A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
January 29, 2017
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Matthew 5: 1-12
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
5 Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him. 2 And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.
What do you think of when you think of blessings or being blessed? What does it mean to be blessed? These are questions whose answers are sometimes hard to put into terms. We all seem to know what blessings are. right, but maybe we have different views sometimes on what qualifies, what the spectrum is. I went and did some searching around the internet and found a bunch of quotes about being blessed. . . one of the repeated themes I found was luck, as if luck was a synonym for being blessed. . . there was a quote that said, “You may say that I’m lucky, but I’m not lucky, I’m just blessed.” So there must be times when being blessed and being lucky seem and appear to be the one in the same. . . just different sources. . . right, kinda like coincidence, and people calling coincidences God instances, because they don’t believe that things happen by accident, luck and blessings seem to fall into that same dynamic, too, kinda depends on your view of providence, but then I saw other quotes that talked about how struggle is a blessing, that the people who face the most struggle, who carry the heaviest burdens, who find themselves weighed down, or those who would seem by any other measurement to be considered unlucky are the ones who are the most blessed. . . and then I found a quote that said, “ I would say that I’ve been lucky, being blessed and not really ever giving up.” If being blessed is about being lucky, then why would you ever need to quit. That one seemed to combine the two, the luck and the struggle.
The idea of being blessed is kinda like a lot of other things, people see them very differently. . . everyone has a different view. . . I think it is kinda like love, there are people who say I love you all the time, and then there are others who never say it, those who throw the words around without much care, and then others who are almost intimidated by the word. . . so too saying I’m blessed is like that, you have people who if you ask how they are doing, instead of saying an empty “fine” like most people, they say without batting an eye, “I’m blessed” and then others who would never phrase it like that and would be uncomfortable talking like that. People sometimes say, Have a blessed day. . . but others never would, or are again uncomfortable about such phrases.
In ancient times there were specific notions in the world about blessings. . . they were connected to the polytheistic notions of gods. . . to be blessed meant that you had a god who was on your side. . . and blessed you with rewards. . . there was a system in place of sacrifices and rituals done by the one who wants the blessing, to the god who bestows the blessing. . . and many times the effects of the blessings were visible. . . success was a blessing. You would know or say that “he is truly blessed” because he was victorious. He was a winner, winners are blessed and those who are not winners, must not be. . . but these notions of visible blessedness begin to change, and are challenged way before Jesus’ time. . . two examples from different cultures in two different parts of the world, and interesting that they come from about the same time. . . one is the death of Socrates and the other is from an old Chinese anecdote about a lost horse. . .
Let’s talk about Socrates first, for those of you who don’t know the story, Socrates, the great philosopher and teacher of Plato, was accused by the city of Athens of blaspheming and corrupting the young. . . he knows he is innocent, but decides that he will not speak in his own defense. . . so he is condemned to die by the tribunal. . . but he says as he is heading to die that death is not a bad thing. . . he says the oracle that he has inside of him, what we might call conscience, always warns him when he is doing anything even remotely wrong, but at this, he is heading to death with a clear conscience, so it must not be wrong. . . death, wrongfully accused and sentenced to death, this would be considered the picture of unluckiness, unblessedness, but Socrates feels very much like he is blessed. . . could the loser be the blessed one and the winner not be?
The other story, from China goes like this:
A man who lived on the northern frontier of China was skilled in interpreting events. One day for no reason, his horse ran away to the nomads across the border. Everyone tried to console him, but his father said, "What makes you so sure this isn't a blessing?" Some months later his horse returned, bringing a splendid nomad stallion. Everyone congratulated him, but his father said, "What makes you so sure this isn't a disaster?" Their household was richer by a fine horse, which the son loved to ride. One day he fell and broke his hip. Everyone tried to console him, but his father said, "What makes you so sure this isn't a blessing?"
A year later the nomads came in force across the border, and every able-bodied man took his bow and went into battle. The Chinese frontiersmen lost nine of every ten men. Only because the son was lame did father and son survive to take care of each other. Truly, blessing turns to disaster, and disaster to blessing: the changes have no end, nor can the mystery be fathomed.
