This sermon was originally preached at the Keysville Grace United Church of Christ on Sunday, January 29, 2017 at the 9 am service. The audio can be heard here.
This morning, we are faced with two familiar texts. If you remember, I preached the Micah text in conjunction to celebrate the life and witness of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the 88th anniversary of his death two weeks ago, and today’s gospel happens to be The Beatitudes.
These twelve verses are familiar to those of us who have been in the church for a great length of time; in fact, these verses are presented first by Matthew to introduce his readers to the importance of understanding Jesus and the requirements for entering the kingdom, because for Matthew and his retelling of the Gospel, entering the Kingdom of God is the most important aspect of Jesus’ ministry on earth.
Yes, these are quite familiar verses, and please understand that while we proclaim them as Gospel today, Matthew’s readers and those who originally heard Jesus speak these words saw them as revolutionary. And let’s be honest this morning, they WERE revolutionary, for they speak to a people who were anything but blessed.
I love studying people smarter than me, so I defer to Dr. Marcia Y. Riggs, a noted Presbyterian theologian. She says it this way:
Jesus delivers these blessings to a people whose sociopolitical context is the Roman Empire and whose religious context is the elite Jewish establishment. What Jesus teaches in these ten verses critiques both contexts. The people being blessed are the underclass of the Roman Empire and the Jewish establishment, for they were one in the same. These blessings are delivered to the groups God deems worthy, not because of their own achievements or status in society, but because God chooses to be on the side of the weak, the forgotten, the despised, the justice seekers, the peacemakers, and those persecuted because of their beliefs.
Jesus makes a clarion call about what is happening here, and there is a political foundation for what is being said – all of this is organized around the pursuit of righteousness by those who are able – at potential risk of their own lives – for the sake of a world in which the unvalued, including they themselves when they are persecuted, are at last fully valued as human beings. These verses provide a commissioning that undergirds the necessary instructions for Jesus’ chosen disciples and others in the crowd who desire to follow Jesus. As Jesus pronounces God’s blessings, he frames the call to discipleship in terms of both which they are to be, their character, and its consequences for their lives in the present sociopolitical and religious context, as well as in God’s future.
So, Guy, what do Dr. Riggs’ observations, Micah’s message, and Jesus’ sermon mean for us today? I am so glad that you asked!
As I am fond of reminding this congregation, I prepare sermons with the bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other. This week was no different. I also tell you, at least once a month, that I don’t preach politics, because I honestly believe that the church and the state should be separate for this one reason – once you start allowing one religious body to control civil government, you must be open to letting ALL religions have a chance to control civil government, and once that happens, it is no longer a civil government, it is a theocracy.
This morning, I would be remiss in my duties, both as a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ AND as a decent human being, if I did not speak out against the wanton and rampant discrimination against our Muslim brothers and sisters. In the name of “protecting liberty and freedom”, actions have been taken to actively discriminate against them because of their religion, an position that directly contradicts what this country claims it is based on – religious freedom. In this country, within the last 24 hours, a mosque in Victoria, Texas was set afire – less than 24 hours after the ban on Muslims entering this country was enacted. If I am honest, even though we may disagree about religion in some instances, if Jesus were preaching this message today, he would include our Muslim brothers and sisters in those who are blessed.
This morning, I would be remiss in my duties, both as a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ AND as a decent human being if I did not point out the glaring hypocrisy of banning people seeking to flee war torn countries attempting to come here for safety and sanctuary, while quoting the words of one who, as a baby, was an illegal alien in a country while one the run, because there was a bounty on his head.
This morning, I would be remiss in my duties, both as a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ AND as a decent human being, if I did not speak out against the repeal of an admitted health care law that covered 20 million Americans, most poor and disabled, who now face the nightmare of managing chronic illnesses without health care. I would be remiss in my duties if I did not speak out against the continued purposeful cuts in the social safety net, which is for ALL of us, especially those who are elderly – attacks on Medicare and Social Security.
This morning, I would be remiss in my duties, both as a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ AND as a decent human being, if I did not speak out against finding $15 billion dollars to build a wall to keep brown people out, which not being able to find $15 billion to fix the infrastructure in Flint, Michigan so that Americans can have clean drinking water.
Look at the text, if you will. If you look at all of the persons who are considered blessed, they truly ARE those looked down upon in society, and the religious and civil leaders who heard this sermon realized that this was a call to upend society as they knew it. It was a call to flip the establishment on its head! It was a call to liberate the people.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. That’s a promise of what is to come!
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. That’s for those who have lost loved ones to the empire.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. That’s for those who have been quieted, were abused and trampled over. Notice it doesn’t say weak – but meek.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Those people who work towards a better day for those whoa re downtrodden by the religious authorities in the name of religion, they will see their work rewarded.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. The measure you give shall be the measure you receive – pressed down, shaken together, and running over shall men give to you!
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God. When I see those two verses, I immediately point back to Deuteronomy 6:5 – “You shall love the Lord with all of your heart, and with all of your soul, and with all of your might.” THAT’S how one can be pure in heart. THAT’S how one can be called a peacemaker.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 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 in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Let me make a declaration here: Jesus tells us “you are going to have to wait to receive your rewards. I don’t like this one, personally, as it has been used to subjugate people and to tell them to be happy with their suffering. “
But there is a link between the beatitudes and Micah – if you live the words of Micah 6:8, you then can live the beatitudes.
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Is it easy to do? Absolutely not. It causes you to actually have to DO something – justice. It causes you to actually DO something – love kindness. It causes you to actually DO something – walk humbly with your God.
Those who are at the bottom of society, those who need to be blessed, those who are the outcast, already know how to live Micah 6:8, which means to me, they live the beatitudes. May the rest of us learn to do the same.