Sunday, January 30, 2011

Happy People? -- A Sermon on the Beatitudes

Matthew 5:1-12

This morning we begin a rather lengthy journey through one of the most powerful sections of Scripture. Although there will be a few breaks in this journey, we will focus our attention, between now and Palm Sunday, on the Sermon on the Mount. In the previous chapter of Matthew, Jesus calls to himself a group of disciples from among the many who came to hear him proclaim the message of the kingdom and bring healing to the body and spirit, giving them a new identity and purpose. Now, Jesus draws to himself this small group so he can teach them what it means to live in God’s realm. As he takes them with him to the mountain, he teaches them that God’s realm is very different in tone and purpose from human realms and empires. It doesn’t matter if these worldly governments are limited or big, democratic or autocratic, they are not the same as God’s realm, and if they are to follow Jesus, then they must give their complete allegiance to God’s reign. And, as Warren Carter points out, if you’re going to live under God’s reign, you ’ll need new instructions and laws, which is what Jesus provides in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Carter writes

When God’s empire, God’s saving empire, comes among people, it claims their lives, disturbs the status quo, creates new priorities and identities, and gives new purpose, commissions people to new tasks, and creates a new alternative community that is going to need formational instruction as in the Sermon on the Mount. [Warren Carter, “Power and Identities: The Contexts of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount,” Preaching the Sermon on the Mount: The World It Imagines. David Fleer and Dave Bland, eds., (Chalice Press, 2007). Kindle Edition. Narrative Contexts.]

Christians have wrestled with how to respond to Jesus’ call for us to give total allegiance to God, even as we seek to live in this world. More often than not we either ignore the message of this sermon, or pick and choose what we like, because this vision is far too radical for most of us to handle. Consider the call to refrain from taking oaths or loving our enemies, what do we make of Jesus’ call to discipleship? What does it require of us?

As we take this journey, we need to understand that Jesus speaks these words to a community with the understanding that it is impossible to live out this call to discipleship outside the community. This is, therefore, not an ethic for individuals to try to live out on their own. There is simply no way for us as individuals to live in the way Jesus describes. That may be why, in Matthew’s presentation, Jesus doesn’t give the sermon to the crowd, but to those who have chosen to follow him. It is to this community that has chosen to follow Jesus that he gives the call to be light and salt in the world.

We begin our journey by attending to what we call the beatitudes – nine statements of blessing. Jesus says to the disciples, blessed or happy are those who are poor, grieve, are humble, who hunger and thirst for justice, who show mercy, have pure hearts, seek to make peace, are harassed because of righteousness, and are harassed and insulted because of their allegiance to Jesus. Stanley Hauerwas calls these gifts to the church. These are the blessings, the kinds of people who inhabit the community. He writes: “to learn to be a disciple is to learn why we are dependent on those who mourn or who are meek, though we may not possess that gift ourselves” [Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, (Brazos, 2006), p. 63.]

This description seems so contrary to the way we tend to define blessings and happiness. Our culture would want us to believe that God blesses some people with success, those who apparently help themselves. Therefore, God helps teams win Super Bowls and National Championships. Of course, one may wonder why God seems to like the Yankees more than the Cubs, and the Packers more than the Lions. Does God really love the winners more than those whom society often considers losers? This idea that God wins games and fills bank accounts is based on a theology of success, but that theology seems very different from the one that Jesus espouses in the Beatitudes?

1. BEING BLESSED

So what does it mean to be blessed or happy? Studies suggest that religious people are happier than nonreligious people. What is interesting is that this happiness doesn’t seem to be linked to one’s theology, but rather to the fact that religious people tend to be part of a caring community. Rachel Naomi Remen, a Jewish doctor and author of My Grandfather's Blessings, tells the story of a woman who confessed that she didn’t need to reach out to other people because she prayed every day. All she needed, she believed, was God. But, Dr. Remen responded: “prayer is about our relationship to God; a blessing is about our relationship to the spark of God in one another." [Rachel Naomi Remen, My Grandfather's Blessings, (NY: Riverhead Books, 2000), p. 5]. In other words, blessings are relational, and that is because when we are in relationship with one another, we tap into the God who is present in the other person.

If happiness and blessedness are relational then perhaps we need to rethink what we mean when talk about our inalienable right to pursue happiness. We often read Thomas Jefferson’s words, as they are enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, in a very individualistic way. It’s all about my freedom to get whatever I need to make myself happy. That may be what the Declaration promises, but is the kind of happiness that Jesus desires for us to experience the kind of happiness that could come at the expense of my neighbor?

As we listen to Jesus’ description of God’s blessings, it becomes clear that God isn’t in the business of blessing the arrogant and the proud, the selfish and the self-sufficient. Instead God blesses the poor, the meek, the one who grieves and the one who makes peace, the harassed and the pure in heart. Happiness, therefore, really has nothing to do with living in the lap of luxury.

Rachel Remen knows something about finding happiness in the midst of suffering. For almost half a century she has suffered from Crone’s disease. But in the midst of her wounds, she says, that she encountered “life for the first time.” Her wounds became the source of wisdom and knowledge that enabled her to look at herself and see a “life that is both true and unexpected” (p. 25).

