Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, February 5, 2017
Taken from Matthew 5:1-12
In April, 1997, Karen and I went to Paris. If you’ve ever thought about going to Paris, go to Paris. It is a truly beautiful city. We stayed in a hotel reputed to have been the mansion of Napoleon Bonaparte’s personal physician. It was located just three blocks off from the Arc de Triomphe, there on the grand boulevard, the Avenue des Champs-Élysées.
So, early every morning, we’d set out from our hotel and walk those three easy blocks. We’d emerge onto the beautiful Champs-Élysées, look across that massive traffic circle to the Arch, and then set out on our day’s adventure.
Our last day in Paris, we wanted to go out in style. We’d spotted a restaurant on the Champs-Élysées with a second story balcony where you could go outside, dine on the balcony, and watch all the goings on up and down the boulevard.
The weather was clear, but chilly. I had brought with me my red plaid wool shirt that had a nice warm lining in it. You know, it’s the kind of shirt you typically see outdoorsy types around here wear; perfect for that kind of weather.
So, there we are, enjoying lunch on the balcony of this restaurant overlooking the Champs-Élysées. The sun was up high overhead by now, people crowded the sidewalks. The day had warmed up by then, so I proceeded to unbutton my red plaid wool shirt sleeves and roll them up my arms. As I rolling up my sleeves and looking over my arm, watching the crowds below, near and far, it suddenly occurred to me, “You know, you don’t see many people wearing red plaid wool on the Champs-Élysées.”
The in-color in Paris that spring was lime-green. So, those folks were pretty easy to spot. The default clothing color in Paris was black. So, lots of men and women dressed in black. But, no, I had to conclude, they just don’t wear plaid on the Champs-Élysées.
That little experience of being differently clothed came back to me as I was reading over our Lord’s teaching here we call The Sermon on the Mount. Which is not really that strange of connection. The New Testament often uses the metaphor of clothing to talk to us about our identity with Christ. We wear a different kind of spiritual, moral, ethical clothing.
We illustrate that truth at our baptisms. We strip down; we put on a white baptismal robe to cover us up, signifying through our baptism that we have put on Christ. We are baptized, and we arise to walk anew in this world clothed now in Christ.
What does that mean? What does Christ’s line of clothing look like? Suppose you’re walking the red carpet this year, heading into the Oscars, and Robin Roberts stops you and says, “My, that is so stunning! Who are you wearing tonight?” And, you answer, “Oh, isn’t it beautiful! I’m wearing all Christ tonight.” What would that look like, to be dressed by Jesus? The Sermon on the Mount answers that question for us. Today and next Sunday, we’ll look at these opening verses of this Scripture we call the Sermon on the Mount.
Just before this, in chapter 4, verse 17, Matthew tells us that Jesus has begun preaching what will be his basic theme: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Then, Matthew concludes chapter 4, relating how Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching… What? “…the gospel of the kingdom [of heaven]” (verse 23). That’s what this is about: what does it mean now to be part of this kingdom now come through Jesus?
Chapter 5, verse 1, Jesus goes up on the mountain. He sits down, he gathers his multitude of followers around him, and he begins describing distinctive qualities and practices that identify us with him. These qualities and practices detail what it means for us to be adorned as children of God.
Jesus starts off calling these folks around him—and us, we hope—blessed…blessed…blessed. Nine times Jesus tells us what we all want to hear: “You are the blessed ones of God.” The word, blessed, is like our word ‘happy’, only it means really, really happy for some really good substantial reasons.
How the ears of everyone must have perked up when they heard Jesus start off on that happy note: blessed. But, then, it seems to go downhill pretty quickly from there. Blessed…you impoverished ones, and blessed you overtaken in grief and blessed you meek ones and you starving, thirsty ones.
That sounds like a pretty sad bunch of people to be around, doesn’t it? I imagine at about this moment, a few people started looking at their watches and remembered there was somewhere else they needed to be!
It’s a mixed bag of beatitudes here that Jesus pronounces. Now, most of us would be happy to receive, blessed are the merciful…blessed are the peacemakers. To me, those qualities imply a kind of power and authority. “Yes, you poor wretch, it within my power to ignore you or to punish you, but instead I will show mercy on you, because that’s just who I am.” That’s a good position to be in, to bestow mercy.
To be a peacemaker implies the respect and authority others give to us, so that people in a dispute seek out our great insight that will satisfy all concerned.
Even to be called ‘meek’ in Bible terms implies a kind of power…the power of self-control.
Every so often, as I’m out riding down the interstate in my little four-cylinder Ford Focus, I get a cheap thrill. Sometimes, I get to pass a Chevy Corvette, or a Ford Mustang, or maybe even a Mercedes-Benz C-Class Coupe—oh, so sweet!
