Monday, March 13, 2017

Hungry Hearts

Psalm 37:10-17; Matthew 5: 1-2, 5-6
March 12, 2017
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Our first reading comes from the Psalms today, a Psalm that may not be familiar to many of us. You know, of course, that the Psalms are in verse, like poems and songs, and that many of them were used in worship in ancient Israel. You are probably familiar with the some of the Psalms – maybe even lots of them! – like Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd…” Or maybe Psalm 121 – “I lift up my eyes to the hills…” And you’ve heard phrases from Psalms, even if you didn’t know the source. But there are 150 Psalms, and most of us aren’t that well-versed in the less-quoted ones.

Psalm 37 is a song of assurance to the people of Israel, people who had suffered under various oppressors, and who had lived with persecution and hardship. Granted, some of their troubles were the result of their own disobedience, but this Psalm assures them of God’s justice. It is also the Psalm that Jesus quotes directly in the Beatitudes. Let’s listen for God’s promised justice for the people in Psalm 37:10-17

Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more;
though you look diligently for their place, they will not be there.
But the meek shall inherit the land,
and delight themselves in abundant prosperity.
The wicked plot against the righteous, and gnash their teeth at them;
but the Lord laughs at the wicked, for he sees that their day is coming.
The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows
to bring down the poor and needy, to kill those who walk uprightly;
their sword shall enter their own heart, and their bows shall be broken.
Better is a little that the righteous person has than the abundance of many wicked.
For the arms of the wicked shall be broken, but the Lord upholds the righteous.

We continue with our exploration of the Beatitudes. Jesus is still up on the mountain, sitting down to teach his disciples. We join with them to listen for God’s blessing in Matthew 5: 1-2, 5-6.

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 meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

You probably remember from last week that the word “blessed” in the beatitudes can be better translated as “greatly honored” or “happy.” That’s easy to substitute:
“Happy are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Greatly honored are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.”

Blessed is the easy word to deal with in these two verses. The words “meek” and “righteousness” however, present an interpretive challenge. The most challenging word for modern ears is “meek.” I want to invite you to consider for just a moment what words or images come to mind when you hear the word “meek.” If you immediately think of Nicki Minaj’s ex-boyfriend, rapper Meek Mill, ignore those words and images. If you don’t know who those people are, never mind. If you do, you can congratulate me later on my relevant cultural reference!

Now, back to meek.
What would it mean if you heard a national leader described as “meek”?
When you think of a person who is meek, what do you imagine?
Would you like it if someone described you as meek?

If you are like most folks, you hear the word meek, and unless you are reading the Bible, you think of someone who is timid, weak, and shy. Meekness is not generally thought of as an attractive trait. Unless you were a first century disciple of Jesus.

Then, you’d have heard Jesus say, “Blessed – happy – are the humbled, for they shall inherit the earth” and you would hear the echoes of Psalm 37.

The disciples would have had no trouble drawing a parallel
between the wicked of Psalm 37 and the Romans of their own day.
They had been victimized by debt, by taxes, by poverty
brought about by a system that was rigged against them.
They knew what it meant to be humbled.

The second interpretive challenge in these verses is the word “righteousness.”
Most of us, when we hear that word, think of “self-righteousness,”
or the idea that people who are saintly and pious are “righteous.”

But that is not what that word is, or what it means.
A much better translation of the Greek word in Matthew is “justice.”
Blessed, happy, are those who are hungry and thirsty for justice.
The meek, those who had been humbled, were starved for justice.
They could not count on justice, until the day when God’s final justice would restore them to the land. They were committed to doing good, even though it was clear that doing evil pays better. The Roman Empire was working out well for the rich and powerful, but it was a system that was founded on injustice and exploitation.

The disciples knew what Jesus was talking about,
and they were parched and starving for justice.
They knew that, absent God’s intervention, they were not going to get it.
They could not gain any material success
unless they were willing to sell their souls to the system.

So when Jesus quoted Psalm 37, you know they must have leaned in.
They understood that when Jesus spoke of the meek,
when he named those hungry and thirsty for justice,
he was speaking of them -- those who had been humbled by the wicked.

It’s pretty easy for us to connect the dots, too.
The contrasts Jesus paints are bold, and they apply even now.
We know that in our own time and place,
there are those who care nothing for the poor, care nothing for justice.
They cheat the poor to become wealthy
- they actively plot against those who seek righteousness.
You may not have much, but better the little you have gained
than the huge estates they’ve amassed by exploiting you.

Blessed are those who have been humbled; they will inherit the earth.

The wicked do not lose any sleep over the victims of their wrongdoing.
They intentionally – or carelessly cause suffering.
They sit down at tables of rich food and stuff themselves.
But you, you are famished for justice, parched for righteousness.

They are hungry for war, bloodthirsty.
You, the humbled, are hungering and thirsting for justice, for God’s realm.

Blessed are those who seek justice the way a starving man seeks food.
Blessed are those who desire good like those who seek water in the desert.

Jesus is announcing a new reality: in him, the kingdom of God is present.
The promise in Psalm 37, like the performative language of the Beatitudes,
is that the wicked do not win.
Evil is already defeated.

They may draw their swords now, but they will pierce their own hearts.
They draw back their bows now, but God will break their bows.
They are armed against you, you who are unarmed,
but don’t worry, because God is going to disarm them!

God will accomplish this not through violence,
not through confiscation, like some kind of divine despot.
God will accomplish this through the disarming love of Jesus.

In us, that disarming love will be demonstrated in our daily lives.
As disciples, we follow our teacher.
We speak out for those whose voices have been silenced,
with prayer, with advocacy, words of hope.
We pray for all people – not only those whom we know and love,
but those who do evil, who hate us, who persecute us.
And we act in ways that seek justice, in actions large and small –
through our purchasing choices,
through our daily decisions about the right use of resources,
through our resistance to participating in that which wasteful or exploitive.

And when we grow weary, when our spirits fade,
when we are empty and hungry and thirsty
we come back to Jesus, the one who leads us to still waters.

Our life-giving shepherd provides for our needs.
Our souls are filled in the green pastures where Jesus leads.
As we follow him and listen to his voice,
he satisfies our hunger and slakes our thirst.
He prepares a table for us and then invites our enemies.
His disarming love invites us always to come and eat and be satisfied.

At his table, we break the bread of life together.
Our cups run over with his grace. He satisfies our hungry hearts
with his justice, with his righteousness, with his boundless love.
Come, you who have been humbled by life’s unfairness:
come and receive the kingdom.
Come, you who are starved for justice and thirsting for goodness:
come and be filled.
Come, you who are blessed. 
Come to this table of blessings.


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