement or “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 God sees the world and all of us—both now and in God’s future.
The Beatitudes are framed, not as demands, but 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?
Jesus sees a graced, gifted, blessed life where others see only pain, heartache, deficit and loss.
Jesus sees poor souls seemingly bereft of riches….
Jesus envisions sorrowful mourners, humble nobodies, hungry hearts….
Jesus looks at the profoundly sincere, the makers-of-peace, the persecuted….
…and all around them Jesus bestows, Jesus promises a circle of God’s blessing.
Those whom this dying world ignores, bypasses, even curses—all of them are blessed by God, blessed to be blessings.
And this isn’t something we need to do anything about.
This is something that Jesus’ hearers, including you and me--this is simply who we ARE in the mercy of God.
“I have a dream,” Dr. King announced….and then in soaring rhetoric that still captures our hearts he shared a vision not of what he hoped might happen if everybody finally got their acts together….but rather, he shared a vision of what God was already up to, what God was surely bringing 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 in Christ is bringing into our lives and our world, even now.
That’s the first fresh thing I learned about the Beatitudes a while back…and the second new insight I received came from a preacher who said this: in the Beatitudes, Jesus intentionally focuses on all the “breakage” in our lives.
Not just here in these twelve verses, but throughout the Bible, God is always dealing with “breakage.”
It is, in fact, 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?
This is, I think, a profound word for you, Pastor Sheila, as you are installed as Lutheran campus pastor for the White Earth Tribal and Community College.
You are already a key bridge-builder and healer in this unique community of learners who bring all the joys and gifts, along with all the challenges and heartaches of young people today.
Today we publicly name you as pastor within this college, remembering that pastors are instruments through whom God gets close to us, close especially to all the breakage in our lives because of what Martin Luther called sin, death and the power of the devil.
Pastors are persons called to see and not ignore all the “breakage” in our lives.
Pastors, in the name of the crucified and risen Christ, pronounce God’s surprising, undeserved blessing upon us, precisely in our brokenness.
So, when all our sources of security are broken open, we realize how “poor in spirit” we truly are.
When all our hope for heaven on earth is broken open, we become people who can only “hunger and thirst for [God’s] righteousness”
As we name the hope that is in us—a hope that runs right up against the grain in this world—we’re 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 opens us up to God who delights in filling that brokenness with blessing.
When we’re most keenly aware of being broken, bereft, at the end of our rope—like those whom Jesus addressed in his Sermon on the Mount--here is what God in Jesus
Christ says to us:
You are blessed.
You are the apple of God’s eye.
You are Jesus’ joy and delight.
You will not be disappointed.
In God’s good time—in the future that God alone holds in the palm of his hands—in that future your future is disclosed, for the sake of God’s beloved Son, Jesus Christ.
It would be so wonderful if blessings came in a less painful way. We wish God simply doled out blessings the way Ed McMahon used to pull up to some unsuspecting soul’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 has space to redeem and restore and bless. Blessing enters in most readily, clearly and unmistakably wherever there is “breakage” that opens up room for blessing, thus making everything and everyone new, in Jesus Christ.
But even that is not the end of the matter.
The same preacher who taught me about “breakage” in our lives went on to say that God’s blessings are always “leaky.”
God never blesses any of us in such a way that we just hang onto that blessing and hold it in, purely for ourselves.
No, blessings by their very nature tend to “leak”—to leak out of our hands, into the hands of other broken ones, all around us….
…and in fact, that’s exactly why God put us here: to leak God’s blessings to us so that others might hear Jesus’ own “I Have a Dream” speech…and in that way, be blessed forever.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.