Monday, January 22, 2018

January 21, 2018 The Beatitudes: Blessed Are the Meek



If I were to ask you to list adjectives that you would be pleased to have attached to your name, what would you say?  Perhaps you might say kind, loving, compassionate, smart, or funny.  There are any number of other adjectives you might choose, but I would feel very confident in guessing that meek would not be one of them.

But what’s wrong with being meek?  What is it about the word meek that makes us want to say don’t use that word with me!  We probably wouldn’t mind a synonym, such as gentle, but let’s leave meek alone.  The word meek sounds too much like doormat or milquetoast for us. 

I was an avid comic book reader when I was young, and in almost all of them there appeared an ad for a Charles Atlas workout program.  If you read comic books back in the 60s and 70s you probably saw it too.  I have to admit, as a rather scrawny kid, I was tempted to send off for the workout plan in hopes that I could overcome the perception that I was meek and weak.



The problem with the word meek is that it reminds us of that scrawny guy on the beach getting sand kicked in his face by the big, muscular guy, and who wants to be that guy?

This morning, we continue our series of message on the Beatitudes, and today we come to the third beatitude – blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.  For our Scripture text we will again read the passage that contains the entirety of the beatitudes –

Matthew 5:1-12

1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him,
and he began to teach them.  He said:
“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 be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

When we talk about the word meek there is one thing we need to clarify at the beginning, and it is this,

Meek Is Not Weakness.

Our culture has basically destroyed any idea that one would aspire to meekness.  No one wants to be known or remembered as weak.  No one ever says, in answer to the question, how do you want to be remembered?  Well, I would like first and foremost to be remembered as being a very meek person.

One of the difficulties of a verse such as this one is the way in which the meanings of words change over time.  Some words take on different meanings and we lose any understanding of what the word means in its original context.  What do you think when you hear the word awful.  Something terrible, correct?  The word awful once meant to be full of awe towards something, such as God.  What about backlog?  We usually think of that big pile of work on our desks, but it used to mean the biggest log on the fire.  Sick used to mean to be ill, and still does, but it is also often used to mean something that is really great, such as that song is really sick!  But please do me a favor and don’t tell me on your way out today that my sermon was really sick!

The Greek word translated as meek is praus, and it does not mean to be physically weak or easily intimidated or any of the qualities that we would normally associate with being a meek person.  It was often used to describe, for instance, a very strong horse – perhaps a warhorse – that had been broken.  Its strength was not removed, but rather was controlled and contained.  The word then came to mean someone who had strength and power but used that strength and power in a positive way, rather than a way that was harmful or destructive.  That’s a very different way of thinking about meek, isn’t it?

Jesus was saying that the people who are meek – the people who will inherit the earth – are people who understand the true nature of power.  Real power is not the kind that imposes its strength upon others, as we commonly see power exercised in our world.  History has shown us time and again that such power – military might, in particular – is what so many leaders and nations aspire to, but it is not the kind of power upon which God’s kingdom is based.  Empires and rulers and armies come and go, but Jesus says there is a power that outlasts all other powers, and it is greater than the kind of power sought after by the kingdoms of the world.  Now, that is not to say that the power that forms the foundations of kingdoms and empires and armies does not have an effect upon people.  That kind of power has harmed and oppressed and killed scores of people throughout history, and it is that harm and oppression and violence that Jesus says must be opposed and it is what he opposed.

Jesus was not a meek person; not in the way most people think of meekness today.  It took a great deal of courage to enter into the Temple, to fashion a whip, and then take that whip and drive the moneychangers from the Temple (13 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” John 2:13-16.)  To challenge and disrupt the commerce and financial system that had overtaken the Temple in that time took incredible courage, courage that recognized taking such action was to risk one’s life.  Jesus was not afraid to publicly criticize the religious leaders for their hypocrisy, for their lack of compassion, and for their corruption.  He was not afraid to say to them 27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness (Matthew 23:27-28).  He was not afraid to call them blind guides (Matthew 15:14).  That is a kind of strength and power that is willing to stand up for those who are oppressed, for those who are treated unjustly, for those who are cast aside by society, and for those who are forgotten by those who have the power and the means to make their lives better.  There was a power to Jesus, but it was a power of a different kind.

