BIBLE READINGS: Micah 6: 1-8 Matthew 5: 1-12
Jesus opened his mouth and began to speak: "Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven...Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth." Blessed are the students who are so behind in their studies that they can never catch up! Blessed are the chronically unemployed and those on welfare! Blessed are those whose marriages are falling apart! Blessed are those whose time with us is short!
It's most certainly a strange way to begin a sermon. Those people aren't blessed. Blessed are the unemployed, the poor, the sick, the distressed?!!!!!. In our society if you're on welfare, many people treat you as if you have some disease and if you are on the dole some would call you lazy. If you are behind in your studies you are likely slacking off and that "F" you got on your essay serves you right. It's that old Protestant work ethic - keep your nose to the grindstone and you will succeed, will always have a job and be well respected. If you are unable to get a job you must be lazy! If you've been fired you must have done something wrong and you likely deserve it! Besides, it's the way of the world. It's the way things work! It's the way things have to be!
"Excuse me!", says Jesus, "I wasn't speaking about the way things work, I wasn't talking about the way of the world, I'm talking about the ways of God and God's realm." "If you have a perfect life and are blessed in all of the ways you need to be then I guess this sermon is not for you. If you've ever been at your wits end, if you are searching, and unsure and floundering for health or hope or direction in life then listen up!
This passage was not written to be a sweet sounding passage to make everyone feel nice; it was written for scary times such as ours, for people whose lives were far from secure and perfect for people who knew pain and anguish and uncertainty. It was written for those who were discounted and looked down upon by the establishment and blamed for their plight. Remember, when Jesus was criticised for the company he kept, he said, "If you are well - full, saved, certain, content - you don't need a doctor. I've come only for the sick. I've come to invite sinners into a healing relationship with God."
Look at those on whom blessing is pronounced: "those poor in spirit", "those who are mourners", "the meek", "those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, "the merciful", "the pure in heart", "the peacemakers", "those persecuted for righteousness sake. Notice how those spoken of in the second half differ from those in the first. The first ones are people who have terrible and unfortunate things happen to them, in many cases through no fault of their own, while the second group are quite different. The second group are those who suffer specifically because they try to follow God's way of mercy, purity, peace and righteousness. It is to these two groups that the Kingdom of God belongs!
There is a hymn, "Bless and keep us, God" which includes this verse, with its spiritual yet very practical advice and challenge. "Blessing shrivels up when your children hoard it; help us, God, to share for we can afford it. Blessing only grows in the act of sharing, in a life of caring, love that heals and grows."
Two brothers – I call them Alan and Andrew. Alan was dying in hospital – and Andrew was visiting him. Alan was slipping in and out of a coma like state. Andrew was holding his hand. Alan and Andrew had always had an ambivalent relationship and had never once said to the other, "I love you". Now, Andrew knew that if it was going to happen it had to be then and there. So as Alan drifted in and out of a coma he choked back his tears and said, "Alan I love you." His brother opened his eyes and replied, "I love you too!"
It was a moment of profound blessing. Andrew wondered why it had taken 60 years but was glad that there had at least been an opportunity to say it. As he held his brother's hand he took out a picture of his own grandson, just a few weeks old. He cried tears of pain and hope, love and anger and felt blessed in that holy moment. To say "I love you" to a dying brother and to say, "I love you to an infant grandson" was a moment of profound blessing.
In my work as a minister one of the saddest things I encounter is the grieving person who never had an opportunity or never took advantage of that moment to tell someone that they were loved and cared for and some of the most blessed moments are those times when it does happen. Unfortunately, like Andrew found out, it often happens when it's almost too late. Even if it is not a life and death situation, it is never easy. Many times there are no happy endings because it cannot bring the sick person back to health but it brings blessing nonetheless. I have seen it happen almost as if it was the last thing holding someone back from dying and when it does they can die in peace! This kind of blessing isn't always what the world would call blessing!
The last verses of the passage from Micah are probably the Hebrew Scripture's equivalent to the great commandment of Jesus; it is also one of the best known and most loved passages from the Hebrew Scriptures: yet most of us don’t know its context and when that is true, we are in danger of getting an incorrect message. It is actually the conclusion to a passage speaking of a controversy or dispute between God and the people.
