The Beatitudes & the Dream of God – February 17, 2019
Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
One thing that we know for sure about Jesus: he knew how to gather a crowd. We find these words “crowd” and “multitude” a lot in the Gospels and we see that at least once he preached to a throng of 5,000 and biblical scholars tell us that number did not include women and children.
Let’s take a look at this huge gathering of people waiting for Jesus. There they are, seated on a hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee. The view is literally breathtaking. Mountaintops have long been the place for God’s revelation and instruction. They are removed from all that lies beneath them and yet allow us to see everything that surrounds us on all sides.
The crowds that day came from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. And many of them were troubled and in need of healing. Jesus comes down from the heights of the mountain after a night of prayer. He’s been real busy just recently calling his first followers to be his disciples. They were there with him and, no doubt, joined by others who wanted to tag along, maybe even sign up.
In addition, there were lots of people who had heard about him but had not made any decision about his authenticity or what response they might make to him. There were Jews and probably some Gentiles in the mix. They were men, women and children, people of means and the poor, those on the “A” list and the marginalized and I suspect this crowd came in various shades of skin pigment.
Some of them were tired and oppressed by the economic domination of the Romans, just plain worn out from the drain on their limited resources because of an escalating system of taxation.
There were likely at least a few Pharisees who were hostile to Jesus and maybe a few like Nicodemus who were curious. These were the elite of Jewish society. This was likely a very diverse group.
Diversity is one of the things we celebrate at St. Paul’s. All we need to do is look around us at the many and varied aspects of creation and we will see that diversity was God’s idea first. Inherent in the concept is the reality of differences and differences are a big thing in our nation and have been since the founding of this country.
We have grown up with familiar aphorisms such as all human beings are created equal, all free to get a piece of the “American Dream,” all welcome to participate in this fulfillment of life.
Yet we know the truth. History has not been able to deny or suppress it. Whole populations have been excluded from society and oppressed because of how they are different. Ask Native Americans, African-Americans, or women.
Ask the Chinese who were imported to build our first railroads or the Italians or Irish or Polish who came here for a better life.
Ask the two women detained by agents in Montana because they were speaking Spanish—both of them born in the United States or a Pakistani behind the desk of a local gas station or ask lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans folk. Or ask the people of color in this congregation who have been the brunt of racial profiling. What has been their experience of being respected as equals and welcome to participate in the fulfillment of their dream?
Yes, differences are a big thing. If we recognize the strengths they bear we will realize that they are a well of creativity and new possibilities and keep society alive and vibrant. When Jesus preached to those multitudes who came to hear him, I’m sure he was aware of the diversity of the crowd as well as the degree of separation between the “haves” and the “have nots.”
So he gave them—he gave us—not a set of commandments but a set of “Be-attitudes” or “Attitudes for being” –characteristics of the “blessed life,” the dream of God for us and our life together.
The beatitudes are for all of us—for the multitudes. For we are all poor in some way or another; we all hunger for love and validation; we all weep when we have experienced loss; we all know the experience of rejection.
Jesus’ teaching is a pronouncement not an instruction. He never uses words like “ought” or “must” in this text. Jesus announces the way things are in God’s kingdom—not necessarily the way they are in the world we know—but the way God’s dream for it would have us live together in all our differences and diversity.
Now when Luke recorded these Beatitudes, Christians were under stifling oppression by the Roman Empire. The philosophy of their oppressors was to give them the leftovers of life and that was more than enough. There was a clear line of divide between who was in and who was out. In his sermon, Jesus challenges his disciples to be different, not to follow the status quo because that status was a way to wall people in and wall others out.
These announcements by Jesus represent a reversal of the model of success, achievement, reward, and failure exonerated in most societies throughout time and shocker for his audience that morning that he walked among them, touching and healing them, was that his description of what God’s dream is for the world asked them to turn the world’s values upside down and see it as God does.
Here’s the exciting thing about this same Gospel. It is still read all over the world. It is being proclaimed and preached in Africa where the congregation sits on a dirt packed floor, down the line from us in Greenwich, home to many of the powerful and famous, in the slums of Calcutta where Mother Teresa’s sisters minister to the poorest of the poor, in the Silicon Valley where you will find some of the most expensive housing in the country, in shacks on stilts in the wetlands of El Salvador, in communities like Newtown, Connecticut and Parkland, Florida where parents still mourn the violent deaths of children as well as in high income suburbs where parents may be celebrating their kid’s early acceptance by Ivy League colleges. The power of the Beatitudes depends on where you are sitting when you hear them.
It’s really not much of a stretch to compare the crowds on the mountaintop in the first century to the multitudes of the 21st century. History may have changed but humanity has not. In her latest reflection, Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister writes:
“The same emotions, assumptions, values and attitudes in one century simply keep appearing in situation after situation because they are endemic to human nature. They are the stuff of human growth—and of human deterioration, as well. The same feelings, fear, desires and aspirations appear again and again, sometimes to the glory of the human race, sometimes to our shame.”
I wonder if the world laughs at the values Jesus gives us in the beatitudes. To some they may even seem ridiculous. Too many people have it too good to think otherwise. Sadly, too many people have it so bad that they may not even be able to imagine a world in which the values Jesus offers would ever become reality for them.
There is another way—a way that recognizes God’s values and God’s blessings are different from those that society worships. Jesus says we’re blessed when we spend ourselves for the sake of others and blessed when we share what we have with compassion, kindheartedness and respect.
That is the dream of God for us. How do we make it our dream as well? It doesn’t mean that we will have less. It does mean that we will want for others what we need for ourselves—no matter how different they may be from us, and living the life Jesus asks us to, will join them in their right to have it. Today Jesus challenges us to be different. Today Jesus asks us to dream the dream of God.