You see maybe it is that blessings and disasters are not so easy to understand and decipher. . . enter Jesus speaking to the crowd.
It makes you wonder about the people assembled at the mount to hear Jesus talk. . . did they have the same feelings about blessings we do, and by the same I mean all different? Did they know, or feel that they were blessed, or did they have no notion of it because they certainly were most likely not the “winners” of society. And this is an important thing to look at. If you took all this religion stuff out of it, and looked at them with the most worldly eyes possible, I doubt many would say that this group assembled appeared to be the lucky winners. That is not the picture I get of the crowds assembled and flocking to Jesus. Did they consider themselves blessed already, and if so why would Jesus begin his sermon on the mount with this famous list of those whom he considers to be blessed. . . the poor in spirt, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness sake. . . that is quite a list, and I don’t think this list would make the old Dave Lettermen Top 10 lists. . . and I left off the number one. . . here it is Paul, the number one person most blessed. . . .drum roll. . . when you are reviled, persecuted, and when people utter all kinds of evil against you, falsely on my account” Yes, yes, yes. . . no that doesn’t sound like blessings, it doesn’t sound like luck, it doesn’t sound like it would be good at all, but there is Jesus turning the world upside down again.
What does it mean to be blessed if that is the number one answer? And why would Jesus be saying this to the crowd there assembled? What is the effect of this rhetorical strategy? Why start the most aggressive, and I mean aggressive in terms of high social ethical teaching, why start the most aggressive sermon of all time with a list like this? What does it do, you know, other than turning the world upside down, and claiming that the blessing is the opposite of what you would naturally think? Or is it exactly that, is that exactly the point. . . is he saying to them, brace yourself, for you to live out the words that I am going to teach you, the lessons I’m going to teach you are going to need to understand that the world is completely turned upside down from what you think. Because look at the list of things that Jesus is going to go on in this sermon and talk about. . . . you ever do a quick outline of the sermon on the mount? Let’s try it:
So after these so called beautitudes, the world turned upside down list of those who are blessed. . . Jesus goes on to talk about
The Salt of the Earth and those whose salt has lost it saltiness, being trodden underfoot
Them being the light of the world, the city on a hill, that their light needs to shine
That he has not come to abolish the Law, that anyone teaching the abolition of the law shall be at the bottom. . . . that righteousness exceeding the scribes and Pharisees is needed to enter the kingdom of heaven
That not only should you not kill, you shouldn’t get angry
To be reconciled to your brother immedieately before anything else
To make friends with your accuser
To not just not commit adultery, but to not look at a woman lustfully
That you should pluck out your right eye lest it cause you to sin
That divorce and adultery are one in the same
To not swear oaths, rather just stand on your word
To not take an eye for an eye but to turn the other cheek, to give your coat as well, to go the extra mile
To love your enemies. . . .
To be perfect
To give alms in secret
To pray in secret. . . . directly to your father
To fast joyfully
To not lay up treasures on earth
To keep your eye sound and on the light lest you fall into darkness
To not serve two masters
To not be anxious or worry because God feeds the birds and clothes the lilies with wondrous beauty
Don’t Judge, don’t see the speck in your brothers eye while missing the plank in your own
To not profane the holy
To ask, and keep asking
To Seek and keep seeking
To knock and keep knocking. . . .
That there is a narrow gate
That there are false prophets
That it is easy to deceive yourself
That there are many hearers, but not many doers. . .
And that all of this was taught as if he was one who had authority. . . So yeah with an ethical system like that, all of the rules of the world must be completely turned upside down, rewriting the understanding of what it means to be blessed. . . does it mean to have God with you is to be blessed, and if so could anything separate you from it. . . could any of the rules of the world separate you? Could any description of winning and losing define it?
Then I saw a quote from Dracula of all places that said, “How blessed are some people whose lives have no fears, no dreads; to whom sleep comes nightly and brings nothing but sweet dreams.” And I thought how interesting. . . is that my definition of blessed. I can see the wisdom in it surely, but then I was thinking of my niece, and the struggles she went through a couple years ago, and how her families definition of blessed was changed, stretched, challenged, you name it. . . and I wrote this poem.