It Is This Kind of Meekness – Which is God’s Kind of Power – That Will Inherit the Earth.

At the beginning of this series I said that part of what Jesus sought to do in the Beatitudes was to open our eyes to truth.  We are products of our time and our historical moment, and as products of our time we are very influenced by the context in which we live, including the ways in which we think.  Jesus always sought to open the eyes of his disciples to the reality that their thinking was also conditioned by their time period, and that means that we don’t always recognize the faults in our thinking.  This is why Jesus often spoke in paradoxical statements, such as you have to lose your life to find it (Matthew 16:25); the first shall be last (Mark 10:31); and whoever wants to be great has to be a servant (Matthew 20:26).  This is the way that Jesus points out that much of what people think and aspire to is wrong.  Our context can condition us to think that we should be out for ourselves, when the gospel teaches us that we are to serve others.  Our context can condition us to be out for what we can get for ourselves, when the gospel teaches us that we are to give to others.  This extends to how we think about power as well.  We live in a culture that worships power.  We certainly see the jockeying for power in our political realm every day.  It is a realm where power reigns supreme.

To say that the meek will inherit the earth is, once again, similar to other statements Jesus made, in that they do not line up with the general expectations about the ways in which the world works.  And therein lies an important truth and it is this – the ways in which the world works are often in direct opposition to the ways in which God desires for the world to work.  In a worldly fashion it is the strong who get to call the shots and who get to control the ways in which the world works.  In God’s kingdom, however, the rules are not set by those who are the strongest or by those who exert the most brute force and sheer power.  In God’s kingdom, it is the expression of humility and gentleness that is lifted up as the model for the way in which we should live.  And while it seems that brute force and power always carries the day, we know that kind of power is not the ultimate victor.  Jesus is that great example of this truth, because though it seemed the mighty Roman Empire had the last word on his life and mission the resurrection proved otherwise.  Humanity’s thirst for such power has always proven to be a failed path.  How many other great kingdoms, with all their might and power, have fallen to the sands of time and become little more than a distant memory?  The powerful may control the earth for a time, but they never keep it.  Never.  Alexander the Great sought to rule the world and almost succeeded, but he and his empire are long gone.  The great British Empire?  Long gone.  The Soviet Union that struck fear in the heart of Western countries as they spread their Iron Curtain across Easter Europe?  Gone.

When I was young I was often bullied.  It started when I was in elementary school and went through middle school and high school.  I was never a very big guy – and I certainly wasn’t intimidating or threatening – and I guess I made an easy target.  When I was in fifth grade I was being bullied often on the school bus.  A couple of guys would sit behind me, or across from me, or in the same seat, and tell me today might be the day that we get off at your stop and beat you up.  It made for many a difficult day, wondering what might happen when I got off the school bus?  Was I going to be beaten up?

Even though it was a long time ago, I very vividly remember the day when one of those guys slid into the seat behind me, put his arm on the seat in front of us to make sure I couldn’t get out of the seat, and said today’s the day.  What are you going to do?  Now, maybe I was desperate, but I remembered at that point something that my Sunday School teacher once told us.  She said that God would not want us to fight, because God wanted us to love others.  Perhaps she was simply trying to get through to a class filled with some rowdy boys, but her words stuck with me, and on that day I was ready to try anything, so when he asked me what I was going to do, I looked at him and said, nothing.  I’m not going to fight because God doesn’t want me to fight.  He wants me to love others.  I think he was stunned by my reply!  I remember him nodding his head and saying, okay.  Okay.  He kept nodding his head and saying okay over and over.  Finally, he got up and he and his cohorts left me alone.  And I thought, wow!  This stuff really works!  So let me ask this – who has ever been, or is now, a Sunday School teacher?  Please know this – if you have ever been, or if you currently teach Sunday School, it is incredibly important for you to teach those Scriptural lessons, and please know that what you say to your class is not only heard, but taken to heart!  Sunday School teachers, don’t ever think that your students aren’t listening!  I was.  I took the advice I received in Sunday School and guess what?  It worked!


Empires, rulers, and armies come and go, but Jesus says there is a power that outlasts all other powers, and it is the power of meekness, which is another word for love and humility.  We should never mistake meekness for weakness.  Meekness is a different kind of power.  It is the power that comes from love and from humility.  Jesus says this is a power far greater than that which is sought after by so many in our world.  It is true power, it is the power that fuels the kingdom of God, and it is the power that Jesus asks us to demonstrate!