They’re cruising along in the right lane, and I swoosh by them at an incredible 72 miles-per-hour, leaving them in the dust! Clearly, with a little tap on the gas pedal, the driver of the Corvette or the Mustang or the Mercedes C-Class could leave me behind in an instant.
In Bible terms, those drivers are showing meekness. They are freely submitting the superior power of their vehicles to traffic laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia. They’re choosing not to speed. Biblical meekness is us freely submitting our strengths, our power, our resources, in obedience to God.
Even Jesus’ eighth Beatitude, blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, implies exceptional courage. You’ve done something truly righteous that’s drawn the reproach of those with the power to punish you. But, you don’t care…you’ve got the courage of your convictions.
Blessed are the pure in heart, Beatitude number six. We might quibble about that one, but if I’m merciful and a peacemaker, and if I’m boldly righteous, then I must be at least a little purer of heart than your average citizen, right?
This is where our hold on the Beatitudes starts to unravel, and we’ve got to give them back to Jesus. Dare we ascribe to ourselves what Jesus means by being merciful, being a peacemaker, being meek, being righteous?
Or are we guilty of the spiritual equivalent of buying a $10 Versace belt off a street vendor and then trying to fool ourselves and others that it’s the real thing we’re wearing? How do we know whether we’re clothed in this blessed wardrobe of Christ or if we’ve merely clothed ourselves in some less demanding knockoff outfit? Discernment comes with these other Beatitudes Jesus pronounces.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit”, says Jesus first. It’s Beatitude number one. This word, poor, doesn’t mean just the working poor, you know, the folks scraping by but still a roof is over head and some sort of food is on the table. Jesus uses the word poor as in ‘destitute’, the folks who’ve moved from being working poor to having absolutely no way of providing for themselves.
I recently watched a Russian dissident interviewed on TV. The dissident now lives in New York City. The interviewer walked her through the hardships and deprivations the Russian government imposed on her and her fellow dissidents. Finally, the interviewer asked, “In those circumstances, how do you know when things have hit rock-bottom.”
The woman answered this way. She said, “In Russia, we have a joke. You think you’ve hit rock-bottom, and then you hear someone knocking from below.”
The poor in spirit? These are those folks knocking from below, and Jesus says, what a blessed bunch you are? Pardon me, Lord, but I don’t think so!
“Blessed are the spiritually destitute? Blessed are the grieving? Blessed are the starving and the dangerously dehydrated?”
I do not want to be the guy on the bottom, knocking. I don’t want to feel deep, unassuaged loss. You really don’t want to see me when I hungry, because I get really cranky. And, yes, I have been seriously dehydrated before, and I’m here to tell you it can really mess up some of your vital functions to be dehydrated!
This is hard language, Jesus chooses. This is not what we want; it’s certainly not what we want for our children. But, we do want for ourselves and for our families to share in the good news of the kingdom of God as proclaimed by Jesus.
Perhaps it would make us feel better if we could say Jesus isn’t talking about real poverty or grieving and so forth; he’s just using those as kind of metaphors. Don’t know that I can say that, but even so, if Jesus is speaking in metaphors, then metaphors for what?
Basically, what Jesus is saying is, you impoverished ones, you grieving ones, you hungry and thirsty ones…you’re the people who have no illusions about yourselves anymore; you have no illusions left about this world anymore, do you? All the usual props are stripped away; bankrupt of all sense of independence and wellbeing; we are undone and lost. On the bottom, knocking.
We, so many of us, live clothed in illusions of self-righteousness, self-empowerment, self-serving selflessness even. We cannot be merciful as God is merciful out of our own sense of privilege and power. We cannot be peacemakers of God’s kingdom-presence if we rely on the strategies of this earth’s kingdoms. We don’t generally do too well at freely submitting our resources before God in the ways of biblical meekness. Our hearts are seldom if ever pure much past the innocence of childhood.
Before we can be wear Christ, we must first see: we stand before him barely clothed at all, in tattered remnants we gathered about our shoulders as though we’ve wrapped ourselves in the best of the world’s finery. Jesus says, no.
We can respond to that in a lot of ways. We may just flat out say, Jesus, that can’t be so! Well, good news…denial is the first stage of grief, and Jesus says in verse 4, blessed are those who grieve. We’ve only four more stages to work through: anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
If we reach into our spiritual pockets and turn them inside out to find them empty, well, good news, says Jesus. If we open up our spiritual lockbox and the only thing in there is a moth trying to get out, what a fortuitous discovery we’ve made, says the Lord.
If we yearn for what this world cannot satisfy, we’re dried out and life seems only to offer up more dust to feed our hunger and quench our thirst, Jesus says, excellent! You’re ready to hear the best invitation to food and drink any soul could imagine. You’re ready to hear God’s invitation to the kingdom of heaven’s banquet table.
Be very happy, Jesus says. Come, let me cloth you and feed you and satisfy your thirst, says the Lord. Come, let Jesus teach us, now, how we receive the kingdom of God now come among us.