In Micah, the language of the courtroom is used to give the reader a picture of a dispute that God has with the people: lets not forget these are not just any people, these are God's own people. It seems that they have forgotten what God has done for them down through the ages! They forgot Moses, Aaron and Miriam and how God enabled them to lead their ancestors out of Egypt to the promised land. They had forgotten the story of how the prophet Balaam refused to bow to the power and wealth of the King of Moab and blessed the people instead of cursing them as Balak wanted him to do.
The question of those long ago defendants is also ours. The question is: how can we re-establish a right relationship with God. I think the key to this passage is not so much in deliberately living the life of kindness, justice and humility before God, but in the realisation of God's love that is there regardless of our action and how this calls from us a response characterised as a life of justice, kindness and humility before the God who loves us. It's not really what we do, it's who we are because anyone can do the right things for the wrong reasons! How do we know that our reasons are right.
We need to realise that it all stems from the action of God. The beatitudes stem from the action of God. In these Jesus holds up those least valued by society and those with little to be thankful for and assures them that they are blessed. That's not how they feel; that's not how they are regarded in the wider community but that's how God acts. The proper response to such an assurance is to live a life of faith and be a blessing to yourself and others. To feel blessed is to live as a blessed person.
We also need to appreciate that this is a life of paradox. The biblical story is one of paradox and strange associations. Strength and weakness, wealth and poverty; wisdom and foolishness. The person of the world believes that if you want it you have to work for it while people of faith live a life of response to the good grace of God that has already been freely lavished upon them. It would seem logical that the blessed life would come to those who work at it; who pray and read their Bibles daily, to the people who work at being blessed. But that's not what the text says. Blessing is a gift to those who aren't good at being spiritual, who feel inadequate. Perhaps it's a little like the Alcoholics Anonymous step "Having realised we are powerless over our lives we decide to reach out to a power greater than our own." So for everyone who hasn't gotten it all together, for everyone who feels like a failure 'God is there, blessing you!" In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul speaks to the paradox of the faith. Foolishness in the ways of the world is wisdom in the ways of God. The cross is foolishness to the world but to those who know its power it is the wisdom and strength of God.
We also need to be people who know and are immersed in the Story. I'm speaking of the biblical story here. We can learn a great deal about our own lives from reading, hearing, and studying those stories of God's people that have been preserved in scripture.
So back to Micah. We are to live that life called for not to earn the favour of an angry God. We are to live our life as a response to the love and blessing God has already lavished upon us. God does not want a life of meaningless sacrifice. No matter how many lambs we sacrifice God will not be pleased. No matter how many thousands we give to the church God will not be pleased. God will not be pleased if we offer thousands of litres of valuable oil or if we volunteer thousands of hours to the church and community. These things are a valuable part of faith but we have to be careful not to put the cart before the horse. This passage tells us that God will be pleased only if we offer our whole selves as a response to the grace of God. To offer our whole selves is to live a life in a community of kindness and justice and to live in humility toward God.
We are fast approaching the season of Lent. Some people are in the tradition of giving things up for Lent, while others take on a special discipleship project. As I said before one of the major problems of Micah's people was that they forgot the story of how God had acted in the past to save and guide the people. But who has time to read the Bible these days? you may ask. I want to challenge you during the 40 days of Lent you to read the New Testament for 15 minutes every day. Doing this you can read the whole New Testament in 40 days.
What does God require of us? What does the life of blessing look like?
God calls us to live a committed life which realises its dependence upon the grace and strength of God.
God calls us to an immersion in the scriptures which opens our lives to the ways in which God is working in our own lives here and now.
God calls us to respond to the love and blessing we have received by being a blessing to others. In speaking to another aspect of God's blessing, the religious writer and teacher Henri Nouwen, writes of his own country, "This nation has more than it needs. When we bless the fruits of the harvest, let us at least realise that blessed fruits need to be shared. Otherwise the blessing turns into a curse." Nouwen may as well have been talking about us and our country. Nouwen's words can also be taken to apply to all of our blessings and to the kind of life that calls us to live.
As a people of faith may we be enabled to truly be a people of kindness, justice and humility.