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Up on the Mountain: Seeing Ourselves Anew

a sermon on Matthew 7:1-12, the sixth in a series on the Sermon on the Mount
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on February 27, 2011

Preacher’s note: A significant portion of this sermon is highly dependent on two items of copyrighted material. Nonetheless, I will share the framework for the sermon and point you to the resources used. Thanks for your understanding as I seek to respect the hard and creative work of others and yet still want to share!

We’ve been up on the mountain for the last several weeks – with a little break for my vacation last week! – hearing Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount anew, and by and large he’s offered us a new view of the world even from this early place in his ministry. Up on the mountain, Jesus insists that blessing is not a gift to be counted but rather a call to embody a new way of life. Jesus suggests that we need to be both seen and unseen in our work to show and be a part of what God is doing in our world. Jesus makes it clear here that relationship and reconciliation count for far more than exacting adherence to legal codes. In this sermon, Jesus demands that our actions match up with our words – and that everything we do deepen our life of faith on the inside at least as much as it invites others to join us in that way on the outside. And Jesus maintains up on the mountain that God’s economy calls us to live in a different way that counts not the cost but the potential for something new.

So much of the Sermon on the Mount is about how to live in a way that embodies the kingdom of God for others, but in our reading from this famous sermon today, Jesus turns a little more inward. He isn’t addressing the church, per se – such an institution did not exist in his time – but in this section of his sermon he nonetheless seems to be talking a little more about how to live with each other on the mountain as we must do in the church rather than just looking out to the world beyond this place.

First we hear a very familiar verse: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” It’s an incredible verse – an important reminder of our limitations as human beings and our inability to understand and see things as God sees, for judgment is, in the end, reserved for God. But that simple view doesn’t capture everything he wants to say. While Jesus certainly wants us to refrain from harsh or inappropriate judgment, I doubt that he would say that we should not serve on a jury or that someone should escape punishment for wrongdoing because no one is willing or able to bring down judgment. For Jesus, judgment is not so much prohibited as it is reframed – each of us must submit ourselves to the same sort of judgment we ourselves would offer. And so judgment is more about how we see things – not just seeing what others have done but also seeing one another in new ways, seeing our own actions through others’ eyes, and seeing the new thing that God is doing in our midst.

So that we can see things in this way and be honest about how we see  others and ourselves as we begin living out this command, I invite you now to join me in a brief meditation on this text, originally used in the Iona Community in Scotland.

In summary, this meditation invites a blinded listener to hear others speaking the truth about their lives, concluding with an invitation to remove the log that the listener does not even realize is in her eye. This portion of the sermon concludes with a symbolic action as worshipers are invited to come forward, remove a piece of wood from atop a mirror to discover that they can see a little more of themselves as the logs are removed. The meditation and action are adapted from “The log in your eye” in Present on Earth, The Iona Community/Wild Goose Worship Group/GIA Publications, p. 219-221.)

Following the symbolic action, the sermon continues with the following prayer:

Let us pray. God of judgment and grace, we have ignored Jesus’ command: “Do not judge.” We have pointed out the splinters in others’ eyes without recognizing the planks of our own. Remove these specks from our sight, and help us to see with new light. Open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts to ourselves and those around us, that we might be aware of our own shortcomings and know the fullness of your grace even as we offer it to others as Christ has offered it to us. Amen.

Now Jesus doesn’t leave things there, though – there is a little more to today’s vision from up on the mountain. From this place, he insists that his listeners will receive all that they ask for, find all that they search for, and have all doors on which they knock opened, even as he demands that they offer others the same respect, love, and grace that they seek for themselves. This is not an open promise to receive all things without question – rather, it suggests that God offers us all that we truly need in graciousness and love even as we too are called and expected to show that same sort of grace and love in our asking of God and our living with and for others.

Living like this is not easy. Jesus’ vision from up on the mountain is rarely in line with our self-interest. We don’t like being honest with ourselves about the planks in our eyes or the ways we constantly fall short, and we demand everything that God can offer us without being willing to make that same offer to others. But this is the vision set before us, a vision we will surely question and maybe even mock or criticize, yet it is nonetheless God’s vision for our world to be made new.

