Today, we have begun a new worship series that lines up with our Lenten devotionals. We have plenty of extra copies at the back of the Sanctuary for you to take home and use as part of your daily prayer and practice. We are primarily going to be reading from and focusing on selections from the Sermon on the Mount, which contains the central thoughts of Jesus’ teaching. This morning, we heard the familiar words of the Beatitudes that begin the sermon, as Jesus lists those who are “blessed” because of their station in life: the poor, the aggrieved, the meek, the hungry, the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers, the persecuted. It’s teaching that is so poetic and beautiful, so much so that we risk catching the startling heart of it. These folks who are supposedly so blessed seem to be the exact opposite of whom we take for blessed. You are blessed if you are rich in spirit; if you have reason to rejoice, not mourn. You are blessed if you are bold and filled and strong, not meek and hungry and merciful. It’s so borderline absurd that other than Jesus’ teaching, the only other possible scenario I can imagine that would pair the word “blessed” with this list of the downtrodden is that of a proper southern lady: “Well, bless their hearts…” and we all know what that means.
But before we go putting Jesus in the cast of Steel Magnolias, let’s take a step back and get some perspective here. This lesson on the hillside doesn’t appear out of thin air, but comes as part of a story that reaches far back into history. Think about our other text this morning, from the book of Deuteronomy. In it, Moses is laying out the rules of conduct for the God’s ancient wandering people as they make their transition from bondage to freedom over the course of two desert generations. They are not only about to inhabit a new piece of real estate, but a whole new identity as sovereign and free people. And so, as they are being shaped for this new phase, Moses wants to lay the groundwork for faithfulness. And it is wisdom that we would do well to heed, too.
By the time the Israelites cross over the Jordan and inhabit the land of Canaan, they will have spent forty years in the wilderness, feasting miraculously each and every day through the gift of morning manna and quail and water that springs from rocks. And when they begin life as a nation, they will be building on the work of others, drawing water from wells that they did not dig, and living in houses that they did not build, and plucking grapes and produce that they did not plant. And so, come harvest time, they will take those first fruits, what the ground gives forth, and dedicate it to God. It is, first and foremost, a way to remember that they are not themselves the givers of these blessings, but merely the recipients. Certainly they worked: they tended soil and cared for the land, tilled and ploughed it. At best, they are co-workers with God in feeding and nourishing their families.
Are we any different? Do we see ourselves as co-workers in God’s vineyard, as stewards of what it is that God has given us? Or do we believe that everything we have is a self-made gift? After all, we are a nation of bootstrap puller-uppers, right? Is there any room in that image for the one who made the boots in the first place?
There’s a crucial point being made in the lesson from Deuteronomy. The image that strikes me is that of a river. It begins as a trickle from a spring up in the mountains. Other springs join with it, as does melting snow that once fell from the heavens, and it makes its way downhill. Once it does, we can drink from it so that we might live. But if we pool it and hoard it, if we stop the flow, it becomes stagnant. Not only do we deny its benefit to those downstream, we also risk its contamination.
Obviously, this is not a scientific lesson on water pollution, or any kind of sophisticated understanding of what makes for potable water. But I do think there’s something in the image that can teach us volumes. You have heard it before, no doubt, the contrast between the two bodies of water in the Holy Land, the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. In both, water flows in from the north. That’s where the parallels stop. The Sea of Galilee teems with life: fish, vegetation. And at its southern end, the water exits and becomes the Jordan River, flowing along the valley. But when it reaches the Dead Sea, that’s it. There’s no outflow. No fish can live in its waters. It is, well, dead.
And if we’re not careful, we are the same. You see, the Beatitudes are a two-way street. If we find ourselves resonating with that list of the oppressed, the demoralized, then blessings come our way. When we are most parched, when we are at our most thirsty, that’s when the nourishing waters of life are our promise to receive. And yet, if we hoard those blessings to ourselves, whether as individuals or as a community, that’s when we become dead. It is when those blessings flow out from us that we become alive, teeming with growth and new possibilities.
That message hit home for me this past week. Here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian, we buried Charles Gorton, who was so beloved in this church, and was a friend to so many of us. At the same time, over at Galloway, a school community which has meant a great deal to me and my family for most of my life, they buried Wyatt Pasley, a middle school teacher who died suddenly and at a young age. At first glance, there was not much to tie these two lives together. They were greatly separated by age and circumstance. But both Charles and Wyatt were teachers. And not just teachers because that’s what they were paid to do, but teachers because it was in their DNA to take their insatiable curiosity for the world around and to share it with those whom they loved. One quick example is that when Charles was in his eighties, he decided that he wanted to learn Spanish.
What these two experiences reminded me is that it is just not the transfer of information that makes a great teacher, but rather an infectious curiosity. If the teacher ceases to be a learner, then there is no longer anything to teach. It is the flow of blessings from what received to what is given that makes a teacher a teacher.
I don’t think we are any different. You see, one thing that Jesus does not spell out in the Beatitudes is how the blessed become blessed. And that’s where we come in. I know we’ve been talking a lot about money here recently, through our capital campaign and our stewardship drive and our financial future, so I want to be clear that I’m not trying to sneak in another subtle money message here. Instead, it’s important for us to recognize that we have a key role in being God’s blessing for the world, no matter what form that blessing takes.
Yes, we grieve; and when we grieve, the promise is comfort. And when we see others grieve, we are to be that comfort. It’s what our deacons know well, delivering meals and providing rides and cards and phone calls when we are sick and mourning.
When our spirits are empty, that’s when the promise is nothing short of the kingdom of heaven. It’s what our Sunday School teachers and worship leaders know, because we take part in our educational opportunities and our worship experiences because we know that we can be filled. And when we are filled, that’s when those blessings of our enriched spirits can overflow.
We are stewards, caretakers, of nothing short of the Holy Spirit. And so, when we are short of breath, that’s when we look for the spiritual oxygen mask, if you will. And we put it on first, not just so that we can breathe; but so that we can help others put theirs on as well.
Jesus blesses us. And he does so not so that we can lord it over others, or see our blessings as gifts to be hoarded. Instead, Jesus blesses us so that we, ourselves, can be a blessing to a world that needs it so desperately. Let your blessings flow, my friends, not just so that you may live, but that others may live and live well.