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Congratulations! You’re Blessed

February 1, 2011

“Congratulations! You’re Blessed!” Matthew 5:1-12 © 1/30/11 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Someone has said that the most dangerous passages in the Bible are the familiar ones, because we don’t really listen to them. According to this writer, “the sharp stone of God’s Word, smoothed down by the river of time, no longer cuts. Instead of being challenged by hard thought or hard choices, we lean back and savor pretty words” (John P. Meier, “Matthew 5:3-12,” Interpretation 44/3 [July 1990]: 281).

In a similar vein, the respected biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann has observed that for most of us, this preacher included, the gospel is “too readily heard and taken for granted, as though it contained no unsettling news and no unwelcome threat.” Brueggemann says we go away from hearing the gospel read without realizing that the message of Jesus asks a great deal from us; we are instead comfortable with a belief that “asks little and receives less.” Plenty of people say they believe the gospel, but they package it, reduce it to a few platitudes, and put it in a box. The result, the scholar says, is that there is then “no danger, no energy, no possibility, no opening for newness.” And as writer Dennis Covington said in his book Salvation on Sand Mountain, a Christianity without danger and mystery may not be Christianity at all.

What these writers are talking about is the experience summed up in the saying “Been there, done that, got the T-shirt.” That means we’re bored by and find nothing new or exciting in the same familiar activity, entertainment or task. We long for a new challenge or some fresh perspective or scenery.

If the saying can apply to biblical texts, probably the Lord’s Prayer would be the number one dull, “got the T-shirt” passage. But surely the Beatitudes would be almost at the top of the list. I suspect we can repeat most of them or else when we hear them, we let them go in one ear and out the other.

Or if somehow we have managed today to listen to Jesus’ famous words with interest and seriousness, it has probably been in one of two ways. For some of us, they are a guide on how to be blessed by God. They are concerned with technique, kind of an instruction sheet or manual. So we read and hear them as “Blessed are you if you are poor in spirit or make peace or show mercy.” But what happens when we follow all the steps and try really hard, and things still don’t work out? Don’t we then get disillusioned and dismiss the Beatitudes as irrelevant and unworkable? Wouldn’t we get mad at God for going back on his promises, for holding out on us?

The other approach we may take to these sayings is to regard them as hopeless idealism, the ravings of a wild-eyed radical who doesn’t have a clue about how the world works. Maybe Jesus is talking about how things ought to be, but let’s face it: most of the time such fine sentiments fall on deaf ears. There is an entirely different set of values accepted by most everyone, including those who claim to follow Jesus. It goes like this: “Blessed are the achievers, for they shall get a promotion. Blessed are the social climbers, for they shall get their faces on TV. Blessed are the rugged individualists, for they shall be called true Americans. Blessed are the liars, for they shall fool everyone. Blessed are the unrestrained, for everyone else is too uptight. Blessed are those who pursue special interests, for they shall be heard in Congress. Blessed are the aggressive, for they shall get what they want. Blessed are they who wear blinders, for they shall sleep comfortably at night. Blessed are the party-goers, for they shall have not a care in the world. Blessed are the self-indulgent, for they shall have all they want.”

So while we accept what Jesus says as a nice way to talk in church, we wink at each other as we hear and say the words, and give each other a knowing look, because when we leave these walls, we won’t really see much use for such platitudes. They don’t describe the way it is, the real world. “Been there, done that, got the T-shirt.” Move on.

But what would happen if we saw the Beatitudes another way? Suppose they became like a classic movie we have seen a dozen times but in which we always find something new and exciting? What if they were like a story we want to hear over and over, and every time we hear it, we discover new meaning? What if they were like that?

I propose to you that they would then no longer be for us the ravings of a deluded prophet, but the genuine, serious descriptions of the way things are. What if we recognized in them the tremendous affirmation of how we have been gifted by God? In other words, suppose we began to believe that the fundamental reality that forms the foundation of our lives is not human accomplishment, but divine grace? Not self-sufficiency, but God-dependency? Not acceptance of the status quo, but living toward the vision God has given? One writer has an idea. Using a good 1960’s phrase, he says these sayings are designed to “blow our minds.” In other words, make us say “wow!” Amaze us. Inspire us. Expand our horizons. Stretch us and launch us in new directions on our journey with Jesus.

Talk about a world turned upside down! Here is a whole new set of values. Imagine—living life so convinced of the grace of God that we could rely on him for everything, could be free to love and show mercy, could be open and vulnerable to others, could risk the pain of confronting evil because God is with us. Imagine—to be gifted, not worried, stressed, unfocused, unfulfilled, hardhearted, frightened, conflicted, broken. Imagine—being filled with humility and hope. Imagine—being so confident in God’s care and blessing that we could not only mourn the evil in the world but act against it, putting aside our fear of misunderstanding, persecution and pain. Someone has said we will go to any lengths to avoid pain. I know I would. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we were so free that we could even risk or endure suffering if it brought the kingdom of God a little closer?

