Read and Hear Martha’s Sermon from February 2, 2014

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St. Margaret’s Church
Sermon for 4A Epiphany
February 2, 2014

The Rev. Martha Kirkpatrick
Micah 6:1-6; Ps. 15; 1 Cor. 1:18-31; Mt. 5:1-12

Heal, Teach, Pray

Jesus has been busy. Last week we left with Jesus calling his first disciples. He said to them “follow me.” And so, if we had read on in Chapter 4 of the Gospel of Matthew, the verses immediately before the ones Tom just read tell us that Jesus is going throughout Galilee teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the good news, and curing every disease and every sickness. His fame has been spreading. “…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.” (Mt. 4:24).

So we come upon Jesus, today, after he has spent many days healing people of every disease. And great crowds come, of course. And the crowds keep coming, as they did with healers. So Jesus withdraws from the crowds and climbs a mountain and sits down. His disciples come to him. He begins to teach them. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Why does he do this? Why does he step away from all those people, when the needs are obviously so great? Why doesn’t he just keep healing as fast as he can? Why does he pause from all of that, and preach to a small group of his followers?

Jesus is a healer. He is also a preacher. In what we have come to call the sermon on the Mount, which we will be hearing over the next several weeks, he delivers his penultimate sermon, one that will set the context for everything that happens in the Gospel of Matthew. He delivers this sermon, not to the vast multitudes — an idea you might have gleaned from from Cecil B. DeMille and Hollywood – but to his disciples. It is preached to the ones who will go out to the multitude. Why the need for this discourse? Why not, as the Nike commercial goes, “just do it”? What is it the disciples need to understand as they embark on ministry?

Richard Rohr points out that both Albert Einstein and Carl Jung — two authoritative sources if there ever were — say, each in his own way, that the essential human question is this:

“Are we related to something infinite or not?”(1)

It is one of the central revelations of scripture that we are essentially related to something infinite. As observant Jews the disciples know this. But Jesus is saying more. Jesus is building on that idea that we are in our essence related to the Infinite, and moving it into the particular: our essence, our relationship to the Infinite, and what that means to us and for us in the here and now.

Jesus isn’t just healing people. There were lots of healers in Jesus’ day, many of them charging big money. Jesus isn’t just healing people, he is healing people for God, he is proclaiming the kingdom of God. And that gets us to Jesus’ sermon. Jesus is proclaiming something, and this is critical for us to understand. Jesus doesn’t want to just heal people; we wants to change lives.(2)

Jesus’ opening message proclaims the kingdom. Matthew calls it the kingdom of heaven. Mark and Luke call it the kingdom of God. They mean the same thing. I know there is in certain quarters a lot of resistance to the word “kingdom,” as patriarchal or political or even militaristic. I suggest that we need to remember that Jesus uses the word “kingdom” as a metaphor. And I suggest that Jesus is saying something about our identity. Paul talks about citizenship. With that comes self-understanding, customs, expectations, loyalties. God is my king. [and you are not.} This would not have set well with the Romans or the religious elite. This is Jesus’ sideways resistance to the powers.

And when Jesus says “the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” he means it is here, now. Not some far away place, not up in the clouds, not a place we go to when we die, but here. And now. Right in front of us. As someone has said — Now. Here. This. The kingdom of heaven is very near to you. The juxtaposition by Jesus of “kingdom” and “king” with “God” is new. Jesus is making a startling, and highly subversive, claim. This is not earthly kings anointed by God, but God as king, God as over all kings. This is a kingdom where things are turned upside down.

The beatitudes turn everything on its head. All is the opposite of what you would expect, the blessings come to those we would least expect to receive them — the poor, the poor in spirit, the meek, the mourners, those who hunger and thirst. Jesus is inviting his hearers into a new way of seeing. To be blessed is to know that you are included in the kingdom of God.

It’s common to hear the Beatitudes as imperatives, as if they are imposing conditions on blessedness. As in “be poor in spirit, and you will be blessed.” Be pure of heart, and hunger and thirst for righteousness, and you will be right with God. Of course, if we go that road, we are sure we are not blessed. Our spirits aren’t pure enough, we do not do enough peace-making, and while it is comforting to know that we will be comforted when we grieve, being in mourning is not something we would wish upon ourselves. So we can end up thinking that the blessings are all for someone else. But this would be a mistake. It’s a grammatical mistake. The Beatitudes are not in the imperative case. They are not “thou shalt”‘s. The Beatitudes are in the indicative case. They are descriptive. Jesus isn’t setting up conditions of blessing. Jesus is just plain blessing people, and proclaiming that this is what the kingdom of heaven is like. Jesus’ world, like ours, was ready to pronounce its benedictions all over the self-sufficient, the assertive, and the power brokers. Jesus makes a point of pronouncing blessing on all kinds of people, the people whom the world would reject. This is not where people — then or now — typically would look for God.

Another thing to say about the Beatitudes is that they are not exclusive. Jesus isn’t saying that only the people who fit into these categories are blessed. That is not consistent with the Gospel. Jesus proclaims that God regularly shows up in mercy and blessing just when and where we least expect God to be. We are not blessed for what we do. Our very being is blessed.

Jesus leads off this big sermon with this. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.”

Eugene Peterson’s translation of the bible, The Message, translates this verse as “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.” Not especially elegant, but it provides a useful angle on what might be meant by the poor in spirit. A hard idea to accept, that we come to God in our poverty of spirit. It goes against everything that we have been taught. And there are some who maintain that the only Christians who are blessed are those who never waiver in faith, who never experience doubt. I honestly don’t know where they get that. That is not what Jesus says.

I have talked to more than one person who has experienced what they might describe as “a crisis of faith.” It might go something like this. “I grew up in the church. It was expected. We went every Sunday throughout my childhood. My mother and my aunts were church mothers, involved in everything from raising money to ironing the fair linen. I stayed with it, through my twenties and thirties when many of my friends dropped off. It was important to me. And then, I don’t know, something happened. I don’t feel the same way. It feels dead. What’s wrong with me?”

Now I imagine a chorus of angels saying: Oh good, she finally isn’t so sure. Now we can get somewhere!

My own evolving faith has almost always been preceded by some version of this. Something drops away, something I’ve leaned on disappears, or doesn’t “work” anymore, and I experience the bends. Literally, feeling as though I’m on free fall.

Sometimes that loss of faith comes with a deep crisis or tragedy. Sometimes it is having to face some deep truth about yourself, when you’ve been used to counting on your goodness, your smarts, your strength, your whatever.

I am not saying these events are God-driven. I think mostly they just happen. But all the mystics tell us that it is through these dark places that we are being beckoned to a deeper faith. And if we stay with it, abide with it, trust it, have faith in the midst of it, we will, eventually, see the light.

We stand naked before The Lord. We are, finally, empty handed. And we are blessed anyway. We are blessed not for our gifts or accomplishments or goodness, but for our essence. We are blessed because God chooses to bless us.

Jesus knows the disciples have great trials ahead of them. Perhaps, at some point when things look very dark, one of them will say to the others “remember when he said to us, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”? And it gave them the strength they needed.

So what did the disciples do with that? what do we do with that? We go forth and bless everyone we can get our hands on. We show them, by our blessing, that we are related to the Infinite. You do not need to be ordained to do this! I know you know someone who is poor in spirit. There is great power in blessing, and it is right there for you. And the great gift is that when we bless someone, we too are blessed. It is is indeed the gift that keeps on giving. AMEN.

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(1) Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Cincinnati,OH: Franciscan Media, 2008), 14.
(2) William Brosend, The Preaching of Jesus: Gospel Proclamation, Then and Now (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 70-77.