Saturday, February 1, 2014

Countercultural Christ ~ Sermon (Micah and Matthew)

“Blessed are those who make lemonade out of lemons!”[1]
“Blessed are those with talent and drive, for they shall be unstoppable!”[2]
Isn’t that what Jesus said?  Blessed are those who use all of their gifts and talents to solve their problems?  To achieve the highest of heights?
Oh, wait – he didn’t?
Then it must be the prophets of the Old Testament, right? The ones whose teachings Jesus himself clarified for us?  They were the ones who told us:  Remember the saving acts you have performed for yourself!” Right?  They told us to “Exercise power, love determination, and walk with confidence” – didn’t they?
Oh, no . . . is it possible that we have it all wrong?  That we get it wrong  every day?
Let’s take a look at what Jesus really taught, then and today:
We have before us today a well-known Gospel narrative, Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus has hiked up a mountain, much as Moses centuries before had headed up a mountain.  Now, when Moses trudged up the mountain to which God had called him, he returned with the Ten Commandments.  When Jesus reaches his destination and begins to speak with his disciples, he, too, has a great teaching to convey.  His we know as the Beatitudes.   Words so familiar to us that I think I can safely say that many of you barely heard them a minute ago.   So let’s listen again, carefully, as though we’ve never heard them before, to just the first three of these statements:
"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.”
What can these words possibly mean?  We could spend weeks on these and on the rest of the Beatitudes,  but today we will drink only the smallest sip, take only the tiniest bite, of these extraordinary words – but we will catch a glimpse of Jesus ‘s broad and countercultural vision for our world.
(Countercultural, but not new, I might add.  Jesus adheres strongly to a long Jewish tradition of what is often referred to as tikkun olam, “repair of the world” or “healing of the world.”  If you look at our banners in the sanctuary, one of them illustrates “Healing.”  Our mission statement says that we are about “offering forgiveness and relieving hurt and pain,” and that we are “working to bring new life to barren places” – in other words, we recognize that we, too, rely on the tradition of the prophets and the teaching of Jesus.  We understand that we ourselves worship and serve in a long line of people called to “repair the world.”)
Jesus’s vision and words, though, seem to stretch those of the prophets to new degrees.  Imagine those famous words of Micah as a piece of fabric, stretching across the universe, the words that tell us to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”  Now imagine that fabric pulled and stretched at the edges as Jesus proclaims how justice and kindness and humility are accomplished: by poverty of spirit, and by mourning, and by meekness.  And that those who  live in those ways, the ways of poverty of spirit and mourning and meekness, are blessed.
Does this sound like something you want to sign up for?  Poverty of spirit?  Mourning?  Meekness?
Let’s think about that word “blessed” for a moment.  The Greek word, makarios, is often translated as “happy” or “fortunate.”    Hmmm.   I want you to take a moment, and speak with your neighbors at your table, and share with one another the answer to this question: When have you felt most happy or fortunate in life?  When have you felt most blessed?”
Now, how many of you came up with times of blessing that had anything to do with meekness or mourning?  Can you even describe what poverty of spirit means?  That’s a tough one!
As I considered this text, two items popped up on my computer last Monday morning.  The first was a family photograph – friends of mine with their entire clan gathered for Christmas: mom, dad, six adult children, five in-law children, and at least seven, maybe eight, grandchildren.  They all live in the same general neighborhood, they’re all strong and healthy, and the photograph exudes joy.  We would all call that a depiction of blessing, wouldn’t we?  That picture was followed by several others posted online by different  families, vacationing on various beaches over the past few weeks.  They all look pretty blessed to me ~ although, truth be told, I know well that tremendous sorrow is concealed behind some of those eyes laughing in the sunshine.  But on the whole – blessing, right?  Warmth and sun and fun family times.
The second thing that appeared on my computer was a quote from Etty Hillesum.[3]  Esther, or Etty, Hillesum was a young woman, a Jewish woman, famous for the diaries she kept during the German occupation of the Netherlands in World War II and for the letters she wrote from a sort of interim detention center.  She was eventually, along with most of her family, transported to Auschwitz, where she died in 1943.  In much of her writing, she detailed her relationship with God during those tumultuous years.  The quote which caught my eye is from a postcard card she threw from the train to Auschwitz, which read in part, “We have left the camp singing.”  It was her last communication to the “outside,” and it read more fully: "Opening the Bible at random, I find this: 'The Lord is my high tower. We left the camp singing."[4]
Does Etty Hillesum’s experience sound like what we might term a blessing?  Etty Hillesum’s family was not headed for the beach, or even for a family holiday photo; in fact, none of her family  survived the next years.  And yet she found blessing in a deep, rich sense, in the presence and abundance of God even in some of the darkest days humanity has faced.