And so we ask so that this way will be given to us. We search so that we might find this something new. We knock so that God will open the door of new life before us and all the world. May then this song be our prayer for this vision to be real among us.

The sermon concludes with the singing of “Lord, can this really be?” (words by William Rutherford, music by John L. Bell) as found in Church Hymnary 4 of the Church of Scotland, #205.

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Up on the Mountain: Doing, or Just Being Seen?

a sermon on Matthew 6:1-18, the fourth in a series on the Sermon on the Mount
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on February 6, 2011

We here know what it feels like to seem to be doing things in secret. Although our doors are open every Sunday, people around Whitestone often don’t know what we are up to since we just don’t have a high profile. Hundreds of people walk past our door each and every day to get to school, go to work, eat lunch, or just enjoy a nice stroll when the weather is pretty, yet so few of those make their way in our doors! I for one often wonder if people would even notice our absence from the community if we ceased to exist, and my fear is that most folks would only notice us if our building were not here, half out of sadness for the loss of a beautiful building and half out of concern for what sort of thing might replace it. So when we talk about special events and the like, raising our visibility is a prominent theme – how can we help people know what we are doing and simply that we exist? What can we do that will help our neighbors and our neighborhood recognize that we are here and join in?

Jesus actually has a few things to say about visibility, but his words don’t seem to encourage us in our work of being seen. In the section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that we heard this morning, Jesus speaks pretty directly against doing things just to be seen. As he looked down from up on the mountain, Jesus offered a vision of God doing something radically new in the world, and he used three familiar practices of faith to suggest ways to live into the kingdom of heaven – but these were things to be done, not just to be seen.

First, he speaks of the practice of giving alms. Supporting the poor with small gifts was very familiar to Jesus’ first listeners, as it was a longstanding part of Jewish tradition and broader cultural practice of the ancient world. Jesus doesn’t attack the tradition at all – in fact, he encourages it – but he demands that its purpose always be kept in mind. Supporting the needs of the less fortunate must always be about responding to those who are in need of assistance, not about making the giver feel good or be appreciated or noticed. True giving is not about being seen making an important gift – it is about doing what is best for the other, and if the temptation is too strong to get a benefit for yourself, Jesus suggests doing it in secret, not even letting your other hand know what is going on! In doing things in this way, we point toward something greater than ourselves. Jesus then suggests that there is a reward from God for doing this – but this is not about storing up rewards for ourselves in heaven. Instead, it may be, as preacher Tom Long suggests, a reminder of our constant dependence on the infinite mercy of God:

All that we have, all that we are, comes by the mercy of God. So, when we are generous toward others, we are not writing checks on a limited account. We are drawing from an inexhaustible flow of divine grace; works of mercy never deplete the supply. (Tom Long, Matthew in the Westminster Bible Companion series)

After lifting up this practice of almsgiving and showing how it reminds us of God’s mercy and grace toward us, Jesus moves on to the practice of prayer. His words on prayer start out very much like his words on almsgiving, with an affirmation of the practice but a condemnation of how it is frequently carried out. Too often, he suggests, prayer becomes a matter of showing off – praying in public settings so that everyone can hear every word, using flowery words, focusing on the prayer itself rather than on those lifted up in it and especially the one to whom it is directed. Instead of all these things, Jesus suggests a very simple prayer instead. This incredible prayer is now so well known that we probably miss its radical nature and intent, but the reality is that the Lord’s Prayer points less to the kinds of requests for healing and protection that get lifted up so frequently in our midst and more toward asking God to make the way of heaven real in the world. In these words of the Lord’s Prayer, prayer becomes less about the one praying and his or her needs and more about becoming engaged with what God is doing to renew the world, not a series of wishes to be granted by an all-powerful genie but rather a practice of faith grounded in our hope to be a part of what God is doing all around us.

The final practice is one that seems a little more foreign to us Protestants these days: fasting. I must admit that I have never found personal spiritual value in this, nor have I tried it for myself. Nonetheless, for Jesus’ listeners and for many others of other religious traditions, fasting is an important part of the spiritual life, but Jesus insists that it be kept in the right perspective. Just as almsgiving and prayer should be rooted in real practices and not just in drawing attention to the doer, so true fasting seeks to deepen the internal spiritual life far more than it is noticed by others. So Jesus goes so far as to suggest that his audience ought to disguise the fact that they are fasting if they are tempted to find righteousness in the practice rather than its fruits, if they are more concerned with being seen than actually doing something to be a part of the coming kingdom.

