Thursday, March 9, 2017

Greatly Honored

This is the first sermon in a Lenten sermon series on the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount.

Deuteronomy 15:7-8; Matthew 4:23-5:3
March 5, 2017
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

As we begin our series on the Beatitudes, let’s set the scene and the context. Beatitude means blessing – a simple word that we use often, but maybe not in the ways that Jesus used it. The scriptures are filled with allusions to blessings – the blessings from God to people, from fathers to sons, between brothers, and the blessing of the covenant and the law. As a faithful Jew, Jesus was a student of the law, and as the Messiah, he was also the fulfillment of the law. Part of that law was the injunction to welcome the stranger,to care for the alien that resides in your country, and to care for the poor and the needy.

Listen for that injunction in this reading from Deuteronomy 15:7-8:

If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.

In spite of that clear instruction of the laws given to the people by God, in Jesus’ time, there were many people who were very, very poor. The Roman occupation, heavy taxation, and the loss of land had a devastating effect on the poorest of the poor. The working poor could make a day’s wage, enough to subsist, but those who could not work because of age, or sickness, were destitute, and utterly dependent on charity.

In Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, they were the ones who gathered around Jesus as he gave his sermon. But in Matthew’s version, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is teaching his disciples. Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Matthew 4: 23-5:3

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.
So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan. When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like, to be there with Jesus,
and to hear those words for the first time.
It’s hard to set aside the Sunday School pictures we might remember
or the scenes we might imagine, of the Sermon on the Mount.
In the pictures I remember, Jesus is a Germanic looking white guy,
with brown hair and blue eyes, very clean and pleasant looking.
He is sitting on a very tidy stone, on a very sanitary hill.
All the people crowded around him are neat and tidy and European looking.
Everyone looks quite healthy.

In reality, Jesus would almost certainly have a dark complexion, dark hair, a beard, and dark eyes. He was a Middle Eastern man, so he’d have looked more Arabic than European. The people who gathered around him probably looked much the same, except maybe even less clean. People who were sick, or afflicted with various diseases and pains, or demoniacs, or epileptics, or paralytics were probably extremely poor, and probably not too aromatic.

It’s safe to assume that most of us would be a bit nervous, if we encountered any of these people on the sidewalk. We might think Jesus looked more like a terrorist than the savior of the world. If we were there, and could get over our discomfort in that crowd, we’d be even more nervous hearing what Jesus had to say. Because Jesus is telling these destitute, forgotten, sickly, miserable folks that they are the ones who will inherit the kingdom of heaven. Actually he’s not even saying they will inherit the kingdom of heaven. He’s saying the kingdom of heaven already belongs to them.

See, the beatitudes, these blessings Jesus is pronouncing, are not promises.
These beatitudes are not pie in the sky when you die.
The language Jesus uses is performative language.
Performative language is just what it sounds like – words that perform – that DO something. The most familiar example of performative language I know of is the language of wedding vows. When you say, “I take you to be my lawfully wedded wife, or husband,” your words are performing the action. When you say “With this ring, I thee wed,” it is your words that make you married.

So when Jesus says, “Blessed are…” his words are performative – they have effect -
he is announcing an accomplished fact – the blessing is already there.

Actually, the word blessed is better translated “happy” or “greatly honored.”
Greatly honored – happy - are the poor in spirit –
they’ve already been given the kingdom of heaven.

Greatly honored - happy - are those who mourn –
they are already receiving comfort.

In Jesus’ time, these powerful blessings are contrary to what everyone really knew to be true. Those whom Jesus named as the poor in spirit were not just poor – they were destitute, actual beggars who relied completely on charity. And as if that weren’t curse enough, they also suffered from a poverty of the soul – they were beggars in body and spirit – on the absolute fringe of society.

Everybody knew that the rich were blessed.
Everybody knew that happy people were blessed.
And they knew that beggars were NOT blessed, not honored, not happy.
They knew that those in mourning,
were NOT blessed, not honored, not happy.

But Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…blessed are those who mourn.”

We normally count material things as blessings –
"blessed with" a nice home, a decent car, a good job.
We normally count happiness, not grief, as a blessing.
To be bereft, in body and spirit, does not sound like blessing.

But if we look at “those people” – the sick, the beggar, the mournful,
and we ignore them, or dismiss them, we miss the blessing.
If we look at “those people” – the alien, the stranger, the outsider,
those who are in poverty of body and spirit –
and we turn away, or push them away, we miss the blessing.
If we look at “those people” and see our own poverty and sorrow reflected in their eyes,
if we look at them and greatly honor them,
and we hold a space for them, and for ourselves,
then we’ll be open to that blessing
that comes from the poverty, the sorrow, the darkness.

I know it does not make much sense – it’s all backwards.
It makes about as much sense as loving our enemies.
Perhaps this poverty of spirit and this grief are blessings in a different way
than the blessings we normally name.
The season of Lent is a time of transformation.
The word “lent” has its roots in the word “lengthen”
– the lengthening of days as spring draws near.
From the time of the winter solstice, the longest night, in December,
the days are gradually growing longer,
pushing back the dark nights of winter up until the vernal equinox.
Lent is a time of dwelling in darkness –
a time in which we are poor in spirit, in which we are those who mourn.

Ash Wednesday opens the door to this reflection and repentance,
to this time of letting go, and emptiness.
When I marked the ashes on people’s foreheads last week,
I offered a prayer for each one –

“Gracious God, we pray that you open our hearts to your presence,
to let go of those things of which we need to repent,
and to embrace the actions and thoughts
which you’d have us carry with us throughout this Lenten season.”

Meister Eckhart said that to be poor in spirit
is to “know nothing, want nothing, and have nothing.”
That sounds pretty Buddhist, and it is deeply Christian,
because if we know nothing, want nothing, and have nothing,
we are ready to learn everything that Jesus wants to teach us,
to receive everything that Jesus wants to give us,
and to give everything to others that he wants us to share.

If we are poor in spirit, our poverty makes space for Jesus to be present.
If we are grieving, mourning in this Lenten season,
our sorrow is a doorway – an opening into a deep place in our souls.
Our emptiness creates a space where we can encounter mercy,
a place where we can stand, bereft and broken hearted,
ready to be healed and restored through the love of Jesus.

It will require from us the willingness to be empty,
without rushing to fill ourselves with distractions.

It will require from us the willingness to sit with our grief,
to confess the places in which we are wounded,
without seeking immediate, if temporary, relief.

It will require from us the willingness to sit for a time in the twilight,
to dwell in the darkness,
to open our hands and hearts,
and to simply wait.

Because the kingdom of heaven is already ours –
and the consolation for our grief is already here.

That’s what Jesus wants us to know.
He wants us to know that his kingdom can be found at the edges,
among the people on the fringe of society.
He wants us to see that in him, heaven and earth meet.
He wants us to come to him, at his table, where he is present and waiting,
where he offers himself to us in our poverty,
where he offers his sorrow to heal our grief.
Greatly honored are you, you who are empty!
Greatly honored are you, you who are sorrowful!
Greatly honored are you, you who wait!

You are greatly honored, for you are God’s own people,
beloved, welcome at Christ’s table,
where he offers you the bread of life, the cup of salvation –
where he waits to fill your emptiness with grace. 


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