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June 11, 2017

“Being a Blessing to Others-Part I”

 Matthew 5:1-12


At my last church, one of the books we used for our Bible study group was The Jesus I Never Knew, by Phillip Yancey. Yancey feels that Matthew chapters 5-7 may be one of the most foundational sections of scripture for the Christian, and will help us understand more of who Jesus was and is now, and I fully agree with his thinking. This is perhaps one of the most challenging sections of scripture as well. Yancey writes, “The sermon on the mount haunted my adolescence. I would read a book like Charles Sheldon’s In his Steps, solemnly vow to act like Jesus and turn to Matthew 5-7 for guidance. What to make of such advice? Should I mutilate myself after a wet dream? Offer my body to be pummeled by the motorcycle riding hoods in school? Tear out my tongue after speaking a harsh word to my brother?” And so we begin a long stay in a section of scripture I hope you will come to know very well, and I hope will challenge your faith and grow your faith as a Christian as well. We begin with the first part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, known as the Beatitudes.  English author Malcom Muggeridge said, “The Beatitudes, just by virtue of having been spoken by Jesus, have enriched our mortal existence beyond imagination, putting a yeast of love into the unlovely dough of human greed and human spite and human willfulness, so that it can rise marvelously.”  This was by the way Jesus’ very first sermon to a crowd. I sincerely doubt anyone had such glowing words to say about my first sermon.


We’ll only go through ½ of the Beatitudes today, as there is so much of God’s wisdom and challenge to consider. So today, we will look at the first five of Jesus’ Beatitudes. Next week, we’ll cover the final four.


The first word Jesus utters in his sermon has profound meaning- “Blessed”. It does not mean “happy”, despite the fact some translations take this word and translate it as such. It does mean “God is with us, God is on our side.” The person who is blessed has an understanding that she or he is a privileged recipient of divine favor. It means that she or he is VALUED by GOD.


Who is blessed? Who is it that is valued by God? “The poor in spirit.” This is a phrase that makes us wonder. Who are the poor in spirit? In Luke’s version of Jesus’ first sermon, he says, “Blessed are the poor.” But why is Matthew different? Matthew is trying to interpret Jesus’ words faithfully-his Aramaic word for “poor”- anawin means those who are poor and are crushed as a result- poor in spirit. To those for whom poverty is a spiritual crisis, to those people who are on their way down financially and they cry out to God- Jesus announces- “Look up; I am here I am with you, and the kingdom I bring is for You.” It means blessed are those who feel their poverty. It means that God values the poor, and offers them blessing in the life that is to come. It means that the poor are valued by God, and if they are valued by God, then they are to be valued by us. It means that when we see someone asking for help on the street, our first response should be, “God values this person, and so should I”. American author Flannery O’Conner wrote, “You have found Jesus when you are concerned about the suffering of others and not your own.”


The next people who are blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. This means that for those of us who have lost a loved one; for those who are reminded of those losses on anniversaries, birthdays, in deep sadness we are in God’s hands. For those times when we mourn in this life, we can expect some form of comfort from our Creator. It does not mean that we are spared from this loss, or that it becomes an easy journey through the valley of the shadow. It does mean that God holds us in our deep sadness, and in time provides us with peace. From God’s spirit, from others around us, from a sense that we are being held in the prayers of others, from the belief in life eternal, we will find comfort.


The third beatitude is,-“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” This is the one that makes no common sense to us, especially in light of the last presidential election. Everyone knows it is the aggressive, not the meek, who inherit the earth. Those who fight for their rights, not those who waive them, are the ones who get them. It is those who are the dynamically assertive or even over bearing, not the gentle who really get things done on earth.