There is definitely a fine balance at work for us between doing what enriches our faith and being seen at work by others. On the one hand, it shouldn’t matter that we are doing good things in our world in the name of the church, but on the other, we also carry a command to make the name of God known all around us. In our world, where good works abound but understanding of the Christian life seems awfully absent, where people enjoy looking at church buildings but almost never set foot in them for worship, it would almost seem more important than ever to be recognized for why we do what we do.

However, Jesus’ admonitions still apply today. We shouldn’t care for the needs of others just so that others will pay attention to us, let alone place conditions of being seen or heard on our help. Prayer should not be a tactic used to show off, suggest the superiority of one way of life, inject religious content into a properly secular moment, or even proselytize in the public sphere, for it should always draw attention to God and the new way that God places before us. And other spiritual practices like fasting must draw as much attention to the internal life that grounds them as they draw to themselves. Jesus doesn’t mean that we should only give to the poor in secret, only pray alone, or engage other practices that deepen our spiritual lives only in ways that they cannot be seen – he simply suggests that these practices must always point to something more if they are seen.

The three practices of faith that Jesus lifts up here – almsgiving, prayer, and fasting – are only three of a multitude of things we can do to deepen our spiritual lives and point to the true grounding of our faith and action. Other practices can also enrich our walk as we seek to engage more faithfully with what God is doing in the world – things like practicing Sabbath, finding spiritual companionship for the journey, singing the ups and downs of our lives, and even finding words to describe how God has been at work in our lives and our world. Things like these can help us to engage more faithfully with all the new things that God is doing all around us. If in doing these things, we can demonstrate to the world the quality of life in the kingdom of heaven without becoming smug or haughty or focused just on being seen, then we can and should be a part of what God is doing even now to make all things new.

Our visibility in these days certainly matters – people need to see and know what we do and why we do it – but that visibility is only a fruit of the incredible things that God calls us to do as the community of faith in the church. Next Sunday after worship, we’ll be talking a bit about this calling – and some specific ways to make it real through our own commitments – so I encourage you to make plans to join us after worship next Sunday for this important conversation.

And so from up on this mountain may we have a clearer vision of the kingdom of heaven – and how we can be a part of making it real – so that we can also help others to see it and invite them to join in through our life together. Lord, come quickly! Amen.

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Up on the Mountain: The Way of Righteousness

a sermon on Matthew 5:17-48, the third in a series on the Sermon on the Mount
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on on January 30, 2011

Snowstorms tend to bring out the legalist in me. Life is frustrating enough these days without the people who refuse to shovel their sidewalks or who block the road with their insanely large SUVs! But there is little that annoys me more than people who clear the snow from around their cars or in their driveways and throw it into the street. It makes the street slick, moves the snow only so far that someone else has to move it again, and just doesn’t reflect any degree of kindness for neighbors, pedestrians, or drivers. Not only that, though, it is against the law, and violations carry fines of up to $350, and I for one figure that not enough people have been assessed the fine for shoveling snow out into the street! I shudder to admit that I’ve taken to acting on my own to protest my frustration with these self-centered actions since the city seems to be quite lax in its enforcement, so I drive a little closer to the edge so I can spray a little of the snow back on the person throwing it into the street or honk my horn and shake my head as I drive past.

All this reminds me of how I can be a very legalistic person – I definitely want to follow the rules very carefully and avoid doing something wrong, and I expect others to demonstrate a similar respect for them. I could catalog many, many ways of how I embody this in my life, but I’ll leave that for a conversation with a therapist sometime!

This kind of legalistic attitude seems to be very much present in our reading from Matthew’s gospel this morning. This portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount deals with how to follow the law – but it is immediately clear that Jesus has quite a different perspective on this for his time and ours. Jesus starts out making his purpose clear: “I have come not to abolish [the law or the prophets] but to fulfill [them].” From the beginning, he reminds the people that he isn’t encouraging them to stop following the law – in fact, he suggests that following the law and teaching others to do the same will bring honor in the kingdom of heaven.

