Hard BlessingsPosted: February 2, 2014
This morning our scripture lesson comes from the beatitudes according to Matthew. We have tried to tame the beatitudes, turning them into cross stitched samplers. Robert Schuller called them the “Be Happy Attitudes.” But if we really examine what Jesus was saying, they are some pretty hard blessings. Matthew spiritualizes several of the “blesseds,” for instance, Matthew has Jesus saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” while Luke doesn’t pull any punches: “Blessed are you poor, and woe to you who are rich.” But even when Matthew spiritualizes some of his “blesseds,” we still might wonder whether or not we would consider ourselves fortunate under those circumstances: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Somehow I have a hard time equating being persecuted with being blessed, but that is probably one more measure of how my faith falls short.
Many of Jesus’ blesseds appear to stand the values of the world on their head. For instance, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” And as we all know it’s not the earth the meek inherit it’s the dirt. Or who considers mourning to be blessed? When Charlie Brown says, “good grief,” it is not because he is happy but because he is distressed. Still Jesus had the courage to tell people in advance, the way of God is not easy and few people stay on the path because it is difficult.
Like John the Baptist before him, Jesus said, “repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Repent doesn’t mean feel sorry, it means turn around, change direction, get your head on straight and see life from a new perspective. I am reminded of two farmers who were putting up a sign by the road that said, “The End Is Near.” A sports car came speeding a long and the driver yelled, “Get out of the way you bunch of religious nuts.” A short time later the two farmers heard a panicked screech of brakes and a splash. And one farmer said to the other, “You supposed the sign should say, ‘Bridge Out,’ instead?”
Later in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said in the Law, but I say to you.” The old values our old understandings about right and wrong don’t go far enough. The world says, “nice guys finish last, what’s in it for me, might makes right, he who has the gold makes the rules.” But I say to you, “Embrace the way of self-sacrificing love, and you will have treasure in heaven. Love your neighbor as yourself and you will find the Kingdom of God. Lay down your lives to become peace makers and you will become children of God.”
Jesus was always honest. The narrow way, is hard the hard way that leads to salvation. The way is wide and easy that leads to destruction. The hard blessings, however, is the way to new life.
Let’s take a few minutes and look at some of these hard blessings individually. And in order to hear them in a new way I would like to use the paraphrase called The Message.
“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and God’s rule.” Another way of saying this first beatitude is blessed are those who are in need and know it for only then can God help them. Think about it. If I have everything I need, or if I think I have everything I need, or if I believe I am the smartest person in the room, or I have it altogether, why do I need God? Only when we are able to acknowledge our need for God, will our hearts be empty enough for God to dwell there.
“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One who is most dear to you.” Granger Westberg a Lutheran chaplain in Chicago wrote a little book for people who were suffering grief, entitled Good Grief. Granger shares with us that the experience of grief can be a profound opportunity for spiritual growth. For only when we come to terms with our own mortality are we truly ready to live. “Blessed are those who mourn.”
“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are — no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.” The good things in life are free. We can’t buy happiness. We intellectually subscribe to these ideas but we don’t truly live these values in our hearts. We live our lives as if Master Card can buy everything. Only when we are willing to let go of all material things does the world truly become ours. And in that moment we will be able to trust that God will give us everything we need – not everything we want – not every vagrant desire — but everything we need.
“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. God is food and drink and the best meal you’ll ever eat.” When we sit down together at the Sharing Table of God and become the body of Christ, even the humblest of foods is like manna from heaven. The delicacies of the table are not nearly as important as the company and whether or not we have found peace with God. At God’s Sharing Table everyone is welcome, everyone is included and there is always enough. Where love is shared there is healing and peace.
“You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.” Mercy is welcoming the homeless into a warm place, when the temperature is freezing. Mercy is giving food to hungry people. Mercy is extending love and acceptance to the outcast and the marginalized. What goes around comes around. Mercy given will become mercy received. Pay it forward and love will come back multiplied, when we least expect it and most need it.
“You’re blessed when you get your inside world — your mind and heart — put right. Then you can see God in the outside world. Like my favorite illustration of the cranky old guy who took one look at the Grand Canyon and said, “It’s just a big ditch.” And the tour bus driver said to him, “Buddy if you don’t have it on the inside, you can’t see it on the outside!” When we are always focused on ourselves, we cannot see other people except as extensions of ourselves. And when we do not cultivate gratitude in our lives, then we experience life as a gimme, rather than as a gift from God. When we make ourselves smaller, there is more room for other people. When we open ourselves up to the experience of awe and wonder our lives become a precious gift from God.
“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.” Economists tell us that competition leads to greater performance and efficiency. Jesus asks us to consider the waste and the casualties of competition – people laid off who have trouble finding a job, factories that close and sit empty, children left behind in the scramble for opportunity. Especially as more women enter the work force and rise to positions of leadership, we are beginning to learn some of the virtues of cooperation. In Elizabeth’s MBA program they were assigned to teams, and if you couldn’t learn how to work on a team, you were out of the program. Maybe Jesus is asking us to take a new look at Ecclesiastes 9:11-12: I took another walk around the neighborhood and realized that on this earth as it is:
The race is not always to the swift,
Nor the battle to the strong,
Nor satisfaction to the wise,
Nor riches to the smart,
Nor grace to the learned.
Sooner or later bad luck hits us all.
No one can predict misfortune.
Like fish caught in a cruel net or birds in a trap,
So men and women are caught
By accidents evil and sudden.
Have mercy, cooperate, make peace, for the day may come, when you will be in need.
“You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.” Persecution is a hard blessing. The people of the world dislike people who live the way of Jesus. At the very least the people of the world call the people of the way dreamers, unrealistic, impractical. If the people of the way of Jesus are too persistent and get in the way, the people of the world will seek to punish them, silence them, and if need be kill them. Do not lightly become a follower of the way, because there are some who will hate you for it.
“Not only that — count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit the way of love. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens — give a cheer, even! — for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.” The truth can be too close for comfort, and so we often hold back from speaking the truth even in love. We don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. We don’t want anyone to be upset with us. We don’t want people gossiping about us or saying mean things about us, and so too often we go along to get along.
Jesus says, “Get over it. The hard blessings are the way to new life. Embrace them and you will become children of God.”