There are places where the water touches land,
Where the land, peaceful and solid, does stand,
And out in the water, the ripples on the surface flow,
But lurking just beneath do unseen currents go,
And since we are to those unknown a stranger,
We cannot help but feel a sense of danger,
And some would flee and choose to never go in,
To never venture even just one little toe in.
Others of course prefer to run and dive,
For it is in danger they feel the most alive.
They in their running don’t even see the divide,
Never take a minute to see the edging tide,
And so never know the feeling of hesitation,
The paralysis attached to idle contemplation.
But me, I've simply stood there on that ledge
Preferring the known side of the edge,
I do not dive, nor do I flee.
Somehow, here, it seems, I'm called to be,
To sit and ponder the here and there,
On the sidelines, offering inactive prayer,
Content to simply sympathize and give
My watch o'er others as they live:
Shedding a tear for him, a cringe for her,
As the waves arise out of the currents' stir.
But sometimes, while standing there on the side,
A wave can rise beyond the tide,
And what was safe, secure, dry land
Has been overtaken by another's hand.
This very thing happened once to me,
And before I got a chance to disagree
The hand had pulled me out to sea,
And fear looms large in the water's deep,
Like a nightmare produces restless sleep,
And what was left for my soul to keep,
After unwillingly taking faith's final leap?
For what else did I have to grasp
Than the stranger's hand around me clasp'd?
And just whose hand took me from my place,
My safe, controlled, and comfortable space,
And now has me floating through the danger,
That unknown, invisible, frightening stranger?
It couldn't be God. He's supposed to be good,
And good is being safe, where I securely stood,
Not risking my sanity, nor life, nor limb
In a real life version of sink or swim.
What kind of God would bring me here
Where I am floundering in doubt and fear,
Wondering if anything I'd been told was true
About Jesus Christ, or Love, or You?
And with each new crash and pounding wave,
The shadowy threat from the beaconing grave,
I question everything I thought I knew,
And so have no clue of what to do,
My arms flail and my legs reach down
To find some solid piece of ground,
But nothing firm do I feel or find,
No respite for my desperate, seeking mind,
No place anywhere to rest my soul,
No firm foundation within my control.
It's then my despair did deep descend
But just as I thought I'd reached my end,
I came to know a different truth,
Beyond the fairy tales of my youth,
A truth that isn't comfortable and nice
But is always willing to pay the price,
Not standing on the sidelines from afar
Bright, but as distant as the farthest star,
But gave it all up to live with us here,
To share our pain, to experience our fear,
And still was willing to pay the cost,
Nailed high to die upon the cross.
I remembered then that he calmed the sea
Could he still do the same for me?
Could it have been his hand after all
That he didn't really ever let me fall,
That I was safe there in his hand,
Despite being taken from the sand,
That though I didn't have control,
He stilled cared deeply about my soul,
And never ever did forsake me
Though from my comfort he did take me?
Eventually calm was restored. I was back on land.
On my own two feet it seemed I could stand,
But I learned of strength I never had known.
Through the trial, I somehow had changed and grown.
I no longer was paralyzed by worry and doubt,
For he pulled me into the sea and delivered me out.
There was nothing to fear and hold on tight to,
For He's Lord of the darkness and Lord of the light, too,
He's Lord of the land and He's Lord of the waves,
For He's the Lord who creates, sustains, and saves,
There just is no place apart from His grace
No trouble that causes Him to hide His face,
No problem, no mess, no danger too large
To make me doubt that He is always in charge.
No, I no longer need to feel secure
In the safe, controlled, comfort of the shore,
For I've now survived the depth of the sea,
Because He never ever abandoned me.
If being blessed is knowing that you are in the hand of God, cared for, and loved beyond all understanding, it would change the way you saw the water’s edge. . . may we all come to be blessed enough, by any means necessary, to come to know that crucial truth. . . . amen.