Sunday, July 14, 2013

Sermon, "Sermon on the Mount: Blessed," Matthew 5:1-12

Sermon 7/14/13
Matthew 5:1-12

Sermon on the Mount: Blessed

            If you’ve ever received an email from me, or a letter, or seen my default signature on my newsletter articles, you’ll notice I usually sign things, “Blessings, Beth.” I can’t remember exactly when I started doing that. I don’t think I gave it any great thought at the time, other than wanting a way to sign things that I could use consistently, that seemed to work for all people in all situations, no matter who I was talking to, and blessings seemed to fit. My grandmother used it almost as a nickname for me. “Beth, you are a blessing” was something she said to me often, something special to me. What I mean by it is, “I hope you find your day, your life, to be full of blessings.” But what are blessings? What do we mean when we bless someone, or we ask God to bless someone?
            I’ve been thinking a lot about the word blessings this week, and the practice of blessing one another. We have lots of them, actually, practices of blessing. We say “God bless you,” or at least “Bless you,” when someone sneezes. This specific practice actually developed during the Middle Ages, when fear of the Bubonic Plague was rampant. Sneezing might be a first sign of the plague, and so when you asked God’s blessings on someone who sneezed, it was really a way of saying, “Gosh, I really hope you aren’t sick, and please stay away from me.” When we say a prayer before a meal we usually call it saying “grace” or saying “the blessing,” as we ask God to bless our food and our mealtime and the people eating said food. Even though we are asking God to bless things, we also consider the speaker of the prayer to be “doing the blessing.” God blesses, but we bless by invoking God’s blessing. We do lots of blessing in our worship life together. Usually we call the words that conclude our worship service the benediction – literally “the good word,” but sometimes this is also called a “blessing,” and often marriage ceremonies or funeral liturgies or baptismal services are concluded with words that are meant to be a blessing. When Pastor Aaron and I consecrate communion elements, this practice is sometimes referred to as “blessing” the elements, and when we pray over the baptismal waters someone is about to receive, the prayer is the “blessing over the water.”
            Of course, if we can give blessings, offer blessings, we can also withhold them. Sometimes we talk about blessings in this way – something we give almost as a permission, sometimes a permission we are reluctant to give. Sometimes when a person wants to get married, that person will ask for the parents’ blessing to make the proposal. Parents may willingly give or be reluctant to give their blessing, their permission. I can’t help but think of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, and his reluctant blessing of the marriages of his daughters.
            The scriptures are full of blessings, and some of them were formulaic, expected blessings, and many times people pointed to wealth and success and material stability as signs of God’s favor and blessing. The firstborn son in a family would receive special blessings and inheritance just for being that – firstborn. We might not think that is a practice we continue today, but I think we can compare it to handing down a particular heirloom piece of jewelry or something similar. In some families, there is only one ring that can be handed down, and it might go to the firstborn. Or we might name someone after a parent – Johnny Jr., for example – and that name is typically something handed to the firstborn. The most famous Bible story about blessings and birth order is the story of twins Jacob and Esau. Esau is the elder twin – every minute counts – but his younger brother Jacob, with the help of his mother Rebekah, tricks his father Isaac into giving him the firstborn blessing. You get the sense that there is only enough blessing for one, or only one really “good” blessing – and Jacob uses it up. Maybe blessings aren’t as simple as they seem.     
            We’re beginning a new sermon series today that will take us through the summer, based on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount is a series of teachings that appear in the gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7. It’s the longest chunk of uninterrupted teaching from Jesus in the gospels. Pastor Aaron and I will hit most of the major sections this summer, but we won’t be able to cover every verse, so I really encourage you, as we start out, to spend a little time reading these three chapters. Jesus has been interacting with the crowds, healing and teaching, when he withdraws up the mountain with his disciples. When he begins teaching, it seems he is alone with them, but by the end of these three chapters, it seems he is with crowds of people again. I suspect, as usual, people were simply following after Jesus whenever they could figure out where he was, and so what starts out as teaching to his disciples expands quickly into teaching the crowds.
