Words to Build a Life On:
Our sermon series is exploring Words to build a LIFE on
Basic phrases from Holy Scripture that can become the building blocks
Of a faithful life.
Today we’re going to listen to Jesus’ first sermon
from the Gospel of Matthew.
Its a good reading to pair with this vision from John of Patmos
In the book of Revelation,
God showering his blessings on those whom have come
Through the great ordeal
People from every language and culture and place.
The reading from Matthew
People sometimes refer to it as the Sermon on the Mount.
Its Matthew’s way of starting Jesus off
on his ministry of healing and teaching
and inviting people
to see God’s very presence, God’s active presence
in the world around them.
We call this the realm of God
or the Kingdom of God.
Jesus starts all of that with the Sermon on the Mount
and the Sermon on the Mount starts with the Beatitudes
or a declaration of blessing.
Listen this morning for God’s word to us:
5When Jesus saw the crowds,
he went up the mountain;
and after he sat down,
his disciples came to him.
2Then he began to speak, 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 will be comforted.
5 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you
and persecute you
and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
12Rejoice and be glad,
for your reward is great in heaven,
for in the same way
they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
And may God bless to us
Our Reading, and our understanding
And our Applying these words, to how we live our lives. Amen.
What makes for a good life?
Well, sometimes the most sought after symbols of the so-called “good life”
Are the most unattainable.
So reports the Wall Street Journal,
Describing the lengths some people are willing to go to obtain
A cell phone number with Manhattan’s 212 Area Code.
It used to be that area codes were geographic:
I grew up in Saint Louis’ 314 area code,
and went to college in Central Iowa’s 515.
Now, with cell phone technology
it doesn’t matter if you live in California or New Jersey,
in Kansas City or Peoria—
–if you want to be seen as “having what it takes”—
–you get a New York City 212 area code. So says the Wall Street Journal.
This isn’t that new.
There is a classic Seinfeld episode
Where Elaine manipulates the timely death of her neighbor, Mrs. Krantz
As an opportunity to get Krantz’ existing 212 number
instead of having to get one with a newer 646 exchange.
But, Its not just the stuff of television fiction, apparently.
Some people are going to great lengths in manipulating the system
to obtain a “212” no matter where they are.
One media consultant says:
“Since your phone number is quite literally your calling card,
those numbers can say a lot about you,
no matter where you actually are located.”[i]
That’s one approach to the good life.
Larry Richardson had a different approach.
Larry lives in Mulvane, Kansas, south of Wichita.
He decided to build a bridge over Cowskin Creek—
–“a muddy rivulet that winds through croplands there,” in his back yard.
But not just any bridge. No sir.
A 150-foot long, self-styled replica of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Its over two stories tall,
Constructed with salvaged materials, family labor,
and nearly $5000 of his own money
(much the chagrin of his wife, he says).
I saw it last year in a youtube video for a site called
“The Coolest Thing I ever Made”
“We just used a postcard and tried to make it look like it should”
Richardson told a reporter. It took him and his dad nine years to complete.[ii]
The reporter summed it up this way:
“For nearly a decade now, where a couple of cottonwood trees used to stand
this bridge has served as a Midwest monument
to dreams of distant places.”
Apart from cell phones and iconic bridges built out in the middle of Kansas—
–it’s so tempting to want to change our geography—
–searching for where the grass is greener, or maybe the wisdom deeper.
Every distant culture has its ways – its “conventional wisdom”—
–to try to help us deal with the hard times and places of life.
Here are some you may have heard:[iii]
“When two elephants tussle, it’s the grass that suffers.” (Zanzibar)
“Don’t call the alligator a big-mouth till after you have crossed the river.” (Belize)
“If you want one year of prosperity, grow grain.
If you want 10 years of prosperity, grow trees.
If you want 100 years of prosperity, grow people.” (China)
“Pray to God, but continue to row to the shore.” (Russia)
“Do not blame God for having created the tiger,
but thank God for not having given it wings.” (Ethiopia)
“Before going to war say one prayer;
before going to sea, two;
before getting married, three.” (Poland)
There may well be some wisdom in there, among the cultural insights,
but has our geography CHANGED…after we digest those?
What difference do ANY of those proverbs make?
We might do as well just changing our cell phone number…
It seems that a lot that passes for wisdom,
or even more, a lot that we call a “BLESSING” –
–doesn’t REALLY CHANGE much at all…
“Blessing” brings to mind the Beatitudes…
…these “blessings” that are found at the beginning
of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel.
Some may NOT be spelled out as such, but blessings are everywhere.
There are the blessings of “Received Wisdom”.
