Scripture Text: Matthew 5: 1-18
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.
I’m no real Bible scholar but I think this passage is indeed the pinnacle of Jesus’ ministry. This is the lynchpin, the place where it all comes together, and, sadly for this world and this culture, the place where Jesus’ message begins to turn away from an affirmation of what we do as “religious folk” to a calling to go forth and do something different. This passage turns orthodoxy around. Orthodox…what an interesting and misdefined word. It has come to define the “accepted” beliefs of the church, the traditional views. In essence, it has come to mean the opinion of the majority. But history has shown us that that has often proved to be problematic.
Here’s a date for you: April 15, 1947…on this day, 64 years ago, Jackie Robinson debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers and, against all odds, broke baseball’s race barrier and made history. But, like most history, he had help. Just before he was signed, the pastor of Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims in Brooklyn had a visitor. The visitor’s was Branch Rickey, already well-known. They didn’t have a deep pastoral care talk. Rickey just paced. And the minister went about his work. Then Rickey plopped down in a chair and screamed, “I’ve got it.” “I’m going to sign Jackie Robinson to the team.” There were warnings. A well-known reporter said that there would be riots in the street on this day. Rickey instead believed that all of heaven would break loose. (Check out Signing of Jackie Robinson )
The point is that it was time for a change. It was time for a new way of doing things. “Orthodoxy” actually means “right belief”. What is “right”? What does that mean? You see, I think of myself as “orthodox”. I’m actually extremely traditional, even though I think that word gets a bad rap. I mean, regardless of all of the church growth movements that profess to have the “ortho-statistics” for churches, I love traditional worship (I mean, REALLY traditional!) worship. Give me a robe, a processional behind a crucifer, and a couple of Latin chants thrown in for good measure any day against screens and a preacher doing some sort of skit as he blocks my view of the altar. But, really, that’s not belief. That’s just where God meets me. The point is, we all think of ourselves as “orthodox”, as right. But right belief is this…the Beatitudes…the antithesis of this world. It is a moving forward. Hmmm! OK, maybe I AM a “progressive”.
One thing to note is that the form of these Beatitudes uses two verbs: are and will. Each beatitude begins in the present and moves to future tense. It is the “orthodox” way of thinking. The move to the future tense indicates that the life of the kingdom must wait for ultimate validation until God finishes the new creation. The Kingdom of God moves forward. It is so far ahead of where we are, it’s not even fully visible at this point! In essence, it is the new “right belief”, the new orthodoxy. It is a way of living based on the sure and firm hope that one walks in the way of God and that righteousness and peace will finally prevail.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said this: Humanly speaking, we could understand and interpret the Sermon on the Mount in a thousand different ways. Jesus knows only one possibility: simple surrender and obedience, not interpreting it or applying it, but doing and obeying it. That is the only way to hear his word. He does not mean that it is to be discussed as an ideal; he really means us to get on with it.
The Beatitudes lay out a vision of a reversal of the world we know. Jesus calls us to a radical kingdom that is totally different than the world in which we live. And he calls us to “get on with it”. Now don’t think that Jesus is merely laying out the conditions under which we would be blessed or prosper. It is rather a promise of a radical reversal, an upside-down (or right-side-up) world. It is a promise from a God that wants the best for us, a God that sees that we will indeed be blessed. That is the promise—a blessed relationship with God. So this is a picture of what that Kingdom looks like. It is the way it should be and the way it will be. The Beatitudes are meant to be descriptive rather than instructive.
So, where does that leave us? We live in a divisive world, a divisive country, and a divisive church. We all claim to be “orthodox”, “right”. This is hard. We walk a fine line between causing more division and proclaiming what we believe to be right. Now, really, we need to realize that what we believe to be “right” does not make it “right”. Maybe that’s our whole problem. I keep hearing of person who profess to be “bridge builders”. Well, that sounds really politically correct and all. In fact, it even sounds attractive. Sure, I’d like to join a bunch of bridge-builders, the peaceful ones, the ones who get along with everyone. OK…here is the problem. Where are you headed? Bridges are not meant for permanent residence. Are you going forward or backward, left or right, to the future or the past? You have to CHOOSE! That is the whole point of this passage that contains what we commonly call “The Beatitudes”. You see, things are different. (And if they’re not, this passage professes that they should be!) What you think is, is not. And that to which you’ve held so tightly is decaying away as we speak. Orthodoxy has changed. In fact, Jesus is the one that changed it! “Right” belief has changed. God did not come in Jesus with a message of “Great job, folks, you have it altogether. Don’t change a thing!” No, the message probably reads more like, “You know, I love you more than you could possibly know. But you are a mess! Listen…come and see…there’s more to the story than you think you know!”
You know, until 56 years ago, women could not be ordained in the United Methodist Church. (And yet I still get assigned weddings that are upset because I am the wrong gender!) And, as I said, the race barrier in major league baseball was not broken until 1947. (But we didn’t have an African-American president until 2008.) The truth is, things move very slowly. So much for a reversal of the status quo! And our churches still continue to exclude those in our midst who do not claim the “orthodox” sexual orientation. I really don’t understand it. Surely we know better. Surely we understand that this depiction of the alternative way of being that Jesus depicted in The Beatitudes is not a pipe dream. It’s really meant to happen. It’s the vision of God that God brought into the world in Jesus Christ. It’s the vision of the world that God holds for us even now. It’s all the children of God in the whole Kingdom of God. It’s called Shalom, or the Kingdom of God, or the Reign of God.
But on some level I admire bridge-builders. They are those that play both crowds–the conservatives and the progressives, the establishment and the rebels, the pharisees and the disciples. You see, all of us are right about SOMETHING. But none of us are right about EVERYTHING. Those bridge-builders can point that out. The truth is, though, I’m probably too impatient to be one. I want things to change. I want the world to look like The Beatitudes. I want the world to be what God envisions it to be. But even bridges tend to decay, becoming weather-worn and rotten. Life moves. It moves fast. And if you don’t keep walking, you’re no longer a bridge-builder. You’re either in danger of falling fast into the underlying currents and being carried away into who knows where or you’re just someone that’s sitting in the way while people are trying to cross. It’s better to keep moving. After all, God is way out ahead of us.
OK, one more time…I really am orthodox. I really do adhere to “right belief”. I just think it’s a whole lot farther ahead than any of us imagine. It’s a matter of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly. Oh wait, someone already said that! In other words, our faith is measured not in “rightness” but in relationship. Orthodoxy, “right belief”, is about relationship. It is about welcoming all of God’s children to the table as the reign of God, the Spirit of the most holy, spills into our midst. Emmanuel, God With Us. Isn’t that the crux of the story?
But lynchpins are threatening. They change the direction. They change what we think. They change the world. They change us and who we appear to be to the rest of the world. Up until now, everything has pointed to this-the announcement, the birth, the baptism, the calling, this…–as if this was the message, as if this was what the world needed, as if this was the way to the vision that God for us. Now we wait. We wait to see how the world responds. And we turn toward Jerusalem…
So, in this Lenten season, begin to live a life of reversal, so that as the Divine spilled into earth with the coming of Christ, the earth might become the vision of the Divine in you.
Grace and Peace,