Meadowbrook Congregational Church
Rev. Art Ritter
February 2, 2020
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.
My friend and colleague Steve Goodier tells a story that he once heard Rabbi Harold Kushner tell. It was about a bright young man who was a sophomore pre-med student at Stanford. To reward him for his faithful studies, his parents gave him a trip to Asia for the summer. While there he met a guru who said to him, “Don’t you see how you are poisoning your soul with this success-oriented way of life? Your idea of happiness is to stay up all night studying for an exam so you can get a better grade that your best friend. Your idea of a good marriage is not to find the woman who will make you whole, but to win the girl that everyone else wants. That is not how people are supposed to live. Give it up. Come and join us in an atmosphere where we all share and love each other.” After years of academic stress, the young man was ripe for this sort of approach. He called his parents and told them he wouldn’t be coming home. He was dropping out of school to live in a monastery.
Six months later his parents received this letter from their son: “Dear Mom and Dad, I know you weren’t happy about the decision I made last summer. But I want to tell you how happy it has made me. For the first time in my life, I am at peace. Here there is no competing, no hustling, no trying to get ahead. Here we are equal and we all share. This way of life is so much in harmony with the inner essence of my soul. In only six months I’ve become the number two disciple in the entire monastery. I think I can become number one by June!
There is a story about Robert Oppenheimer, the man perhaps most responsible for the development of the atomic bomb that the United States used against Japan at the close of World War II. Oppenheimer entered Harvard at age 18 and graduated three years later. He studied theoretical physics at several schools in Europe and taught at California Institute of Technology, known as one of the top ten theoretical physicists in the world. In 1943 he began directing a team of 4500 men and women at Los Alamos, New Mexico, in a project to develop the atomic bomb. Two years and two billion dollars later the team successfully detonated the first bomb. When he saw what he had done, Oppenheimer underwent a radical reevaluation of his values. He was quoted as offering the Bagavad-ita’s words, “I am become death.” Two months later Oppenheimer resigned his position and spent the remainder of his life trying to undo the damage of his science.
There are certain individuals, who in a flash, see that all they once valued is really of no lasting value at all. Their entire life has been turned on its head, everything upside down. They see with painful clarity that the very things they prized most are in reality worthless trinkets. A successful life is not always about high achievement. Sometimes it is about character, about living into a personal mission, about finding a meaningful purpose to organize your life around. And sometimes it is as simple as learning how to live in peace, happiness, generosity, and love.
According to the gospel of Matthew, early in Jesus’ ministry he taught his disciples and follower from a high place, just like the ancient ancestor of faith, Moses. From that teaching, known as the Sermon on the Mount, we hear the words of Scripture we call the Beatitudes, the words of our lesson this morning. When I was a youngster, trying to earn my first Bible from my home church in Stanton, I memorized the 23rd Psalm, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Beatitudes. A beatitude is from the Latin, a translation of a Greek word meaning to be fortunate or happy. In the context of religion it means to be favored by God. Beatitudes were popular expressions in Jesus’ day and not only in religious circles. Beatitudes were common sayings about the Good Life, accenting the kind of virtues that anyone would be pleased to have.
Jesus’ teaching of the Beatitudes are an instruction in righteousness. They are not a list of “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots.” Sometimes we fall into a trap of reading them as a condition for blessing, of something we have to accomplish or minimal entry requirements that we must meet for God to accept us. We have to be meek. We have to be poor in spirit. Instead of prescriptions though, the Beatitudes are descriptions. Jesus is describing blessings that are not to be earned but are already found among those who already seek righteousness and live in the way God intends. The blessedness that Jesus describes is a happiness that comes from a right relationship with God rather than emotional bliss or good fortune. In other words, the Beatitudes show how you live after grace not how your earn God’s grace.
We know the words, even if we haven’t memorized them all. We know the categories even if we can’t name them all. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are they who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those persecuted for righteousness sake. Blessed are you when others revile or persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you. Jesus is describing those who are blessed by God.
When we consider these words carefully, and understand that they are a description of reality, according to Jesus, we might wonder what world they describe. It certainly seems like a world unlike our own. In our world, the meek don’t get blessed, they get taken advantage of. Mourning may be tolerated for a while but you soon have to pull yourself together and move on in life. Those who are pure in heart are labelled as hopelessly naïve. Those who work for peace have their patriotism called into question as our leaders popularly invoke God’s blessing directly upon our nation. When we view the world, we generally assume that those who are happy and confident and living in abundance are the ones who are blessed by God. As Lance Pape writes, “Blessed are the well-educated, for they will get the jobs. Blessed are the well-connected, for their aspirations will not go unnoticed. Blessed are you when you know what you want and got after it with everything you’ve got, for God helps those who help themselves.” If we are honest with ourselves, this world that Jesus is talking about is not the world in which we tend to operate.
Author and preacher Barbara Brown Taylor writes that when she was younger, she liked to stand on her head. She was very short and everything in the world seemed taller than her. By standing on her head she could liven things up a little. Grass hung in front of her eyes like green fringe. Trees grew down, not up. The sky was the lawn and never ended. Her swing set was no longer an “A” but a “V” and her house looked like a rocket in danger of leaving the yard. She liked standing on her head because it made her see old things in a new way. She liked it because it made life exciting and unpredictable. In a world where trees grew down and houses will move up, anything seemed possible.
Perhaps Jesus should ask us to stand on our heads when we read the Beatitudes. After all, that is exactly what he is doing with these words, he is asking us to look at the world upside down. While the words of the Beatitudes are puzzling and challenging for most of us, they sound a whole lot different for those without power and without resources; those who look up at things rather than down.
What then can we make of these teachings? How do those of us who find ourselves outside of these blessings embrace them and grow from them? A world turned upside down is inspiration for some and bad news for others. Luther Seminary professor Karoline Lewis tells us that “the Beatitudes are a call to action to point out just who Jesus really is. Perhaps not the Jesus you want. Perhaps the Jesus who likely rubs you the wrong way. Perhaps the Jesus that tells you the truth about yourself. The Jesus who reminds you, at the most inconvenient times and places, what the Kingdom of Heaven is all about.
Perhaps we can concentrate on the theme of these teachings- seeking righteousness. If we seek genuine righteousness we will be working for the good of others. If we seek righteousness, we will be answering a call to action to make Jesus present and visible in our relationships, our community, and our world. If we seek righteousness, we won’t be worrying about what we are accomplishing but rather working toward creating the kind of world that God imagines. If we seek righteousness, we will be trusting in the words of Jesus who reminds us that we do and what we say and what we believe really does matter.
It is then when we will find that we have been blessed. It is then when we find ourselves aligned with God’s way of the world.