A New Identity

February 21, 2016
by Rev. Melanie Homan

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(based on We Make the Road by Walking, Brian McLaren)

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“A New Identity”
Rev. Melanie Homan
February 21, 2016

Matthew 5:1-16

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 “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.
11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely[b] on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Throughout the season of Lent, our scriptures focus is on the first significant teachings of Jesus to his new disciples, as found in the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7. Since Thomas Aquinas first coined the phrase, we’ve known these teachings as “The Sermon on the Mount”. The Sermon on the Mount starts out with the Beatitudes. If you’ve ever wondered why they’re called beatitudes, it’s the Latin word for “blessings”. It’s what we heard in our scripture today. Blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, those who mourn. Jesus offers blessing after blessing to his disciples in the beatitudes. But the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t end there. The Beatitudes – the blessings – are just the beginning. So keep in mind over the course of the next few weeks,
that the scriptures we read from Matthew are all part of what we call the Sermon on the Mount.

In some ways, it’s a challenge to explore and reflect on the beatitudes, the blessings of Jesus,
because we know them by heart, or at least we might think we do. Even if we have them memorized, do we understand what Jesus meant by them? I’m not sure the beatitudes were meant to be easily understood. If the commentaries I’ve studied are any indication, there are as many viewpoints and interpretations of these blessings as there are writers. It doesn’t matter if you’re reading Aquinas, John Wesley, or any number of the modern bloggers who put their two scents worth into what Jesus is trying to teach. Each person states pretty confidently that they’ve got it figured out. They know what Jesus was talking about and they’re happy to share it with the rest of us. Isn’t that what I’m supposed to do today? Explain it all to you? If only it were that easy.

I used to worship with a pastor that always had a three point sermon. Point 1, 2, and 3. Every week. My goal is a bit different. I always try to have one point. To say it, and be done. But what I’ve realized is that so often the one point I think I’m making is NOT the one that people come away with! Based on conversations I’ve had with you after worship, I’ve discovered that you all hear the same message and take away different “key” points. Which is a gracious reassurance that a sermon is not just what I say to all of you – it is an interactive dialogue the includes not only our words, but the working of the Holy Spirit to connect those words with the unique set of circumstances you find yourselves in. And so the Spirit moves and works within you, and you each respond to it in unique ways.

The problem with trying to focus in on one key point, is that there are so many possible points to raise! For instance, I just read John Wesley’s sermon on the Sermon on the Mount to see what he had to say. Except he wrote three LONG sermons for these 12 verses of scripture. Wesley wrote 3 sermons. Each of the sermons had 3 points. That seems reasonable enough. But each point had up to 18 subpoints! It seems that he, too, had a lot of opinions about the beatitudes and it was just not Wesley’s way to focus in on a couple of them. He shared them all. As I read through them, looking for a phrase or two that I could share with you – I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone kept up with him!

Consider yourself lucky, I love Wesley but I will not be sharing with you my 38 point sermon on the Beatitudes. I do have one main insight to share – and I hope that whether they’re the same or not – you will go away with one main idea to reflect on and live with for the coming week.

What exactly are we to make of these beatitudes, these blessings? Some interpretations of scripture have replaced the word blessed with the word happy. Happy are the meek. Happy are those who mourn. Really? That’s the translation in the Common English Bible. Others suggest that what Jesus means is more like a fortunate state of life. Fortunate in life are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled. Fortunate in life are those who are peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Fortunate are you who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for yours is the kingdom of heaven. Fortunate you are – even in what seems like an awful place – being persecuted, because you are on the side of righteousness. Fortunate are you who are poor in spirit – for yours is the kingdom of heaven. It doesn’t seem like a good thing to be poor in anything, but perhaps what this means is fortunate are those of you who know that you need the spirit of God. For those of you who realize that you can’t do it all on your own. Fortunate are the poor in spirit. In all of these, whether you use blessed or happy or fortunate, we get the sense that Jesus is turning the order of the world upside down. Or, as John Wesley reflected, “All this wisdom of God is foolishness with the world. The whole affair of mourning and poverty of spirit is with them – stupidity and dullness.” Jesus turns things upside down.

Instead of reflecting on each individual blessing, it can be helpful to simply hear them in a new way. When we hear them in a new way, they can reawaken us to what they sounded like the very first time we heard them. In the Message, Eugene Peterson writes it this way:
1-2 When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said: 3″You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. 4″You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you. 5″You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought. 6″You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat. 7″You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for. 8″You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world. 9″You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family. 10″You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom. 11-12″Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.

