First Things

Micah 6:1-8
Psalm 15 (Responsively)
Matthew 5:1-12

Reverend Dr. Stephen R. Caine

 

5:1 “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ 4 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.’ 5 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.’ 6 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.’ 7 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.’ 8 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.’ 9 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.’ 10 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ 11 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.’ 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:1-12, NRSV)[1]

 

Let us pray: God our deliverer, you walk with the meek and the poor,

the compassionate and those who mourn, and you call us to walk humbly with you. When we are foolish, be our wisdom; when we are weak, be our strength;

that, as we learn to do justice and to love mercy, we may join with you to be a blessing to others. Amen.

 

You received a large booklet when you walked in this morning. It is an account of the last year in the life of the Indian Hill Church.  It tells a story of what we have done, where your money has gone and what programs we offered.  It tells all sorts of facts and it gives figures, such as how many people attended the worship services last year.  It tells what repairs and upgrades we did to the building and on the grounds in 2016.  The annual report tells you many things about the last year in the life of the Indian Hill Church but it does not tell us everything.

It doesn’t have many spiritual facts or faith filled figures because they are hard to quantify and track.  So, as you review this annual report how do you think we have lived up to our calling as a church?   Have we lived out our Christian faith as a body of believers?   Our scripture passages for today point to what is important to God.

 

In the Old Testament passage from Micah chapter 6 is as straight forward and direct as scripture can get.  It tells us exactly what God wants, “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?”  I hope our annual report captures something of our desire to do justice, to be kind and loving and our yearning to humbly walk with God.

 

The New Testament passage from the Gospel of Matthew is known as Jesus Sermon on the Mount and his familiar statements are known as the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes are nine blessings.  Each sound like a philosophical aphorism.  These wise proclamations consist of two phrases: a condition and a result.  Jesus’ words present a new set of ideals that focus on a spirit of love and humility.

 

When we hear the Beatitudes, we think about people like mother Teresa, who spent her adult life in the streets of Calcutta, caring for the poorest of the poor, most of whom were dying.  We think of Nelson Mandela, who spent twenty-seven arduous years in prison on Robben Island in South Africa.  But even more importantly, when he was finally released and amazingly later became President of the same country, he did not seek revenge on those who imprisoned him and oppressed his people.  He forgave them and refused to retaliate against them.  When we think of the Beatitudes we think of people like Shane Claiborne, a current day Christian social activist, advocating for nonviolence and service to the poor.  He has gone to extraordinary lengths to care for the environment – to live green.  He cherishes the earth and its resources, rather exploiting our natural resources.[2]

 

When we hear the Beatitudes, it suggests, people more dedicated, more generous, more committed to following Jesus than ourselves.  These are people who really live out self-denial; people who are truly humble, compassionate and caring.

 

One commentator says of these “blessed” ones in the Beatitudes that they have embraced values that turn the values of the world upside down.  You know that values of our world that declare that we are blessed when we are rich in things, when we are filled with all the good food we can eat, when we are loud and bold, when we laugh at others expense and when we enjoy all the pleasure we can get out of life.  But Jesus says not in God’s Kingdom the blessed are – the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the peacemakers, the persecuted.[3] That isn’t a group most of us would want to join.

 

Only the big names, the spiritual giants, make the cut: Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Shane Claiborne, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi…these are the “blessed.” Or are they?

 

Interesting thing, however, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is speaking to the disciples.  I tend to overlook that when I read the “Sermon the Mount” as I assume that Jesus is preaching to the crowds.  But that’s Luke’s version, not Matthew’s.  Notice, that Jesus goes up on a mountain to be alone with his disciples and to teach them.  Here is Jesus, a teacher, an interpreter of God’s law, doing what teachers do, teaching his disciples on the mountain.  Another thing to notice is that he is not teaching them how to become blessed, or even how to bless each other, No.   What he is teaching them is how to recognize others who have already been blessed by God.

 

So, who are the blessed?  In the early church, the makarios (μακάριος), the blessed and the happy ones, usually referred to the martyrs.  It is hard to picture a smile on the face of a martyr as they were being burned at the stake or beheaded.  Yet, Jesus declares, “blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.”[4]

 

How can Jesus declare that people who are suffering are blessed?  How can someone amid such difficult circumstances be called blessed? The current circumstances for believers may include poverty, broken spirit, humility, and mourning.  Blessed are they, Jesus says.  But, he clearly is not only speaking of their present circumstances.

 

It seems that Jesus equates there being blessed because they are part of the kingdom of God.  A kingdom that is both and.  A kingdom that exists both now, in the present and not yet, in the future.  The verbs “are” and “will” indicate that God is at work in the present world, bringing the kingdom to completion.  Those within the present kingdom of God who “are” in difficult circumstances “will be” blessed when God brings about the new creation.

 

So, when Jesus points out those who are blessed he is saying – life now might not be good and easy and full but this is not the end of the story. What we see as a curse or a struggle in our lives is something entirely different in the Kingdom of God.  It is a blessing because God is at work.

 

The retired Anglican Bishop of Durham and New Testament scholar NT Wright says that the beatitudes “are good news, not good advice.”  They are not ways to live but they are claims of hope for a future that God will usher in.  You see Jesus is not setting up the conditions of blessing, rather he is blessing his hearers.

 

Jesus points us to recognize that God’s kingdom isn’t a place that is far away but instead it is found here and now, whenever we honor each other as God’s children, whenever we bear each other’s burdens, whenever we bind each other’s wounds, and whenever we meet each other’s needs.

 

Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, the pure in heart, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and who are persecuted on Christ’s behalf.  It’s quite a list.  Jesus calls us to join his radically different kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, where even these situations and circumstances of life can be blessings.   As a church, Jesus invites us to move beyond these walls, to move beyond the facts and figures of the annual report, to move beyond the comfort of our lives and look for the blessed in our world, to look and see where God is working.  Remember Jesus is blessings his hearers, he is blessing us, you and me. We are set free to live by hearing Jesus extend this blessing, this beatitude of God.

Let us pray:

 

[1] Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[2] Reverend Dr. KC Ptomey

[3] Ibid

[4] The Reverend Dr. Clayton Schmit, Commentary on Matthew 5:1-12

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