Monday, January 31, 2011
You're vain, you probably think the Beatitudes are about you . . .
Below is the message I shared yesterday at Good Shepherd. I shared from Matthew 5:1-12, which is the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount and is also the Beatitudes. I tried to share the realization that was given to me that when Jesus said those words that we have now canonized as 'the Beatitudes' he wasn't randomly pulling out life conditions or actions, but looking at the people in front of them at letting them know they were, in fact, blessed. We are blessed too. Thanks for reading.
The gospel passage we heard just a few minutes ago is certainly not obscure or unknown. Instead it is perhaps the most well-known passage in probably the most famous – and probably best sermons ever given.
Having said that it might seem to make sense to just jump right into talking about the beatitudes because we don’t need any background information.
But I think sometimes our familiarity with something can blind us to the power, importance and true meaning of what is going on and what is being said.
I think the beatitudes are definitely one of those times – I have heard them so many times, that the words – revolutionary, transformative words, barely register.
So, we are going to get a little background and maybe even go off on a tangent or two before we come back to the beatitudes.
What we often miss when we are too familiar with something is perspective. Understanding what Jesus is really saying in the sermon on the mount requires hearing those words in the proper perspective.
I realized the danger of a lack of perspective when I came across a recent commentary on this passage.
The main theme of the reflection was the assertion that Jesus, to use their terminology ‘lies’. The author states that Jesus words don’t ring true, because those that mourn often aren’t comforted, those that are meek often get nothing and peacemakers and seekers of what is right are often simply trampled upon.
Those thoughts might have merit, from one perspective. But certainly not an eternal one.
I recently heard of an organization called ‘The Long Now’ and their efforts to build a 10,000 year clock.
The clock, ticks just once a year, chimes every one hundred years and radiates with a ‘cuckoo’ every millennium.
The point of the clock – and the Long Now foundation is, in their own words, to “provide a counterpoint to today's "faster/cheaper" mind set and promote "slower/better" thinking. We hope to creatively foster responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years.’
The Long now, is certainly a much different kind of perspective and I think it is the kind we need to have when seeking to understand the words of Jesus in the beatitudes.
Too often I think we go to the exact opposite of the ‘Long Now’ approach and see only the immediate in our lives or only what we are experiencing right now.
Looking at our current situation and saying, ‘I don’t feel blessed’ or ‘She has more than I do’ is to completely miss the eternal nature of God’s promises to us and relationship with us.
It also misses one other key element of perspective that is central to all of our lives and all of our understanding.
It is one that is clearly highlighted in our reading from 1Corinthians.
Simply put, regardless of circumstance, status, or anything else we are – each of us and every single human being is clearly and truly blessed.
We are blessed because Jesus Christ, the creator and ruler of our universe choose to also become our savior. We are blessed because Jesus blessed us with his coming to us, with his life among us and his death for and in place of us.
As familiar as the beatitudes are, we still need a proper perspective or lens to understand them within the context of the Sermon on the Mount.
The beatitudes are the opening of Sermon on the Mount. The sermon ends (in chapter 7) with a teaching about a difference between those who are wise and those who are foolish:
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell--and great was its fall! Matthew 7:24-27 (NRSV)
What is the crucial difference between the one who is wise and the one who is foolish?
It has nothing to do with what we usually associate with wisdom: knowledge, experience, or even intelligence
And it doesn’t have to do with hearing what Jesus has said. Both cases begin - "Everyone who hears these words of mine ..."
The difference between being either wise or foolish is in acting or not acting.
It is not enough for us to hear these words of Jesus; to study them; to be inspired by them; to have hopes / aspirations / dreams based on them. We must act on them; practice them; live them in our everyday lives.
So whatever passage we read from the Sermon on the Mount, we must hear it with one question in mind:
What must I do to make this central to how I live?
Our passage gets its name, "The Beatitudes," from the Latin word for "Blessed."
Who are the blessed? The poor. The grieving. The humble. The hungry. The merciful. The pure. The peacemakers. The hated, excluded, reviled, and persecuted.
This is a tough list for those of us who are rich – or at least richer than some, or full, or laughing, or spoken well of.
But aren't all of these good things to have and to aspire to?
Let's go back to the text to see what we might have missed:
Notice the directness and immediacy of Jesus' language: you, you who are right here, right now.
Jesus is speaking to real people who are right in front of him, and he is talking to them about their actual current circumstance.
And notice that he is not saying that being poor is a blessing. Or that being hungry is a blessing. Or that being sorrowful is a blessing. Instead, he is promising that all of these will be reversed.
But being hated, being hated "on my account," now that is a blessing. For that is a sign that you are among the company of God's true prophets.
But Jesus is not saying that being rich, or full, or laughing is in itself wrong. But that these too will all be reversed.
Rather Jesus is condemning the all too human weakness and tendancy to confuse our needs.
Most of us here today are able to meet our needs to provide for our families, to be well fed and happy, so we neglect our need for God. Instead, what is within our immediate grasp becomes our substitute for salvation.
But the poor, the hungry, and the grieving will never confuse these things as being their salvation. And that is the blessing. They know their need of God.
So there are perhaps two main themes that need to be remembered.
The first is one of comfort and assurance to those who are right now: poor, mourning, humble, hungry, etc., etc. They are blessed now and their circumstances will not last.
The second is one of awakening and encouragement to those who are right now: satisfied, happy, accomplished, well fed, etc., etc. They too are blessed now - but not because of their circumstances – for their circumstances will not last either.
Instead, we are blessed when we bind ourselves to Jesus; when we are true and loyal to him; when our reputation is on account of him. Even in the face of persecution.
We are blessed when - whatever our circumstances - we know our need of God.
Because knowing our need of God allows us to enjoy the good things of this life without expecting them to be our salvation.
Because knowing our need of God allows us to endure the bad things of life knowing they cannot utterly destroy us.
Because knowing our need of God allows us to know the quality of life and relationships that God desires for us, and gives us guidance for aligning our personal, social, economic, environmental, and political relationships.
Because having perspective allows us to know that we need God and we need God and in Jesus Christ we are, we have been and we will continue to be blessed.