When Yancey began writing his section on Matthew 5-7 in The Jesus I Never Knew, it was in 1991, during the first gulf war, which was a stunning, quick victory. He found himself, much like the rest of us, watching CNN, captivated by the dynamic, confident General Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf. He writes, “I realized I had just been watching the Beatitudes in reverse. Blessed are the strong, was the general’s message. Blessed are the triumphant. Blessed are the armies wealthy enough to possess smart bombs and Patriot missiles. Blessed are the liberators, the conquering soldiers.” It is guys like Stormin’ Norman and Donald Trump who inherit the earth, right God?


But Jesus turns the world upside down with this phrase. It is the meek who are in reality strong. The meekness Jesus is speaking of does not suggest weakness. Dr. Martin Luther King was such an example of this for us, and despite being gunned down by an act of aggressive violence, his words and manner of living still have a profound influence upon the people of this world. Dr. King offered a meek but strong way of resistance to prejudice- rather than fight back with violence, Dr. King taught a way of nonviolent resistance. “We had to make it clear,” he said, “that nonviolent resistance is not a method of cowardice. It does resist. It is not a method of stagnant passivity and deadening complacency. The nonviolent resister is just as opposed to the evil that he is standing against as the violent resister, but he resists without violence. This method is non aggressive physically, but strongly aggressive spiritually.”


Jesus, in many ways, is also a good example for us about what it means to be meek, or gentle, yet not weak. In Jesus, there is a meekness that is almighty and a gentleness that is strong. Jesus didn’t come into Jerusalem on a white horse brandishing a sword to vanquish his enemies. He came humbly upon a donkey, proclaiming God’s kingdom through love of God and neighbor. In meekness, yet full of incredible strength, Jesus went to the cross to die for our sins. Warren Wiersbe says, “Meekness is not weakness. It is power under control.” Our world is in need of people who are meek; gentle, yet guided by the power of faith, especially in light of all the recent terror attacks. Meek people of faith, Muslim and Christian need to model a different way of being. And Jesus promises to them that one day, they will inherit the earth. Indeed it is the meek who are the true HOPE of the earth.


Next comes the phrase-“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.” What does this mean for us? There are people in this world who long for who hunger, for the world to be right. They long for justice in the world, for those who are treated unjustly to find vindication. There are those who work tirelessly for the poor, those who travel to foreign countries to help those in need, those who thirst for all people in this world to receive their fair share. Just like food, it is an absolute necessity for them.


Those who help the homeless on a regular basis- like those in this congregation who organize the Community Dinners or who sleep overnight at the winter shelter fit this description so well. There is an internal fire they possess, which wants to see this world as it should be- one that is fair and just.  Author Jim Forest, in his book, The Ladder of the Beatitudes writes, “The hunger for righteousness is the one appetite that Christ blesses—not to covet possessions or achievement or recognition, but to live, through every action and perception, the kingdom of God.”


Blogger for the Huffington Post Eric Simpson shared a story about someone who exemplified hungering and thirsting for righteousness, willing even to sacrifice her own life to see that righteousness upon earth. “I think for example of Maria Skobstova, an aristocrat who became an intellectual, an intellectual who became a nun, a nun who became a subversive force for love. She sought to make straight that which had been made crooked among the poor, in prisons, in insane asylums because she saw every human being as intrinsically valuable, as an “icon of God.” In 1942, when Jews were being rounded up in German-occupied Paris, Maria managed to organize the rescue of children who she smuggled out of the sports stadium in garbage bins with the help of garbage collectors. She did not relent in her work on behalf of the oppressed even though she was aware she was under Nazi surveillance. Finally, she was sent to the concentration camp at Ravensbruck, where, still burning with the holy passion and hunger for righteousness, a desire that had become a flame of love, she continued to assist and care for those who were suffering with her. She nearly made it to the end, and even as Russian troops were advancing on the camp, she put herself in the place of another woman condemned to die, and died in her place. Her hunger and thirst for righteousness was satisfied as she herself became righteous, and, like Christ, she become one who helped others in the cause for justice.” Today, Jesus calls people who thirst for a just world, a world that is right in God’s eyes blessed, and tells them that they shall be filled with righteousness- In part that is a future hope for when this life is over, but it is also a promise that their efforts here and now will lead to glimmerings of righteousness in this present life.


