Blessings and Shelter

Epiphany IV, 2011—
Micah 6:1-6; Psalm 15; I Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12

“O Lord,
who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?”

Earlier this week, many of us
watched the State of the Union address
on television. In the minutes before
the President’s Address, the Supreme Court entered,
all in robes, to sit at the front of the Congress.
It’s always a thrilling moment, at least for me,
when the Justices enter the Chamber, and
I ponder the seriousness of what they represent.
This year, in response to the Arizona shooting,
members of the Congress decided
to sit together as an act of visible unity,
a sign of being willing to work together,
rather than being grouped by party.
It was a good moment,
to see for an hour, at least,
our common interest as Americans,
turn toward peacemaking amongst ourselves.

A state of the union address presents
the President’s perception of how things are for us,
and what the future might look like.
Inaugural addresses are similar—
we hear in them a vision for the future.

What we have in this morning’s Gospel
are the opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount,
the Inaugual Address of Jesus’ ministry,
as Matthew understood it.
It’s a vision and a game plan.
Matthew wants us to understand Jesus as the Messiah,
that he is the fulfillment of the scriptures,
the living Word of God, the living Path.
Jesus’ presence is God-with-us.
This is he for whom we have been waiting.

Yet, when the Messiah came,
in Matthew’s view,
it didn’t happen the way any one expected.
Jesus doesn’t come with the trappings
of a political messiah, not at the beginning, and not at the end.

Jesus overturned the tables of expectation.
His first inaugural address
for the Kingdom was in keeping with his strange birth,
in an obscure corner of the world.
The Messiah comes offering paradox and surprise.

Jesus ministry begins, as St. Paul points out
in the First letter to the Corinthians,
in a manner in keeping with the “foolishness of the cross.”
God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.
“Not many of you were wise by human standards,”
Paul writes with candor, “not many were powerful,
not many were of noble birth, but
God chose what is foolish in the world
to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world
to shame the strong, God chose what is low
and despised in the world, thing that are not,
to reduce to nothing things that are,
so that no on might boast in the presence of God.”

This foolishness of the cross,
this upside down, surprising, from the ground up,
this deliberate undoing of the proud, the wise, the powerful,
this reducing to nothing the things that are,
this foolishness of the cross is a principle of the Kingdom of heaven,
a marker that God is at work.

And that paradox is everywhere present,
in this first discourse of Jesus.
Matthew wants us to see Jesus in line with the spirit
of the Jewish prophets, and as the living embodiment of the Torah.
He presents Jesus, who, like a prophet,
points out to the people that God asks for a humble heart,
a life turned to justice,
a life whose center is our relationship to the Holy One,
and love of neighbor.
And when we walk humbly with our God,
as Micah prophecies,
we do it together, in holy living, on a living path.

Here in the Beatitudes, Jesus
lays down a vision of the people of the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus’ vision of people who abide in God’s tent,
or dwell on God’s holy hill,
looks remarkably like the vision in the Psalm,
and the prophecy in Micah.
There were no legal justices in robes,
pacing in through a crowd,
The righteousness/justice,
Jesus is interested in here is God’s justice
and God’s peace made present on earth.

Rather than the august chamber
in the political heart of a government,
Jesus offered his inauguration speech
outside on a mountain slope.
This high place is in keeping with
the Jewish understanding of mountains
as places of revelation—like Moses at Sinai.
Matthew draws a parallel to Moses.

Jesus spoke his discourse to a raggle taggle crowd of disciples,
ordinary people gathered from seaside villages around Galilee.
And what he tells them, and us,
is that the kingdom is present, for us,
here and now, in the circumstances where we least expect find it.
For who believes that he or she is or blessed happy
when they are poor in spirit? or in mourning?
or hungering and thirsting after righteousness?
Who believes that going after purity of heart,
or practicing mercy, and making peace,
are more important than anything else we could be doing?
And who among us really thinks that persecution
is a sign that God’s kingdom is actually ours?

But this is a description of the kingdom of God,
not that we have to become poor in spirit,
or hunger, or thirsty, or meek,
but that we already are those things.

Because of the grace of Christ,
when we are poor in spirit, and we call out to God,
there is an answer.
Because God’s gift to us of his only Son on the Cross,
when we hunger and thirst after righteousness, we are fed.
Jesus offers himself for us:
he exchanges our suffering for his joy,
for his compassion, for his mercy.
We can be merciful, we become pure of heart,
because of God’s grace in Christ.
We can be true peacemakers, because his peace
pours down upon us.

This kingdom has already come among us,
Jesus says, in this passage, from the ground up,
in the midst of the poor, in the midst of those who show mercy,
and who want to see justice done on earth.
It has come for those who are mourning;
in a comfort that could not be predicted,
a never-ending source of compassion.
It has come for those of no account, those “meek”
those lost ones, who cast themselves upon the mercy of God.
The kingdom has come for them and for us, in Christ.
These Beatitudes are his promises—they are the Gospel.

And Jesus, says, too, that it may take time for us
to see the kingdom at work—we might not be able
to see it happening in the moment.
So patience is part of this kingdom work—he’ll go
on to speak about that in later sections of this Sermon.
But today, we see what he sees in front of him,
a people in search of God, who come from every walk of life.
Some are poor, some are hungry,
some are successful by the world’s standards.
All are searching for God and God’s holiness.
Because of his presence among us,
because of his grace, and his offering,
they and we will become a people pure of heart,
a people who live by mercy,
who hunger and thirst after justice,
who seek and make peace, who inherit the earth,
not as the powerful, but as the meek, the least, the little ones.

The church doesn’t always look like a worldly success.
We’re here to help others, to do ministry,
to forgive and be forgiven,
to lay down our lives, as Jesus did,
and to watch and pray
for the foolishness of the cross among us,
the kingdom of heaven near at hand.

And if we’re not persecuted for it,
if we don’t get in a little trouble for it,
if someone doesn’t have a problem with us making
our spiritual life a priority, for example,
or our generosity, or radical mercy,
or ministries of compassion,
or practicing peace-making,
then we’re not doing it right.

We could be rocking the boat of what’s possible, as Jesus did.
He wasn’t satisfied with anything less
than the kingdom of heaven near at hand.
For those who suffer, this spiritual kingdom,
Jesus is saying, offers us shelter and refuge.
The Beatitudes are an invitation, to come in
under the canopy, under shelter of heaven,
and be a people of God.
They are a blueprint of life lived with God in Christ,
a blueprint for ministry.
They are his promises, too,
which offer a shelter of blessing.
If we were to translate blessing
even more closely to the Greek, we’d say
“Happy are those…”—for blessings bring happiness.
Happy are those who are poor in spirit—
the kingdom of heaven is theirs, they, and we,
know we need that heavenly shelter,
that refuge: we seek it, and we bring others with us.
Happy are those who mourn, for under that canopy of grace,
they will be comforted, and sometimes we, as Jesus
representatives on earth, are the ones he asks to offer that comfort.
Happy are the peacemakers, because the Prince of Peace
rules in our hearts, reconciling us to God, and to each other.
Happy are you who seek him,
for you will find him.
That is his promise, then and now.

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