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

January 14, 2018 The Beatitudes: Blessed Are Those Who Mourn



Listening to the radio last week I heard the song Alone Again, Naturally, by Gilbert O’Sullivan several times.  If you are from my era you probably remember the song, which is a nice, catchy, bouncy song, at least musically. Lyrically, it is very depressing, and includes the following lines.  Would you like me to sing them to you?  Um…no.

But as if to knock me down
Reality came around
And without so much as a mere touch
Cut me into little pieces
Leaving me to doubt
Talk about, God in His mercy
Oh, if he really does exist
Why did he desert me
In my hour of need
I truly am indeed
Alone again, naturally.

While I like the tune of Mr. O’Sullivan’s song, I would disagree with his theology.  While Mr. O’Sullivan believes that God deserted him in his hour of need, I would beg to differ.  I do not question Mr. O’ Sullivan’s feelings or grief – absolutely not – but I do question his sense of God and his mercy.  Just because one feels deserted does not mean one is, in fact, deserted by God.  We too often equate feelings and personal experience with reality and truth, but they are not the same.  Just because we feel something does not mean that what we feel is true.

But I do understand Mr. O’Sullivan’s sentiment.  Grief – as universal as it is – can be very isolating and lonely.  It is in a time of grief that a person will ask all of their deepest and most difficult questions of God.  Where is God, one might ask, and that’s a fair question.  God does not fear our questions, we should remember, and asking questions is one of the ways in which our faith grows and matures.

This morning we continue the series of messages based on the Beatitudes as we come to verse 4 – Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  Again this week we will read the passage in which we find the Beatitudes – Matthew 5:1-12.

1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him,
and he began to teach them.  He said:
“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 be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

I want to speak about grief in relation to two categories this morning – the grief that comes with death, which is what I will call specific grief, and every other kind of grief, which I will call general grief, and I will begin with that type of grief.

Allow me to also add a word about our Stephen Ministry.  When you are going through a time of grief – any type of grief – or any other time of struggle, we have trained Stephen Ministers available to assist you.  If you would like to learn more about the Stephen Ministry, please contact either Laine or myself or the church office.

1.  General grief.
We grieve over many matters, actually, not just the end of life.  Many other areas of life come to an end, and those endings also trigger grief.  Many people find themselves in mourning because they lose a job.  In my home area, in the northern Ohio Valley, thousands upon thousands of people were once employed by the steel mills – at very good pay and very good benefits – for very many years.  Then, in the early 80s, that economy began to unravel.  The hiring ended and the layoffs began.  Then came the closures of the mills.  Today, years after the collapse of that economy and the loss of the jobs, the sense of grief is still very palpable, because nothing else has ever replaced those jobs.  Some people mourn because a friend or family member moves to another part of the country.  This is most common when kids grow up, go off to college, and most likely move to another part of the country, away from parents.  It never occurred to me to wonder if my parents had any grief when I left home.  Maybe they had a party!  Tanya and I have been married for over 33 years, and we have never lived near our families or any other relatives.  There has always been an undercurrent of grief that our lives have taken us away from our families.  We’ve wondered on more than one occasion whether or not it was the right thing to do, to move away from our families.  Was it fair to our kids?  Was it fair to our families? 

But there are other kinds of mourning as well, and it is the kind that is not tied directly to our personal experience; it is the kind of mourning tied to the human condition.  It is a mourning that was expressed by Jesus as he rode towards the city of Jerusalem for the Triumphal Entry.  As he approached the city the heart of Jesus broke because of what he saw there.  As Jesus saw the city, he wept over it, Luke 19:41 tells us.  Matthew’s gospel tells us that Jesus said of the city O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing (Matthew 23:37).  Jerusalem, the holy city, had become in large measure a place of corruption and greed, bringing great grief to Jesus.  The religious leaders had turned the Temple into a place of corruption rather than protecting it as a place of prayer and worship.  The politics of the day had filled the city with coarseness, cynicism, and danger.  Jesus challenged those who were in positions from which they could improve the lives of others but didn’t.  His grief at what he saw did not remain only a feeling; what Jesus saw moved him to action as he sought to alleviate the struggle that he saw all around him.

