Epiphany 4 Sermon

Sermon text: Matthew 5: 1-12

I want to set the scene for you, as if you were one of the disciples of Jesus:

This was going to be your big day.  You had been following Jesus around for a while now, week after week through the Galilean towns and country.  You have heard Jesus teach in the synagogues and preach about what he calls the Kingdom of God.  You have witnessed him cure every disease and every sickness as people journey to him.  And you know these people are coming from all over…people afflicted with diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, paralytics, they have come from near and far…Syria to the north, the Decapolis to the east, and Judea and Jerusalem to the south.

Now, in front of this large international crowd that has gathered, Jesus is taking you and the other eleven disciples up the side of a mountain.  And you are excited because this is the first time in all these weeks that Jesus has taken your small group and given you your own private lesson.  This is the moment you’ve been waiting for, for Jesus to teach you, to interpret God’s message for you, and to teach you a new kind of righteousness.

That would be pretty exciting, right?  Your first private lesson from Jesus.  And what does Jesus teach in his first lesson with the disciples, in this Sermon on the Mount?  The first thing Jesus teaches the disciples is how to recognize blessedness. 

Yes, Jesus’ first lesson is all about blessing—a tangible sign of God’s favor and presence.  I find that really interesting, especially because Jesus doesn’t teach the disciples how to become blessed, or even how to bless each other.  Instead, he teaches them to recognize those who are already blessed by God.  And the importance of all of this is that it’s not who we necessarily define and think of as blessed.

Every community, every culture has its own definition of what blessedness is.  We may not always use such a pious word—instead we might call it “the good life” of “success.”  But we all have definitions of what it means to be blessed, and it’s usually not those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek or who are pure in heart or thirst for righteousness and all the rest.

In our country, when we think of someone who is blessed, we most often think about someone who is wealthy or powerful or famous or successful or beautiful or some other trait that we envy.  Blessing, at least according to the standards of this society, is most often material in nature.

Case in point:  A few summers ago I had the privilege of travelling to Alaska for two weeks in the summer.  It was one of those deals where you spent one week on a boat and another on land.  We went with members of my extended family, including my cousin, his wife, and their two children, at the time ages 5 and 7.  My cousin and his family are the definition of blessedness according to the standards of our culture.  He was in his late thirties, the vice president of international development for Buffalo Wild Wings for a number of years, he had been on the cover of Fortune 500, and they had just built an enormous home in Minnesota.

While on this cruise their family played bingo everyday with the kids. It was called Snowball Jackpot Bingo and it was played in the casino.  At the minimum it was a $10 ticket, and my cousin told me they spent several hundred dollars playing this game.  On the last day that we were at sea the 7 year old gets the bingo.  He hits the jackpot and wins $1700.

It’s a pretty big deal, certainly it was a ton of excitement.  My cousin’s wife posted a video of the event on social media.  This is what she wrote in the caption:  One of the highlights of our trip.  I can’t believe this happened.  It was our last night there.  We played bingo every day so this was a blessing to win.  Oh SOOOOO FUN!!!

Personally, I would have counted a lot of other blessings, and who knows, maybe they did—like the ability for their family to spend two weeks on vacation in a magical land, a minor miracle considering my cousin flies to Asia every other week for his job.  And I know this is an extreme example, and I know I’m being really judgmental, but that is how our culture defines blessedness.  I can’t make this up.

But Jesus teaches something different.  Jesus teaches us to see how God calls blessed those who are down and out, people distressed by their circumstances, people who are passionate about promoting righteousness and working for peace, or those who are persecuted for doing the right thing.

Jesus’ teaching is important, and it still has power, because he teaches that the least of these, the people we don’t often recognize as valuable, are the exact people God chooses to bless, honor, and love.

Jesus urges his disciples to look at the people who are around us in a different way than our culture.  Rather than measure people by their possessions, we are commanded to see their character.  Rather than merely take pity on their losses, we are commanded to enter into that place of grief with them.  Rather than judge people’s failings, we are commanded to forgive them and remind them that they are blessed and loved by God.  And rather than despise weakness, we are invited to see in weakness the truest point of connection between God’s children.  For God reveals God’s self to us most clearly and consistently in our places of deepest need and vulnerability.

What would it look like if Zion became a place where we recognized that God always comes where we least expect God to be—amid the brokenness—in order to bless that which the world refuses to acknowledge, to love what the world calls unlovable, and to redeem that which the world does not believe in saving?

What would it be like if we left our worship with new eyes, able to perceive the needs of our neighbors, not as a nuisance or even something to be pitied, but rather to see the marks of blessedness that we are privileged to minister to?  Isn’t that what we’ve been able to explore with our recent Joyous Generosity project?

If that happened, our congregation would be more like the discipleship community Jesus founded back in the first century, fashioned by God’s grace to be different from the world around us, to places of forgiveness, mercy, grace, and goodness. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a community I want to belong to.

At the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus helps us to recognize that God’s kingdom isn’t a place that is far away, but it is found whenever we honor each other as God’s children, bearing each other’s burdens, binding each other’s wounds, and meeting each other’s needs.  To be human is to be inescapably fragile and vulnerable, and it turns out that God doesn’t reject these things, but rather gathers them into a divine embrace.

Blessed are the poor in spirit.  Blessed are those who mourn.  Blessed are the meek, the pure in heart, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and who are persecuted on Christ’s behalf. What a list to lift up.

And might we add: blessed are those who see God’s blessings in their neighbor’s brokenness, and blessed are those who do something about it. AMEN 

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