Next Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” Who are the merciful? They are those who come to the aid of the needy. They are the ones who forgive others. They are the ones who understand that, since God has been merciful to us, so we should be merciful to others. Mercy begets mercy, which in turn begets still more mercy.


Here’s a wonderful story about mercy which was played out on a women’s college softball stadium field about eight years ago, which I was reminded about after watching the college world series for women’s softball last Monday night, and it happened right here in Oregon back in 2008. Western Oregon senior Sara Tucholsky had never hit a home run in her career. Central Washington senior Mallory Holtman was already her school's career leader in them. But when a twist of fate and a torn knee ligament brought them face to face with each other and face to face with the end of their playing days, they combined on a home run trot that celebrated mercy far more than individual athletic achievement.

Both schools compete as Division II softball programs in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference. Neither has ever reached the NCAA tournament at the Division II level. But when they arrived for Saturday's conference doubleheader at Central Washington's 300-seat stadium in Ellensburg, a small town 100 miles and a mountain range removed from Seattle, the hosts resided one game behind the visitors at the top of the conference standings. As was the case at dozens of other diamonds across the map, two largely anonymous groups prepared to play the most meaningful games of their seasons.

 Tucholsky came to bat in the top of the second inning with two runners on base and the game still scoreless after Western Oregon's 8-1 win in the first game of the afternoon. She was mostly a bench player. But she hit her very first home run in an incredibly important game. Prior to the pitch she sent over the center-field fence, she had just three hits in 34 at-bats this season. And in that respect, her hitting heroics would have made for a pleasing, if familiar, story line on their own: an unsung player steps up in one of her final games and lifts her team's postseason chances. But it was what happened after an overly excited Tucholsky missed first base on her home run trot and reversed direction to tag the bag that proved unforgettable.

While she was doubling back to tag first base, Tucholsky's right knee gave out. The two runners who had been on base already had crossed home plate, leaving her the only offensive player on the field of play, even as she lay crumpled in the dirt a few feet from first base and a long way from home plate.  Her First-base coach checked to see whether she could crawl back to the base under her own power. Umpires confirmed that the only option available under the rules was to replace Tucholsky at first base with a pinch runner and have the hit recorded as a two-run single instead of a three-run home run. Any assistance from coaches or trainers while she was an active runner would result in an out. So without any choice, her coach prepared to make the substitution, taking both the run and the memory from Tucholsky.

"And right then," the first base coach said, "I heard, 'Excuse me, would it be OK if we carried her around and she touched each bag?'"

The voice belonged to someone from the other team, from the star, Mallory Holtman. Holtman and a shortstop lifted Tucholsky off the ground and supported her weight between them as they began a slow trip around the bases, stopping at each one so Tucholsky's left foot could secure her passage onward. Even with Tucholsky feeling the pain of what trainers subsequently came to diagnose as a torn ACL the surreal quality of perhaps the longest and most crowded home run trot in the game's history hit all three players. Accompanied by a standing ovation from the fans, they finally reached home plate and passed the home run hitter into the arms of her own teammates. Western Oregon went on to win the game 4-2. But winning and losing didn’t matter in this story. Mercy mattered most.This story recently repeated itself in another college softball game at Southern Florida University. Mercy begets mercy. What a great model for being merciful.


We are a little over ½ way through the Beatitudes. Just these first 5 alone are challenging enough for us, and there are still four to go. Let me suggest to you that for this week, Monday through Friday, focus on a particular Beatitude for each day. And on each day, ask God to help you look for opportunities to be bless the poor, those who mourn, the meek, the righteous, the merciful. And ask God to help you personally reflect these Beatitudes in what you say and do. And may Christ be with us, as we seek to be to others what he intended- examples of God’s love for the world. Alleluia. Amen.

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