Epiphany 4a, Sunday, February 2, 2014

February 3, 2014

The Art of Living
Matthew 5:1-12

1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

I think one of the epic ironies of the universe is that it’s not unusual for the Beatitudes to be the suggested Gospel reading on what is more commonly known as Super Bowl Sunday. This is pure evidence that God has a sarcastic sense of humor. The convergence of the Beatitudes and the Super Bowl is a coincidence that couldn’t have been foreseen by those who put together the Lectionary Cycle or by the schedulers of the Super Bowl. The fact that we are to read who Jesus considered to be the winners in life on the day that highlights who our culture celebrates as winners is nothing short of proof that God likes to mess with us.

On the day of the event in which a 30 second commercial will cost you $4,000,000 and many of us are anxious to see what clever ways we will be motivated to acquire those desirous products and services – we are hearing Jesus say that it’s the poor in spirit who have the best access to the kingdom of God. And it get’s worse from there.

Jesus values the mourners on the day we want to see good looking people in high definition! Jesus lifts up the meek as those who obtain the crown on the day that we want our chosen team to dominate. And I’m sorry, but there’s not much hungering or thirsting for righteousness at a super bowl party. In fact there’s never been any reason for anyone to be hungry or thirsty at any super bowl event I’ve ever attended. I’ve seen some people who couldn’t seem to get enough to eat or drink, but that’s not what Jesus was talking about.

There’s no appetite for mercy on the football field, there’s not much to inspire purity of heart, and our heroes will do more trash talking than peacemaking. Clearly God has watched the Super Bowl, and God is poking us in the ribs with the Beatitudes.

In many ways, the Super Bowl is representative of what we are inclined to value. I really don’t think there is another national event that highlights our affection for brute strength, surface beauty, financial affluence, and winning more than the Super Bowl. Yes, I’ll be watching it, but I know it’s a shallow source of satisfaction.

I really am struck by the contrast in values that are highlighted today. And while there does seem to be some divine orchestration going on, I also know that Jesus shared his view of reality with people who were living long before the first Super Bowl, and I’m guessing they were equally startled. The beatitudes were shaped much like the teachings you will find in the Book of Proverbs, which is a book that Jesus would have been familiar with, but the wisdom Jesus shares is much different from what you generally find in Proverbs.

Don’t get me wrong – there is wisdom in the Book of Proverbs. You can find a good amount of sound instruction in there:

Pvbs. 10:17 Those who heed instruction are on the way to life, but those who ignore correction lose their way.

Pvbs. 10:23 Fools enjoy vile deeds, but those with understanding take pleasure in wisdom.

Much of what you read in Proverbs makes sense, but there is sort of an underlying assumption that the world operates in a reasonable manner. Many of the Proverbs indicate that if you do the right thing you will prosper and if you behave badly you will fail.

Pvbs. 16:3 Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will succeed.

Pvbs. 22:4 The reward of humility and the fear of the Lord is wealth, honor, and life.

Now it may be that what Jesus is saying isn’t different from these Proverbs, but my sense is that Jesus didn’t assume things would go well for people who love the things that God values. When Jesus speaks of the rewards that come to the poor in spirit, the meek, the peacemakers, the justice seekers and others who do the work of God, I don’t think he was speaking of traditional forms of rewards. The original hearers of the Beatitudes knew that those weren’t the ones who were being well rewarded in their day and age. They knew what we know, which is that meekness is not what closes the biggest deals. Nor do we generally consider it a blessing to be poor or to be in mourning.

In some ways it’s hard for me to absorb what Jesus wants us to know. It almost seems that he instructing us to go out and find new ways to suffer and fail, but I don’t think that is the case. It’s some unusual wisdom that he’s sharing, but it has been brought to my attention that there is some practical wisdom here.

I found some commentary on this passage that helped me see that there are some principles here that lead to actual happiness. This writer suggested that the Beatitudes portray three principles that can help us live in this world without being shaped by the world. He suggests that behind these seemingly startling propositions you will find the principles of: simplicity, hopefulness, and compassion.

If we will simply ask ourselves what Jesus wanted us to understand, it’s not hard to see some clear advice. To embrace these Beatitudes is to value the most elemental aspects of life. These verses call for us to care more about living gently on the land and to seek harmony with other people. And I’m guessing most of us could find some actual relief if we could simplify our lives. I’m not ready to throw away my smartphone, but I know how complex our lives can become when we place too much value on the things that don’t matter. And if we don’t exercise some effort to embrace simplicity we will not inherit the earth as much as we will be owned by corporations that have figured out how best to push our buttons.

These verses also encourage us to continue to have hope regardless of how unfortunate our circumstances become. Jesus didn’t want us to have the attitude that life is hard and we should get used to it. He wanted us to trust that there will come a time when we will experience a better world – and it will be a world that values mercy, humility, peace, and love. We aren’t to confuse the way the world largely operates with the world that God wills to come. God wants us to trust that better days will come, and it will be a world where the meek and merciful will be at home.

These verses are very instructive to us on how we are to navigate this world and according to Jesus compassion is to be our primary guide. We aren’t to be so caught up in ourselves that we don’t understand how connected we are to others, and that it is only through the effort to find such connections that we will find happiness. It can be costly to exercise compassion, and this world doesn’t reward compassion as often as it punishes it. The exercise of compassion can put you at odds with those powerful forces on earth that are more interested in revenue than in justice. War is often more lucrative and popular than is the agenda of the peacemakers. But Jesus didn’t want us to turn away from the costly enterprise of caring deeply for other people because he wanted us to experience the reward of true happiness.

It’s easy for me to see that Jesus wanted us to live with these principles of simplicity, hopefulness, and compassion. And while it’s easy for me to see that these are not the principles that this world is quick to reward – I don’t think we are oblivious to the wisdom of the Beatitudes.

Just this last week we were informed of the death of one of our nation’s happiest men – Pete Seeger. Pete Seeger wasn’t a man who would have identified himself as a Christian, but he wasn’t unaware of the teachings of Jesus, and I would say he was a man who lived with the wisdom of Christ in his heart. He was an intentionally simple, hopeful, and compassionate man, and I think he was an undeniably happy man. He certainly wasn’t happy with the way things often played out on earth, but he worked to make the world a more peaceful place, and I think he experienced a lot of peace on this earth.

Printed on his banjo was the phrase: This machine surrounds hate and causes it to surrender.

His machine wasn’t able to surround all of the hate in the world and cause it to surrender, but he sowed a lot of peace on earth, and I think Jesus would have called him a blessed man.

Jesus is calling for us all to live blessed lives, and while it’s not easy, it actually is rewarding. Jesus wasn’t out of his mind when he proclaimed who is most blessed in this world – he was in the mind of God, and he invites us all to live with that same Godly wisdom.

Thanks be to God – Amen.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: