Distilled to the Essence: Jesus’ Words to Live By

Sermon by Pastor Bill Chadwick | July 11, 2021

Matthew 5:1-10

“You should preach every sermon as if it is your last,” is the advice of more than one preaching professor in seminary.  Well, it’s ridiculous.  But this really is my last sermon among you.  The pressure to be profound is great.  Profundity is not my strong suit.  I am hoping for faithfulness.

It has been a privilege to be with you and share ministry, first from 2004-2009 and then for the last 21 months.  Thank you for your friendship and support and prayers.

We are in interesting times.  For all of society and the Church.   Some of you have heard me say that the Christian Church goes through a great upheaval and transformation about every 500 years.  Of course, 500 years ago what was going on?  The Protestant Reformation in Europe.

And today we are in a time of great change for the church, even before the pandemic ushered in remote worship and programming and all sorts of creativity.  The US is following Europe in a vast turning away from traditional churchgoing. Even before the pandemic.  Even evangelicals are seeing their numbers decline.  Changes are necessary.  I’m not wise enough to know what they need to be, but I am sure that the Church (Capital C) will survive, and ultimately thrive, because it is Christ’s Church.  So let us be confident as we look to the future.

In the short term, in this country, I look with dismay at the white evangelical church and what it has done to the reputation of the Church and indeed, the popular understanding of the word “Christian.”   When my young adult children meet someone new, at some point the conversation often turns to “What do your parents do for a living?”  When my kids reply, “My dad is a pastor,” what do you think the reaction is?  Twenty years ago it was, “Oh, that’s cool.”  Today they are greeted with looks of horror.  What a lot of young people know about the Church comes from the white evangelical church’s embrace of rigid judgmentalism.  My kids have to hurry and say, “He’s not THAT kind of pastor.  He’s NOT anti-gay, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-women.” 

Here’s a question for you, “Why does this community, the folks who live within ten miles of us, need Wahkon Presbyterian Church?”  Very few people care about denominational ties any more—Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, United Church of Christ, all the same to most people.  Therefore, the question: “Why does this community need this particular congregation?”  What are we doing that no one else is doing?  What does this community need doing that no one else is providing?  Are indigenous people welcome in any of the churches around here?  Gay and transgender people welcome?  Is anyone making them feel wanted and welcome and safe in the wider community?  “Why does this community need Wahkon Presbyterian Church?”  What is God calling you to do? It might be something different from what I was just suggesting.

If the Church isn’t supposed to be about judgmentalism and exclusion, what is the Church supposed to be about? The heart of scripture for followers of Jesus is the gospel story—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  Read those books.  Then read them again in a different translation. And then read them again. The heart of the gospel teaching is the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew chapters 5-7.  The heart of the Sermon on the Mount is the teaching known as the Beatitudes, chapter 5, verses 1-10.  Listen for the Word of God:

5 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.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

One at a time.  Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Poverty of spirit is acknowledging that we don’t have it all together.  Those who are poor in spirit recognize that “I am not self-sufficient.  I am not the captain of my soul, the master of my fate.”   This is the perfect first beatitude, for the foundation to hear the other beatitudes is a malleable heart.  “Poor in spirit” is the idea at the core of Twelve Step programs: I acknowledge that I am powerless to run my life adequately.  Poverty of spirit is giving up our attempts at controlling life, and turning our lives over to the Higher Power.   (For those of us in the Jesus tradition, we would say we turn our lives over to God, as made known in Jesus.)

The second beatitude:  Blessed are those who mourn, for they receive comfort.

How is it possibly “blessed” to be in mourning?  It doesn’t feel like a blessing.  Well, scholars tell us that Jesus is not likely talking about people who have lost a loved one.  Most likely what Jesus meant is this, “Blessed are those who are desperately sorry for their own sinfulness and are deeply aware of how they have fallen short.”  So, it is similar to being poor in spirit.

Blessed are the meek

We’ve talked about this before.  Would you like to be described as “meek”?  Most of us would not.

We’ve got a bit of a translation problem.  The Greek word that gets translated as “meek” is praus.  Translating “praus” as “meek” goes all the way back to the King James Version in the 1600s, when “meek” did not mean “weak.”  

William Barclay notes the interesting history of the word.  (1)  It is used “to describe an animal which has been tamed and domesticated…,”  (The Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer for Everyman, p. 40) such as a horse that has been gentled or a hunting dog that won’t run ahead 200 yards and scare all the pheasants up out of range, but is in the willing control of the master.  A person who is “praus” is under control of the Master, capital “M.”

A second definition of one who is praus describes the person who has it within his or her power to act with stern severity, but who chooses to act with gentleness.  “It is the gentleness of strength.”  (Ibid. p. 41) 

But my favorite definition of this word praus is that it describes the person who is never angry at the wrong time, but always angry at the right time.  That is a valuable quality.

What would be the wrong time to be angry?  (asking the congregation)   When someone cuts us off in traffic, big deal.  Some slight that happens to us.  Who cares?  Is this going to matter a year from now?

When is the right time to be angry?  (ask the congregation)  When the powerless are being mistreated.  When billions are spent on war-making while children go hungry and homeless.  When gay teens are bullied to the point of suicide. When  Jesus threw the moneychangers out of the Temple courtyard.  The moneychangers were cheating the poor and they were clogging up the only place the Gentiles were allowed to worship God.  Jesus was angry!  

“Be angry,” said the writer of Ephesians, “but do not sin” (4:26).

Anger is a God-given emotion.  Let us use it wisely: when God would have us be angry, when the poor and powerless are mistreated!  

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  

“Righteousness” here does not refer to self-righteousness, in which people are proud of themselves and look down their noses at the sinners all around them.  It refers to actual righteousness, pursuing a right relationship with God and with other people, seeking to live lives of joyful obedience to God and of straight dealing with other people.

Beyond that, in the New Century translation we read, Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justiceWho, being meek, angry at the right time, use their anger on behalf of the powerless to try to fashion a just world, where there is room for all at the Table.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Mercy is another very rich word, the Hebrew scriptures’ equivalent is “hesed.”   It means to have empathy with another, to recognize our common humanity, and choosing to offer grace and forgiveness rather than judgment or revenge. 

That word hesed occurs in our First Testament over 150 times, and 90 % of the time referring to God’s actions of being merciful to humanity:  God extends to us mercy in the giving of life, the glory of Creation, in delivering the Israelites from bondage in Egypt, making covenant with them, returning them from exile, giving to the world Jesus, saving us from enemies, forgiving our sins, and on and on.  It is the basis of the relationship between God and humankind.  God is merciful.  Thank God!

A few chapters later in Matthew Jesus says, “Freely you have received, freely give.”  (Matt. 10:8)  So, in this beatitude Jesus is essentially saying, “As you have received mercy from God, pay it forward.”  

Be merciful, be compassionate, see with another’s eyes.

Let us not be quick to condemn.  Have you ever jumped to a conclusion about something and then when you heard the entire story you went, “Oh, I see now!”?   Seeing properly is a big part of mercy.  Get that plank out of our own eyes!

If we could know the full history of a person, if we could truly get inside their skin, feel what they have experienced, then we can understand their actions, no matter how seemingly incomprehensible, or even reprehensible.  If we know the whole story it’s easier to be merciful.  My theory is that God is SO good at this mercy business because She knows the whole story.  

“Those who refuse to forgive burn the bridge over which they must cross.”

Blessed are the merciful…for they shall receive mercy.  The very act of forgiveness releases the bitterness that otherwise spoils the taste of every meal, that robs every sunset of its beauty and poisons every relationship.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Have you heard the old story about a couple of guys sitting around talking about the amazing advances in medical science?  One commented, “If I ever need a heart transplant, I’d like to get my boss’s heart.  It’s never been used.”

To be pure in heart means to desire God more than all else.  And that means to seek God’s will, rather than to seek God’s blessing on my will.  Ouch.

This reminds me of the definition of “character” which I heard in a lecture by Andy Stanley some years ago: “Character,” he said, “is committing to do the right thing, before we know what that is.”  I vow to do the right thing, even if it turns out not to be in my personal best interest, or if it turns out to be tremendously difficult.  I’m committed to doing the right thing.  Period.  Purity of heart: seeking to do God’s will, whatever that may turn out to be…a job change, working for justice, forgoing a relationship, repairing a relationship, sharing money, living simply, getting up thirty minutes early to spend time with God…

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.

Now, note that Jesus did not say, “Blessed are the peacelovers.  We all love peace.  He said, “Blessed are the peacemakers….” those who actively work to make peace happen.  And as Pope Paul VI and many others have noted, “If you want peace, work for justice.”

Jesus taught a lot of things.  The vast majority of his teachings were not original.  They were part of the Jewish tradition.   Many scholars have noted that of his ethical teachings the only absolutely new thing Jesus taught was what? “Love your enemies.”  A new teaching for the world!  Love your enemies.

Blessed are the Persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

A few years ago on Graduation Sunday at Oak Grove I challenged the graduates to do three things.  I don’t remember what the first two were and neither does anyone else, but the third challenge was “Go to jail.”

Today I recognize that such a charge is the ultimate example of white privilege.  But what I meant was to encourage the kids to get into what Congressman John Lewis called “good trouble.”  Being a Christian is counter-culture.  If we truly follow Jesus we might wind up in jail.

Have you ever been persecuted for your faith?  For doing the right thing at work?  For standing up for LGBTQ folks?  For standing up for our indigenous neighbors?  If you have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake, Jesus promises you the kingdom of heaven.

May we be faithful to Jesus, no matter what.  Amen?  Amen!

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