A sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, January 29, 2017. The lectionary readings are Micah 6:1-8, Psalm 15, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, and Matthew 5:1-12.
Listen to the sermon HERE.
The scriptures we have heard today are tricky, I think. They can do damage if we simply hear them, sing a few songs, say our prayers, and go on our way. They can seem to describe an ideal faith, a faith that (at our best) we might even pray for, but in our heart of hearts, most of us know we’ll probably never attain such a faith. And so our scripture, on a first hearing—instead of being encouraging and strengthening—can sound intimidating or even discouraging.
In the reading from Micah we hear God’s disappointment and almost heartache at having been let down by his people, God’s beloved. In words that return to us again on Good Friday, God asks, “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery…” And what are we to say? But then God seems to make it even more difficult. Saying we’re sorry won’t be enough. Simply offering prayers of penitence or offering works of charity won’t wipe the slate clean, but instead, God says, “Here is what the Lord requires: “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” We live in a world of bosses and political leaders not chosen by the majority. And so, it becomes very personal: How do I do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God? It’s a question I’ll be living out for the rest of my life, but I’m not sure how close I get to being that person.
The Psalmist is honest in asking another version of this same question: “Lord, who may dwell in your tabernacle? Who may abide upon your holy hill?” But when the answer comes, it offers little solace. “Who can dwell in the tabernacle or abide on the holy hill? “Whoever leads a blameless life and does what is right, who speaks the truth from his heart. There is no guile upon his tongue; he does no evil to his friend; he does not heap contempt upon his neighbor.” And so which of us is that person? The honest answer would be to admit that there are probably very few people dwelling in the tabernacle and almost no one on God’s holy hill. One would need to be perfect and pure, holy and loving.
Lucky for us, that we are not the first people to notice the impossible demands of holiness and wonder what we are to do. The Episcopal Church comes from the Church of England, which was born out of various impulses, but especially born against the backdrop of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther, John Calvin, Martin Bucer, and many others wrestled with this very idea: How do we aim to be holy people while living in a sinful world, and so often falling victim to it?
One enormous goal of the Reformation was to try to break down the distinction between the very holy (or the professionally holy) and every person of faith. Theologians reached back into scripture to remember that ALL the faithful are called “saints,” not just a few. They renewed the biblical idea of the “priesthood of all believers,” reminding the church that everyone has a share in full participation in the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ and also everyone has a share in representing Christ’s sacrifice in and to the world. If the Body of Christ lives in our world, then it lives in us. And so, the faith of Jesus Christ is not for the morally perfect, or even the morally consistent, but is for each broken and sinful one of us.
And I think, this is where the Beatitudes come in.
Again, if we first hear these lovely phrases, “Blessed are those…” we can easily tune out, thinking that Jesus is preaching pretty words, but they have little to do with us who struggle to make it through another day in the real world.
Biblical scholars differ in how the Beatitudes should be understood. Some suggest that Jesus was preaching in a time during which people really thought the end of the world was coming soon and that such preaching was meant to usher in the Kingdom of God. If that were true, then it would explain the urgency and the radical nature of Jesus’ words, especially the blessings for those who endure persecution.
But other scholars suggest Jesus was laying out the basic standard for admission for any who might follow him. If this were so, then the hurdle seems impossibly high. Does Jesus really mean for us to seek out these situations and look for God there?
We all have times of mourning in our lives—whether we grieve the loss of a family member, a spouse, a friend, or grieve the loss of a job, or even another time. But is Jesus really suggesting that we seek out opportunities for grief and mourning?
Some in our world experience religious persecution—too many—but again, are we supposed to be like some of the martyrs we read about who seemed to seek out punishment and persecution?
Well, I don’t think so. I think Jesus is doing several things in this beginning of his Sermon on the Mount, the section that includes the Blessings.
One thing Jesus is doing is simply stating what is the case. How many in this room have known tough times whether because of your own health or the poor health of someone else, and just at the darkest time, someone appeared. God appeared. We don’t look for those hard times, but long after, we sometimes look back and recall a kind of closeness to God that was different from the ordinary. It was unusual, and it had within it God’s blessing.