            So Jesus heads up the mountain, takes a seat, and starts teaching. And the first thing out of his mouth are these blessings. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Blessed are those who are reviled and persecuted. Jesus goes on to say a whole lot more, some hard teachings, challenging. Some new ways of thinking about things. But he starts with blessings. And that word, blessings, is the same word that can be translated as “happy” – “happy are those who are poor in spirit,” or even a sense of “congratulations.” “Congratulations to you who are poor in spirit.” In some ways, I think this passage seems almost too simple. It’s pretty, poetic language, these blessings. Who wouldn’t want to receive a blessing, and from Jesus? But slowly the questions come. Why does Jesus bless these particular groups? For example, why are people blessed when they are mourning? We’ve probably all experienced grief, and it doesn’t often feel like a blessing, does it? And does this passage mean that we are supposed to try to be like the groups listed, in order to get the blessings? Are we supposed to strive to be meek and pure in heart and all that? Is this a list of goals for characteristics we should have?
            The Christ we follow is a lover of reversals, of flipping the picture we see upside down, of moving and acting in unexpected ways. When Jesus describes this strange group of people – the meek, the poor in spirit, the mourning, the persecuted, and calls them blessed, Jesus isn’t saying, by any means, that these are the best things you can be. Instead, Jesus is speaking into a culture, a world, that had, has trouble in seeing happiness outside of health, wealth, and prosperity. People long believed, and some still do, that troubled times, bad situations, suffering and loss were signs of God’s punishment for sinful behavior. But Jesus makes it clear – even in the midst of those things – not because of those situations, but in the midst of them – God is blessings us.
Most importantly, I think that Jesus reminds us repeatedly in this passage of something he knows we can’t quite believe: God wants to and will and is blessing us. In a couple of weeks, I’ll be attending school for my final Doctor of Ministry class before I begin the project phase of my program. One of the books I had to read for this next class was about congregational trends, basically reporting on the results of a survey of beliefs, practices, and attitudes of worshippers in the US. One question asked about how worshippers view “God’s nature.” Survey participants could choose between four responses: I view God as 1) an authoritarian God who is angry and involved in worldly affairs 2) a benevolent God who is involved in the world but not angry 3) a critical God who is angry but not involved in worldly affairs or 4) a distant God who is not angry and not involved in worldly affairs. (1) I was glad to see that most respondents chose one of the two options where God is “involved” in the world, rather than distant, but I was surprised that over half of respondents chose that they viewed God as “authoritarian and angry,” compared to just under a quarter who viewed God as benevolent. What would you choose? How do you see God? Reflecting on this passage, Rev. David Lose writes, “Maybe it's more that we have a hard time believing God wants to bless us in the first place. It may be that our picture of God is distorted, that we can only imagine God as a stern, demanding law-giver, and so it seems out of character for God to bless without requirement. This isn't the primary picture of God in the Bible, but it may be the one that we were taught and have a hard time letting go.” (2) Maybe we look at our lives and find it hard to believe that God wants to bless what we’ve done with the life we’ve been given. But Jesus describes a God who is blessing us left and right. God blesses you, wants to continue heaping blessings you, always.
I think we look at the beatitudes and start to read them as a to-do list, items we can check off so that we can claim God’s blessings. But we are reading something in the text that isn’t there. I think we read them like this sometimes: “If you are meek, then God will let you inherit the earth because of your meekness.” “If you hunger and thirst for righteousness, then God will fill you up, because of your hungering and thirsting for righteousness.” But instead, the beatitudes read as a state of already-existing blessings. You are blessed already. Blessed are you. God is blessing you. I think, sometimes, rather than a checklist to complete before God will bless us, God blesses us into living like the blessed people we are. Rev. Lose shares another story, writing, “When I was in graduate school, one of my teachers . . . would regularly address me as "Dr. Lose." Eventually it made me uncomfortable enough that I said to him, "But Dr. LaRue, I haven't earned my doctorate yet. I don't think you should call me that." "Dr. Lose," he patiently responded, "in the African-American church we are not content to call you what you are, but instead call you what we believe you will be!" God blesses us by showing us and claiming us for what God knows we yet can be. That’s what we celebrate in baptisms: we pray blessings on children for all that we know God intends them to be, and we celebrate because we know with God it can be.
As God blesses us so freely, let’s not hold back, and pray blessings on others only on special occasions, at baptisms and weddings and other liturgical events. Jesus blesses us. Let us bless others. What if you imagined a blessing on everyone you met this week. What if, when you looked into the eyes of your children, or your friends, or your neighbors, or your enemies, or those whose eyes you don’t normally even meet – what if you looked at them this week, and imagined an outpouring of God’s blessings into their lives. Friends, may God’s many blessings be made manifest in your life, and may you be a blessing to everyone you meet. Amen.

(1) Woolever, Cynthia, Field Guide to US Congregations.

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