You know these without me even having to line them out:
Blessed are those who climb the corporate ladder,
they will be blessed with a comfortable retirement.
OR, Blessed are those who invest shrewdly,
especially in a volatile market,
they will be afforded many opportunities.
There are even more “Self-evident blessings”
that don’t need to explain the payoff:
Blessed are those with a superb education.
Blessed are the free.
Blessed are the happy.
Of course, Jesus never said any of those.
In fact, Jesus seemed to go out of his way to NOT speak in those words,
or offer those kind of “formulas for successful living.”
These Words to build a Life On don’t work that way…
It isn’t Jesus who says:
Blessed are the cool.
Blessed are the good-looking, for they will find plenty of friends.
To enter into the world of the Beatitudes,
we need to reintroduce ourselves to the word “Blessing.”
As in, “Blessed are the…”
“Blessing” in our age has become something like winning the lottery.
Or working some magic.
Or SOMEBODY ELSE working some magic.
Or a type of religiously induced superstition.
But the blessings of the Beatitudes point us in a different direction.
These blessings are NOT transactions with the holy
They aren’t good luck charms or “to do lists.”
These Beatitudes don’t fit neatly or conveniently
into our world of striving or aspiring.
New York Times columnist David Brooks took this on recently:
Why do we torture ourselves with things we don’t have
and aren’t likely to get?
Why do we eagerly seek out images of lives
we are unlikely to lead?
It’s precisely because fantasy, imagination, and dreaming
play a far more significant role in our makeup
than we are accustomed to acknowledging.
We are influenced, far more than most of us admit,
by some longing for COMPLETION,
some impulse toward heaven.[iv]
And when the crowds gathered that day on the mountain in front of Jesus,
I’m guessing they had similar longings.
They aspired for MORE than what they had,
for MORE than WHO they were.
But here’s the thing:
these Beatitudes had to be JARRING to all their aspirations.
Blessed are the poor in spirit?
Blessed are those who mourn?
Those who are meek and merciful and pure in heart?
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst—
–NOT for popularity or acceptance,
NOT for acquisitions or achievements—
–but for righteousness?
Blessed are the peacemakers and the persecuted?
Have you heard the cries of those
for whom righteousness is just a pipe dream?
Who wants to stand with the mourning? Blessed are the hungry?
Jesus opened his teaching ministry
NOT to throw cold water on our desires,
but to whet our appetites,
to heighten our desire,
to excite our imagination
(imagination long dulled by a series of fake “blessings”),
to invite us toward heaven.[v]
These Blessings are meant to tune our heart to the way God moves in this world
To excite us about living in God’s kingdom
To open our eyes to what blessing looks like
And how we can take part in it
Right here, where we are
Rather than looking over there where the grass may look greener.
I was looking again at the work of
Father Greg Boyle, who works among the gangs of South Central L.A. – -
Where he combats what he calls a “lethal absence of hope”
that leads to lives of violence.
He was thinking about these blessings within his context
“Scripture scholars contend that the original language
of the Beatitudes should NOT be rendered
‘Blessed are the single-hearted’
or, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’
or, ‘Blessed are those who struggle for justice.’
“Greater precision in translation would say:
‘You are in the right place IF…
…you are single-hearted, [if you] work for peace.
‘You are in the right place
if you are struggling for justice.’
“The Beatitudes are NOT spirituality after all. Boyle thinks…
They are GEOGRAPHY.
They tell us where to stand.”[vi]
That’s how I want you to think about that word
Not as something that conveys status
Not as an accomplishment or a state of contentment
But God pointing you to a place where there is the possibility for
Such good things that can happen
Because God is there too
Working to make all things new
Because God is there
With Love, with justice, with kindness.
Blessings are GEOGRAPHY – they tell you where to stand.
And they re-form the landscape into the contours of God’s hope.
So, this week we heard about
The remarkable rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach
From a unbelievably treacherous cave in north Thailand
That had been inundated with rainwater at the start of the rainy season
And was threatening to swamp their place of safety
After almost a month underground.[vii]
News came last Sunday of the first four boys making it out
Then four more
And finally the last four and the coach
And you could almost hear the whole world leap for joy
A moment of human triumph that we’ve kind of been longing for
In the midst of this current malaise we are feeling these days.
“The most important piece of the rescue was good luck,”
said the Maj. Gen. [Chalongchai Chaiyakham, the deputy commander]
of the Third Army region, which helped the operation.
“So many things could have gone wrong,
but somehow we managed to get the boys out.”
“I still can’t believe it worked,” he said.
