There is danger in our worship every Sunday morning. Annie Dillard once wrote, “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.”
There is danger in our worship: danger that we become complacent; danger that we live for ourselves alone; danger that we would read God’s Word in ways that accommodate our comfort, rather than a challenge to our contentment.
There is especially a danger anytime the Beatitudes come up in the Lectionary, as they do this morning. Church tradition has so over-sentimentalized these sayings of Jesus, that they have, in essence, lost their spirit. Either we have so watered down these blessings of Jesus that they no longer have much meaning beyond beautiful wall hangings, or we have heard them so many times that we have lost the power to actually believe in them.
A lot of this loss has to do with how we read this chapter of Matthew’s Gospel.
It is a simple trap to get stuck in, because “it is subtle: believing that Jesus is setting up the conditions of blessing, rather than actually blessing his hearers… When [we] hear the Beatitudes, it’s hard for [us] not to hear Jesus as stating the terms under which [we] might be blessed. For instance, when [we] hear ‘Blessed are the pure in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,’ [we] tend to think, ‘Am I pure enough in spirit?’ or ‘I should try to be more pure in spirit.’ Or when [we] hear ‘blessed are the peacemakers…,’ [we] think, ‘Yes, I really should be more committed to making peace.’ At least with ‘blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,’ [we] have the assurance of knowing that on those occasions when [we are] mourning [we] will be comforted. But, to be perfectly honest- and if you’ll pardon the pun- that’s relatively small comfort because the truth is [we] don’t want to mourn, and hearing this beautitude doesn’t make [us] any more eager for additional mourning. (Ditto for being persecuted!)” (Lose).
I admit that I have lived with the tendency to read the Beatitudes in just this way. It is actually easier to read these as law. That way it is only a personal responsibility: if I sacrifice a little bit more, maybe I can get to the right level of “pure in spirit.” I have wondered what actions I need to take to really be considered a peacemaker. Yes, there is an aspect of personal growth and responsibility here, but this misses a larger, more important point.
First of all, we have to begin to re-frame our understanding of these famous words. For the reader, Jesus’ journey up the mountain to impart wisdom alludes to another teacher- Moses- and another mountain- Sinai. But instead of getting a bunch of mandates: thou shalt upon thou shalt, this famous sermon gives a different kind of list. “Blessed are…” after “Blessed are…” Too often we take this as law: “‘Be merciful,’ the preacher exhorts, ‘and you will receive mercy.’ That may be true at times, but it is not what Jesus is saying here” (Pape).
Jesus is not giving us a prescription for what ails us, but instead describing how things are. “Jesus is not insisting that we become people who starve to see justice done (verse 6)… What he is saying is that such people are [already] blessed of God. God [already] looks upon such people with favor. God’s eye is [already] on them; they will be happy in the end. This, says Jesus, is the way things [already] are” (Pape).
Jesus is describing the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet.’ He is teaching about God’s kingdom, and about those who will be exalted in it. But he is also saying that those people, the meek and the powerless and the merciful and the peacemaker- they are already blessed. We see the meek, the powerless, the merciful and the peacemaker every day in our world, and they are already looked upon with favor by God.
“[So] if the Beatitudes are a description of reality, what world do they describe? Certainly not our own. ‘Blessed are the meek’ (verse 5), says Jesus, but in our world, the meek don’t get the land, they get left holding the worthless beads. ‘Blessed are the merciful’ (verse 7), says Jesus, but in our world mourning may be tolerated for a while, but soon we will ask you to pull yourself together and move on. ‘Blessed are the pure in heart’ (verse 8), says Jesus, but in our world, such people are dismissed as hopelessly naïve.
“‘blessed are the peacemakers’ (verse 9), says Jesus, but in our world those who pursue peace,” or teach nonviolence, or march against nuclear weapons, or protest the death penalty, “risk having their patriotism called into question. To which of these blessings do our national leaders [on both sides of the aisle- this is not a partisan ailment] refer when they insist that ‘God Bless[es] America!’ To none of these, for our national creed is one of optimism (not mourning), confidence (not poverty of spirit), and abundance (not hunger or thirst of any kind), and it is in service of such things that we invoke and assume the blessing of God” (Pape).
There is danger in our worship this morning because we do not live by these teachings. We do not really believe these Beatitudes. We think of them as nice platitudes, and nothing more. Instead, Lance Pape, of Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, notes that “we live by those other beatitudes:
“Blessed are the well-educated, for they will get the good jobs.
