Sunday, January 30, 2011

Insert Witty Beatitudes-Centric Title Here.

I don't know Sarah Dylan Breuer, but her excellent Lectionary blog has, countless times, helped challenge me into seeing Scripture in new ways. I owe her a great debt for this sermon.

Micah 6:1-8

Hear what the LORD says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice.
Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the LORD, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the LORD has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel.
“O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.
O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the LORD.”
“With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
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?

1 Corinthians 1:18-31

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

Matthew 5:1-12

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.
“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 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.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

I think the Beatitudes have been given a bum rap for a long time. It‘s too easy, I fear, to call them what Robert Schuller called them, the “Be Happy Attitudes,” where we read them like directions for positive thinking, or poetically vapid self-help tips. We’ve filtered the Beatitudes through the lens of our Western individualism and in the process we’ve robbed of their revolutionary, scandalous, shocking character.

That’s right, the Beatitudes were revolutionary. As much as any part of the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes called for a radical change in the way we view the world around us.

To understand this to see why these words are such a tectonic shift in everything we have ever known or believed, we must first understand the words, and the context in which they were spoken.

I mentioned Western individualism for a reason: in our society, being your own person is a good thing. Standing on our own two feet, making a name for ourselves, these are things we respect, and expect of ourselves. However, in first-century Palestine, the opposite was true.

In the New Testament world, the esteem you commanded was in large part a function of how important your connections -- your family members, your patrons, and your clients -- were. If you were (whether by birth, adoption, or being a slave or freedperson) part of a very important family, you were important. If your family was less important, you were less important. If you weren't connected to others, that didn't make you "your own man"; it made you nobody. That's serious stuff, because nobody wants to do business with a nobody; being pushed out of your network of social relationships could also mean being left with nothing to live on and no way to get out of that position.

That situation brought about all kinds of other hardships. The one pushed out could be destitute. The Greek is ptochos, traditionally translated “poor in spirit” in Matthew 5:3. The hunger and thirst that Matthew 5:6 talks about -- literal hunger and thirst incurred for righteousness as Jesus redefined it -- would certainly follow, as would mourning (Matthew 5:4).

To call this a “blessed” position to be in makes no sense to our modern ears, and that’s OK, because it almost certainly struck the disciples, and those gathered to hear Jesus speak as he sat on that mountain, as utter tomfoolery… unless what Jesus was speaking of wasn’t what defines as “divinely or supremely favored; fortunate: to be blessed with a strong, healthy body; blessed with an ability to find friends,” or “blissfully happy or contented.”

More than one commentator I’ve read suggests that a better translation of ptochos would be “honored,” that is, “given of credit or distinction; high respect, as for worth, merit, or rank; high public esteem; fame; glory.” The One, of course, bestowing that honor is God. This way, these verses don't show Jesus as pop psychologist, telling people how to be happy; they show Jesus giving honor to those pushed out to the margins of their culture.

You see, two things are happening here: First, Jesus is shifting the worldview of everyone listening: for the follower of Christ, the people in the margins, the ones who are forgotten, those “less than,” are not to be made fun of, or allowed to be ignored. No, right there in front of all the crowds, Jesus ascribes honor to them, declaring that these are the people whom the God of Israel honors. They may well have been disowned, but they are children of the God who created the universe, to whom all honor belongs. Yes, Jesus makes them family. They are children of one Father, and that makes them brothers and sisters. They will never be bereft in a community that sees themselves as family, and that cares for one another in ways that show that they take that family relationship with utmost seriousness.

And that’s important, because Jesus is also preparing his followers for the persecution which lay ahead.

Christianity, lived out in that culture, was rife with things guaranteed to get people in trouble: Followers of Christ were “meek.” Now, when you hear that word, don’t confuse it as “overly submissive or compliant, spiritless, or tame.” The kind of meekness Jesus refers to is not being a doormat, it’s being specifically nonviolent, even in protests, like Ghandi or Martin Luther King Jr. In first-century culture, being “meek” in this context meant refusing to engage in contests for honor – contests whose outcomes, whose very existence, affected their entire family as much as it did the individual male who refused to "be a man" when challenged.

Followers of Christ were "merciful" and "peacemakers," seeking reconciliation with, rather than revenge on, someone who wronged them. Followers of Christ were "pure in heart," and as Jesus defines purity, that meant doing things – like eating with any who would break bread with you – bound to render them impure in others' eyes.

Looking at it from this direction, it makes sense to take the suggestion of Jerome Neyrey in his book, “Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew,” and take that last Beatitude, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account…” as the focal point.

Now, this is the point in the sermon where I’m suppose to wrap it up by saying that we need to treat the poor with honor in exactly the ways I’ve already mentioned: providing for their needs, recognizing them as humans deserving dignity as opposed to ridicule, disgust, and rejection. It’s a nice, safe, comfortable way to end a sermon: preach the Social Gospel, pray, and listen to some music.

But as much as The Beatitudes are not poetic pick-me-ups, they, like all of Scripture, hold much more depth than a single definition does justice to. If these words were only relevant to the men and women who were poor in the first century, only impacted those persecuted in the centuries leading up to Constantine, then why preach them? No, the Beatitudes speak to us today, not only challenging our worldview, not simply calling on us to turn the tables on society’s understanding of poverty and treatment of the poor, but they speak words of instruction, hope, and comfort to our spirit, in a very real way.

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are the poor in spirit, who have failed, those whose self-dependence is exhausted, and whose only recourse is grace, Those who know that, without the love of Christ they are, for all intents and purposes, bankrupt: without hope, without purpose, without a real future. The kingdom of heaven, God’s reign experienced and lived on earth, belongs – lock, stock, and barrel – to them.”

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are those who mourn, both for the things which should be better in the world, and for the things which should be better in themselves; for the relationships and triumphs they’ve lost, and those they will never have. They will be comforted, God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are the meek, who speak the truth to power, refusing to encourage or engage in violence, yet standing for truth, and for fair treatment for all inhabitants of the earth. These are the ones whose inheritance is the planet itself.”

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, both within themselves, and for justice in the world around them. Their hunger and thirst will certainly be satisfied!”

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are the ones who practice mercy when it matters most, and when it is least convenient. God’s grace will shower them with mercy.”

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are the pure in heart, who don’t wonder “what’s in it for me,” who love without reservation, who insist on seeing the good in others. They will see God, both in the faces of those they love… and in that now-and-coming Kingdom.”

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are the peacemakers, the finders of common ground, those who beat swords into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks, who don’t fear conflict, but who face it and defuse it. These folks are called ‘children of God.’”

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are those in Laos, Egypt, Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Algeria, who are persecuted for being Christians, the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.”

The Beatitudes say to us today,

“Honored are you who live in Indonesia, China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Libya, Turkey, Columbia, Cuba, and so many other countries, where you are imprisoned, reviled, persecuted and killed for believing in Jesus Christ. You’re in the company of all of God’s prophets, and your reward in heaven is immense.”

Allelia. Amen.

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