Standing there, waiting, hoping
Marveling at the combined efforts of hundreds of people
Who were rushing to save those boys
One of them died in the effort
Blessed were their parents
Blessed were the rescuers
Blessed were those who sent good vibes as they absorbed the news reports
They were in the right place, working for God’s world…
Or how about this, recounted by Tom Long:
Last spring I was leading a clergy seminar
way on the west side of Atlanta,
on the other side of town from where I live.
We took an afternoon off.
It was a long enough break to have some refreshment,
but it was not long enough for me to drive back to my home;
so I tried to figure out what to do with the free afternoon.
I needed a haircut, so I went looking for a Fantastic Sam’s or a Great Clips,
or some place where you could simply walk in.
I found one, and I went in and was in the chair,
and the woman was cutting my hair.
“I don’t recognize you. ” she said.
“Have you ever been in here before?”
I told her no, that I was a Presbyterian minister
and that I was leading a clergy seminar.
And she brightened up and said, “Oh, I’m a Christian, too, you know.”
I said, “Really!”
She said, “Yes, I’m a member of Creflo Dollar’s church.”
You may not know Creflo Dollar,
but he is the latest incarnation of the
“God Wants You to be Rich” theology.
He drives a black Rolls Royce,
he has a corporate jet,
and his congregation has bought him
millions of dollars of real estate.
He is known locally as Cash-flow Dollar,
and Long says–here is this woman telling me,
“I’m a member of Creflo Dollar’s church.”
I’m thinking to myself,
“I’m already getting a bad haircut,
now I’m going to get bad theology as well!”
[Let me interrupt Long’s story
to say that I’ve mention Creflo Dollar in my bible study classes as well
I like to say that he’s got the best name in the televangelism game.]
But Long Continues:
To be hospitable I played along
– she was holding a razor, after all.
I said, “Well, have you got your blessing yet?”
She said, “Oh yes, I’ve gotten my blessing, all right!”
“Well, tell me about it,” I said, expecting her to say something
about the Mercedes in the parking lot
or the diamond earrings in the scissors drawer.
But instead she said,
“Two nights a week I get to volunteer in a shelter for battered women.
I was one myself, you know, and they trust me.
They need me. They know I love them.”[viii]
Blessings are NOT pie-in-the-sky wishes.
Blessings are NOT winning the lottery.
Blessings are GEOGRAPHY – they tell you where you are.
And they re-form the landscape into the contours of God’s hope.
Jesus opened his ministry by going up on a hill and preaching a sermon.
He opened the sermon that opened his ministry…
…by talking about BLESSINGS.
His blessings were NOT conventional or received wisdom.
They were NOT superstition or a grab at magic.
They are the very presence of God that can change the GEOGRAPHY of life.
Fred Buechner once wrote:
“If you want to know who you really are,
as opposed to who you think you are,
look where your feet are taking you.”[vix]
The Beatitudes tell us where our feet should take us—
–they tell us where we should stand.
You’re in the right place if…
you are in a place where… …you can be poor in spirit;
You’re in the right place if…
…you are a mourner seeking comfort,
…if you walk with the meek,
…if you look around, and you are surrounded by folks
who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
You are in the right place IF…
…you are merciful,
…and pure in heart.
You are in the right place IF…
…you are a peacemaker, even if you get persecuted for it.
You walk there,
you stand THERE—
–and you will find the landscape of your life CHANGED
and the very geography
of our troubled world BEING HEALED.
–THAT is a BLESSING…
We are blessed because we walk with God
Among those who are hurting
Because God cares for them.
Words to build a life on.
May it be so.
[i] “212 Lust: Old Phone Numbers Are New Thing in Tech Scene” by Caroline Wexler, The Wall Street Journal, August 18, 2010. The flow of this sermon and some content borrowed from “Geography” by Mark Ramsey at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church of Asheville, TN, September 19, 2010.
[ii] “A Golden Gate Fantasy on the Kansas Prairie” by A.G. Sulzberger, The New York Times, September 16, 2010
[iii] Taken from Context, edited by Martin Marty, June, 2010, Part A
[iv] David Brooks, On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (and Always Have) in the Future Tense, Simon and Schuster, 2004, p. 199
[v] James Howell, The Beatitudes for Today
[vi] Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart, Free Press, 2010, p. 74-75
[vii] Hannah Beech, Richard C. Paddock and Muktita Suhartono “‘Still Can’t Believe it Worked’: The Story of the Thailand Cave Rescue” in The New York Times July 12, 2018. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/12/world/asia/thailand-cave-rescue-seals.html (accessed June 15, 2018)
[viii] From “Just…in Time” by Thomas G Long, preached at the Covenant Network Conference in Memphis, Tennessee on November 3, 2005
[vix] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, HarperCollins, 1973, p. 31