Epiphany 4a, January 29, 2017

January 30, 2017

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’m not exactly sure how to reconcile my affection for duck hunting with my trust in the wisdom of the Beattitudes, but I have unapologetic passion for both of these things. This isn’t the only contradiction I’m aware of in my life, but this one is particularly fresh, and I know I’m not alone in this regard. There are others here who love the words of Jesus as well as the opportunity to fire a 12-guage at a duck.


I know there isn’t a direct contradiction between the desire to acquire a limit of mallards and these words from Jesus, but you have to admit that there’s some discord between the aggressiveness of hunting and the serenity advocated by the Beatitudes. I mean it’s just not easy to explain how the explosiveness of a shotgun at daybreak fits with the admonition for peacemaking, but while this seems to be a blatant case of disturbing the peace, I’m sure this isn’t the worst way in which I neglect to bring peace into the world.


I’m not really troubled by my love for duck hunting. In fact I can testify that it can be a very humbling experience. While I am responsible for the recent death and injury of some beautiful birds, I had the very vivid experience of shooting three times at a large drake that was close enough to hit with a rock and not disturbing a feather. I don’t know if it was meekness that I experienced following that turn of events, but I assure you that left me with a profound sense of powerlessness. And on some level, I think these words of Jesus provide good news for people who are not operating from positions of authority, power and privilege.


It was a funny turn of events that I experienced the other day. I was in a really beautiful place. In fact, for a guy who loves to duck hunt I was in a bit of a paradise, but I stepped in to a place of deep misery – which then put me in touch with some spiritual truth. Failure to perform at a critical moment is not much fun, but there’s this interesting thing that can happen to us when we are not where we want to be. My duck hunting experience is pretty trivial, but it sort of sensitized me to the way in which our lives can be enriched by whatever comes our way.


These verses that we call the beatitudes point to the way in which there can be this odd reversal of spiritual fortune for us when we encounter the most difficult moments in life. And I’m thinking we’ve probably all encountered the remarkable way in which God’s grace is most available to us when we find ourselves in difficult places. Blessings don’t just come to us when we are at the top of our game. Some blessings are only available to us when we mourn, when we are poor in spirit, when we are hungry for righteousness, and when we are having to work for peace.


It’s interesting that the beatitudes are very much shaped like the teachings you will find in the Book of Proverbs. That’s a book Jesus would have been familiar with, but the wisdom Jesus shares is a bit different from what you generally find in Proverbs. The wisdom of Proverbs is more like good advice. They tend to provide instruction that will help you attain some success in life. Such as:


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 always 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 holy work of God, I don’t think he was speaking of traditional forms of rewards. The original hearers of the Beatitudes knew that the meek weren’t exactly inheriting large swaths of real estate. People who were doing all of the right things weren’t 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. Proverbs provide instruction on how to create the best opportunities for yourself, but the Beatitudes point to some good news that’s available to us when life doesn’t go so well.


The Beatitudes reveal that our relationship with God can flourish when our lives are not shaping up the way we might have hoped. And part of the wisdom that Jesus is imparting is the wisdom of being less connected to our own personal lives and more connected to the wellbeing of us all.


To embrace the 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 of seeking harmony with other people than for our own personal desires to be met. To harken back to my own experience earlier this week – I wasn’t very happy with my inability to shoot that drake that was right in my face, but I found myself being sort of happy for that bird that lived to fly another day.


These verses call for us to have a larger view than we are often inclined to have. Our primary concerns are often very self-oriented, and Jesus wanted us to live with a much larger sphere of interest.


And by having a much larger view of reality we can have access to hope when things don’t go so well at the moment. We all know that life is hard, but Jesus didn’t want us to have the attitude that life is hard and we should just get used to it. He wanted us to trust that there will come a time when we will experience a better world – a world that values mercy, humility, peace, and love. We may not all be alive to enjoy it, but if we can develop a sense of deep connection to others then we become connected to a community that extends beyond our own individual lives. Jesus wanted us to trust that better days will come and that we are to do what we can to help those days arrive.


As he said, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Jesus wanted us to seek the world that we hope to see, and I believe God provides inner peace and wellbeing to those who do such holy work.  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 this effort to extend our connections that we will find happiness. It can be costly to exercise compassion, and this world doesn’t tend to reward compassion as much as it rewards self-promotion. Compassion can be viewed as weakness in a world that values aggressive strength, 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.


Sometimes we get to enjoy the blessings of health and success and personal achievement. These are great things that are worthy of celebration, but Jesus didn’t want us to think that these are the things that can provide us with the most satisfaction. What Jesus taught is that we have access to a form of happiness that doesn’t depend on immediate rewards. Jesus wanted us to become so connected to the source of true life that we aren’t deterred by the turn of events of the day. Jesus wanted us to experience the kind of happiness that can come to us when the pronoun, we, becomes more important than I.


With these words we call the beatitudes, Jesus is inviting us all to engage in the art of living deeply happy lives. It’s not an easy art to learn, but to live a life guided by compassion for others and concern for the world is the most beautiful art we can ever produce.


Thanks be to God – Amen.



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