NT Wright tells the story[i]
of the 1952 British film called “The Sound Barrier”
The Greatest Adventure Story of our Time…
No plane had ever flown faster than the speed of sound.
Many people[, in fact]
didn’t believe it was possible.
Some thought the plane would disintegrate under the forces
that would be generated.
[And so,] in the movie, various pilots took their planes
over the magic figure of 735 miles per hour,
only to have the planes DISINTEGRATE
with the huge vibrations, or to crash [gloriously].
The controls, it seemed, refused to work properly
once the plane came to the sound barrier.
The movie shows one plane after another, breathlessly tackling
this technological challenge.
For some drama, of course,
they threw in a close friendship between the
widow of one of the deceased pilots, Susan
and Jess, the wife of Philip Peel,
the one who is to fly the next reckless attempt.
Finally, at the climax of the movie,
[Peel] figured out what to do.
[Apparently] when the plane broke the sound barrier
the controls began to work backwards.
Pulling the stick to make the plane bring the nose up
sent it downward instead.
With great daring, Peel took his plane to the proper speed.
And at the critical moment, instead of pulling the stick back
he pushed it forward.
And what do you know: what normally would send the plane
into a dive instead lifted the nose up,
and on the plane flew, fast and free,
faster than anyone had travelled before.
* * *
The Sound Barrier was a great success, both in its native Britain
and over here in the US.
It won an academy award—for best Sound Recording,
And it was nominated for a second,
for best Story written directly for the screen.
But if you ever find yourself in an emergency situation
behind the controls of an airplane that is flying that fast
you’d do well to ignore this advice.
Chuck Yeager, the first human to move faster than the speed of sound
insists that it wasn’t like that, not for him.
Not the first time movie fiction
didn’t quite match up to real life.
* * *
Even so, Wright argues, the movie tells us something
about what Jesus is up to here.
Sure, his analogy is a bit corny,
but it is helpful for us I think this morning:
Jesus thinks he’s taking God’s people through the sound barrier—
–taking them somewhere they’d never been before.
The one thing most people know about planes going through
the sound barrier is that you hear a loud explosion… right?
Well, many of Jesus’ contemporaries would have said
that this is exactly the effect these simple words would have had:
Blessed are the poor in spirit? Really? Surely you jest!
Blessed are those who mourn? In what universe, Jesus?
Blessed are the meek? Really, only meek people say that.
we all know that’s not true.
Blessed are those who ache with hunger for justice
those who are merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers.
Now’re you’re just being ridiculous, Jesus.
At least one other commentator, Matthew Myer Boulton,
sees these blessings of Jesus as audibly, audaciously wrong:[ii]
Like a thunderclap, these…words are meant
to directly contradict conventional wisdom.
Or, to put it another way, Jesus is confronting us with something
we really don’t think is true…
Boulton argues that
our assumptions go something like this:
Blessed are the rich, in things and in self-assurance.
Blessed are those untouched by loss.
Blessed are the powerful.
Blessed are those who are “realistic” about righteousness,
compromising at every turn.
Blessed are those who demand and exact an eye for an eye.
Blessed are the crafty and opportunistic.
Blessed are those bold enough to make war.
Blessed are those who, doing good things, receive many accolades.
Blessed are those who, following Jesus,
are widely praised and adored….
And I think he’s right.
Just pause now and close your eyes and think about it.
Who is it that we look at and think are ACTUALLY blessed?
* * *
Every culture promotes some vision of what is fortunate. [iii]
Every culture has its own definition of success.
Both ancient Israel and Postmodern America would probably include health,
and the ability to provide for ones family.
In addition, our society has long promoted the goals of accumulating wealth
and amassing power
popularity, recognition, prestige.
Entire industries of reality television have popped up
on the premise that everyone wants to have their day in the sun.
So-called Mens Magazines promote virility and ambition;
women’s magazines advance perfect beauty, whatever that means
and ideal relationships.