To look at the condition of our world today certainly should bring to us a sense of mourning.  As we see such pervasive violence, brokenness, great physical and spiritual need, and the amount of hatred in our world it is not hard to feel a sense of grief.  While we have progressed in many ways, it is clear that humanity is still mired in violence, hatred, and many other ills, just as in the day of Jesus. 

If we cannot look upon the hungry people in our land and around the world and not mourn then our hearts have grown hard.  If we cannot look upon the warfare and bloodshed and violence and not mourn the absence of peace and love then our hearts are indeed grown hard.  We ought to mourn when we look at the world and see the condition of humanity.  Our mourning ought to move us to step beyond ourselves and into the lives of others to heal that brokenness.  It is possible to look at the condition of the world and say forget it.  I’m after what I can get and everybody else is on their own.  But faith calls us to move beyond the boundaries of our own lives and our own concerns to heal the brokenness in the world.  It tells us that if we can do something, then we should do something.

2.  Specific grief.

I would hazard a guess that if you ask 100 people to define grief, 99 of them would most likely say it is associated with the loss of a friend or loved one.  Very, very few, I assume, would talk about general grief.  When we speak of grief, this is what we almost always mean – the specific grief that comes to us because of loss.

Grief was an ever-present part of daily life in the time of Jesus, as survival was precarious and the lifespan of most people was far less than what we enjoy today.  Death, because of poverty, lack of medical care, and disease, was a fact of daily life, and was never far from claiming another among its ranks. One of the most famous passages in the Scriptures is when Jesus comes to the tomb of Lazarus, where he weeps (Jesus wept, John 11:35).  It is a very touching scene, as Jesus weeps over the tomb of his friend Lazarus, and on behalf of the heartbreak of grief of his sisters, Mary and Martha.  Loss is very, very difficult.
     
Interestingly, this beatitude is different from all of the others in one respect.  I never noticed this until I was reading the beatitudes the other day.  All of the others are voluntary.  You don’t have to be poor in spirit, you don’t have to be meek, you don’t have to be merciful, you don’t have to be pure in heart, you don’t have to be a peacemaker, and you don’t have to be persecuted.  All of those are conditions that come about because of how one lives, but being one who mourns is a condition we experience simply because we live.  Mourning is the only one of the beatitudes that is, first, universal, and two, not a condition in which we find ourselves at least partially because of choice.  It is part and parcel of the human condition.  It cannot be avoided.

Mourning comes with the territory of living and loving.  With the joy and beauty of love comes also the pain and grief of loss.  We understand that they go together.  It is very difficult to lose someone we love.  We don’t live long on this earth before we lose someone we love.  The separation is difficult and the corresponding awareness of our own mortality comes home to us. 

But Jesus says there is comfort.  That comfort is both present and future and that promise implies divine intervention, I believe.  One of the ways in which we experience that divine intervention is through the gift of the Holy Spirit.  The word for Holy Spirit is paraclete, which means helper, or one who is called to one’s side.  That’s a beautiful image of God, I believe; God coming beside us to help us.  And as God intervenes with us, so we intervene in the lives of others when they grieve.  Grief and loss teach us to enter into the lives of others.  People will drop everything else to be with one who has lost a loved one.  When I pass by a house and see a lot of cars parked out front I assume it means one of two things – someone is having a party or there has been the loss of a loved one.  Sorrow moves us into the sufferings of others.  Faith is about caring.

But there is a future tense to this beatitude as well – blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Future hope does not remove the painful reality of the mourning that we experience in the present.  We would like the full measure of that comfort right now – and there is a measure of present comfort – but we recognize that faith brings to us the final sense of comfort in the future. The only full, complete answer to grief and loss is the knowledge that there is something beyond ourselves and something beyond this life.

I have no idea how many funerals I have done over the years.  I should have kept count, but I’m terrible at math so I don’t keep counts, but I know it is in the hundreds.  I have officiated at funerals for infants, young children, teenagers, young adults, middle age adults, older adults – I have officiated at funerals for every age group and just about every situation imaginable and along the way I’ve learned some things and one thing I have learned is this – it makes a big difference when one has a sense of hope.  A big difference.  Hope brings comfort.  The promise of resurrection brings hope as does the promise that resurrection brings reunion with those we love, and that is incredibly powerful to people.  There are certain Scripture passages I read at funerals, and one of them is Revelation 21:4 – He will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.  That hope is incredibly powerful in helping us cope with the sting of loss.

