WORDS OF COMFORT AND CARE
Matthew 5: 1-12
Monty Python is the name of the British team of friends who have made fun of dozens of events. In their irreverent and bawdy film called “Life of Brian,” they have a scene that depicts the way the Sermon on the Mount might have gone. The camera zooms in on Jesus while he starts with the text that we just heard from Matthew chapter 5. “Blessed are those of gentle spirit, for they shall have the earth for their possession! How blessed are those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail, for they shall be satisfied!” As he continues, the camera pans back to where the people are standing; the voice of Jesus gets fainter and fainter. The people in the back are having trouble hearing his sermon. “Speak up!” one shouts. “What did he say?” asks another. “I think he said “Blessed are the cheese makers!” one farther up replied. “What’s so special about the cheese makers?” the woman in the back then asks. And all the people become agitated because they can’t hear! Being in an outdoor area, or indoor room where you can’t hear the speaker can be maddening. A cartoon shared on Facebook last week depicted a minister who was speaking to his congregation, but they were having audio problems. The minister, speaking into a dead microphone, said ‘There’s something wrong with this microphone.” And the crowd, not able to hear him clearly, automatically intoned, “And also with you!”
We don’t know how everyone heard what Jesus said in that sermon; we aren’t even sure if Matthew wrote it down initially or if someone else did. But there, on the north end of the Sea of Galilee today, are eight windows in an octagon shaped building that remind us that the Sermon on the Mount—Matthew 5, 6, and 7—happened there. The beginning of that sermon was thsse few sentences we heard, not a joke nor a quote —both tools that preachers have used over the years. Matthew wrote in chapter 4 verse 25 that “Great crowds followed Jesus from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Jordan, and from beyond the Jordan.” Then in today’s Matthew says: “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain.” As was parodied in “The Life of Brian,” there was a big crowd present; many more than his 12 apostles. When Matthew said Jesus went up a mountain, we can infer two things: one, going up higher allowed him to be seen and heard a little better. And two, that was not just a geographical description, but also a theological one. The place where Jesus gave this sermon was not mountain; it was just higher ground. So why did Matthew record “Jesus went up the mountain” when Luke, describing the same scene, says “Jesus stood on a level place with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people?” [Luke 6: 17] If you were here last week you remember me saying the Matthew was a faithful Jew when Jesus called him, and Jews did not call the name of God out of respect, so they would say “The Kingdom of Heaven” instead of the “Kingdom of God.” There’s something else that Matthew remembered: when God spoke to Moses about the Ten Commandments, it was on a mountain. When God spoke to his prophet Elijah, it was on a mountain. Matthew believed God-things happened on mountains, and that something holy was happening with Jesus. Therefore he called a hill a “mountain” to shine a light on the importance of these words.
One thing that goes through preachers’ minds as they prepare a sermon each week is who the congregation will be: will there be someone who just lost a spouse; someone applying to college; someone starting the raise a baby; or someone feeling the aches and pains of age? Preachers want to “know their audience” and to reach them. It does no good to preach to a hypothetical crowd of people or to guess their issue through statistics. When you do that, you simply preach a hypothetical sermon to people you don’t know well. I think that when Jesus gave the Beatitudes, it was his initial attempt to connect with the people who had followed him. He had learned who many of them were and what their fears were. So he begins with these words, in effect, saying, “I know you.” He had met many of them, healed some, and knew their hurts. So our “masterpiece,” the Beatitudes, that some want to turn into an eight-point sermon, is mostly an effective introduction; a way for people to say to one another: “He really sees me; he really knows me; and he really cares about me.”
And so, he begins. As all orators learn, timing and pauses create an eagerness to hear. We read in verse two: “He began speak.” Could he have looked out at the large group of people who had gathered and notice the ones he knew and noted others who came? Was he thinking about the issues they likely faced every day, and the ways that some were feeling defeated or exhausted? Well-employed, satisfied persons might not have taken time out of their day to come hear this new preacher. There is no record that this was a Sabbath, so many were at work or doing chores. Who would have come? Perhaps some who were feeling broken were there, or those seeking spiritual help. Jesus addresses them, first saying: “Blessed are.” Some translations say “How happy are.” But “happy” points toward a joy that people might not yet have felt. “Blessed” means “God loves you and has plans to show you that, even in your trials.” “Blessed are the poor in spirit (verse 3) for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” What carefully chosen words. “He uses “theirs” instead of “yours” because “yours” would seem too personal; too intrusive; as if this carpenter from Nazareth was speaking directly to you. So he says “theirs” to create some emotional space. There are certainly people here today who feel like they are poor in spirit. But who wants spotlights to be turned on you to reveal who you are? No; a little anonymity is powerful, as the people in 12 Step Programs such as Alcoholic Anonymous know.