But then he surprises everyone by setting the bar even higher: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees” – those known for their exacting attention to the details and minutia of the law – “you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” But I think righteousness for Jesus here isn’t quite what it seems – it’s certainly not in the details and minutia of the law that were the focus of the scribes and the Pharisees. In six “case studies” of the law that indicate the form and content of this extremely high standard, Jesus makes it clear that the way of righteousness is not so much in exacting attention to the details of things but more in embracing the fullness of the spirit of the law.

Each of the cases Jesus offers helps to describe that spirit in light of a well-known law and so open up the way of righteousness.

  • “Do not murder” demands more than just not ending a human life – it demands that brokenness be avoided and reconciliation stand at the center of all relationships.
  • “Do not commit adultery” suggests that even more than specific sexual acts are prohibited – even the beginning desires of these things go too far.
  • While divorce may be permitted, Jesus finds that it should not be the ideal.
  • While some may say that oaths are permitted and even encouraged to discern truthfulness, Jesus suggests that a simple, honest “yes” or “no” from the very beginning should be enough to make righteousness clear.
  • The law may say “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but Jesus suggests that responding in vengeance is futile, instead recommending that one give even more than one is asked and offer abundant grace in the midst of hatred and enmity.
  • And the law may suggest that love can be limited to those we know or like, those we can immediately identify as family, friends, or neighbors, but Jesus insists instead that the real commitment should be to love even our enemies – a far more difficult challenge!

So he concludes with the greatest challenge of all for the way of righteousness: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

All these things seem like a very high order, and they are. This standard of righteousness is far more difficult to meet even than the city law against tossing your snow in the street, if you ask me – but strict adherence is not what matters. In fact, in bringing these cases Jesus makes it clear that the law must be interpreted beyond its basic meaning, not just to figure out whether and how it applies to a particular situation but also to determine how the broader principles of God’s intentions can be realized in the particular moment. Just because something is not explicitly prohibited by the law does not mean that it is allowed in the way of righteousness.

And so Jesus establishes some broader principles for living in the way of righteousness. Evil and good aren’t always immediately distinguished, and evil is certainly not to be eliminated at the expense of doing good. Brokenness of any sort and any origin is not God’s intention, and the specifics of the law require that we do whatever we can to bring about reconciliation, even when the law suggests otherwise. And even the difficulty of perfection is clear – so clear that there is no choice but to leave room for grace to permeate the situation and make room for God alone to make things perfect. Even as he proclaims that he has come to fulfill the law and not abolish it, Jesus makes it clear that the way of righteousness is built not on the letter of the law but rather on the quality of relationship that the law produces.

As commentator Stan Saunders puts it,

“While Jesus fulfills and affirms God’s law, he also understands that where laws implicitly or explicitly confirm the existing, broken order, they may be abandoned in favor of reconciliation, restoration of relationship, and wholeness.” (Preaching the Gospel of Matthew, p. 41)

Following the law for Jesus is clearly not about fulfilling a checklist – instead, it opens the way of righteousness through relationship and reconciliation.

In many ways, looking at this text on a day when we spend so much time dealing with the particulars of business as a congregation seems a bit strange. The congregational meeting that follows worship today is one of the most scripted and prescribed moments in our life together, as we have very particular rules about what we can and must and cannot do, and we spend most of our time and energy making sure that all the i’s are dotted and t’s crossed. Like those moments when my stress rises because of snowy streets, we often turn to the rules to figure out how best to proceed as I did in looking up the penalty for throwing snow into the street! But what would it be if we saw this important gathering as an opportunity and invitation to walk in the way of righteousness together? What would it be for us to deepen our attention to reconciliation and focus us on displaying the way of righteousness in relationship that Jesus describes as we go about this important work today? What would it take for us to set aside our attention to all the details of standards that we will never get perfect and right and focus on how we can best walk together in the way of righteousness in the days before us?

