Sunday, January 29, 2017

Epiphany 4A

Matthew 5:1–12




Beloved people of God, grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. AMEN.


We live in a culture that tends to define success and well-being in terms of power, wealth, and status. Brian McLaren offers this description of the rules we normally play by in our culture: “Do everything you can to be rich and powerful. Toughen up and harden yourself against all feelings of loss. Measure your success by how much of the time you are thinking only of yourself and your own happiness. Be independent and aggressive, hungry and thirsty for higher status in the social pecking order. Strike back quickly when others strike you, and guard your image so you’ll always be popular.”[1]


In the Beatitudes, our gospel reading for today, and in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5–7, Jesus offers his disciples a different description of success and well-being. Jesus was sent by God to preach and teach the good news of the kingdom of God. The Beatitudes reveal that the culture of the kingdom of God is governed by a different set of rules. People are called blessed who we might tend to pity or even view as cursed. Citizenship in the kingdom of God is not a function of power, wealth, and status.


We believe that God created every human being and that God loves all God has created. In Acts 10:34 Peter says, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” But Jesus’ teaching in the Beatitudes seems to imply that there is a special place in God’s heart for the poor in spirit, the mourning, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those persecuted for righteousness’ sake. The Greek word translated as “blessed” can also be translated as “favored by God.”


The “poor in spirit” are the downtrodden, those beaten down by the elite, by those with power, wealth, and status. Many in the religious community of that time viewed their lowly estate as a sign of God’s disfavor. Jesus turns that perception upside down.


In the second through the seventh beatitudes Jesus assures his followers that their condition will improve in the future. The mourning will be comforted. The meek will inherit the earth. Those hungering and thirsting for righteousness will be filled. The merciful will receive mercy. The pure in heart will see God. The peacemakers will be called children of God.


But in the first and eighth beatitudes Jesus announces to the poor in spirit and to the persecuted that the kingdom of heaven is theirs. Jesus wants them to know God is with them here and now. They are blessed, favored by God. Those who beat them down and persecute them cannot take away God’s blessing, God’s favor, from them.


No matter how reassuring Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount are for the powerless, the poor, and the lowly, it can be difficult believing that life will ever change when the powerful, wealthy, and elite seem to have the upper hand. At times in life it seems like the tyrannical are winning the day.


Mahatma Gandhi of India was the best known proponent of non-violent resistance in the 20th century. He was not a disciple of Jesus in the strict sense. A Hindu by background, he once said, “I am also a Muslim, a Christian, a Buddhist, and a Jew.” In Gandhi’s autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, he tells of his first attempt to read the Bible. A Christian friend had given him a Bible. “I read the book of Genesis,” said Gandhi, “and the chapters that followed invariably sent me to sleep. But just for the sake of being able to say that I had read it, I plodded through the other books with much difficulty and without the least interest or understanding. I disliked reading the book of Numbers.” The New Testament, however, “produced a different impression, especially the Sermon on the Mount which went straight to my heart . . . The verses, `But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whoever shall smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man take away thy coat let him have thy cloak too,’ delighted me beyond measure” (60). Surely Gandhi must have heard Jesus’ words “Blessed are the peacemakers” as an affirmation of non-violent resistance.
literally means “great soul.” Being a great soul did not mean, however, that Gandhi was immune from despair. Gandhi and his followers had many successes, but at times it seemed like the powerful, the violent, and the corrupt were winning the day. What gave him encouragement in such times? “When I despair,” he said, “I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall— think of it—always.” When the followers of Jesus saw him hanging on the cross, it must have seemed like the tyrants and murderers had won the day. But the way of truth and love described by Jesus in the Beatitudes and Sermon on the Mount has endured.


Some have viewed Jesus as a new Moses in the Sermon on the Mount. Moses went up on Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments and then shared them with the people. Jesus went up on the mountain and then sat down and taught his disciples his new teaching. In Matthew 5:17 Jesus makes clear, however, that he came not to abolish the teaching of Moses and the prophets, but to fulfill their teaching. At the heart of their teaching were the two classic core values in our Judeo-Christian tradition: love of God and love of neighbor. The Sermon on the Mount is an effort to teach what it means for the followers of Jesus to fulfill those core values in their time and place. They were living under the imperial rule of Rome and the religious elite were to a great extent in cahoots with the political elite. The Beatitudes offer a vision of an alternative kingdom ruled by the love of God and the love of neighbor. Despite the oppressive conditions they faced, Jesus wanted his followers to know that they were indeed favored by God.


Taking a cue from Gandhi, we might say that Jesus wanted to assure his followers that they were on the right side of history. In the special reading of the Beatitudes Allison offered us, I was struck by the repeated phrase “God has not forgotten you.” No matter how bad things may seem, Jesus wanted his followers to know that God had not forgotten them and that God’s way of truth and love, revealed in the teachings of Jesus, would ultimately prevail.


In a few moments Chris Weiss will be giving us an update on the A Home for All Campaign. He will have some encouraging news for us. The people of St. Andrew have made generous commitments to this campaign. Fulfilling those commitments over these next three years, of course, will be crucial to our success in reducing our facility loan.


But the most important task before us for the next three years is the ministry of being a home for all. At the heart of that ministry are our five core care values: God care, Earth care, community care, neighbor care, and self care. These five core values are an interpretation of what the classic core values of love of God and love of neighbor mean in our time and place. As followers of Jesus, we are called to fulfill the law and the prophets and the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. For the next three weeks we will have additional gospel readings from the Sermon on the Mount, so we will have an opportunity to delve more deeply into what it means to fulfill some of Jesus’ most challenging teachings. Inasmuch as we embody our five core care values we can be sure that God’s hand of blessing, God’s favor, will be upon our ministry.


At the end of our service we will be singing the beautiful hymn “To Be Your Presence” (ELW 546). The first verse goes like this: “To be your presence is our mission here, to show compassion’s face and list’ning ear, to be your heart of mercy ever near, alleluia!” The Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mountain are all about forming a community of faith that knows God is present with them and that they are to be God’s presence in their time and place. The measure of success and well-being in a community ruled by the love of God is how the vulnerable are treated. And it is not just about meeting their needs. Are the vulnerable treated with dignity and respect? To put it another way, do the vulnerable know they are favored by God? St. Andrew will be a successful community of faith inasmuch as the most vulnerable are treated with dignity and respect and know they are favored by God.


How the most vulnerable are treated is also the test of a nation’s success. Yesterday at a Town Hall Meeting in the Tigard High School Cafeteria, Senator Merkley was asked about the executive order banning Muslims from seven countries from entering our country. The first thing he said was that Lady Liberty is crying. At the base of the Statue of Liberty are the words: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" Our success as a nation has to a great extent been a function of our willingness to welcome the most vulnerable who come to our shores. Blessed are those committed to be God’s presence for the vulnerable among us, for they shall see the way of truth and love ultimately win the day.

In Jesus’ name, AMEN.