Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Light of the World: A Sermon on Matthew 5:1-20

The Mount of the Beatitudes, Galilee

Scripture can be found here....

This morning’s New York Times Sunday Review has a column by Nicholas Kristof. He writes about human rights, women’s rights, health, and global affairs. Today’s column sports a picture of two teenagers, both wearing their cross country jerseys. He writes,

[Dateline: YAMHILL, Ore.] — THE funeral for my high school buddy Kevin Green is Saturday, near this town where we both grew up.

The doctors say he died at age 54 of multiple organ failure, but in a deeper sense he died of inequality and a lack of good jobs….

Kristof tells Kevin’s story. He grew up on a small farm, where his family lived with, “if not the American dream, at least solid upward mobility.” The farm was not the main source of their income: Kevin’s dad had a good union job; it paid him well above the minimum wage. An ethic of hard work was the family standard. Kristof describes Kevin as “sunny, cheerful, and astonishingly helpful: Any hint that something needed fixing, and he was there with a wrench. But then,” he writes, “the dream began to disintegrate.”

The local glove manufacturer closed up shop, and so did the feed store. Blue-collar jobs vanished. For a while, Kevin worked nonunion in construction for low pay. Then that company went under. He worked as shift manager making trailer homes.

Then, about 15 years ago, Kevin hurt his back and was laid off. A cycle of disability and debt spiraled out of control, and the state took his driver’s license because he was behind on child-support payments. That, his younger brother said, is what “knocked him to the dirt.”

Kristof closes the piece: “So, Kevin Green, R.I.P. You were a good man — hardworking and always on the lookout for someone to help — yet you were overturned by riptides of inequality. Those who would judge you don’t have a clue. They could use a dose of your own empathy.”[i]

As we come to our passage in Matthew’s gospel, which we call, “The Sermon on the Mount,” it might be good to be reminded of something. If we’re crowded in with all the others on the side of the mountain, listening to Jesus preach, it’s good to know who’s in the crowd with us. At the end of chapter 4 Matthew writes,

23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. 24So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. 25And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.     
~ Matthew 4:23-25

Kevin Green is standing in the crowd, too, as Jesus opens his mouth and says,

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
~Matt. 5:3-6

I remember fairly vividly the first time I ever heard these words. I was in the fourth grade, in my Catholic elementary school. My first response was confusion. I certainly didn’t relate to anything that was being said. I knew I couldn't claim to be poor, in spirit or otherwise. I certainly wasn’t meek. I had lost my Aunt when I was four, but really, it was my mother who mourned, not me. Pure in heart? I didn’t think so. Peacemaker? Spend an hour observing my brother and me at play. So, no to peacemaking. I couldn’t relate to these words. It was that simple.

Thank God that my teacher, a remarkable and talented woman who, like Kevin, died far too young, was persistent. These words, she persuaded me, were at the heart of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus.

Yet, when you read these “blessings,” they almost give offense. Blessed are the poor, or poor in spirit? Blessed are those who are grieving? Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for fairness? No, thank you, got any other blessings today?

Some years back I was going through a tough time, and I talked with a friend whom I not only liked, but also admired. She had been through the same kind of difficulty. She said, “Well, all I can tell you is, it made me a more compassionate person.” And I thought, “Well, I would like to learn that lesson in some other way, thank you very much!”

But, oh my, she was on to something there. Jesus looks out at the crowd, and he sees the Kevins, all those who have been knocked to the dirt by life. The least and the lost, the poor and pathetic and possessed, the sick and the heartsick. And he says, “Well, all I can tell you is, there will be a blessing in this for you, even if you can’t see it right now.”

Around the same time my friend gave me her words of wisdom, I was attending West Presbyterian Church in Binghamton, and the troubles I was going through affected the whole family. One day after church, I learned that the pastor had asked if we were all right. He had said to my then husband, “You both look so incredibly sad.” I tell you, when I heard what he had said, my eyes filled with tears. I was so grateful. It is a powerful thing to be seen, really seen, and to have your suffering spoken aloud, to have it named. It is the beginning, I would say, of healing.

Jesus looks out at the people crowded on the mountainside, and he says, not only, “I see you,” but also, “God sees you. And God will bring a blessing to you.” And I wonder whether part of that blessing is what my wise friend said. I wonder whether part of the blessing of undergoing a period of suffering is the way in which it cracks our hearts open, and allows us to know that others are in pain, too. I suspect my friend was right.

“God sees you, and will bless you in this and through this,” Jesus says. And then, in a curious turn of the tables, he tells all these crushed and crying people that, in fact, there are ways they can bring a blessing to the world around them.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
~ Matt. 5:7-10

In God’s paradoxical way, it is the bruised and broken who can, in fact, become powerful—not in the under-my-thumb, I’ll-have-my-revenge, action-movie definition of powerful. Not “powerful” in its most common understanding. Powerful in spirit. Powerful of heart.

To show mercy, to forgive, is powerful. To be single-hearted—to pursue the calling of your heart—is powerful. To make peace (O, my eight-year-old self, listen up!) is powerful. To stand firm even when the people who seem to have all the power rain their wrath down upon you, is powerful beyond expression, almost beyond our comprehension.

Because, of course, Jesus is talking to us, but like lots of preachers, he is also talking about himself. I read somewhere this week, “The beatitudes are Jesus’ self-portrait, the most personal description we have of him in the gospels. They are the timeless image of Christ… Would we today recognize him if we saw him?”[ii]

Jesus is talking to himself, but of course, he is talking to the people before him, humanity in all its beauty and brokenness. And he goes yet another step further. “You,” he tells them, “are the salt of the earth… and you,” he says, “are the light of the world.”

Just imagine. There you are. Knocked to the dirt by the loss of your job, or the spouse who left, taking the kids. There you are, groping around for some way to cope with the grim diagnosis or the loss of mobility. There you are, still swooning in your grief. And Jesus tells you, “God sees you. And here are the ways in which you are blessed. And here are the ways in which you are powerful. In fact, you are the light of the world.”

You, just as you are, can shine the powerful light of Christ as you reach out in forgiveness. You, just as you are, are the light of the world when your heart shines with purity of purpose.  You, just as you are, are a beacon of God’s hope when you choose peaceful and nonviolent ways of being in the world. You are the light of the world, when you allow your heart to be cracked open, when you allow yourself to feel empathy, to comprehend the pain of, to give one example, the Kevin Greens of this world, and vow to use whatever power you have to make a difference in their lives.

Jesus is talking to us, but, of course, he is also talking about himself. Jesus is the light of the world, a light no darkness can extinguish. And we are an essential part of his light-the-world project. Would we recognize him if we saw him today? Here is his self-portrait. Look for him where forgiveness, and peace, and empathy are healing hearts and changing minds. And don’t forget to shine. Shine for all you’re worth. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Nicholas Kristof, “Where’s the Empathy?” in the New York Times, Sunday January 25, 2015, p. SR13. See also, re: “Reagan, Obama, and inequality,” from the New York Times, Thursday January 22, 2015, p. A27.
[ii] Edward Farrell, Surprised by the Spirit (Dimension Books, 1973), as quoted in Disciplines for the Inner Life by Bob Benson and Michael W. Benson (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989).