All sunshine, one person has said, makes a desert (Barclay, p. 93).  As rain is necessary to produce growth from the earth, there are certain lessons only learned in sorrow.  And one of those lessons is the promise of hope.  There is a new day coming.  There is a life that extends beyond this life.  Death is not an end, but a beginning.

My father has been gone for over twenty-seven years.  A few years after his passing my mom decided to sell our home place, which she needed to do.  It was too much for her to keep up with and it was the right thing for her to do.  I remember vividly going home one last time.  I was five-years-old when we moved to our farm and it was difficult to go through the house one last time, especially as it was empty.  As I walked into each room I had a video reel playing in my head of memories – birthdays, Christmases, family gatherings, and so many other occasions.  It was, actually, depressing to go through that empty house and see it devoid of the life that pulsed through it for so many years.  I walked out into my dad’s workshop and looked at the small pile of tools that remained.  My dad had added an addition to the house, with one part serving as a garage and the other as his workshop.  I helped him on some of the building of that addition, although I don’t imagine I was much help, as I have never been as skilled at building or working with my hands as he was.  He had a lot of tools, most of which were gone, distributed to my siblings and others.  I stood in his workshop, picking through some of the remaining tools, and though I’m not much of a tool person, I took a number of them home with me.  I even took a torque wrench, even though I have no idea what a torque wrench does.  As I picked through the tools I wondered, is this what life comes to?  We spend a lifetime collecting some things and then someone else has to worry about what to do with them.  Is this what we leave behind?  But even as I asked myself that question I knew the answer – that is not what life comes to.  Life is far more than the sum of our years and what we accumulate.  Life is more, and means more, because of the hope that we have of eternity.  It would be difficult, I believe, if our final breath in this life were the end of all things.  But it is not, according to our faith.  At the end of life on this earth we join what the book of Hebrews calls the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us (Hebrews 12:1).  It is a time when we will have a reunion, a homecoming; it will be a time when God indeed will wipe every tear from (our) eyes.  A time when there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain (Revelation 21:4).

Yes, blessed are the those who mourn, for they will indeed be comforted!


Monday, January 08, 2018

January 7, 1018 The Beatitudes: Blessed Are the Poor In Spirit



Today we begin a new series of messages, based on the Beatitudes.  The Beautitudes are a section of Scripture that I was surprised to realize I have not used as a series of messages.  Outside of a couple of sermons with the context of the Sermon On the Mount, I have not preached on the Beatitudes.

The Beatitudes serve as the introduction to the Sermon On the Mount, and as the Sermon On the Mount is one of the most important parts of all the Scriptures, the Beatitudes – as the beginning of that passage – are of great importance, as they set the tone for all that follows.

The Sermon On the Mount – and all that it contains – also happens to contain some of the most radical, most challenging words ever spoken.  They are the epitome of going from preachin’ to meddlin’.  Consider, for example, the words of Jesus in verses 10 – 12:

10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
12 Rejoice and be glad because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.  I’ll be honest, when I read those words I want to ask are you kidding me?  Don’t you find those words to be incredibly challenging?  Do you want to be persecuted, and then rejoice about it?  Do you want to be insulted and have people say things about you that aren’t true? 

The Beatitudes are beautiful words, but they are very challenging words as well, and let’s hear them now.

Matthew 5:1-12 –
1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him,
and he began to teach them.  He said:
“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 be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Before speaking about the poor in spirit, I want to speak about one matter related to the Beatitudes in general, and it is this –

The Beatitudes challenge us to open our eyes, our minds, and our hearts to true life.

I have often commented on the fact that Jesus sometimes spoke in what we would call opposites, meaning that Jesus would make a declaration that stated the opposite of what was a generally accepted view about life.  He said, for instance, that the last will be first, and the first will be last (Matthew 20:16) and you know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you.  Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:25-28).