And so I think Jesus calls us in times like these to walk in this way of righteousness – not focusing so intently on the particulars of the law that we lose sight of its spirit, not getting so worked up when others ignore the particulars and intent of the law that we take it into our own hands as I tend to do in these snowy days, but instead embodying the reconciliation, relationship, and wholeness that it offers us as we seek to be like those who live in the kingdom of heaven. It is clear that we will never meet this very high standard, but God nonetheless calls us to walk in the way of righteousness as best we can, trusting that every step we take in this way will be a part of the coming of God’s kingdom into the world.

So may Jesus’ vision of this new way of righteousness from up on the mountain inspire us to join in his new way, setting aside all our brokenness and trusting God’s power to heal and make new as we join in this work of relationship and reconciliation until we see all things restored and made whole in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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Up on the Mountain: Salt and Light

a sermon on Matthew 5:13-16, the second in a series on the Sermon on the Mount
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on January 23, 2011

As we spend these weeks up on the mountain looking again at Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s gospel, I’m reminded that I’m often a bit envious of Jesus’ preaching style. He always seemed to be able to tell the right story at the right time to make his point so well. He found effective ways to connect everyday experiences and even objects to the life of faith. And he was always able to speak to the crowds with grace, even offering peaceful and gentle words to those who disagreed with him. On average, I’d say I’m successful at just one of these things each week, sometimes missing them altogether but maybe hitting the trifecta of all three in a single sermon once or twice in the over 250 sermons I’ve preached over the years!

Today’s section of the Sermon on the Mount is one of these moments when I think Jesus got all three of these things right at once, and I hope and pray that I can relay a few of my own insights even half as effectively as he did! After opening this address from up on the mountain with a description of the radical nature and direction of God’s blessing, Jesus turned quickly to a some imperative statements, moving beyond descriptions of the direction of God’s blessing and the coming of God’s kingdom to invite his listeners to take concrete steps to be a part of these things taking hold in the world.

His first two instructions that we consider today were seemingly simple: be salt and light. “You are the salt of the earth,” he said. Salt tends to get a bad rap in our world these days – even though salt can dramatically enhance flavor, the high-salt diet common these days has brought a significant increase in the occurrence of high blood pressure, and we’re disconnected enough from the growing and preparation of our food that we don’t always recognize how salt can be an important fertilizer and a simple and safe preservative. He even warned them against losing their saltiness and losing the ability to enrich growth, preserve against decay, and enhance flavor, for when salt loses its saltiness, it is worthless, for it is no longer salt and best just tossed out to add to the dirt on the path.

But throughout all this, salt is basically unseen – it is mixed in to enrich the dirt when no one can see it, added in the back rooms to preserve when we aren’t looking, and ground so small that we easily miss it when we add it to our food. And most of the time it takes a while for salt to do its good work – plants aren’t magically and immediately changed by salt but only when it has worked its way into the soil over time, and other foods aren’t preserved right away but only after the salt has made its way through. It often takes a while for salt to be noticed – but when it is missing, you certainly know it!

So Jesus insisted that his listeners are the salt of the earth, deeply enriching the growth of things around us at the roots, safely preserving the things that stand at our core against decay, and enhancing the flavor of life every step of the way, even when its effects can’t be seen right away. While we weren’t in that first crowd up on the mountain, we too are called to be the salt of the earth, working our way through the soil slowly but surely to enrich life at its roots, protecting and preserving against decay and disease from the outside in, and bringing new flavor to our boring and drab world.

I invite you to think and pray for a couple minutes on how you can be the salt of the earth – and even more how we can be the salt of the earth together, then talk with a neighbor or two about your reflections (or post in the comments here).

(time for reflection and discussion, then sing chorus of “Bring Forth the Kingdom” before time for sharing)

As much as Jesus wanted his listeners to be the salt of the earth in all these ways, enriching things from the roots in unseen ways, he also told them, “You are the light of the world.” Unlike the somewhat invisible salt, light exists to be seen. Like salt, though, light has multiple purposes – it reveals everything that is hidden, spreads easily to every dark corner, lights the way in darkness, and draws attention back to its source. Just as salt can bring high blood pressure and damage things if overused, so light can shine too brightly – we need only compare the night sky here in Whitestone with what you might see in some less urban part of the world to see how too much light from the wrong source can actually keep us from seeing the beauty of the night sky! Nonetheless, light is extremely important in the right quantity and balance, for it points us to something more and shows us something new even as it invites others to see things in a new way too.

