Love and Honor
A Sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
February 2, 2014
Rev. Julie Emery
Texts: Micah 6:1-8, Matthew 5: 1-12
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
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.
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.
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.
Timeless. Comforting. Powerful. These are some of the words that come to mind when we think of these words from the Sermon on the Mount. They have been scripted and mounted on the walls of Christian homes the world over; needlepointed and crocheted onto pillows for many a Christian couch. These words touch our hearts and minds tenderly, as we consider the meek, the grieving, the persecuted.
And yet, when we look closer at these words, we find they are more challenging than they are comforting. The women’s group who studied these words last year found that they were more difficult than not – as we who are not poor, are rarely meek, are more comfortable and privileged than not – grappled with this series of blessings from the mouth of Jesus.
When Jesus goes up the mountain to give his first big sermon, the crowds follow. He has already called together a group of disciples, interrupting their usual labors and coaxing them to fish for people, and Matthew tells us that since then Jesus has been proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, curing diseases and sicknesses throughout the countryside. For Matthew’s reader’s then, this is the fine print – this is what the “Good News” sounds like from the mouth of Jesus.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…” Jesus begins, and then continues with a litany of blessings that is so counter-cultural, so radical in its proclamations, that it has been transfixing hearers ever since. Jesus names as blessed the people who are seen in his day as the very least and lost, those who are outcast and ignored.
These are the people who were the lowliest of lowly. The poor in spirit were not only without money but without hope – destitute. Those who mourned too much and too loudly were seen as weak and excessive. Those who were meek and humble had neither the power nor audacity to take for themselves what others could and did often at the expense of others.
New Testament Scholar Margaret Aymer suggest we translate the word here “blessed” as “greatly honored,” Which points to the heart of the upside-down world Jesus is creating with these statements. In the caste system that was the ancient Near East, these are the people who have been understood by that culture as deserving of what they had gotten; Destitute because they were inherently lessor, weak because they were too sensitive, humiliated because they weren’t tough enough.
It may be painful to say so, but we are not all that far from that kind of world. It’s Super Bowl Sunday – what a perfect day to see this very dynamic in our society? This myth continues to be told again and again throughout the ages: the strong, manly, vicious, cutthroat – these are the winners. Weakness leads only to failure. Isn’t that the story our world so often tells?
And yet – Instead Jesus calls the destitute, the mourners, the meek and humble, “greatly honored,” “blessed by God,” “heirs of the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Words that are just as radical today as they were two thousand years ago.
The audience of these words must have been astonished. They must have been doubtful. They must have shook their heads and said, “Who is he kidding?”
They knew, like we do, that in a culture grounded in competition and fear, blessings are given to those who succeed, often at the expense of others. To be poor in spirit, peaceful, merciful, meek – will get you nowhere.
Boyd Varty, South African Conservationist, tells a story about Elvis the elephant. Elvis was a young, badly deformed elephant who wandered onto his reservation along with the rest of his herd one Winter day, looking for food. His hips were pointed outward and his legs were bowed so that when he walked he shook like Elvis, hence his name.
Varty and his colleagues all agreed that Elvis wouldn’t last long in the wild – he was much slower than the rest of the group, unable to run from predators, and his deformities were certainly a hinderance to survival. But he was fun, and quickly beloved among those who watched him.
Much to their surprise, Elvis kept coming back, year after year, along with his herd. Still with his silly walk, and still alive and well. After tracking and watching this particular herd of elephants, they noticed that this herd was moving far more slowly than the rest to compensate for Elvis’s handicap.
They watched as Elvis tried and tried to follow the herd up a large hill that was too difficult for him to climb, painfully wondering how the herd would respond. But after a handful of Elvis’s attempts, one of the other adolescent elephants came up behind him, put his head down and pushed from behind so that Elvis could follow the path of the herd.
They noticed how the Matriarch of the herd would eat, by first tearing a branch off a tree for herself and then tearing a second branch and dropping it on the ground; And again – one for herself, another dropped to the ground, so that Elvis and others who needed help to reach the food they needed would not go hungry.
Varty calls this, “ubuntu,” A South African phrase which means loosely: “I am because of you.” It’s a phrase he learned from Nelson Mandela in his youth, as Mandela spoke to his country about this concept as he hoped and dreamed for the future of South Africa. “Ubuntu:” We are all interconnected. My survival hinges upon yours.
And Varty notes that it is not just in humans, but in all life, that this “ubuntu” can be found.
In spite of the forces in our world that say otherwise, Jesus asserts again and again that the blessings of God are for those who are lost and forsaken, those who are oppressed and poor. What scholars are quick to remind us is that these words of Jesus are not in the imperative tense. That is, they are not commands to become poor in spirit or meek or mournful or hungry or peacemakers. Jesus does not say – quick – if you start being this you will receive God’s blessing.
What Jesus says is, these ones are ALREADY blessed. These people are ALREADY honorable. These – the suffering, the lowly, those who suffer persecution – it is these who make up the Kingdom of Heaven. “The beatitudes are more description than instruction, more report than directive. They compose a litany in which all promises point to the same reality.” The reality of God’s kingdom.
The message of the beatitudes is that God’s Spirit is with the forsaken and the lost, first and foremost. And if we are to follow God’s leading then we should be too.
To be with those named in this list of God’s blessings is not to do for. Not to show pity or sympathy. But to bless with relationship, love, honor. To look upon these as equal.
This is why the most important part of the Midnight Run is not the clothes or food we give out, but the conversation, the dignity we share.
This is why when we serve at HOPE Community Kitchen it is less about providing a good meal and more about offering honor and blessing to those who are hungry and long to be filled not only with food but with the Good Things that God provides.
This is why it is way less important that we build houses or school buildings on our mission trips than our efforts to construct friendships, knowledge and understanding.
The late Henri Nouwen, author and minister, offers this description: “Compassion grows with the inner recognition that your neighbor shares your humanity with you. This partnership cuts through all walls which might have kept you separate. Accross all barriers of land and language, wealth and poverty, knowledge and ignorance. We are one, created from the same dust, subject to the same laws, destined for the same end.”
“Ubuntu.” I am because of you. Whatever danger you face, I face. Whatever pain you feel, I feel. Whatever joy or achievement you experience is mine. And so too, when you are hungry, or oppressed, or victimized, or shamed, I experience that too as if it were me, and I seek to make it right.
Jesus is calling us to embody God’s blessing to those named as honored in God’s kingdom.
Jesus is calling us to embody God’s blessings…
to reach out to the poor in spirit
and remind them they are heirs of God’s kingdom,
to enact God’s comforting love upon those who mourn,
not just for the loss of loved ones near and dear
but also for those who mourn the injustices, the exploitation,
the oppression of our world.
Jesus is calling us…
to support the meek,
by taking only what we need so all might have enough.
to embody and live out righteousness
so those who hunger and thirst for it might be filled.
And yes – by living as Jesus is calling us to do, yes…
we might be transformed into peacemakers, merciful witnesses,
and single-hearted followers of God.
Greatly Honored. Blessed. Together.
May it be so. Amen.