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The sermon on the mount is rather well-known by Christians. Or, at least it SHOULD be. It occupies three full chapters of the gospel according to Matthew, and it is the longest, single, non-stop sermon of Jesus in the Bible.
If we wish to have direct access to what Jesus believed, with a minimum of ambiguity, this is probably where we can find it. Jesus is known for frequently teaching with parables; but although we find other figures of speech in this sermon, parables are absent.
So, if you don’t have much of an imagination, if you don’t want to think too hard, if you want bottom-line answers, this is a good place to look. Unfortunately, when Jesus gets to the bottom line in a big hurry, we can be made to feel a bit uncomfortable.
For example, in the thirtieth verse of the fifth chapter, we hear him say, “...if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.” Well, you were warned.
Matthew sets a stage for the sermon on the mount as if it were a single presentation. Scholars doubt this. Instead, they suspect that this is a compilation of numerous of Jesus sermons; and it IS rather comprehensive.
Indeed, it might fulfill the requirements for a systematic theology, pretty much covering all aspects of a theological belief system. What it most definitely is NOT is a disorganized, incoherent collection of Jesus sayings, especially in its introduction and its conclusion.
This morning I want to look at that introduction. Now, there are lots of things that speakers can do with introductions. One of the ways of thinking of introductions is as a means of getting the attention of the potential audience. Another purpose of introductions is to preface what is to come in the speech or sermon.
But Jesus does something that is rather unique for an introduction. In a sense, it is a kind of conclusion. He has already determined who will be listening to him, and he is going to tell them who they are. And he is going to give them reason to CONTINUE listening.
In a sense, Jesus is schmoozing with his audience. No, I am not belittling this introduction. Think about it. Have you ever spent time with a salesperson, maybe even BEEN a salesperson, who spent time just trying to get a potential customer to be COMFORTABLE? The salesperson is trying to establish a relationship with the customer.
No, that is not ALL that is going to be happening here, but that is PART of it. Indeed, in the process of creating this relationship, Jesus will also be sending a message. In fact, the introduction is a sermon of its own. It can stand on its own.
So, let’s go to the fifth chapter of the gospel according to Matthew.
“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.”
When I was attending the Academy for Spiritual Formation, a fellow student once remarked, “We tend to forget how counter-cultural Christianity really is.” And she’s right. How can we possibly believe, given the understandings of a capitalist culture, that God blesses poor people, that God maybe even LOVES poor people? I mean, how can you buy political privilege if you’re poor?
Now, let’s get some perspective on this. This is not some minor remark that Jesus mumbled under his breath to a tiny handful of people. No, this is absolutely the FIRST thing he says in THE major address he makes to a multitude!
Now, if you claim to be a Christian, and you have doubts about this, open your Bible to Matthew 5:3 and take a good long look. Jesus REALLY said it! “Blessed are the poor!”
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
Dare we ADMIT that there is sadness in our lives? No, in fact, many of us have been told, while in childhood, that BIG boys and girls don’t cry! It is a mark of WEAKNESS to cry, so we hide it from others, even though, if we are honest with ourselves, we know that inside, and in private, we still DO cry.
But we have here a unique function of God. Our creator COMFORTS us. I’m reminded of words I use at the graveside portion of a funeral service.
In prayer I ask, “comfort us in our loneliness, strengthen us in our weakness, and give us courage to face the future unafraid.”
Yes, Jesus is telling them, and us, that God looks with favor, with compassion, on our weaknesses. In fact, you might even say that Jesus is telling us that God pays more attention to our weaknesses.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”
Now we know that THAT is a lot of silliness, isn’t it? Everybody knows that Microsoft and Wal-Mart and a handful of other companies are on track to inherit the earth!
But isn’t this the same Jesus who told us that the last will be first and the first will be last? If he meant that, then maybe the meek WILL inherit the earth!
Indeed, my dictionary tells me that the meek are “mild, deficient in spirit and courage, submissive, not violent or strong.” But if we have difficulty understanding the word “meek,” we could probably replace it with the rhyming “weak.”
