A sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, January 29, 2017
St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California
Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom 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 kingdom 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.
In the Sundays leading up to Lent, our lectionary is taking us through the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of Matthew. Last week he called the first disciples and the lesson ends: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”
The next thing Matthew says is a description of the great crowds who travelled from all over that started following Jesus. Jesus’ response to those crowds was to teach them. Over the next four Sundays we will be going through this detailed account of the teaching of Jesus which is known as the Sermon on the Mount. This teaching is the fundamental foundation of Christian spirituality.
The introductory part, which I just read, is called the Beatitudes—the blessings, or the description of those who are blessed. Sometimes people take these Beatitudes one at a time, but really, taken together, they are Jesus’ outline of the spirituality of the Christian life.
The Beatitudes start with “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Who are the poor? They are those who have little or nothing left to lose. The more that people and organizations have things that they might lose, the more afraid they become of risking those things for the sake of the Kingdom of God. But it is the Kingdom of God that gives life, not the things that we might have lost or still could lose.
And yet, many of those things that we might lose are good, are created by God and give us joy. It hurts to lose them. The second beatitude is “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Sometimes the things we give up or lose are things, or status or parts of relationships that we like. And adjusting to that is a type of mourning. Sometimes we mourn for people who have meant much to us. In our own community, we have lost people, long-time members—and we grieve. Losing a spouse or a child or another close loved one hurts immensely, and it continues to hurt for a long time. The comfort that God gives does not take that hurt away, or explain away our sorrow. God comforts us by traveling the road with us, healing our hurts and giving mercy.
When Jesus says “Blessed are the meek,” we need to understand something about that word. Meek has taken on a meaning in the past century that is misleading. We are inclined to think of meek as meaning primarily passive and submissive, but the word in this passage does not mean that—it means gentle, courteous and humble. One doesn’t inherit the earth by being timid or weak; rather it is by the strength of being humble, listening and giving credit to the dignity of others. The humble person neither trumpets their advanced status in the Kingdom, nor resents what they have given up for the sake of God’s Kingdom. Being meek does not mean that you don’t speak out when you see wrong or injustice. It’s only the meek and humble who can authentically hunger and thirst for justice (which is the same word as righteousness). Those who, in the core of their being, hunger and thirst for righteousness are fed, not by seeing it completed in this world, but by humbly receiving sustenance and life in God’s Kingdom so that they may continue to look for, and find the possibility of a little more justice in this world.
And as we struggle to find just a little bit of justice or righteousness in the church or in the world, we would become embittered and lost, were it not for God’s mercy to us, guiding us into the path of being merciful human beings. For who can be just or righteous in this world? It is certainly not those who are always convinced of their own rightness. It is in dwelling in that mercy that we can approach pureness in our heart and mind, perhaps getting a glimpse of what God has in store.
Notice here, that we have gone through all of this before we get to peacemaking. Making peace is not something you achieve by splitting the difference, or agreeing to not talk about disagreeable things. Making peace where there has been real contention takes the most profound of risks, courage, humility and strength. The children of God who are the peacemakers must be living day by day in God’s kingdom for anything like peace to make sense.
Jesus is totally in the real world. Notice that the next step in the beatitudes, indeed the consequence of making peace, is being persecuted for righteousness sake. Don’t expect living as a Christian and as a peacemaker to make your life peaceful and easy. For instance, it never occurred to me that the President of the United States would ever make an order that caused long-time residents of this country and whose permanent visas were in order to be detained and refused re-entry into the country as happened this weekend. That order embodies fear and anger and uses power to gain satisfaction for that anger by scapegoating people like the U.S. Army translator who was detained and threatened with return to Iraq. At times like this, when Christians speak out for the dignity of people there is a real risk of suffering for it. The peace and love of Jesus Christ can be profoundly disruptive, particularly for those who think they have this religion thing under control.
So that summarizes Jesus’ outline of the Christian spiritual life.
Jesus teaches us and the crowds the way of life. But what he teaches is not important because it is new or different. It is important because he lived it and shared God’s mercy and compassion. It is a mistake to talk about the Sermon on the Mount as representing “New Testament teaching” as if it were different from the “Old Testament.” His life and teaching are consistently a commentary on the scriptures of Israel. Hear again our Old Testament lesson for today: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Over the next three weeks, the Sermon on the Mount will illustrate how Jesus’ humble walk with God interprets the scriptures of Israel. God blesses those who accompany him on that walk, rejoicing in God’s Kingdom, finding God’s peace, purifying their hearts, receiving and giving God’s mercy and comfort. May all of our spirits become poor enough and empty enough to inherit the reign of God.