Sunday, February 02, 2014

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Matthew 5
Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them. He said:
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 be shown 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 because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

My goal this morning is to preach without mentioning Groundhog Day, the Superbowl or Rob Ford. There, I’ve already failed.

What is it about humans, that we so given to rituals and personalities? It’s just a big rodent, people. And according to Wikipedia, groundhogs only live about six years, so I’m having some trouble believing in the Wiarton Willie of my childhood, bringing Canadian content to all the people who long for a quick end to winter.

And I understand there is a football game tonight. Apparently, it seems rational to some that the Boeing Corporation flew a 747 over half of Washington State this week in the pattern of a giant “12.” Of course I need these things explained to me, so thank goodness for the internet. Ask me (or Dave presumably) over Mac ‘n Cheese.

The best idea for a sermon this week came from my dear friend the Jimmy, who suggested as a homage to Groundhog Day (the movie) that about midway through the sermon I just start it again from the beginning and see if anyone notices. So now you have to listen, and stop trying to figure out the number 12 thing.

So we focus instead on the number eight, the number of Beatitudes in Matthew 5, and take comfort knowing that the meek will inherit the earth, which likely has no bearing on the outcome of the big game. And while someone in the locker room tonight will likely thank Jesus, I know for certain that all the teaching around poverty of spirit, persecution and the need for comfort are directed at Leaf fans.

So we begin at the beginning. Matthew, unlike the other Gospels, feels the need to give us the 42 generations from Abraham to Jesus. He presents a short birth narrative, including the flight into Egypt, then the baptism of Jesus, a time of testing, the call of the disciples and his first healing, all in four chapters.

By chapter five it is time for some teaching, and we get perhaps the most famous sermon in history, the Sermon of the Mount. It will continue for three full chapters and include his best known lessons, including the Lord’s Prayer itself. What Bob read today, called the Beatitudes, is merely the introduction to an entire worldview made manifest through the Sermon of the Mount.

“Beatitudes” comes from the Latin beginning of each clause, using “happy” or “fortunate” or “blessed” to describe the subjects of the passage. And each saying is complete, creating a new way of thinking about each of the peoples listed, and a new way of imagining our world. But that would be jumping ahead.

If we begin at the beginning, we need to think about the way Jesus met the world: always at the intersection between his experience of everyday life and the Bible. When Jesus says “love your neighbour” he is quoting Leviticus and reflecting on our general failure to acknowledge our neighbours or learn to love them. He takes experience and brings it to the Bible.

And so, in the most general terms, experience for Jesus meant the life he witnessed each day, life under Rome, in a bit of a backwater, with all the things that came with it: poverty, grief, cruelty, war, and the kinds of compromises that make righteousness difficult. You could even argue that verse six (“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled”) is a summary of the entire passage, with righteousness being the goal of a life of faith.

In other words, the people want to be righteous, but they live in difficult times. And Jesus goal, speaking to our hearts in the context of the Bible, leads inevitably to the Psalms. Jesus cited them, sang them with his disciples, and even quoted one from the cross, and so we understand that the key to this passage likely lies somewhere in the Psalms. So we begin with Psalm 37:

Be still before the Lord
and wait patiently for him;
do not fret when people succeed in their ways,
when they carry out their wicked schemes.

Refrain from anger and turn from wrath;
do not fret—it leads only to evil.
For those who are evil will be destroyed,
but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land.

A little while, and the wicked will be no more;
though you look for them, they will not be found.
But the meek will inherit the land
and enjoy peace and prosperity.

There are some, of course, who reject the Psalms, as too much ‘good versus evil’ and too simplistic in promising that the wicked will suffer and the good prosper. But I think we read them in the same manner that Jesus read them, as a challenge, as a source of hope, and perhaps even as a manifesto.

And reading them as a manifesto, it follows then the poor, the grief-stricken, the meek, the justice-seekers, the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers and the persecuted would all find solace somewhere in the Psalms. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me” becomes “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

So that’s a lot of Bible, so maybe we should go back to context. And for that, I want to look at the meek. Who were the meek? We might look no further than slaves in the Roman world, the most obvious group in any effort to identify the meek.

Now slavery was not unique to Rome. Every society practiced it, and some took it to extremes. Some historians have estimated that for every free Spartan there were seven slaves. So while there were millions of slaves in the Roman empire, they still only made up 10 to 15 percent of the overall population.

And their lives were remarkably varied. Most, of course were rural and agrarian, doing the hardest labour under the worst possible conditions. But some, particularly those in towns serving the wealthy, lived in comfort. Some even held property, and a some accumulated enough wealth to buy their freedom.

Most however were treated as the law described them, as property, even going so far as describing the act of escape as theft, denying the owner his property. And they were bought and sold, most famously when Julius Caesar sold an entire region of Gaul, 58,000 slaves, in a single transaction.

It is important to note that Jesus does not directly condemn slavery. He was human enough, I suppose, to see that such subjugation would never end, as indeed it persists in our world today. But he laid the groundwork for a new approach to the meek, and by extension to slaves generally, when he insisted that they would someday inherit the earth.

Indeed, as this new religion of redemption and new life begins to get a foothold, it is commonly noted that slaves and freed staves are among the earliest members. Tradition tells us that among the first Bishops of Rome, three were former slaves.

And this made no sense to the Roman overlords. You could be kind to your slave, you might let a learned slave teach your children, but you would never share a religious ritual with your slave. But in the Christian church, around the communion table, everyone was equal: male-female, Jew-Greek, slave-free: one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3.28).

The beatitudes remain compelling, of course, because their promise remains unfulfilled. We embrace them, and recite them, and hold them up precisely because they remain a fond hope for this and every time. We seek the righteousness that will free people from hunger, persecution, and discord; and we know that the merciful and the pure of heart belong first to God. May we long for this vision, where a weary world and the Psalms meet, and meek inherit the world. Amen.


Post a Comment

<< Home