If anyone has ever really been hungry—whether through circumstance or through a voluntary fasting—then you know that even in such a time, there sometimes appears a fullness that is different from something satisfied by food. It’s a fullness of fellowship with others who share in your situation, it’s a fullness born of being dependent upon God. Again, unless it’s a voluntary fast, this kind of hungering is never something we’d wish on anyone—and yet, when we reflect on it, we remember God was there, and in a strange way, so was God’s blessing.
But even more than simply pointing to the way life sometimes unfolds, I think Jesus is also inviting us to see the world through his eyes, in some ways, to see the world from upside down.
When St. Francis of Assisi began to experience God in strange, new ways, and began to feel the Spirit of deeper conversion in his heart, he sought out abandoned churches to pray in. He is said to have spent a lot of time praying in caves. Reflecting on the process that led Francis to see things differently, G.K. Chesterton writes,
The man who went into the cave was not the man who came out again; in that sense he was almost as different as if he were dead, as if he were a ghost or a blessed spirit. And the effects of this on his attitude towards the actual world were really as extravagant as any parallel can make them. He looked at the world as differently from other men as if he had come out of that dark hole walking on his hands.
It’s that kind of conversion, Jesus is talking about. He’s saying that the wisdom of God looks crazy to the world, because the world’s so-called wisdom is in fact, what’s crazy.
Paul tells the Corinthians that “The message about the cross is foolishness to [most of the world] . . ., but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
Jesus was thought to be a fool by the religious leaders of his day, and his followers have been thought foolish, naïve, inefficient, and idealistic ever since.
Jesus gives us the Beatitudes as a kind of foolishness that has the wisdom of God hidden inside. He offers this list of blessings as invitations, I think, invitations for us to listen and look for God EVERYWHERE, but especially when we’re in a rough spot.
Blessed are the poor in spirit . . .
Blessed are those who mourn . . .
Blessed are the meek, . . . Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness . . .
Blessed are the merciful, . . . Blessed are the pure in heart . . .
Blessed are the peacemakers, . . . Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake . . .
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
In a culture that tells us we need to make more money, build higher walls, protect ourselves at all costs, and even focus on charity “at home,” the Beatitudes sound like complete foolishness.
As Paul says, “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block . . .[many], but to those who are the called, . . . Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
The Church also as a long tradition of a Holy Fool—someone who seems out of their mind, totally bonkers, but serves the role of helping the faithful see deeper truth to their practice and piety.
Early on there were those who sought the silence of the desert of fourth-century Egypt. Their sayings are strange and almost Zen-like and are filled with examples of how they would confuse the sophisticated and side with the ignorant.
Later, there was St. Simeon Salos, a sixth-century monk who went into church one Sunday with a handful of nuts. At the beginning of the liturgy he started throwing them and managed to put out all of the candles. When people tried to catch him, he went up in the pulpit and began throwing nuts at all people. He dressed up in strange clothes, ate sausages in public on Good Friday and did everything he could to question tradition, convention, and propriety.
The great early Church preacher John Chrysostom places St. Paul in this category, pointing out,
Paul himself we admire on this account, not for the dead he raised, nor for the lepers he cleansed, but because he said, ‘If anyone is weak, do I not share their weakness? If anyone is made to stumble, does my heart not blaze with indignation? He nowhere boasts of his own achievements where it is not relevant; but if he is forced to, he calls himself a fool. If he ever boasts, it is of weaknesses, wrongs, of greatly sympathizing with those who are injured.
The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ shows us that the life of faith will always look foolish in the face of worldly ways. If the church ever begins to be taken seriously, we are probably not being who we are called to be. It doesn’t matter how large or great we look to the world. It doesn’t matter how smart or how rich or even how useful we are. It doesn’t matter how holy or how clean our hands get to be. The key to known the risen Christ in our midst has to do with a kind of detachment, a lightness of being, with the ability not to take oneself too seriously, and the gift of being able to laugh at oneself, at the Church, and even at God. May we be embrace holy foolishness even (if not especially) in hard times, so that we might smile quietly and inwardly as God’s inside-out, upside-down kingdom of joy unfolds around us.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.