Sunday, February 2, 2020 “A Blessing to be Believed”
The message for Sunday, February 2, 2020 “A Blessing to be Believed” by Pastor Erik Goehner, heard during the 8:00, 9:30 and 11:00 Worship service.
“A Blessing to be Believed” Matthew 5:1-12 Feb. 2, 2020
Going up a mountain can give you a new perspective. Getting up to a higher viewpoint can allow you to see and notice things that you cannot see when you are down among the trees of a forest or buildings of a town. It can open up a new way of looking at the world around you and providing a greater vision beyond the everyday sights that usually surround us.
Perhaps it is no accident then, that Jesus goes up on a mountainside to deliver a message to a crowd in today’s text from Matthew. The name that is given this message is actually “The Sermon on the Mount.” The part that we heard today is often called “The Beatitudes.” It might be that Jesus takes the crowd up the mountain with him to deliver his message because as they could look out and physically see a new perspective, Jesus wants to give them a new spiritual perspective as well.
As Jesus talks about who is considered blessed, he flips the views of his listeners upside down and expands them beyond the vision they ordinarily would see. They were used to seeing the rich and the powerful as the ones who were blessed by God, but here Jesus is saying it is the humble, the merciful, the peacemakers, those who grieve, and the persecuted who are blessed. It isn’t so much that Jesus says that it is a good thing to persecuted or grieving, but that God will meet people in the midst of such situations.
I think the contemporary English version of the Bible highlights this difference which is why I wanted to used it for our Gospel reading today. You may have noticed that instead of the more traditional language we are used to hearing for the Beatitudes which sounds like, “Blessed are the peacemakers or Blessed are the meek…” the Contemporary English translation uses the phrase, “God blesses those who…”. I really like this language because it emphasizes that blessing is not a state of being, it is a state of receiving. A person is not born into blessing, rather, blessing is bestowed upon a person by God. Blessing is not something we own, but rather something that is given by a source of strength outside of ourselves. You do not have to have a certain status to receive this blessing, you just need to be open to the possibility that the blessing can come to you even in circumstances where you wouldn’t expect it.
This is another important aspect of the beatitudes, that although we may not always see the blessing in the current moment, we can trust in the vision of a future reality to come, that Jesus is opening our eyes to see. He says the grieving will find comfort, the pure of heart will see God, the peacemakers will be called the children of God, the hungry will be fed. By believing in a blessing to come, we begin to see how it can become a reality in the present time as well.
Pastor David Lose explains how this living into the future changes things in the present by telling of a time when he was in a graduate school program working towards his doctorate degree, and one of his teachers, Dr. Cleophus LaRue, would regularly address him as “Dr. Lose.” Eventually it made me uncomfortable enough that I said to his professor, “But Dr. LaRue, I haven’t earned my doctorate yet. I don’t think you should call me that.” “Dr. Lose,” the professor patiently responded, “in the African-American church we are not content to call you what you are, but instead we call you what we believe you will be!” Blessing. Unexpected, unsettling, nearly inconceivable, yet blessing nonetheless.
This calling in a new reality in the present by believing in a vision for the future has long been a part of the Biblical prophetic tradition and has been tapped into by more modern day leaders seeking change as well. Martin Luther King Jr. utilized the prophetic tradition in calling for a new vision of equality in America. He believed a new day could dawn where a different kind of unity and acceptance could exist. This comes through in many of his speeches, especially his “I Have a Dream” speech which in many ways doesn’t sound so different from the beatitudes as he speaks of a kind of blessing that is not evident, but could be possible. Listen to the way that Dr. King laid out this vision in a way where you could almost see it:
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
After he casts the vision of the possibility of new racial reconciliation, Marth Luther King uses the image of the mountain to declare the blessing from this new perspective. Like Jesus, he takes his listener up the mountain to declare a different point of view than the current reality. But rather than a mountain in Galilee, Dr. King takes us across the mountains of the United States as he says, Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the slopes of California.
Unfortunately, freedom is still not ringing out as loudly as it could be, as conflict and suffering from racial injustice continues. Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer who in the tradition of Dr. King has worked for racial equality under the law for his entire career. There is actually a new movie about some of his work in theaters now called, “Just Mercy.” After years of fighting for justice in the courts, however, Stevenson has turned to some other unique initiatives as he has learned that true racial reconciliation cannot come simply through the courts. There has to be change in the way Americans view their historical narrative that acknowledges the atrocities of slavery and racism before real healing can take place. In order to change the future, Stevenson believes we need to face the truth of the past even if it is difficult.
It is with this goal in mind that Stevenson has helped to create a museum in Montgomery, Alabama called the Legacy Museum that looks back and remembers some of the difficult history of racism. One of the centerpieces of this remembering has been documenting lynchings that took place in past. By naming who was a victim of the lynching and where it happened, they want to honor those who died as well as name the truth of what occurred in the hope it will not happen again. Part of the documentation process has been sending out volunteers to the locations of lynchings to get some of the soil and put them in jars in the museum labeled with information about the victims. Stevenson tells a story about one volunteer who had unexpected experience while out collecting the soil.
The volunteer was a middle-aged African-American woman who heard about what Stevenson was doing and wanted to be a part of the project. The volunteers are told that if anyone asks them what they are doing and they are not comfortable explaining the whole project they can simply say they are collecting dirt for their garden.
Some of the sites can be fairly remote and such was the case for this female volunteer. She turned down a back road and found the spot near a large tree. She was a little nervous being so far from a town by herself, but she got out and began to dig up the soil to fill the jar. It wasn’t long before she heard a vehicle coming. As it got closer she saw that it was an old pickup truck. The truck began to slow down as the driver spotted the middle-aged woman. The volunteer’s heart began to race a little and then began to pound as a large, white man in a t-shirt and overalls stepped out of the pickup. The man approached her and then asked what she was doing. At first she thought about the line she could tell about simply getting dirt for her garden, but before she knew it, she was telling the man the truth—the truth about the museum and the truth about the location—that it was where a lynching had occurred.
The woman held her breath waiting for the man’s response. Then she was shocked as he asked if he could help her. She said that would be fine and offered him a small shovel. He refused and instead began digging in the dirt with both of his hands. It was a picture the volunteer never imagined would have happened as she set out from Montgomery that morning—herself, an African-American woman kneeling side by side next to this large, white man—and yet here they were together. As they finished filling the jar she looked up and saw the man bent over and his shoulders were shaking. She realized that he was crying. The woman got up and put her hand on the man.
“Are you alright?” She said.
“I was just realizing,” the man replied. “My great-grandfather could have been here when that man was killed, and I am just praying that he wasn’t.”
Now the woman began to shed tears as well and the two of them wept together. She had no idea she was going to be a part of such a moment that day, but as she set out, open to a vision of reconciliation, she discovered Jesus words to be true, Blessed are the peacemakers. The man didn’t know that he would be gripped with sadness over the possible actions of his ancestors when he pulled over to help the women. But as he was open to assisting a stranger, he discovered the truth of Jesus’ words, Blessed are those who grieve for they will be comforted.
Jesus takes us up the mountain with him today to show us a different view of how God acts in the world, and reveals a vision of the world as God is calling it to be. But we don’t have to go up a mountain to get this view. We can experience it whenever we might be. We just need to be open and believe God’s Blessing is possible, even in times and places where we wouldn’t expect it.