Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

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.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)

Those of us who have been forever contaminated by close contact to Monty Python’s movie “Life of Brian”, are no longer able to listen to or read the verses from our Gospel text without thinking of the line “blessed are the cheese makers.” I’ll risk an explanation for those of you who are still pure of heart as long as you agree to never ever watch the movie. In the movie those who are on the edge of the large crowd are having trouble hearing Jesus so one of them asks, “What was that?” The response is, “I think it was blessed are the cheese makers” which in turn prompts the response, “What’s so special about the cheese makers?”
I don’t think many outside the church are offended by Life of Brian and probably laugh during it unless they find British humor too British. But I bet a good number of Christians think a movie that makes fun of the sacred story nothing short of blasphemy. So is it? I don’t think so and here’s why…Satire cannot exist in a vacuum. The reason Monty Python is able to play games with these powerful words of Jesus is because those who follow Jesus have failed to live them. The movie is not a satire of Jesus but of us.

If we didn’t already know but were asked to guess the kind of people Jesus would pick out for special commendation, we might be tempted to guess of spiritual heros—men and women of impeccable credentials morally, spiritually, humanly, and every which way. If so, we would be wrong. Maybe those aren’t the ones he picked out because he felt they didn’t need the shot in the arm his commendation would give them.

Not the spiritual giants, but the “poor in spirit;’ as he called them, the ones who,
spiritually speaking, have absolutely nothing to give and absolutely everything to receive, like the Prodigal Son telling his father “I am not worthy to be called your son.”

Not the champions of faith who can rejoice even in the midst of suffering, but the ones who mourn over their own suffering because they know that for the most part they’ve brought it down on themselves, and over the suffering of others because that’s just the way it makes them feel to be in the same room with them.

Not the strong ones, but the meek ones in the sense of the gentle ones, the ones who lets the world walk over him and yet, somehow makes the world more human in the process.

Not the ones who are righteous, but the ones who hope they will be someday. In the meantime are well aware that the distance they still have to go is even greater than the distance they’ve already come.

Not the winners of great victories over evil in the world are merciful when they find it in others and maybe that way win the greater victory.

Not the totally pure, but the “pure in heart;” to use Jesus’ phrase, the ones who may be as shopworn and clay-footed as the next one, but have somehow kept some inner freshness and innocence intact.

Not the ones who have necessarily found peace in its fullness, but the ones who, just for that reason, try to bring it about wherever and however they can—peace with their neighbors and God, peace with themselves.

Jesus saved for last the ones who side with heaven even when any fool can see it’s the losing side and all you get for your pains is pain. Looking into the faces of his listeners, he speaks to them directly for the first time. “Blessed are you;” he says.

You can see them looking back at him. They’re not what you’d call a high-class crowd—peasants and fisherfolk for the most part, on the shabby side. It doesn’t look as if there’s a hero among them.
They are blessed when they are worked over and cursed out on his account he tells them. It is not his hard times to come but theirs he is concerned with, speaking out of his own meekness and mercy, the purity of his own heart.

I’m sure this isn’t a major revelation for you all, but sometimes the life of faith is a struggle. Holding out hope in a desperate world isn’t always easy. Other times, we bask in the love and faithfulness of God who loves us dearly. At other times, a moment of clarity allows us a little vision into who God is calling us to be.

As Lutheran Christians, we know that our human successes, identities, struggles or failures are not nearly as important as who God is and what God has done through Jesus. And yet, the fact that we have been redeemed at a high price leads to the conclusion that we are to glorify God with all that is in our control, even our very bodies.

Jesus takes up this same refrain as the Psalmist, if we have read it, in the beatitudes. Among others, Jesus blesses the gentle, those who hunger for righteousness, the merciful, the peacemakers and those who have been persecuted for righteousness. These people are good neighbors, who perform righteousness among their neighbors and wage peace among enemies. The merciful defuse tensions and forgive affronts. Those who are punished, perversely for doing the right thing, should be happy and not seek revenge.

This is the sort of person whom Jesus is trying to turn each of us into. If being a Christian means following Jesus and being conformed to his image (Romans 8:29), we must allow the Spirit to make us into people who love all our neighbors, especially when loving comes at a cost to us.
Loving even when it hurts is the height of foolishness in cultures that seek to make us rugged individuals over whom others have no power. God knows this and, through Paul, proudly sets up divine “foolishness” over earthly “wisdom.” Indeed, God makes foolish the wisdom of the world (1 Corinthians 1:20). To make the
point that God is not trying to be wise by human standards, Paul says God specifically chose the foolish, the weak and things of the world in order to undo the established hierarchies by which humans judge each other (27-29). The despised weak who forgive their neighbors and go on practicing righteousness are the people with whom God identifies.

In Micah, God lifted up lessons for the Israelites from their own history. God called to mind Moses, Aaron and Miriam. God sent them to lead the Israelites as prophets, through word and deed and service to their neighbors.

We need to hear the famous and beloved words of Micah 6:8 as they were spoken about a people lost in the wilderness, unsure of what to do next or where to go. The experience of wilderness confusion and disorientation was equally true of the generations leaving slavery in Egypt and then of the generations that witnessed Israel’s and Judah’s downfalls. In our disorientation, we can’t merely cling to tradition. Rather than just ticking off boxes or offering sacrifices, God wants God’s people to do justice for each other and to love being merciful to each other. Only after we are good to our neighbors can we walk humbly with our God.

Nothing we can do as humans can save us. God’s grace alone accomplishes that. So as we walk humbly with our God, let us remember Jesus’ final words “You are blessed” and with that blessing let us look for opportunities to love God and our neighbor!


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