Sunday, January 30, 2011

Epiphany 4A

I was once asked to provide what they called an “Invocation” at a political event a few years ago. So I chose for the bible reading the passage we just heard from Matthew’s gospel, popularly known as “The Beatitudes.” I wanted to offer the crowd a different vision than what usually passes for political discourse.

Later that evening, a politician came up to me and thanked me for reading the “softer” Beatitudes rather than the “harsh” Ten Commandments.

I held my tongue, but what I was thinking was, Were you paying attention? There’s nothing SOFT about the beatitudes! The Ten Commandment are a mile easier to live by than these 12 verses in Matthew.

I guess somewhere along the line the beatitudes became domesticated. Pretty little religious words that offer comfort without challenge. Spiritual poetry to calm our anxious hearts.

How we hear the beatitudes depends largely on where we’re sitting when we hear them.

Where are you in Jesus’ list? Are you the poor in spirit, struggling to find evidence of a loving God in a harsh world? If you are, then Jesus says that you are blessed?

Are you mourning? Jesus promises comfort...some day.

Are you being persecuted? Then rejoice in your pain! You must be an awesomely faithful person!

That’s where it gets a little weird, and probably where the he lost the crowd. But he may have lost others a long time before that. Who wants to be blessed the way Jesus says to be blessed?

Theologians struggle with the beatitudes. They wonder what they could possibly mean. Lutherans have traditionally interpreted this passage, and the rest of the sermon on the mount through what we call “The Impossible Ideal.” In other words, Jesus sets so high a standard that no one can possibly live up to it. And since we can’t be as perfect as Jesus demands that we be, we cling to the cross for forgiveness.

Others interpret this passage as a promise to be fulfilled at the end of time, or when we arrive in heaven. That God’s perfect world will be establish - some day. Not today. So don’t bother looking for it in this life. Just keep your eyes fixed on the next one.

And still other say that this passage gives us our moral marching orders, that, while Jesus sets a standard that may be impossible to attain, we still have to try because that’s how God wants us to live. And if we don’t try to live according to the Jesus’ demands, the world won’t be saved. It’s up to us to implement God’s kingdom vision.

I find none of these interpretations satisfying. I don’t think Jesus is giving his listeners a sneak peek into God’s promised future, nor do I think Jesus is setting us up to fail, and I certainly don’t think that the world’s salvation depends on how morally obedient we are.

I think this passage is about Jesus, and who he is. “Blessed are you who are poor in spirit, blessed are you who mourn, blessed are you who are meek, blessed are you who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the merciful, the peacemaker, the pure in heart, the persecuted.”

That sounds like Jesus’ job description to me.

He’s not talking just about them, he’s talking about himself, and who they will become because of him. Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise. In Jesus, the kingdom of God has arrived. In Jesus, God’s healing is not something to hope for in the future, but a present reality living among them.

I think of the beatitudes as God’s thesis statement. God tells the people what God will do. Then does it.

The beatitudes are Jesus’ way of showing the world that God is in the healing business, that God is more interested in peoples’ wounds than in peoples’ strength.

God cares more about people’s failures than their successes, that God looks at peoples human frailties and says, “There’s something I can work with.”

The point of the gospel is to be good news in our bad news lives. And that good news means that God goes deep down inside where we might not want God to go.

We don’t always want to be confronted with our grief. We don’t always want to be face-to-face with our spiritual poverty. We don’t always want to show our weakness and vulnerability because the world scorns meekness and rewards strength.

But it’s in our frailty that God’s best work is done. It’s in our poverty that God’s riches are poured.

It’s in what the world throws away that God creates something beautiful. It’s in what the world leaves behind that God collects as treasure. It’s not our successes that bring us to God, it’s our failures.

“God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise;” Paul reminds us in our second reading, “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 30He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

I don’t know why that is, but God is attracted to weakness. That could be why Jesus called weakness a blessing.

Our weakness could be a blessing because that’s when we realize that we need others and need God. It’s when life hits us hard that God can seem important again, that we’re more open to the intrusion of the divine in our lives.

I’ve noticed that it’s in our pain that we connect most deeply with others. It’s in our shared humanity, knowing that we are not alone in our suffering, that we receive a blessing.

It’s in our weakness that we can best reach out to others. It’s out of our pain that we can minister to those who need a healing touch. It’s from our darkness that God’s light shines.

So, wherever you are on Jesus’ list, you are blessed, because God is at work IN you.

Wherever you on Jesus’ list, you are blessed because God is at work THROUGH you.

God is at work, singing a new song into our lives. God’s light is shining, so the whole dark world may receive God’s blessing.

May this be so among us. Amen.


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