02 February 2011


Matthew 5: 1-12

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 30th January 2011

How are you?  What do you say when someone asks you this question?  “Good.”  “Fine.”  “Doing okay.”  “Great! And you?”  Have you ever noticed that sometimes when it’s asked of us, we really don’t take the question seriously.  Sometimes the question is just another way of saying, “Hello.”  We often ask it without really anticipating an answer.  We might say, “How are you?”  But we really don’t want a full and truthful answer; we want to get on with the purpose of the phone call. 

            I remember years ago when I lived in Scotland, we Americans were taken to task by some Scots for the way we ask this question.  It’s not usually part of a personal greeting in the UK.    Walking fast through St. Andrews, no doubt determined to get to some place fast, an American would come across a friend, a Scot, coming toward him in the opposite direction and say to him, “How are you?”—meaning,“Hello!”—but then just keep on walking, never lingering for an answer.  The oncoming Scot, who broke his stride on the sidewalk, turns around to give a reply, but talks to the air because nobody’s there.  The American is half-way down the street.

            How are you?  Ask some Christians this question and their response is often, “Blessed.  I’m blessed.”  I’ve found this to be a common rejoinder in the African-American community.  I’ll pick up the phone, call friends, colleagues and ask, “How are you?” really meaning, “Hi.”  And then hear their reply, “Blessed.  I’m blessed.  And you?  And that’s when I’m caught off guard and feel inadequate as a Christian.  First, the exchange reminds me that words are valuable and that we need to be always wary of anything that empties words of their meaning.  Second, it reminds me just how easy it is to wander from the theological world of the Bible and  how far I’ve allow myself to be defined by a secular perspective that denies the reality of God as a daily, moment-by-moment reality.  “How are you, Ken?”  For me to reply, “Blessed.  I’m blessed.” would be both disingenuous and true.  It’s disingenuous because I usually don’t talk this way.  I don’t tell people that I think I’m blessed.  It can sound self-righteous.  I don’t say it around here in the church and I certainly don’t say it when I go for coffee most mornings at Atwater’s and hear, “Good morning, Ken.  How are you?”

            But it’s true.  It really is.  I’m blessed.  Not because I have my health and I have meaningful employment and have the opportunity to meet incredible people and do amazing things with people for people in need; not because I have good friends and family who love me; not because I have shelter, and food; not because I have invaluable freedoms as an American and live in a marvelous part of the world.  These are all true.  And at many levels they are a kind of blessing.  For the most part these are all accidentals.

            But it’s true.  It really is.  I’m blessed—because Jesus tells me so.  He couldn’t have been more explicit than right here at the beginning of Matthew 5, the famed Sermon on the Mount, which really isn’t a sermon, by the way, and it wasn’t much of a mountain either, it was more like a hill or a rise along the north shore of the Sea of Galilee.  In Matthew’s account, this is where Jesus begins his ministry.  Luke, in contrast, has Jesus preaching in the temple of Capernaum, quoting Isaiah, announcing “liberty to the captives” (Luke 4: 16-30).  Here, Matthew sets Jesus up to be a new Moses, a teacher like Moses who gives from a new mountaintop a new way to live, who teaches his disciples, his students, his followers the wisdom of his schoolroom.  It’s been said that the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7, can be viewed as Jesus’ Constitution, all that he values, a summary of the purpose of his mission.  By this analogy, then the Beatitudes, these blessing sayings here, is the Preamble.[1]  To get these well-known verses right shapes the way we hear the rest of the “sermon.”  Fall asleep here at the beginning of the sermon (it’s been known to happen), and you’ll miss the point of all the rest.

            There’s so much jammed into these first few verses of Matthew 5.  Each beatitude warrants our full attention.  But what’s striking about the beatitudes, when viewed as a whole, is their perspective of reality and time.  Each saying begins “makarioi,” Blessed, meaning, “joyful, deeply or exceedingly happy.”  It’ an exuberant statement, “Oh, the blessedness of...”  Joyful, deeply happy are the poor in spirit.  Joyful, deeply happy, oh the blessedness of those who mourn....” Joyful, deeply happy are those who work for peace, and so forth.  But notice the tense.  Jesus isn’t saying that someday we’ll feel blessed, someday we’ll experience this blessing if we work hard at it, someday we’ll know what it’s like to be blessed and deeply happy if we just follow his teachings.  No.  The orientation is not toward some far-off future, but to now, to the present.  Joyful are, exceedingly happy are, blessed are those who seek and thirst for righteousness.

Jesus is saying, follow me, stay close to me, become a disciple or student in my school, and I will show you the way of God, the way of the kingdom.  And the way of the kingdom is not some far-off place we enter when we die, but a present reality, here and now.  And Jesus isn’t saying that if we work at becoming poor in spirit, then we’ll be blessed; or if we mourn, then we’ll be blessed, if we work for peace, we will be blessed.  There’s nothing conditional about this, no if-then. So often the Sermon on the Mount in general and the beatitudes in particular have been read as primarily ethical statements.  Jesus is not really concerned about ethics here.  He’s not providing a new ethical system and he isn’t asking us to live by it or live up to it.  He’s not providing a list of requirements or precepts. [2] It’s not even a code of behavior for us.  Because there’s no way any one can bring about the reality that Jesus is talking about here.  No one.  We don’t have it in us.

