Upside Down Blessings

Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time.

Micah 6:1-8

Hear what the LORD says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the LORD, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the LORD has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel.

“O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.

O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the LORD.”

“With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Matthew 5:1-12

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.

Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

***

A few years ago I was fortunate enough to go to the Holy Land on a seminar with my seminary. We spent about a week in the Galilee, visiting various places mentioned in the gospel. I have to admit that it was a bit disorienting.

On the one hand, it was powerful to be in the places where, as the signs are quick to tell you, Jesus walked. Powerful to know that I was one of the millions of pilgrims who had come there over the centuries. Powerful to read the stories of the Bible in the places they were born, to smell the sea of Galilee and touch the rocks at Peter’s house. The trip changed how I read the Bible—it let me enter into the stories more fully, to imagine myself as, say, one of the crowd below the mountain.

But on the other hand, I also struggled with the cognitive dissonance of it all. The sites we went to were eager to claim, “this is the rock where Jesus did his miracle”—but we really have no way of knowing that. And, in fact, almost every gospel story has two or three churches built commemorating it, each claiming to be the real spot where Jesus was. The Roman Catholics usually have a church, and the Greek Orthodox usually have another, and sometimes the Syriac Orthodox or a Protestant group.

Because the thing is, Jesus tourism is the biggest economic engine in Israel and Palestine. We paid money—and a fair amount of it—to “walk where Jesus walked.” These biblical sites have a vested interest in creating deep spiritual experiences for the tourists who visit—so that they and their money might come back. I occasionally felt like I’d entered a Jesus-themed Disneyland.

The worst of it was at the church commemorating the Sermon on the Mount—the Roman Catholic site, to be precise. It was a beautiful place—stunningly beautiful. The land slopes down to the sea. The church is fairly new, green domes rising on ivory columns. It sits amid lush, manicured gardens, carefully fenced off, full of fountains and statues. Behind the parking lot is a guest house, its green architecture matching the church, for visiting dignitaries and heads of state to stay in. It had the feeling of a resort or spa. In a way, it was intoxicating.

I wandered down one garden path for a while until I found a large stone. Carved into it were these words:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

They struck me like a wave of cold water. I don’t think the Beatitudes ever really got to me before that moment, but to see those words etched in stone in the middle of a tourist’s paradise brought them into sharp relief.

I sometimes feel I have always known the beatitudes—in fact, they are one of the few scriptures I know by heart without having learned them as lyrics to a song. Their very familiarity is comforting. It is easy to pull them over my head like a quilt, listening to God whisper “blessed, blessed, blessed.”

But that day in Galilee, in the midst of wealth and luxury unheard of for most of the country’s population, the Beatitudes seemed strange, challenging—almost threatening, even.

Had I only ever visited the Beatitudes as a tourist, marveling at their lyrical poetry, and never stopping to examine how it all worked underneath? Had I expected the Beatitudes to cater to me, their customer?

Jesus said, “blessed are the poor in spirit,” and to defend ourselves we said “isn’t that nice” and built a resort in his name and charged admission for it.

The sermon on the mount is long—really long, we’ll be listening to it all month—and it begins with these Beatitudes, these blessings. And when I’ve listened to people talk about the Beatitudes, I’ve learned that we desperately want them to be about us. We desperately want to hear these as “attaboys” for who we are and what we do.

And I’m just not sure that’s true. At least, not immediately.

We didn’t read this bit today, but before Jesus takes his seat on the mountain for this sermon, he spends some time wandering through Syria, healing those who are sick and diseased. Matthew tells of how people bring the sick from all over—that the whole community is riddled with disease. This is not a metaphor: diseases were common then, more so than even now. But as Jesus heals their physical illnesses, I think he must also have been pondering the spiritual sickness of his community.

Make no mistake, the community was sick. Two diseases ran rampant through Judea—hopelessness, and complacency.

The Jews lived under Roman oppression. Day to day, things might seem okay—a Jew was on the throne and the temple had been rebuilt. But the Jew was only on the throne because Rome put him there, and the temple was only rebuilt because Rome permitted it, and everyone knew that at the end of the day Rome could kill every last one of them and not blink an eye. Rome was boss, and Rome valued above all things its military power, its ability to force other peoples to bow to its will and command.

And so, many suffered from the disease of hopelessness. Underneath the veneer, the world was not right. God’s values were not served, only Rome’s. God’s justice was not done, only Rome’s. God’s abundance was not seen, only Rome’s overwhelming power. Who could stand against Rome? Only God, and God seemed distant. And so these folks felt hopeless, felt they must have done something to make them unworthy of God’s favor, because why else would God not come to save them?