We could probably replace the whole verse with “Blessed are the weak, for they will be made strong.” Does this not ring true with what we read in the closing verse of the fortieth chapter of the prophet Isaiah? “...those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” God DOES take care of us in our weakness.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
If the word “righteousness” is a bit difficult to handle, you can substitute “justice,” which Biblically means the same thing. But we’re talking about justice in its original sense. We are NOT talking about “justice” that has been warped to mean “vengeance.”
We are not talking about people who desire for God to beat up on their enemies; rather, we are talking about a God who brings about equity and fairness in the world.
And is this all such a stretch? Has God not already, by the time of Jesus, done wonderful things for the children of Israel? If we look closely at the Hebrew scriptures, especially at the story of the Exodus, of the Hebrews in Eqypt, we find God doing what Jesus tells us God does for us.
We have now heard the first four of what we have come to know as the beatitudes, the blessings God bestows upon us. And there are four remaining.
Now, if you were students of mine, and I were to tell you that there would be a short quiz on the beatitudes, you would probably be thinking, “Oh, my goodness, I have to memorize EIGHT beatitudes!”
So, I will try to make it a bit easier on you, just as I did several years ago when I was trying to teach elementary school campers about the beatitudes. There are two sets of four beatitudes each. The first set of four, which I just discussed, are what I label the “passive” beatitudes. The poor, the mournful, the meek, the hungry for righteousness are all folks in need of God to take care of them. They are reacting to their circumstances, perhaps immobilized by them.
In contrast, the second four are what I label the “active” beatitudes. Listen:
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God.”
Now, God needs our help in bringing blessings to others. And that is exactly what we do in our missional giving.
When we pay our apportionments, when we involve ourselves in mission projects, when we give to United Methodist Relief programs, when we take care of others in our community, we ARE the merciful responding to the poor, we ARE the pure in heart responding to those who mourn.
And Jesus is promising us that by so doing, WE will receive mercy, WE will see God. So what is happening here, I believe, is that God works through humanity to bring blessings upon us.
You see, any time we seek to bring good to others, we are serving as God’s representatives here on earth. We are angels for God.
I know that I have been blessed a million times over by the uncountable acts of love of my family, of my parishioners, of other pastors, of countless friends across the years.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.”
Now, for most of us, if we are taking a word-association test, and somebody says “peace,” we are likely to say “war” in response. So, what, we might ask, does this have to do with the “meek” in the third beatitude? What is it to which these peacemakers are responding? I suspect that it is commonly believed by many that the only way to peace is to blow our enemies to perdition.
But I think that Jesus might take a more constructive approach. Do you remember that the meek are defined as deficient in spirit and courage? Which probably means that they are vulnerable to be dominated by others.
To make peace might also be to bring spirit and courage to others.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
It is easy to “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Actually, we all do. We want the world to be a just and fair place. At least, we want it to be just and fair for US. But how many of us are prepared to take an active rather than a passive role? How many of us are prepared to DO something for justice and fairness, to speak out for these causes?
How many of us are prepared for the persecution, for the criticism?
Have you heard of the NIMBY syndrome? NIMBY is an acronym for Not In My Back Yard. We may want government to do wonderful things, but we don’t want our taxes raised to pay for them.
We want changes in the world, as long as those changes don’t adversely affect US.
Many seem quite enthusiastic about the fellow who lives in the White House going to war, invading countries we happen to not like very much. But we want to be able to fight these wars without anybody on our side dying in them. We want righteousness, on our own terms, and without having to risk anything for it.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”
And I can hear Jesus saying, “Blessed are you when you stand up for me.” Obviously, this is not an easy thing to do. Even in his own time, Jesus was a radical, and his teachings ran counter to the culture of which he was a part. How much more difficult it must be today.
But he goes on to tell us, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Life is hard. God KNOWS life is hard. But God is on your side, just as God has been, throughout time, on the side of the poor, the mournful, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness sake. Amen.
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