At the deepest level of our being, there is something attractive about the promises Jesus makes. We are invited to consider what it is that makes life worthwhile. What is it we really want?

A few weeks ago I mentioned Calvin and Hobbes, the comic strip about a little boy named Calvin and his stuffed tiger Hobbes, who comes alive only for him. Often, there were marvelous lessons about life or even theological musings in the cartoon, as we noticed in the other sermon. For today, I recall one in which Calvin asked Hobbes, as they were walking along, to render his opinion about what makes for happiness. “Is it money, cars, and women?” Calvin wondered. “Or is it just money and cars?” Hobbes looks dumbfounded and just walks away. “W-e-l-l-l?” Calvin shouts, demanding an answer.

There’s a song by Mary-Chapin Carpenter, the country and pop artist. In the tune, written by Lucinda Williams, she shares her list of things that make for happiness: “Is it too much to ask/I want a comfortable bed that won’t hurt my back/food to fill me up and warm clothes and/all that stuff? Is it too much to demand/I want a full house and a rock ‘n’ roll band/pens that won’t run out of ink/cool quiet and time to think.”

Others weigh in on what makes for happiness. The philosopher Robert Nozick wonders if we would plug ourselves into what he calls “an experience machine” run by a super-computer that would give us the greatest desires of our lives. It would all be in our minds, but indistinguishable from reality. Sounds like the movie Total Recall to me. Interestingly, he found in a survey of college students that only 5% would want to plug in to such a device.

Nietzsche defined happiness as “not contentment, but more power; not peace at all, but war; not virtue, but proficiency.” The ancient philosopher Seneca seemed to think that happiness came from the absence of emotion or at least a kind of indifference. He said: “When once we have driven away all that excites or frightens us… there comes upon us first a boundless joy that is firm and unalterable, then peace and harmony of the soul” (cited in Timothy Renick, “Pursuing Happiness,” The Christian Century, January 11, 2011: 22-23).

Perhaps we nod our heads in agreement with Ms. Carpenter, if not with Calvin and the philosophers. Food, clothes, lack of frustration, acceptance by others, quiet time to be by ourselves, comfort: that doesn’t seem like too shabby a list of items that make for a fulfilling life, that move us beyond mere survival.

But of course we know there’s more. Hope there’s more. The Beatitudes draw us in, pique our interest and fire our imaginations because they speak to the deepest longings shared by all humankind. At their heart, these sayings of Jesus are first of all about who we are and whose we are: our identity. Then they remind us that to be a truly human being is not just to have physical necessities, as important as they are. It is to find and offer spiritual solace and compassion. To be filled is not just to have a full stomach, but also to feed on bread for the soul, like hope for a new and better tomorrow. As St. Augustine said to God: “Happiness is to rejoice in you and for you and because of you” (Renick: 23). To be a faithful person is not so much about our striving to reach God as it is about God coming to us in love. Our restless hearts in these troubled days yearn for such good news. Our ears strain to hear such words of comfort. Our bodies long for such a gracious and gentle touch.

It is in Jesus that God has spoken such good news, has given such comfort, has touched us so gently with a healing hand. And it is because of Jesus—the one who was poor in spirit and merciful, who mourned for a world gone wrong, whose hunger and thirst for righteousness was insatiable, who made peace even at the cost of his life—it is because of this One that the Beatitudes are real, statements about what is, not just about how things ought to be.

A preacher I once knew said: “Someone has described a Christian as one who lives the future in the present tense… One who lives toward a vision of a reality that God has given. So that, you see, even as we sit in our dens and watch the nightly news, we know this is not reality. True and factual and painful, yes… [but] a distortion of the vision…. [T]o those who watch the nightly news through the eyes of faith, the nightly news is never the norm. War is never the norm. Peace is. Oppression is not the norm. Justice is…. Not terrorism, but good will, cooperation [and] compassion are the norm…. Death is not the norm—resurrection is the norm—life eternal and abundant. That’s the norm, and that’s the vision toward which we live…” (Buddy Enniss, “Living Toward a Vision”).

The Beatitudes are affirmation, invitation, and proclamation all rolled up into one bundle of wonderful words. They are words of grace, congratulations to those who are blessed by God. They are words of invitation, bidding all to share the values followed by the poor in spirit, the merciful, the peacemakers, the meek. They are marvelous promises for a new day, reminding all who will hear that there is a God who calls us his blessed and beloved children. A God who is moving toward the day when his kingdom will come. And they are words of hope, giving strength, comfort, and help for life when the sermon is over, and we come down from the mount.

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