These were the folks who refused to give up on God’s promise of a world of justice, kindness, and humility; but to hold to ideals in a world of violence can leave one feeling hopeless quite quickly.

Then there were the other kind of folks, the kind who, from faithlessness or fear or exhaustion, decided that if God wasn’t going to favor them then they would seize favor where they could get it. And so they played nice with the Roman soldiers and got themselves cushy middle management positions; and they took a cut from the taxes as they got sent on to Rome; and they put mosaics of the Roman gods in their houses to prove their sophistication; and they figured that Roman rule wasn’t so bad really if you knew how to play your cards right. And it wasn’t that they were evil, but that they wanted to be safe, they wanted security, and the two fastest ways to safety are money and powerful friends.

And both groups were sick; the first from the weight of knowing so much was wrong with the world, and the second from not knowing.

And so Jesus the great healer, who has already tackled epileptics and paralytics and even demoniacs, now tackles these two spiritual diseases:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

And those folks in the crowd who had felt so hopeless must have perked up their ears then, and lifted up their hearts, because when the world calls you worthless and useless and all you hear from your God is silence, then to have someone sit in the rabbi’s seat and say the word “blessed” is the strongest medicine in the world.

Blessed are the poor in spirit—you all whose souls are heavy with the weight of this hurting world, you will find you belong in God’s kingdom.

Blessed are those who mourn—you all who grieve the injustice and violence perpetrated daily, for you will feel fully the comfort of God’s compassion.

Blessed are the meek—you all who would sacrifice wealth and status for faithfulness to God’s vision, for it is God’s vision that will win out in the end.

And on and on, with Jesus saying that it is these folks—these folks whom the world has kicked at every turn—who are actually closest to God. These folks are not cursed to feel the gap between God’s empire and Rome’s—they are blessed to walk so near to God.

God had not abandoned them to a cruel world. God was blessing them with their ability to see and seek a better one.

Healing words indeed.

But what about the second group, who must also have had members in the crowd that day? What about the folks who had refused to be meek or take persecution? What about the folks who had bought hook, line and sinker the beatitudes of Rome? Blessed are the powerful, blessed are the wealthy, blessed are the famous, blessed are the secure.

How can Jesus’ words possibly be good news for them?

Not all healing is immediate. Not all healing feels good right off the bat.

To use a tiny example, think about having a splinter. To heal from that splinter, it has to come out. But getting a splinter out can hurt like the dickens. It’s healing, but it doesn’t feel good. More seriously, think about all the various surgeries used to heal people. Not to be too graphic, but we literally cut into people as part of the healing process. It’s not pleasant, but it works. Healing takes longer, but it happens.

For the folks in Jesus’ audience who were suffering from the sickness of complacency, Jesus’ words blessing others and not them must have felt like a slap in the face. Here they were, with the world eager to call them blessed, and Jesus was looking pointedly away from them. Some of them must have felt defensive. What about me, Jesus? Aren’t I blessed too? And some of them may have thought they were at a poetry reading and nodded along sagely and never dreamed that Jesus was saying something about the real world. And some of them, I pray, must have listened, as painful as it was, and began to realize that the blessings of the world could never stand up to God’s blessings. Even in the pain of hearing that the choices they had made had taken them farther away from God, I think healing must have begun that day, too—long-term healing, healing that leaves scars, but healing nonetheless. The kind of healing that leads us back to walk humbly with God.

I have been talking about the crowd that day, but the world has changed less in 2000 years than I would like. This world of violence and poverty and power plays is still a far cry from the kingdom of God. And we are still divided, between those who see all that is wrong in the world and collapse under the weight of it, and those who are determined that everything will be okay if we can just lock our doors and shut our eyes tight. There are still many in these two groups: the hopeless, and the complacent.

But there are also many in a third group: that of the faithful. This is the group that Jesus called into being that day on the mountain. This is the group that knows it is blessed to seek God’s kingdom; the group that chooses peace and mercy over wealth and power. This is the group that knows we cannot be complacent, because God is on the move; and that there is no need to be hopeless, because God is on the move.

It is easy to be tourists of Christianity, tourists of faith. Easy to smell the flowers and snap our pictures and then go home unchanged, untransformed. It is harder to read Christ’s words and believe that we are blessed when the world despises us, and maybe even harder to read Christ’s words and know that, if we have drifted to a place of power and ease, it might be our hearts in need of healing most.

This week I pray for Christ to heal what has gone sour in my heart; where I have sought the world’s blessing over God’s own.

Jesus Christ, Great Healer, work in us, that we might learn to walk humbly with you, all the way to the kingdom of God.

Amen.

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