The reason he did this, I believe, was to make plain the reality that the world in which we live can condition us to accept a view of life that is not only misleading, but an outright lie.  To seek power, to seek to be exalted above others, and to want to get ahead of everyone else, Jesus plainly said, is a false presentation of what life should be.  So the Beatitudes are Jesus’ way of revealing that the expectations and aspirations of the world are, in many cases, wrong.

And this really gets to the heart of the Christian faith, I believe.  Faith is sometimes portrayed as being primarily about either how good a person is or about what they believe.  Don’t misunderstand me; I am not diminishing in any way the importance of living a life that is ethical and moral, and I also affirm that what we believe is important.  It is important to remember, however, that here is an element of faith that goes much deeper, and it is this – faith, as presented by Jesus, is the ability to live in a way that sees through the falsehoods and illusions that are presented to us and to embrace the reality of the life that he presents to us.

Allow me to give an example or two of what I mean.  Some years ago I visited an historical community in another part of our state (www.washingtonky.com).  It was a very interesting visit, particularly the church in that community that dated back many years, well into the 1800s.  There was a balcony in the church but the only way to get into the balcony was through two doors on the front of the building.  But there were no steps to the doors.  There were no steps because the balcony was for slaves, and the slaves would get into the balcony by climbing ladders, and then the ladders were taken down so that they could not escape during the service.  Here’s one of the things we can learn from that – when you live in the middle of an historical moment, you might not be able to recognize that what you are doing is completely and absolutely against the will of God.  It is hard for us to imagine that it was once perfectly acceptable in our country – and other countries – to own another human being as though they were property.  It was perfectly acceptable to buy and sell those human beings as though they were simply another commodity being taken to market.  It was so acceptable, in fact, that people could sit in a church, in a worship service, testifying of their belief in the God of this universe who created all people, and yet sit there while their slaves were placed in the balcony essentially as prisoners, and they would listen to sermons that upheld that way of living as not only right, but as the will of God.  When the minister spoke of that being the will of God they would nod their heads in agreement that it was what God wanted.  Hard to believe, isn’t it? 

There was a time when African-Americans could not vote, and that was, for many years, widely accepted.  There was a time when women were not only forbidden from voting, they were forbidden from from running for office and from engaging in many types of work.  Just last year our society awakened to the harsh reality of sexual harrassment that has been suffered by women for ages.  It was acceptable, in the minds of some men for many years, that it was their right to treat women in such a horrible manner.  Once those stories began coming to light, our society had a moment of reckoning and questioned how such actions were ever allowed to take place, with the full knowledge of many.  There are many other historical examples I could offer this morning but I hope you see my point – as we live in a particular historical context there are always things that we cannot see as wrong because our context tells us they are right and we are conditioned to think they are right.  What might we be missing now?  In fifty years, what might people look back to and say, how did they ever understand that to be acceptable?  How could they sit in church and believe that to be God’s will?

What Jesus seeks to do in the Beatitudes is to remove the blinders from our eyes so that we can see what it is that God wants us to understand about life and how we ought to live.

So what does it mean, then, when Jesus says Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven?  What does it mean to be poor in spirit and why is the kingdom of heaven theirs?  It’s hard to understand what it means to be poor in spirit, I think.  For one thing, we don’t like that word poor.  Nobody wants to be poor, do they, even if it is poor in spirit.  I have been amused in the past week or so with the lottery fever that is sweeping the nation.  I will admit that it is a lot of money that is sitting there, waiting for that one in about a twenty trillion chance of being claimed.  I stood in line at a store the other day while someone bought a big stack of tickets.  I just wanted to pay for my candy bar and be on my way, but this person was purchasing a serious stack of lottery tickets.  I was tempted to say, you know, as much as you’re spending there, you would be a lot better off to keep that money in your pocket.  But I didn’t.  Who bought a ticket?  You don’t have to raise your hand and I’m not judging you if you did, because who doesn’t want to be wealthy, but I have to say, I find it amusing when people run out and buy a lottery ticket only when the jackpot gets to around half a billion dollars.  It’s as though they think $100 million?  Nah, that’s not really worth bothering about, because if you’re going to be wealthy, why not be really wealthy, right?   

