Sermon of the Week
Keywords: Sound Barrier, NT Wright, Sermon on the Mount, Blessings, Super.
The Biblical Scholar and Anglican Bishop NT Wright
tells the story[i]
of the 1952 British film called “The Sound Barrier”
The Greatest Adventure Story of our Time…
I had never heard of it, but Wright describes the basics pretty well:
No plane had ever flown faster than the speed of sound.
Many people[, in fact]
didn’t believe it was possible.
Some thought an airplane would [simply break apart] under the forces
that would be generated [when trying to fly that fast].
[And so,] in the movie, various pilots took their planes
over the magic figure of 735 miles per hour,
only to have the planes [break down]
with the huge vibrations [associated with flying that fast],
or [they would] crash [impressively, as only movies can show you].
In the movie: the controls, it seemed, refused to work properly
once the plane reached the sound barrier. Wright says.
And so the movie shows plane after plane,
one plane after another, breathlessly tackling this technological challenge
only to fail and come up short.
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 supposed to fly the next seemingly reckless attempt.
Finally, after all this drama
at the climax of the movie, Wright says,
[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.
We broke the sound barrier.
And with that,
human beings had accomplished something fantastic, spectacular, audacious.
Or, in the parlance of the 1950s, it was something “super-duper.”
(There’s a side story here,
about how that word “super” became more and more popular
through the 50s and into the 60s,
and was given to a popular children’s toy at the time,
the Super Ball, one of the most popular toys in America apparently in the 1960s,
and how this oil man and sports enthusiast named Lamar Hunt
had given them to his own kids, to their great delight,
and when he was searching for a name for the championship game
of a newly envisioned collaboration of conjoined football leagues
he decided to call it the Super Bowl…
but we aren’t thinking much about that today, are we,
so we’ll just leave that little trivia note there and move right along….)
The Sound Barrier, both in its native Britain, and over here in the US,
was a great success.
Movies, like any great art form,
try to capture some of the best of the human spirit,
and in the early 1950s, that was the technological challenge of flying faster
than we ever thought possible.
It won an academy award—for best Sound Recording, sure,
but still, that’s an academy award.
And it was nominated for a second category,
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 actually fly faster than the speed of sound
insists that it wasn’t like that, not for him.
The whole counterintuitive thing
about controls working backwards past the sound barrier…not true.
Not exactly the first time movie fiction doesn’t quite match up to real life.
Even so, Wright argues, the movie tells us something
about what Jesus is up to here, in the Gospel according to Matthew
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 you’re just being ridiculous, Jesus.
At least one other commentator,
one of my colleagues from Seminary, Matthew 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
an impossibility, like the sound barrier,
that we’ll never get past…
Instead, 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 got a point.
If you wanted to test that out, close your eyes, and picture in your minds eye
who it is we think are ACTUALLY blessed?
Who is the image that comes to mind?
I’m guessing you picture some celebrity perhaps,
an athlete or a musician or movie star…
Maybe you see a titan of industry—
these days, that would be a Mark Zuckerberg or a Warren Buffett or a Jeff Bezos.
My kids might have in mind a so-called ‘you-tuber’
one of these people with a million followers,
because they have the skill of connecting with people
Every culture promotes some vision of what is fortunate.
Every culture has its own definition of success.
Both ancient Israel and Postmodern America would probably include health,
some measure of prosperity,
the ability to provide for one’s family.
We might add to that
the way our society has long promoted
the goals of accumulating wealth and amassing power,
not to mention popularity, public recognition, prestige.
Entire industries of reality television have popped up
on the premise that everyone wants to have their day in the sun.
There’s a new survivor starting this week,
like clock-work, the week after the super bowl,
and this year’s offering of The Bachelor, ever the train wreck
is still going strong.
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?
(Beyond the Chiefs fans, I mean, who are watching Patrick Mahomes
pass for 600 yards and score 56 points)
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 in-breaking 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! God is in your corner. God is wearing your Jersey.
God loves you.
It is not that God wants people to be poor, to be suffering, to be broken;
but God sees them, God sees them.
And God gives them blessings, as God will work to mend what is broken
and piece together what hurts
and bring people up out of poverty.
Now, wouldn’t that be super?
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 religious 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.
Growing up, 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 wearing 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
at the Sermon on the Mount
and to go a step further, that she 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
particularly those of us who are relatively comfortable,
wealthy, stable, secure,
also 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?
There’s today’s question, on this first Sunday in February:
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
What a great calling for all of us.
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, 2020: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sound_Barrier
[ii] “Pastoral Perspective” Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, Volume 1 Chapters 1-13 (Westminster John Knox: Louisville, 2013) pp 76.