As the passage says, there were crowds who saw Jesus, but when he went up the mountain, his disciples followed him and it was to the disciples that he spoke. Perhaps in the beatitudes, Jesus is describing what it looks like to be a follower of his teachings. If the disciples follow in his teachings, they will indeed be persecuted. They will indeed understand their need for the Spirit of God. They will indeed hunger and thirst for righteousness. These beatitudes are marks of the community that through its actions looks forward to the kingdom of heaven and God, while at the same time brings the kingdom of God into the present by the way they’re living. Blessed are the disciples, fortunate are the disciples, happy are the disciples, for they are part of ushering in the kingdom of God Jesus is talking about! It’s in their midst!

This is how the Sermon on the Mount ends: “Now when Jesus had finished saying these things,
the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.” The reason I bring this up, is that while Jesus was specifically speaking to his disciples, he was aware of the great crowds who were also listening in. And they were amazed at what they heard.

Eugene Boring suggests something related to this that I find quite relevant for the current realities we face – whether it be in our homes and extended families, or our international relationships. He says that the crowds represent the uncommitted potential disciples that Jesus appeals to throughout the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus’ teaching was not only for the disciples, for a special inner group, but for the crowds. The crowds can thus “overhear” the teaching and act upon it as well.

Today, the church stands as the disciples of Jesus. We sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to his teachings. These teachings guide us into a framework of belief and ethical living. Yet even while our internal church talk is carried on amongst ourselves as to what right and ethical living looks like, we are to speak to one another with an awareness that the world is listening in. There is a crowd listening in. All too often the crowd might be amazed at what Jesus has to say, but when they listen in to what we as a church have to say to one another, there is a great disconnect.
When we don’t live by the ethical framework that Jesus taught us, we easily turn those initially amazed and awed crowds away. No wonder the church faces such disillusionment from those who leave and those who don’t see us living out Jesus’ teachings. No wonder some in the crowd view Christians as hypocrites – When we say one thing but do another.

We face many difficult issues in our time that are related to how we choose to live in the world.
Boring says that “if we take Matthew’s model seriously, we will neither attempt to legislate public morality for people of all religions and none, nor will we withdraw into a sectarian community concerned only about the ethical life of our own members.” Instead, the church is challenged to “work out its own ethic based on the presuppositions of our own faith, but to do so with an eye on the crowds that share our concerns, even if they do not share our faith or consider it irrelevant.” If the church’s actions are congruent with the teachings of Jesus, we might just find more people willing and wanting to be part of the kingdom of God – not just that goal for the future, but the kingdom of God we can make present right now.

The crowds are listening in, and they need to see us living out Jesus’ teachings in practical ways.
As we debate the relationship between faith and politics, the world listens in. As the church argues about who’s saved and who’s not, whose sins fall under the umbrella of God’s grace and whose don’t, the world listens in. When we see a parent wearing their cross necklace while at the same time berating their child, the world listens in. When the world listens in on us – what do they hear?

I sure hope it sounds like Jesus and his teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. When the world listens in, may it be the living word of Christ they hear and see in our lives, may we as individuals and the church be hungering and thirsting for righteousness, may we as individuals and the church see that we are poor in Spirit – knowing that we NEED the Spirit of God in our lives. May we as individuals and the church live as a community of peacemakers, and may we act with mercy towards those most in need of mercy.

When the world listens in on us, we know what they’re hearing. We’ve heard and seen it for ourselves. When the world listens in on us, what is it we want them to hear?And how will we live?

As Jesus shifts from offering his blessings, he reminds the disciples AND the crowds of who they are. He reminds them…You are salt. You are light. He doesn’t say, “try to be salt” or “try to be light”. He says we already are salt and light. And we aren’t of much benefit to anyone when we stop being who we are, who God created us to be. You are salt. So be salt.You are light. So be light.Don’t hide who you are. That was the message we shared with the youth at the ReYouNite Reconciling event a few weeks ago. As the world listens in, what they need from you, is for you to be who you are at your core. Whatever that thing is that makes you YOU, it might be that thing that makes you feel odd or weird or unique, whatever it is – be it. Follow Jesus. Live out his teachings.You are salt. You are light.Don’t hide it, for the world is listening in. Thanks be to God. Amen.