While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
Today’s lesson from Matthew’s gospel is the opening of the Sermon on the Mount. It appears only in Matthew’s gospel although in Luke’s gospel there is a parallel, often called the sermon on the plain.
This passage stands out because it contains the Beatitudes: a list of blessings that turn the world on its head.
It is significant that the beatitudes come first because they set the stage for everything else that follows; they lay the groundwork for all of Jesus’ other teachings.
It’s a really good way to start a sermon. What Jesus says would be startling to his hearers. “Blessed are” sounds familiar to us; it is now a phrase with centuries of religious overtones.
But in Jesus’ day, it had a much more secular connotation: wealth, fortune, like being born with a silver spoon in your mouth, being well-off. That kind of thing will get people listening!
Lucky you! if you are poor in spirit
if you feel lost and alone; if you recognize you need help and guidance.
Lucky you! if you mourn
if you’ve had someone or something you love taken away from you; if you feel deep loss.
Lucky you! if you are meek
if you don’t step on others on your way up the ladder; if you don’t put yourself forward.
Lucky you! if you hunger and thirst for righteousness
if you know what it’s like to be cheated and abused; if you have a passion to set things right because in your life you have seen so much wrong.
Lucky you! if you are merciful
if you don’t harden your heart to give people what they deserve but show mercy, and recognize the humanity in others; even those who are wrong.
Lucky you! if you are pure in heart
if you haven’t given in to the cynicism of the world; if you won’t accept that corruption is all around and it’s the only way to get ahead.
Lucky you! if you are a peacemaker
if you want to bridge the gap between the extremes; if you won’t buy into the “us vs. them” mentality and really want to see people live and let live.
Lucky you! if you are persecuted
either for righteousness or for following Jesus; how lucky you are to be picked on, called names, put in jail, beaten and tortured, maybe killed. You are so fortunate.
No wonder people would stop and listen! Jesus wasn’t being ironic. He must have sounded crazy! All the people he describes as “lucky” or well off are the people who regularly got ground underfoot, not just by the powers in Rome and other rulers but by many business practices and day-to-day attitudes.
These people would look weak, pathetic to anyone on their way up in the world. And here is Jesus announcing that in God’s world these people are the lucky ones.
This is the foundation for Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of Heaven, which means the way God wants the world to be. These values are the ones that matter to God.
And people listened; people gathered in greater and greater numbers. This message was attractive across all kinds of boundaries until we find it expressed in that vision in our Revelations reading of the uncountable multitude of people from every nation on the earth in the presence of God, having come through dreadful persecutions.
You could call it the ultimate grassroots movement because the people who were inspired were often the people who were trodden on as much as the grass.
No one would expect these people to be blessed. No one would expect them to be considered wealthy, or fortunate, or lucky.
And sadly, we’ve often taken that word “blessed” as an excuse. “God’s going to bless them, Jesus said so”; and then we feel freed from any responsibility to actually engage with all those people whom Jesus describes as being the heart and soul of God’s world.
The dissonance is just as powerful today as it was 2000 years ago. The people Jesus calls favoured are not the ones we envy. Which means that the struggle between the basic values Jesus taught
and the values everyone assumes are real in the world is still very much alive.
Some of these Beatitudes may apply to us. During these past months we have had to learn some lessons in mourning the loss of many things, sometimes even loved ones. And we are denied our traditional ways of mourning which makes it all even harder.
During this time our sense of direction, our sense of our place in the order of the universe has been seriously challenged, even to the point of re-evaluating what really matters in life.
Those are just the first two beatitudes; other examples can be found. If any of that applies to us, we should take heart. Jesus was serious when he said that God favours such people because as we work together as God’s people we find ways to support each other. We discover that we don’t have to do this alone; that God provides us with unexpected ways to grow and overcome these challenges.
But there will be others that we don’t relate to so easily and these present us with a challenge:
- how will we start to see these people differently?
- how will we begin to see what Jesus saw in those people who look like victims, who appear naive, or unrealistic or maybe just not forceful enough to survive?
- how do we look at the people who are being accused of things; being persecuted?
- how do we stop assuming they deserve what they are getting?
- do we have the courage to pause, and wonder, and listen to them to discover if there is a righteousness that they are trying to bring to life?
- how do we step aside from the dominant narrative of the world and see things as they truly are?
This message of Jesus is a great place to start, and we should let it lead us to that vision of countless people from every land under the sun who have been brought together by these teachings and who wanted to create a new way to live life.
Maybe that vision can keep us going whenever the voices of those who wish to put others down make us question Jesus’ vision.