Actually, it’s not about us—it has nothing to do with us.  It’s all about God, for Jesus. God is the unexpected subject of the action.[3]  When we align our vision with God’s vision, watch for how we see the world then changes.   When we align our action with what God is doing in the world, watch for how what we seek to do in the world then changes.  When we align our lives with God’s life, watch for how the meaning of our lives then change — it’s nothing that we do, but it’s what is given to us by God when we see ourselves and the world through the perspective of the goals of God’s kingdom.  Aligning ourselves with the Kingdom causes a new orientation of thought and action and yields a new spirit and a new stake in life.  There’s a new source of joy, a new source of happiness, of deep blessedness that comes. This doesn’t mean we’ll all walk around like one of those yellow smiling faces all the time.   It doesn’t mean that life will be easy.  It doesn’t mean that we won’t have trials and tribulations.  It might even mean that we are persecuted for our belief, mocked for our faith, mocked for being peacemakers.  Yet even in the mocking, the suffering, the mourning, the struggle of existence we will experience God’s blessedness, because we will discover something of God in those moments.  All of these experiences may be viewed as providing a new frame of reference, the larger context of God’s kingdom.  There is a different kind of happiness, joy, blessedness that comes when our lives are in relationship with God. 

            And when we are in a relationship with God, Jesus tells us—which is what we were created for—the blessing that Jesus describes here is not reserved for a later time, but is experienced, is given to us now.  Yes, right now we are blessed.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was right — oh, that we would know this now.  “All are called to be what in the reality of God they are already.”[4]  Already.  To be in Christ, to be in relationship with God is to be blessed now—we are loved, now; we are forgiven, now; we are reconciled to God, now;  we are blessed with every good and perfect gift (James 1:17), now.  And yet, there’s a part in all of us (call it sin) that can’t quite believe all of this to be true, that it’s too good to be true, that’s it’s too simple.  Maybe it’s too good not to be true.   There’s a part of us that’s afraid to really trust this to be true, a reluctance “to accept our acceptance,” to claim our forgiveness, to claim God’s grace, to know we are loved.[5] What if, when asked, “How are you?” we have the courage to claim, “I’m blessed” and really know it and mean it and struggle every day to live into it?

Jesus is always trying to get us to see the world, see ourselves, see God in a different way.  To help us see what we’ve been missing, to reorient our view of reality and time.  To feel empowered to act, to live, to love in a new way because this is true—by God’s grace we are blessed.  This is the good news of the kingdom.   Instead of trying to live our lives seeking blessedness, what if we claimed it to be true already, and then tried to live into the meaning of it, to embody it?

What is true for an individual is equally true for the reality of a church—imagine what a church will look like when it serves out of the capacity of what it knows to be true, instead of worrying about what it does not know and cannot know, to affirm what it has instead of focusing on what it might lack (as if we actually lack anything we need to be faithful).  As you read over this morning the reports from our boards and committees for the Annual Congregational meeting, when you look at the financial summary for 2010 and the budget for 2011, when you look at the long list of all our mission giving, when you consider all the ministries of this church, how we care for one another and seek to love one another and worship together, I hope you can see just how much has indeed already been given to us by God’s grace, to see something of God’s blessedness among us.  Claim the reality.  Imagine how perspectives of ministry can change the more we claim what God has already done for us. 

Indeed, what if in our mission, in our ministry, in our worship, in the way we share our resources, the way we love one another and invite others to fellowship with us, the way we seek to grow into the vision God has given us, we claim all the more what we in fact already are by virtue of God’s grace and unfathomable goodness:  that we are blessed, now.   

So what if someone asked you while you were having your coffee at Atwater’s or getting a slice at Peace A Pizza in town, how is Catonsville Presbyterian Church?  What’s it like there?  Who are you?  What would be your answer?  What if someone asked you right now, at this moment?  How are you, Catonsville Presbyterian Church?  What would you say?  Blessed.  We are blessed.  Unbelievably blessed.

[1] Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 46.
[2] Long, 45-51.  Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew (Grand Rapids:  Brazos Press, 2006), 61.  “The sermon is not a heroic ethic.  It is the constitution of a people.  You cannot live by the demands of the sermon on your own, but that is the point. The demands of the sermon are designed to make us depend on God and one another. …The sermon, therefore, is not a list of requirements, but rather a description of the life of a people gathered by and around Jesus.  To be saved is to be so gathered.” (61).
[3]Long, 46-48.
[4] “All are called to be what in the reality of God they are already.  The disciples are called blessed because they have obeyed the call of Jesus, and the people as a whole because they are heirs of the promise.”  The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Collier Books, 1963), 119.
[5] Cf. Paul Tillich’s (1886-1965) sermon, “You Are Accepted,” in Shaking the Foundations (New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948), 153-163).  Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!  If that happens to us, we experience grace.  After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before.  But everything is transformed.  In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement.  And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.” (162). Italics in the text.

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