With our Scripture lesson today, Jesus begins the “Sermon on the Mount”. The whole discourse covers three chapters in the book of Matthew. It includes not only the blessings we read today, or the metaphors of salt and light for faith in Christ. It also looks at the sacred Law in depth and what it means to keep up with God. It holds Jesus' prayerful example up, which we have adopted as our weekly prayer, the Lord’s Prayer. In short, it is a summary of Jesus’ teaching and ministry and stands as a kind of “mission statement” for the kingdom of heaven.
Before we jump too quickly from this reading to an application for us today, we would do well to sit with it surrounded by the rest of Matthew’s gospel. If we remember, Matthew’s account of the story of Jesus begins with King Herod’s jealous rage. Unable to locate the infant upstart who might challenge his throne, Herod orders the slaughter of innocents throughout the Bethlehem region. Blessed are those who grieve…
And while Matthew’s gospel ends with an empty tomb and a risen Christ, the grisly details of Jesus’ trial, crucifixion, and death must come first. Blessed are those who are persecuted…
It can be tempting to take the lessons of Scripture and move to what it might mean to us. Don’t get me wrong: we should get there, eventually. That said, to make that leap without first resting in the story for a while risks domesticating Jesus’ message to empty platitudes as we deal with the neighbor with the messy dog or the cousin who derails every reunion or the co-worker who takes credit for everyone else’s hard work. It’s not that these problems are unimportant; in fact, they can often feel like they consume our entire world. Instead, my point is that wrapping up these personal matters in Christ’s blessings might keep us from recognizing that, in the Beatitudes, Jesus was concerned with life and death.
What matters to God is what matters in the kingdom of heaven. And what matters in the kingdom of heaven is what should matter to those who love and follow Jesus, those who call themselves “church”. And that, I believe, is the charge to us today. Are we, those who gather for worship at Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church today, open to these Beatitudes – these blessings, both old and new – moving from idea to reality? And are we willing to let God use us to make that true?
Blessed are the grieving, the humble. Blessed for those who desire righteousness and make peace. Blessed are the merciful, the pure. Blessed are the persecuted, the insulted, the harassed, the hopeless. In other words, blessed are those who don’t feel particularly blessed. What is it that we do – or rather, what is it that God does through us – to shower new blessings on those who are more likely to feel forsaken and alone?
It all begins here. The question is where we go next.
Today’s service, especially our liturgy of healing that will take place later on, are the gift of our deacons’ ministry to the kingdom of God. Many of you know firsthand what these loving people do, offering a comforting presence at those times when we are most in need of comfort. When I think of those who grieve, and how they are blessed, it is through our care for one another that Christ’s promise is fulfilled. My own family has been carried through the chaotic joy of birth and sorrow of death alike by meals, cards, prayers, visits, babysitters, gifts, memorials…all of them in the name of Christ. And I know from what you share with me that I am not alone.
This is, I believe, is a glimpse of what Church can be. What begins with just a few very quickly grows into something much larger, reaching out to the world with love and concern. When we do what Christ calls us to, to be a blessing, then those whom we bless will, in turn, reach out and bless even others. The hope is that this ministry of blessing would reach not only within these walls, but well beyond. Indeed, if our efforts to bless are ever confined by architecture or membership or even whether we judge someone worthy of our care, then they do not reflect the boundless love of God.
That’s both the challenge and the gift of what we do here, week in and week out, as we gather for worship. We are here to be both nudged and encouraged not so that we can live our lives in the church’s echo chambers, but so that we can be voices, hands, acts that nudge and encourage the world with the good news of God’s healing love. In order to breathe, you must both inhale and exhale. We come here to breathe in the Spirit that we might share it with the world, so that others, too, might experience the life-giving breath of God's grace.
It all begins here. The question is where we go next.
Because when we look at the rest of the Beatitudes, at the rest of those whom Christ calls blessed, that is where the church is called to be. We are called to be a blessing to those few who truly seek justice, peace, and righteousness, which is a lonely calling. We are meant to encourage and support those for whom faith is a matter of life and death. I especially think of our faithful, death-defying sisters and brothers in Christ in Syria and Iraq. We are supposed to care for and with those whom society casts to the margins: the poor, the homeless, the sick, the unlovable, those who have lost hope.
It is when we do these things that we will discover not only that we have already reached out to those whom Jesus calls merciful, pure, humble. We will also see clearly that they have ministered to us in ways we can only begin to understand.
Beloved friends, maybe it helps to think of it this way: today we put on our bibs that we might feast in God’s healing presence. Tomorrow, we put on our aprons that we might feed the world in its hunger.