There were other groups also gathered to hear Jesus. Some likely were lamenting the death of a loved one; it happened often in the first century, and if it has happened to you, loss becomes very real. To them, and perhaps to you, he says, (likely after a pause to let his first blessing sink in) “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Again, carefully chosen words. They give the mourners hope that, even though they have yet to find comfort, they will. Maybe soon, maybe in a little while, but that rawness, the unexpected tears at night or even in the day, will subside. And remember: your Heavenly Father knows what it is like to mourn, having his son die brutally. God sees you and knows you. And God even knows the future. Those who finally let faith, hope, and love back into their life will be comforted.
I imagine these lines were not offered in a rapid, staccato fashion, but slowly, letting the power of moments, and of time, to sink in. Also, in their world as in our world, there were those who were powerful, surrounded by laws that favored them and allowed them to keep their money and their status. That is even true today. Those people hardly need to go to a rural region to hear a new preacher; life is treating them well as it is. But what about the others; others who might be sitting around you today? Jesus sees them too, when he says: “Blessed are the meek.” “Oh sure” they think, “We really feel blessed.” But Jesus surprises them saying, “They will inherit the earth.” Getting an inheritance is a big deal, especially for those with modest income. But to inherit the earth? What could that mean? Then Jesus also offered hopeful words for those who hungered and thirsted “after righteousness.” In their day and our day, it seems that justice systems are broken. Parliamentarian Edmund Burke once famously said: “All it takes for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing.” Jesus lifted up those who are swimming upstream but still seek to do the right things in life instead of the wrong things, or the expedient things or the things advantageous to themselves. Every week I hear about people who witness crimes who will not cooperate with officers or detectives trying to get to the truth. They “do not want to get involved” they say. But if your daughter or son or spouse is held at gunpoint, or robbed, or shot, don’t you hope a witness will identify the perpetrator? Doing the right thing is not only right; Jesus says it will be blessed. Then there is a move toward justice. The world of the first century believed justice was “an eye for an eye,” far better than “your life for an eye” as some even in our day carry out. But Jesus was a man who believed the human heart could change, and that second chances made the world a better place. One who read Jesus thoroughly was Mahatma Gandhi, who famously said: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” So Jesus holds out hope for people to repent and to consider accepting God’s amazing grace. Solutions By-The-Sea, for example, where our own Tobias Caskey is the chaplain, holds out a hand of mercy to men recently released from incarceration. They believe with the right support, and the guidance to stay free of drugs and drink, that men can become contributors to society and be re-united with families. “Blessed are the merciful” is music to the ears of those men, and to those who unfailingly try to guide them.
Those who are pure in heart get to see God. That seems clear to me. They are among the saints who have received the gift of salvation and eternal life with God in Heaven. What a reminder. And those who make peace—not just those who shush children, or suppress protests, or force silence through brutal regimes—but those who work for peace- you are blessed too. Peace happens when people feel heard, they believe justice has been done, and when they conclude that those around them might be more like neighbors more than enemies. Those who work for peace are doing what God wants them to do, so God’s Kingdom can come on Earth, as it is in Heaven.
Finally, if you are trying to do the right things in this world, and you are persecuted for it, history and God will rise up and call you blessed. Many recent people in that category can be a lightning rod of controversy. But history paints people like Abraham Lincoln in a wonderful light. Historians have pointed out the intense persecution he felt, and the threats he received by people in both the Union and the Confederacy. He was a great man, yet was persecuted intensely and assassinated. What reward is that? But Jesus points to a greater notion: “Your reward is great in heaven.” He wants those people to know from his lips, that God is most pleased with them—and with others—who take that the road less traveled.
What a way to start a sermon! With those few words, people felt heard and understood. The rest of the message was just a cherry on top of that sundae. Thanks be to God, that Matthew has shared it with us.
Jeffrey A. Sumner January 29, 2017