And so Jesus instructs his listeners not to hide their light and “let [it] shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to [God].” The light of the world doesn’t exist for its own glory but instead points to something more, shining in new and different ways to illumine the world.

Just as we thought and talked a bit about being the salt of the earth, I invite you to think for a minute or two about being the light of the world, both individually and especially as this community, then turn to your neighbor and talk about your ideas (or post them in the comments below). We’ll then come together again by singing before we share a bit of how we can shine light together.

(time for reflection and discussion, then sing chorus of “Bring Forth the Kingdom” before time for sharing)

As we put all these things together and seek to be both the salt of the earth and the light of the world as Jesus was able to preach so well, I couldn’t miss the incredible difference between these two things that he puts before us: we don’t really see what salt is doing, but light can’t be missed. Even amidst their differences, they are both important. Salting the soil alone will not get a plant to grow in darkness, and light alone will not convince a seed to sprout.

Too often we miss Jesus’ double imperative here, choosing to be only salt or only light by focusing only on the hidden, slow work of salting the earth or only the illuminating, bright work of shining light for the world rather than the more difficult task of doing both. We end up frustrated that our efforts to salt the earth and make God’s new way real in our community aren’t showing immediate fruit or disappointed that our light isn’t shining brightly enough to be seen in the way we would like. But the good news in this is that Jesus calls us to be both salt and light, both seen and unseen in our efforts to bring forth God’s kingdom, working and praying and hoping for a new and different way to take hold in clear and obvious ways even as we trust that God is working even when we can’t see it to make all things new.

And so may our saltiness be at its best and our light be focused and bright as we seek to be a part of the new kingdom community that Jesus envisioned and lived from up here on the mountain. Lord, come quickly! Amen.

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Up on the Mountain: Seeing Something New

a sermon on Matthew 5:1-12 preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on January 16, 2011

Pulpit/Up on the MountYou may have noticed something a little different and strange about the pulpit this morning – there’s a little extra decoration around the base of it. You see, we’re up on the mountain today and over the next seven weeks, working our way through Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, and I figured a little visual reminder of this might help us all to keep this in mind! Chapters 5-7 of Matthew’s gospel recount these famous words spoken by Jesus to his disciples and the crowds who followed him up the mountain, and in these three chapters we find a great deal of what stands at the center of the Christian message. Here on the mountain Jesus offered his disciples what has come to be known as the Lord’s Prayer. Here Jesus laid out the simple and beautiful beatitudes, nine statements of blessing for those we might least expect. Here Jesus called out the hypocrites for giving alms and offering prayers so that they might be seen doing it. Here Jesus conveyed his own version of what we have termed the golden rule: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.” Here Jesus suggested that judgment must be as much about the one making the judgment as it is about the one being judged. And here Jesus responded to different viewpoints on how to follow the law and prophets of the Hebrew scriptures by suggesting that the spirit and the letter of the law matter. Over the next seven weeks, we’ll look at these and other wonderful sayings of Jesus from this sermon that give us a vision of something new from up on the mountain, all concluding on Transfiguration Sunday, when we celebrate how Jesus himself was transformed on another mountain as a sign of the transformation that is possible for us too. And so we revisit these familiar words, hoping that the mountain will strengthen us and hold us fast in our faith, but nonetheless remembering that Jesus offered the Sermon on the Mount not to comfort the people and enshrine their way of life but rather to challenge them by offering a vision of something new.

Jesus opened his sermon up on the mountain with a provocative series of statements of blessing that we heard a few minutes ago, but I want to read them again, this time from that often-helpful paraphrase The Message.

You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope.
With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you.
Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.

You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are – no more, no less.
That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.

You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God.
He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.

You’re blessed when you care.
At the moment of being ‘carefull,’ you find yourselves cared for.

You’re blessed when you get your inside world – your mind and heart – put right.
Then you can see God in the outside world.

You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight.
That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.

You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution.
The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.

Not only that – count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me.
What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable.
You can be glad when that happens – give a cheer, even! – for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds.

