Saturday, August 23, 2008

Breaking Out in Blessedness

Peace is a rare thing in our world. Russia and Georgia have been in the throes of armed conflict. Some wonder if this singals the return of the Soviet Union and the Cold War. Conflict in the Middle East continues. The surge in Iraq may be working, but it remains a nation in need of being rebuilt. The United States has been at war with terror since 9/11. There are other breaches of peace not as high profile. In Uganda young children are conscripted into the Lord’s Resistance Army. Their name sounds holy – their practices are not. We pay a little more attention to Sudan now. In Sudan’s Darfur region over 50,000 people are displaced because of conflict - - even aid workers are in harm’s way. Making peace is so difficult in a world devoted to violence. The world is at war even in places away from the news camera and places that do not seem to be in the interest of the U.S. government. Precious souls are being lost forever because there is no peace.

We may not feel threatened by violence, but the power of poverty can be overwhelming. Even if you have a job you can feel powerless. Katrina Gill has a job. She is a nursing aide in a care center and she works long hours monitoring vitals, turning patients to avoid bedsores, and changing adult diapers. But she and her husband, a mechanic, have no health benefits. They pay $640 a month for a family policy. They have racked up $160,000 in debt – medical expenses – because their son Brandyn has cancer.

Katrina is just one example of what it means to be meek and powerless in our age. Many of us labor in a setting of maximum insecurity, where one missed bus, one stalled engine, one sick kid means the difference between keeping a job and getting fired. At any moment, a company pressured to pump profits can slash hours, or layoff workers, or even cut loose jobs. This isn’t a labor vs. management issue. It’s a human issue. Managers and owners are caught up in the faceless and non-personal economic and political forces that make us feel powerless.

Have you ever felt powerless? Have you at least sensed that something about our culture and society just isn’t right? It isn’t right for a credit card company to stick a person who can’t pay bills with a 30% interest rate. If a thug in an alley does that it’s called loan-sharking. If Chase or Citibank does it it’s called “a change in agreement.” Something isn’t right. Joe Francis is the millionaire producer of the Girls Gone Wild soft-porn video series. He claims it is just innocent entertainment. He claims it is protected by the First Amendment.

How can Francis be protected by our laws when violence against women is a serious problem in our society? Have you ever felt that something just isn’t right? Have you ever felt the pangs for righteousness in your gut? You know it if you feel parched waiting for the waters of justice to roll down like a mighty river against the stifling heat of injustice.

It is difficult to forgive the worst offenders of justice let alone forgiving the friend who hurts us. It is difficult to forgive. It is difficult to be merciful - especially when people take advantage of our mercy. That’s why we want to surround ourselves with people we can trust. People who strive to have a purity of heart. But even in the church we meet those who hurt us. Every time we hear a story about disciples that condemn the suffering rather than help them, we grieve. Every time we hear a story about disciples that exclude rather than invite, it makes us grieve.

And we have enough to be sad about already, don’t we? We have lost loved ones. We have suffered because of sin. We are suffering because of illness. There seems to be no end to the tears, pain, and sorrow.

I confess that I have nothing to say. I am at a loss for words. I cannot even write a sermon to speak to the problems and sorrows of the world as we know it. But I want to lead you to another preacher. I want to begin preaching someone else’s sermon. This preacher spoke to the word as we know it – the world I just described – but he proclaimed that something was going to change. He spoke of a new order of things in which those who experienced the kind of discomfort we just spoke about will instead be happy.

I would like you to follow me over to the hillside where this preacher has just sat down and he begins to speak . . .

"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 be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

What you have just heard is the opening of a sermon from our founder, our Lord, Jesus Christ. In our difficult times, I think it is fitting that we should hear from Him. In the midst of the trials and hopes we have shared as a church family I think it is fitting that we should hear from Him.

Sure, you’ve heard this before. But you’ve probably heard these phrases broken up and scattered. Like gems that have been popped loose from their settings; they still glisten, but you don’t get the full effect. These “beatitudes” are not little nuggets of moral advice. These are not the appetizers before the main course. And Jesus isn’t using “bless” or “blessed” the way Southern culture does. It’s been said that you can say anything mean and nasty about someone in the South as long as you say “Bless their heart.” ["He just isn’t very smart, bless his heart. She looks so old – and fat, bless her heart." Get it?]

Jesus is not condescending or patronizing when he says “Blessed are the poor.” Blessed means that “God’s favor is resting on you.” So he’s saying, “God’s kingdom is breaking into this world. It’s coming to you, and today you have the favor of God.” What a way to open a sermon!

Taken together, this set of “blessings” is an official notice. A notice – like those ominous looking signs that get posted by our city councils that say – “We’re building a shopping center here. If you don’t like it, you can come tell us.” Christ is putting the world as we know it on notice. He’s saying that things are going to change. And like an official notice, some people welcome it – and some do not.

If you are poor and know that something is wrong with economies that keep people poor, then you welcome the notice because God’s favor rests on you. If you are sad or have ever known sadness, then welcome the notice, God’s favor rests on you. If you have ever felt helpless and powerless against forces too great to describe, then welcome the notice because God’s favor rests on you. If you have felt the anxiety of losing worldly security, then welcome the notice because God’s favor rests on you. If you have ever wanted justice and righteousness so bad you can taste it, then welcome the notice, God’s favor rests on you.

If you have ever forgiven others even though it cost you, then welcome the notice. If you are weary trying to help others live at peace with each other, then welcome the notice. If you have long desired to overcome sin and draw close to God, then welcome the notice because God’s favor rests on you!

These beatitudes are an extended way of saying that the kingdom of God is near. He is saying that the kingdom of God is breaking into the world and setting up shop. The world as we know it is breaking out in blessedness.

But be on notice! There are forces in this world that do not welcome the Kingdom of God. There are those who are invested in keeping the poor just as they are. There are those who are invested in activities that cause some to be sad. There are those who are invested in keeping some people powerless and insecure. There are those who are invested in unrighteous enterprises and unjust practices. There are those who cannot show mercy because they stand to lose. There are even those who are invested in war and conflict.

And it is not because they have dark sinister hearts, rather it’s because they have built their house on the foundations of the world as we know it. Christ is putting these people and powers on notice as well. He’s warning them that it is time to re-invest! And Christ is saying that if you are one of these who need to re-invest or even if you are one of these who welcome that change it won’t necessarily be easy. The forces and powers that like things as they are will insult you, lie about you or persecute you. But even if that happens, God’s favor rests on you!

Jesus, the teacher, is going to show us the path to start living in the world of God’s blessed favor even now – before it comes in all of its glory. This is a notice – an invitation for all of us. Will we invest in the world as it is? Or shall we live for the world that’s breaking in all around us? Shall we strive to be merciful, pure of heart, and make peace? Will we commit to living out the virtues of the world that is coming?

Jesus notifies us that there is going to be an outbreak of blessedness. Who dares to live out the teaching of Jesus Christ?


What do you think it means to be blessed?

Look at each group that is mentioned (poor in spirit, those who mourn, etc.). Who do you identify with most? Is there any group of people that you would associate with any of these groups?

The kingdom of heaven is the blessing at the beginning and end of this series (v. 3 and 10). What does the coming of the kingdom of heaven mean for us?

Are the conditions described in the beatitudes (poor in spirit, etc) virtues that we should strive to develop or are they situations and circumstances in which we find ourselves?

This section is usually titled “the beatitudes.” You have the job of re-titling it with a phrase that is more common and ordinary. What will you call it?

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