“Blessed are the well-connected, for their aspirations will not go unnoticed.
“Blessed are you when you know what you want, and go after it with everything you’ve got, for God helps those who help themselves.”
We live believing that ‘Blessed are you who look out for yourself.’
This shouldn’t sound foreign to us. This is the gospel according to our culture. We were all taught it, grown up on it, and believe it. It has been engrained in all of us, myself included. We must confess, however, that this is self-focused thinking, while Christ calls us to radical self-sacrifice.
The anthropologist, Margaret Mead, once asked an audience, “‘What is the earliest sign of civilization? A clay pot? Iron? Tools? Agriculture?’ No, she claimed, it was a healed leg bone… She explained that such healings were never found in the remains of competitive, savage societies. There, clues of violence abounded: temples pierced by arrows, skulls crushed by clubs. But the healed femur showed that someone must have cared for the injured person- hunted on his behalf, brought him food, and served him at personal sacrifice. Savage societies could not afford such pity… Community is all about helping each other- caring enough to invest oneself in the ‘thin lines of healing’” (Moore).
A friend on social media shared this about ancient hospitality:
“Part of what makes the Bible so bizarre in its ancient context is its repeated insistence on hospitality for the foreigner. There are lots of ancient law codes from the ancient Near East (Hammurabi’s famous code is merely one of them), and none of them have laws that protect foreigners, and none of them say anything at all about welcoming foreigners. This is because foreigners had absolutely no rights in anybody else’s land: they posed a threat to everyone else’s scarce resources, and they could always be a scouting party for a foreign enemy. So, best to shut them out unless they were beneficial to your people in some way. Foreign dignitaries and rich merchants were always welcome; people fleeing oppression never were.
Ancient Israel, though, is an odd duck because their law codes say over and over again that you have to welcome the wandering foreigner and you have to help them, you cannot oppress them: “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Exod. 22:21). You’re supposed to provide for them from your own stuff: “You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien” (Lev. 19:10). You’re supposed to treat them exactly as you treat one of your kin, or even how you treat yourself: “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:34), and “You shall have one law for the alien and for the citizen” (Lev. 24:22), and “You shall not deprive a resident alien, or an orphan, of justice” (Deut. 24:17).
The reason, of course, is given many times, but it’s always the same: because you were an alien in the land of Egypt when God saved you. In other words, God is with the aliens in a very important way, precisely because they are aliens. God cares for the vulnerable in particular, and there are hardly any people who are more vulnerable than aliens.
Israel’s odd hospitality is so bizarre because they don’t offer hospitality only to the elite. Their God demands that they welcome anybody who comes near. When Abraham welcomes the strangers in Genesis 18, this is a welcoming of God. And the New Testament is very similar: welcoming the vulnerable is welcoming Jesus himself. Matthew 25:40 is the key: God is present especially in the vulnerable (note that Matt 25 doesn’t say only to help those like you- it says anybody), and when you refuse them, you are refusing Jesus himself. We must welcome the vulnerable stranger, because we were once strangers, and because the stranger is Jesus.”
If an anthropologist five thousand years from now were to look at our modern society, they would likely be quite confused. Pouring over the books and papers, the monuments and the stadiums, they would probably say, ‘Here we have a society that claimed to believe one thing, but operated in a very different way.’
We say that we are “Christian,” but then we enact legislation that directly harms large groups of people. We say that we are “Christian,” but we build walls that divide us, when Jesus taught us to tear them down. We say that we are “Christian,” and read scriptures that demand our care of the refugee, but we close our borders out of fear based on emotion, not fact.
On Friday, the world honored the victims of the Holocaust on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, where at least 1.1 million Jews were murdered. Holocaust survivor, and author of the memoir, Night, Elie Wiesel, who passed away last year, spent his life giving voice to the millions who perished because of the evil of the Holocaust.
When Wiesel received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, he reflected on a conversation he had as a boy with his father, who died just days before the liberation of the camps by the Allied Forces. “He asked his father: ‘Can this be true?’ This is the twentieth century, not the Middle Ages. Who would allow such crimes to be committed? How could the world remain silent?’”
Yet the world remains silent, and worse. Just look at how we are reacting to, and treating refugees today in the midst of the worst refugee crisis since World War II.