And know that you are in good company.
My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.

While there is something important in each of these statements of blessing, I think that they are best understood when we read them as a whole, because the reality is that none of them are really about God showing particular blessing to those in a particular predicament. Instead, in the Beatitudes Jesus offers a broad stroke against the way the world appears to be and assumes to operate, insisting that God’s blessing is not for the rich and famous and powerful but belongs instead to those in greatest need and proclaiming that God is overturning the supposed wisdom of the world and putting forth a new and different way.

As such, Jesus makes it clear from the beginning of this time on the mountain that things look different here in this place where God’s new way – God’s kingdom – has started to take hold. The poor are the ones who will inherit all good things here. Those who mourn here will not be left alone in their grief. Those who trust God to free and redeem will be set loose from the bonds of injustice here. Those who hunger and thirst here will be filled and their thirst quenched. Those who show mercy and forgiveness will find it shared with them here. Those who live with integrity in body, mind, and spirit will find God at work here. Those who seek reconciliation and wholeness will find it in their life with God here. Those who are threatened because of their behavior that follows in this way will be at home in this place. And those who suffer because of Jesus’ own life and message can rejoice because that suffering is not the final word, just as it was not the final word for Jesus himself. In the end, though, blessing comes less from these individual things being realized and more from justice and peace becoming the norm, love and mercy prevailing always, and a vision of something new taking hold in the world.

Making this vision of wholeness and newness real isn’t as easy as it would seem. At one level, these are incredibly simple practices and moves for living that can seemingly be lived out so easily. It would seem easy to give up everything and be poor, to mourn, to trust God, to remain hungry and thirsty, to show mercy and forgiveness, to live with integrity, to seek reconciliation and wholeness, and all these other things. But if we take these words seriously, we see how difficult all these things really are. We see how hard it is for us to let go of our way of life, to trust that there is something more than what we can directly control, to show others the respect we demand for ourselves, to seek reconciliation rather than furthering brokenness, or to open ourselves to suffering for the sake of others.

The reality is that we will never reach this way of life on our own. No individual can fully embody this way of life. Even the most faithful among us struggle with sin and fall short of the fullness of life that God intends for us and our world. Even the true prophets among us will find it difficult to bring these blessings down from the mountain, and as one commentator puts it, “Even people in churches will regard the Beatitudes as impossible, impractical, and foolish.” (Stanley P. Saunders, Preaching the Gospel of Matthew)

The Beatitudes, then, call us to a way of life that we can’t make happen on our own – but that doesn’t make us exempt from trying to live them out, nor does it make it okay to just leave them for a day beyond our grasp. We can’t just pretend like they are some view of some promised land we will never reach or will only find once we are no longer in this world – the way of life Jesus proposed as he began this conversation up on the mountain must always be before us as our goal and hope.

But living the Beatitudes becomes possible, practical, and even wise when we live them together and trust that God will work through us to make all things new. When we seek to discern how to respond to the poor in spirit as a congregation, we are blessed. When we join those who mourn death and darkness and injustice in our world and start working to shine new light into these places, we are blessed. When we trust the wisdom of God above and beyond our own intelligence to guide our life together, we are blessed. When we seek to satisfy the real, deep hungers and thirsts around us, both physical and spiritual, we are blessed. When we show mercy and grace to one another and all the world, we are blessed. When we live integrated, faithful lives that are true to the creation whom God made us to be, we are blessed. When we make wholeness, healing, and peace possible in the relationships around us and demonstrate that in our life together, we are blessed. And when others hurt and persecute us or walk away from our fellowship because we live in these ways of wholeness and faithfulness rather than just checking off obedience to a series of rules and regulations, we are blessed.

Living the Beatitudes together isn’t easy, but it is what God intends – how God intends for us to demonstrate that the world does not have the final word, how God invites us to stand up and live in a new and different way, how God allows us to join in the new thing that Jesus proclaimed from atop the mountain. And so from this mount may we see a vision of the life God intends for us and seek to live in this way together every day even as we open our eyes to what God intends for us and our world and we wait and work for Jesus’ vision to become real through God’s work all around us.

Lord, come quickly! Amen.


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