Or try this strategy for watching the super bowl tonight—
as you watch the commercials,
ask yourself the question:
who are those who are happy here,
who are fortunate, who are blessed?
What am I being asked to buy,
to wear, to drink, to drive, to google,
to consume in the ever-relentless
pursuit of finding purpose
of fitting in?
* * *
It can get so exhausting,
keeping up with the joneses.
And that’s just for those who are in the game.
What about those who are living paycheck to paycheck
or those out of college who can’t get a job or a foot in the door
or what about those whose chemo saved their life
but left them bankrupt.
or those broken because of all they have to do
just to care for loved ones.
* * *
According to Matthew,
Jesus, after going throughout Galilee,
healing and preaching, finds a hillside and sits down
and begins his so called Sermon on the Mount
with this audacious, crazy list of blessings.
Sure, there may be some teaching going on
a way to instruct his disciples gathered around him
but there’s something much more important going on here.
Jesus is describing the realm of God, the Kingdom of Heaven.
According to Matthew, this is what Jesus himself is bringing about
by his teaching and his witness
and soon his death and resurrection.
The Kingdom of Heaven – Not some place in the sky
in the sweet by and by
NO, the realm of God inbreaking in THIS world
redeeming OUR lives
saving THIS place….
This realm of God, Jesus says,
doesn’t orient itself by the same things we do.
Where the world lifts up the strong, the rich, the powerful,
God particularly blesses those on the margins:
the meek, the peacemaker
those mourning loss and those suffering pain
and persecution for God’s sake.
THESE, Jesus says, THESE are the truly blessed.
They will see God. Theirs is the Kingdom of God.
They are the ones God’s heart connects with.
All you who don’t see yourself as worthy, as deserving of respect
as valuable: know this…God loves you and blesses you.
Rejoice and be glad!
* * *
No matter if we want to use the image of the controls being all turned around
or a huge sonic boom echoing across the sky
or a giant thunderclap
it was words like these that had Jesus in trouble
with the Jewish leaders and the Roman powerbrokers alike.
Because from these words, we begin to see the HOPE we have in Christ
that God’s value system doesn’t quite line up with the world’s
that God loves you just fine as you are, thank you very much
even as God wants justice and kindness
and humble walking to be our measure
for dwelling in God’s realm.
* * *
My mother used to have a pin that she’d wear
that would make me roll my eyes when I saw it:
2 Be Stressed, it read.
But now as an adult, I marvel at the blessing she has always been to me
and to many others.
By it, I think she meant to signal that she was trying to see herself
as blessed, as receiving the same blessing as Jesus offers here
and to go a step further, wanted to BE a Blessing too.
Our challenge, it seems to me,
and more than that, our great opportunity,
is for us to hear what Jesus is saying to his disciples, to the crowds
and for us to see ourselves as blessed:
NOT for what we’ve achieved according to the world’s standards
NOT for our wealth, such as it is
NOT for our achievements in professions or school
or what have you
But blessed because ALL of us are broken, hurting, healing creatures.
And it is as broken, hurting, healing creatures
known, loved, blessed by God,
that we can reach out in acts of love and mercy
acts of peace and meekness to others
that we can be a blessing to others too.
That is what following Jesus is all about.
How can we be a blessing?
How are we being called to recognize our blessings
and to see the realm of God all around us?
May we, all of us, hear God’s mighty thunderclap
and turn to see what the realm of God is all about
so that we can be struck by the force of God’s blessing
and, in joyful response, go out to bear God’s blessing
May it be so. Amen.
[i] NT Wright Matthew for Everyone Part One: Chapters 1-15 (Westminster John Knox: Louisville, 2004) pp 35-36. Information about The Sound Barrier from Wikipedia, accessed February 1, 2014: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sound_Barrier
[ii] “Homiletical Perspective” Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, Volume 1 Chapters 1-13 (Westminster John Knox: Louisville, 2013) pp 76.
[iii] Christine Chakoian, “Pastoral Perspective” Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, Volume 1 Chapters 1-13 (Westminster John Knox: Louisville, 2013) pp 76.