Blessed are those who mourn.  Blessed are the meek.  Blessed are the poor in spirit.
Let’s think again what blessed means.  Homiletics professor David Lose suggests that to be blessed is to “[feel] like you have someone’s unconditional regard. It feels like you are not and will not be alone, like you will be accompanied wherever you go. Being blessed feels like you have the capacity to rise above present circumstances, like you are more than the sum of your parts or past experiences. Being blessed feels like you have worth . . . “.[5]
To be blessed , in other words, is to know deep in your bones that you are God’s beloved.  Remember Tricia’s sermon on the baptism of Jesus?  You are God’s beloved. To be blessed means to know, regardless of your exterior circumstances, that God is with you.  To know, whether you reside in a castle or in a prison, that God’s abundant love enfolds you.  To know, whether you could have run five miles this morning or whether you need someone else to help you get anywhere at all, that the one upon whom you ultimately depend is completely faithful in granting you grace and peace.  That’s what being blessed means.
And meekness?  Mourning?  The poverty of spirit that encompasses them all?
Jesus is NOT talking about people making lemonades out of lemons – although it’s certainly good to be creative and resilient in the face of crisis.  He’s not talking about  take-charge approaches to life or achievement  – although both a take-charge attitude and achievement  itself have their place.
He is telling us, instead, that true blessedness, true happiness, is found in reliance upon God.   Ultimate blessedness is found in poverty of self, in emptying of self, in letting go of our own priorities -- in recognizing that abundance is God’s to give, not ours to achieve.  True blessedness is found in seeing that when we mourn, or when we are meek – when we are gentle, when we defer to others – God offers gifts of insight and compassion to us.
Like many of you, I’m sure, I’ve had a lot of things happen in my life.  Not things I would describe as good, or blessed – no -- things I would describe as bad, as terrible.  Of course, I’ve had many good things happen as well – but the bad ones, the losses, the struggles – they make this broken ankle look like a piece of cake.
I won’t offer you platitudes about those rough times. I won’t say things like “When a door closes, God opens a window” or some of those other phrases that friends and I were groaning about just last week.  But I will say that some of the most blessed times, some of the times in which I have most known the enfolding love of God, have come about after and because of those times.  Because I have survived certain kinds of circumstances in my own life, I feel God’s grace accompanying me when I am called to share similar situations in the lives of others.  These are not situations I would seek, or in which I expect to accomplish anything; they are situations in which I can do nothing other than receive what lies before me and recognize those called to let go of what they had thought was so important.  Honor those who suffer and wonder and sorrow. Stand in awe of those who give themselves over to the needs of others.
In a few minutes, we will be celebrating communion – an event in which we are served by the one who understood more than any of us do what it means to be broken, to be meek, to sorrow. Jesus was not making lemonade out of lemons when he healed the sick.  He was not proclaiming himself as the highest achiever of all when he taught the crowds.  He was, instead, establishing himself as the lowest, as the servant of all, as the one who would die to conquer death, and the one who through loss of life would bring new life.  He was celebrating blessedness as the abundance of God’s love for all of us.  He was enacting God’s command to us: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God --  as we ourselves will re-enact in the meal we share this morning.
And so: let us have a blessed morning together.  Let us have a morning in which we remember that we are blessed in many ways.  We are blessed in the warm and wonderful times we share with family and friends.  But we are even more blessed in those times in which we know God’s presence in the face of our own emptiness, in those times in which we leave singing.  Amen.

[1] Alyce McKenzie, “Have a Blessed Day!”

[2] Ibid.

[3] People for Others, “We Have Left the Camp Singing.” (2014).

[4] Sue Gaisford, “Review of An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum” 1941-1943. (1999).

[5] David Lose. “Beatitudes and Blessing.” (2014).


  1. This is a message I will print to save. The David Lose quote is memorable, but your whole sermon is one I want to ponder often.
    Back at SUMC we are having parables and forgiveness is the topic, which will be worthwhile and well delivered, but I treasure being able to have your messages in my life.
    Eve .

  2. thnak you for sharing, such beutiful writing.

  3. Thanks, ladies. One never knows . . .

  4. You "hooked" me with your beginning.

    "We do not need to achieve God abundance" Love that.
    No platitudes...amen...important to name those

    I read Etty's story in a seminary class and I often marvel at her depth of heart and her love and trust of God...indeed...we leave singing!


  5. It is so nice to be reminded that Jesus isn't about trite motivational slogans or condoning our capitalist impulses; He asks us something much more involved. For the first time since...well, ever, I can look at the recent low point in my life and say "amen", and I have you to thank for that. Amen indeed.

  6. Robin, this is outstanding. You have given me much to ponder. Thank you.

  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.