The Beatitudes are a blessing; are we a people who deserve that blessing? When I sit and read these words, I wonder… am I a person who deserves this blessing?
Perhaps our salvation can come in a new reading of the Beatitudes. Yes, they are a blessing, but they are also a call to action. In the final verse of our passage this morning, Jesus tells us to “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” If we live as a blessed people, as I do believe we are, then we also are called to live as the prophets did. We must hunger and thirst for righteousness, just like the prophets.
And that is not a comfortable road to walk. Prophets were (and are) often persecuted, marginalized, sometimes murdered for the word they brought. But they were not primarily focused on a “reward in heaven.” They were concerned with social and spiritual change. Here. Now. And so was Jesus.
The question we are boldly confronted with this morning is, “Do we hunger and thirst for righteousness?”
“Do [we] hunger and thirst for righteousness or do [we] look the other way?
“Do [we] hunger and thirst for righteousness or do [we] assume someone else will?
“Do [we] hunger and thirst for righteousness or do [we] explain away [our] perceived indifference because [we] don’t want people to think [we] take sides, because [we] choose to play it safe?
“Do [we] hunger and thirst for righteousness or keep silent so as not to offend, not to disappoint, in fear of not meeting expectations? (Lewis).
We are called, not just this morning, but every single day of our lives, to live upside down in the world. All these teachings, of Jesus, of Moses, of the prophets, and of Paul, are completely ridiculous! They are antithetical to how our world is structured. The world says: ‘Caring for someone else is ludicrous! I have to protect what is mine and ours! Whatever happens to you is on you! Not me!’
And Paul admits that it is “foolishness!” The message of the cross, yes, it is foolishness. Because for the world, that marks the end of the line. We might as well look at the gurney in today’s death chambers for our hope and salvation, is what Paul seems to be saying. It’s a fool’s errand… for those who don’t know the power of the resurrection. What Jesus and Paul are saying to us this morning, is that the normal way of doing things isn’t working, and it hasn’t worked, and it’s not going to work. The message of the Gospel is a call to radical grace and radical change.
Karoline Lewis points out that,
“The Gospel is a word of protest. In this time and in this place, we cannot forget this. Jesus was a person who stood up and said no… The Beatitudes are not just blessings but a call to action.
“And in the season of Epiphany, the Beatitudes are a call to action to point out just who Jesus really is. Perhaps not the Jesus [we] want. Perhaps the Jesus who likely rubs [us] the wrong way. Perhaps the Jesus that tells [us] the truth about [ourselves]. The Jesus who reminds [us], at the most inconvenient times and places, what the Kingdom of Heaven is all about” (Lewis).
This is not a part of the Gospel that is nice and cozy; it is hard and challenging, pretty uncomfortable if we are brutally honest with ourselves. But it is truth in a world that claims alternative truths. It is “a call to action to be the church, a call to action to make Jesus present and visible and manifest when the world tries desperately to silence those who speak the truth” (Lewis).
In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “There was a time when the church was very powerful- in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days, the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society… If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning.”
We are called to be a voice for the voiceless; to be the hands and feet of mercy; to be the heart of justice for those who have been denied for too long a drink from the waters of righteousness. Even when it hurts. Even when it is uncomfortable. Even when it is unpopular. Even if it risks our very lives.
We must be hungry. We must be thirsty. We must live upside down.
There are times when I have not been hungry… times I have not been thirsty… times when I have clung to my comfort and my privilege. And this is dangerous, not just for me personally, but for the sake of the gospel.
I want to close with some words from Brennan Manning, who was a Franciscan Priest and prolific author. He wrote, “the outstretched arms of Jesus exclude no one, not the drunk in the doorway, the panhandler on the street, gays and lesbians in their isolation, the most selfish and ungrateful in their cocoons, the most unjust of employers and the most overweening of snobs. The love of Christ embraces all without exception.”
Jesus’ arms are outstretched in blessing. Are ours? Amen.
Lewis, Karoline. “Righteous Living.” Working Preacher. Luther Seminary, 22 Jan. 2017. Web. 26 Jan. 2017.
Lose, David. “God Bless You.” Working Preacher. Luther Seminary, 23 Jan. 2011. Web. 26 Jan. 2017.
Pape, Lance. “Commentary on Matthew 5:1-12.” Working Preacher. Luther Seminary, 02 Nov. 2014. Web. 26 Jan. 2017.