Wounds can either fester into bitterness and anger or bring us insight into what it means to live life and offer hope for the future. A cancer survivor sees the beauty of life and begins to enjoy it more. Spouses see a marriage hit a wall, but wake up to rediscover the love that brought them together in the first place. A spouse dies and the surviving partner begins to die emotionally, only to find in the community new relationships that bring blessings to one’s life.

It’s important that we hear in this text one very important truth: As Jesus defines what it means to be blessed, he is not talking about earning this blessing. He’s not talking about voluntary poverty or seeking martyrdom, it is simply that the community is composed of people like the ones described, and we are blessed by their presence, for they are a gift of God. Even as God is present in their lives, they help bring sustenance and peace to the community.


2. BEING A BLESSING

The Beatitudes serve as the foundation of Jesus’ sermon. They help describe the community that will be salt and light to the world. To those whom God calls blessed belongs the kingdom of God – both in heaven and on earth. These are the marks, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, of “the community of the Crucified. With him they lost everything, and with him they found everything” [Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, DBW vol. 4, (Fortress, 2001), p. 109].

The community, as we will see in subsequent weeks, is a visible one. Those who hear this word of blessing are called to be salt and light to the world. Bonhoeffer points out that the ones whom the world deems “unworthy of living” are the “most indispensable commodity on earth. They are the salt of the earth” (pp.110-11).

Those who are blessed are in turn a blessing to the community and ultimately to the world. Although some of the beatitudes describe a state of being – poverty, humility, and grief, other beatitudes describe a life of action and service. You are blessed, Jesus says, so take these blessings and share them with others, be merciful, seek justice, and be a peacemaker. Again, we need to remember that Jesus gave these instructions not to the crowd or to individuals, but to the disciples. He did this to remind us that this active life of blessing is to be lived in community with an outward vision of ministry in the world.

It’s interesting that to each of the blessings is attached a reward. It’s not that we earn these blessings, but it is a reminder that even as we are called to minister from these blessings that are present in the community, blessings that enable us to love others, we must not lose sight of Jesus’ admonishment – that we love others as we love ourselves. There is therefore, a circular nature to the blessings that come to us.

Rachel Remen tells another story about a man who got a second chance in life. A successful stock broker who developed non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma, he survived a horrible year of treatment that included chemo and a risky bone-marrow transplant, in large part because of the love he shared with his wife. But, having survived the cancer, he became convinced that he had to save the world. So, he quit his job and started working with the conservation movement. Before too long he was spending sixty hours a week on this new job, and he was gone so often that he no longer had time to spend with his wife and kids. When his neglected wife left him, Dr. Remen stepped in and told him that although he had been given a second chance in life, that life no longer was full of joy, but instead was just a burden. This reborn stock broker didn't think he had a choice, but his doctor reminded him that if he was going to serve others he had to take care of himself as well. Although he valued life, he failed to value his own life and that of those closest to him (Remen, pp. 20-21). Blessings go out and they return. You can work for justice and peace, you can pursue purity of heart, but unless you experience the blessings of community you will end up in despair - what they call burn out!

Micah says that God requires three things from us: justice, kindness and humility. The Law says, love God and love your neighbor and you will fulfill the entire law. That second commandment, though, has a second part to it: Love your neighbor, as you love yourself. There are blessings galore. There are enough to go around. Be blessed and be a blessing. Then as Jesus says: You will be a light to the world!
 
Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
4th Sunday after Epiphany
January 30, 2011

3 comments:

John said...

Bob,

I think I got more out of the sermon by reading it than hearing it. Probably just my distractedness. Two points though came to mind.

The first struck me as I listened. It was the ramifications that the original hearers were limited to members of the community, and the notion that the message is such that it can only be fully experienced and manifested within the community. If I understand what you are saying, a person cannot manifest these 'blessings' as a free agent in the world but only as a member of the community, whether manifesting them within the community or as an ambassador of the community of faithful followers. I suppose my question is why can't a free agent express these blessings? Not that I am disagreeing, but more that I don't understand why that would be true.

The second point has to do with the definition of 'blessedness'. I am totally disappointed in the modern trend of translating the term s simply 'happy'. There is clearly a relational (to God) component to the term, it is not a mere state of bliss. But as I re-read your sermon I was unable to see that you have articulated anything like a short form definition. Instead, if I read correctly, you are saying that it means the blessed one is 'a blessing to the community' when one experiences such tribulations within and actually for the benefit of the community.

I don't know how I feel about that. I like to think that I can turn my misfortune to other people's good, but it is no encouragement to me to be such a blessing.

I have always interpreted the term to mean something like 'favored by God'. Favored now, and then ultimately rewarded. To know that in the midst of my distress God is with me, sustains me and encourages me to endure.

Just some thoughts.

John

micky said...

Very well observed, John!!

-
Pergola Kaffee

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

John,

The point I was trying to make concerned our tendency to look at the sermon and decide that all of this is too difficult to achieve, so we ignore it.

By ourselves we can't live this out -- we need the community. So, do I think you can live out the sermon on the mount as a free agent -- not very easily.

As for the definition of blessed -- yes favored by God is useful, but in what way. I think that you can stretch the meaning to happiness in the sense that as you experience God's presence, even in the midst of poverty, or in the work of being merciful, there is joy unspeakable.

Now, we move on to being light and salt!