In the time of Jesus, to be blessed meant to be wealthy.  Everyone knew that.  Everyone knew that connection.  There was no doubt that when you referred to someone as blessed you meant they were wealthy.  So when Jesus says that it is the poor in spirit who are blessed it would have shocked his audience into attention.  It was a moment that left the assembled crowd saying wait, what?  Did I hear that right?

That means that Jesus was telling people to rethink not only what it meant to be blessed, but to rethink who was blessed.  If you were poor, and most people in that day were relatively poor, it was an accepted view that it was because that is what God wanted.  God blessed those he loved and God chose to bless them and if you weren’t one of them it was for a very simple reason – God chose not to bless you.  Think about that for a moment – the far, far majority of people in the day of Jesus would think it impossible for them to be blessed.  They couldn’t be, because they were not wealthy.  And to make matters worse, because they believed that blessing came from God – especially financial blessing – it was God who had condemned them to their poverty and it was God who was withholding any sense of blessing from them.  There is still an element around today, and it’s called the prosperity gospel.  The proponents of the prosperity gospel don’t say it that plainly, and I don’t believe they understand themselves to be saying that God is condemning anyone to poverty, but the implication is still the same, and that implication is that God chooses to bless some and if you are not blessed, especially financially, well, you can make the connection yourself.

In saying blessed are the poor in spirit, Jesus was presenting a way of looking at life that was very different from the accepted view of the time.  Jesus was saying, guess what?  The accepted widsom of the day is wrong.  You aren’t poor because that’s what God chose for you and wanted for you.  You aren’t unloved by God because you are poor.  On the contrary, you are blessed regardless of your financial or social station in life.  In fact, you might be blessed because of your lowly station in life.

Jesus was saying you could be blessed even if you were not wealthy.  Even if you had very little, God blessed you.  Even if you were poor, you were blessed by God.  But not just poor, but poor in spirit as well, which meant all the associated ills and struggles that came with poverty, which were many.  Even if you were ground down by the struggle of life, even if you were incredibly discouraged by how difficult life could be, even if you felt as though you were living a marginal existence of which no one cared, you could still be blessed.

That was a radical truth for people to hear in that day, but it was the truth.  The people who were teaching otherwise were wrong and they were teaching a lie and the people who are still teaching or implying the same today are wrong and are teaching a lie.

I think it would be to our benefit to ask the question, then, have we too narrowly defined who it is that God chooses to bless and who God chooses to love?  I have heard ministers confidently proclaim that God does not love certain groups of people, just as I’m sure the religious leaders in the day of Jesus did.  And I’m confident that the ministers today who confidently proclaim that God does not love certain groups of people are just as wrong as those in the day of Jesus who confidently proclaimed they also knew who God loved and who God blessed.  We are not the ones who get to decide who God will bless or not bless.  I have heard too many people over the years say something along the way of I don’t think God cares much about me.  And the primary reason why they would make such a comment, I believe, is because they have been told that God doesn’t care about them.  The truth is, however, that God does care very much about them.

When our kids were younger our family took a trip to Mammoth Cave.  It is a fasincating place to visit, particularly at one point in the tour.  If you have been to Mammoth Cave, you will remember the experience I’m about to relate.  There is a point, deep in the cave, when you enter a large room, about the size of this sanctuary  While in that part of the cave, the lights are turned out.  Most of the time, when we are in the dark, it’s not always that dark. Generally speaking, even in the dark, there is a bit of light coming from somewhere.  But deep in Mammoth Cave, when the lights go out, it is absolute darkness.  At that point, you literally cannot see your hand in front of you face.  Even when you move your hand just inches in front of your face it is impossible to sense any movement at all.  It only takes a few moments to feel a sense of panic, especially as it becomes very quiet and you wonder if everyone else has somehow slipped away and left you there!  At the moment when you feel the panic rising within, the guide strikes a match, and it is absolutely amazing how that little bit of light brings so much illumination to that room.  A little bit of light, in such darkness, truly brings a lot of illumination. 

As we have just come through the season of Christmas, where we speak often of Jesus as the Light of the World, let us remember that his light brings illumination to us in the form of having our eyes opened to the illusions and the lies of our world.  In the Beatitudes, Jesus seeks to open our eyes to the truth of life, and helps us to see beyond the illusions and the lies that our particular moment in time teaches to us.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Indeed.  And the good news is, you are blessed!