Right here in the city of Fort Smith, over 50% of our school children live below the poverty line. At Tilles Elementary, they must feed the children before they can teach them every day.
Conflict in the Middle East continues. Israel is at war with Hezbollah. There is conflict in Iraq even with Hussein in prison. North Korea and Iran are rattling sabers. The United States has been at war since 9/11 and the interrupted bombing plot this week confirmed that. There are other battles not as high profile. In Uganda young children are conscripted into the Lords Resistance Army. Their name sounds holy their practices are not. Recent attempts at Peace in Sudans Darfur region have failed. As a result the fighting has renewed and 50,000 people are displaced - - even aid workers are in harms way. Making peace is so difficult in a world devoted to violence. The world is at war even in places away from the news camera and places that do not seem to be in the interest of the U.S. government. Precious souls are being lost forever because there is no peace.
Against the forces of war and poverty it is so easy to feel powerless. Even if you have a job you can feel powerless. Katrina Gill has a job. She is a nursing aide in a care center and she works long hours monitoring vitals, turning patients for bedsores, and changing adult diapers. But she and her husband, a mechanic, have no health benefits. They pay $640 a month for a family policy. They have racked up $160,000 in debt medical expenses because their son Brandyn has cancer. (Michelle Conlin and Aaron Bernstein, Business Week, Working and Poor, May 31, 2004 - www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/04_22/b3885001_mz001.htm.) Katrina is just one example of what it means to be meek and powerless in our age. So many of us labor in a setting of maximum insecurity, where one missed bus, one stalled engine, one sick kid means the difference between keeping a job and getting fired. At any moment, a company pressured to pump profits can slash hours, or layoff workers, or even cut loose jobs. This isnt a labor vs. management issue. Its a human issue. Managers and owners are caught up in the faceless and non-personal economic and political forces that make us feel powerless.
Have you ever felt powerless? Have you at least sensed that something about our culture and society just isnt right? It isnt right for a credit card company to stick a person who cant pay bills with a 30% interest rate. If a thug in an alley does that its called loan-sharking. If Chase or Citibank does it its called a change in agreement. Something isnt right. Joe Francis is the millionaire producer of the Girls Gone Wild soft-porn video series. He claims it is just innocent entertainment. He claims it is protected by the First Amendment. (See Claire Hoffman, Baby, Give Me a Kiss, L.A. Times, Aug. 6. 2006 - www.latimes.com/features/printedition/magazine/la-tm-gonewild32aug06,0,1675556,full.story.) How can Francis be protected by our laws when violence against women is increasing in our nation? Something is wrong. You know it if you feel the pangs for righteousness in your gut. You know it if you feel parched waiting for the waters of justice to roll down like a mighty river against the stifling heat of injustice.
It is difficult to forgive the worst offenders of justice let alone forgiving the friend who hurts us. It is difficult to forgive. It is difficult to be merciful - especially when people take advantage of our mercy. Thats why we want to surround ourselves with people we can trust. People who strive to have a purity of heart. But even among the disciples of Jesus we meet those who hurt us. Every time we hear a story about disciples that condemn the suffering rather than help them, we grieve. Every time we hear a story about disciples that exclude rather than invite, it makes us grieve.
And we have enough to be sad about already, dont we? We have lost loved ones. We have suffered because of sin. We are suffering because of illness. There seems to be no end to the tears, pain, and sorrow.
I confess that I have nothing to say. I am at a loss for words. I cannot even write a sermon to speak to the problems and sorrows of the world as we know it. But I want to lead you to another preacher. I want to begin preaching someone elses sermon. This preacher spoke to the word as we know it the world I just described but he proclaimed that something was going to change. He spoke of a new order of things in which those who experienced the kind of discomfort we just spoke about will instead be happy.
I would like you to follow me over to the hillside where this preacher has just sat down and he begins to speak ... [Matthew 5]
3Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
8Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.
10Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
What you have just heard is the opening of a sermon from our founder, our Lord, Jesus Christ. In our difficult times, I thought it was fitting that we should hear from Him. In the midst of the trials and hopes we have shared as a church family I thought it was fitting that we should hear from Him.
Sure, youve heard this before. But youve probably heard these phrases broken up and scattered. Like gems that popped loose from their settings, they still glisten, but you dont get the full effect. These beatitudes are not little nuggets of moral advice. These are not the appetizers before the main course. And Jesus isnt using bless or blessed the way Southern culture does. Its been said that you can say anything mean and nasty about someone in the South as long as you say Bless their heart. [He just isnt very smart, bless his heart. She looks so old and fat, bless her heart. Get it?]
Jesus is not condescending or patronizing when he says Blessed are the poor. Blessed means that Gods favor is resting on ... So hes saying, Gods kingdom is breaking into this world. Its coming to you, and today you have the favor of God. What a way to open a sermon!
Taken together, this set of blessings is an official notice. A notice like those ominous looking signs that get posted by our city councils that say Were building a shopping center here. If you dont like it, you can come tell us. Christ is putting the world as we know it on notice. Hes saying that things are going to change. And like an official notice, some people welcome it and some do not.
If you are poor and know that something is wrong with economies that keep people poor, then you welcome the notice because Gods favor rests on you. If you are sad or have ever known sadness, then welcome the notice, Gods favor rests on you. If you have ever felt helpless and powerless against forces too great to describe, then welcome the notice because Gods favor rests on you. If you have felt the anxiety of losing worldly security, then welcome the notice because Gods favor rests on you. If you have ever wanted justice and righteousness so bad you can taste it, then welcome the notice, Gods favor rests on you.
If you have ever forgiven others even though it cost you, then welcome the notice. If you are weary trying to help others live at peace with each other, then welcome the notice. If you have long desired to overcome sin and draw close to God, then welcome the notice because Gods favor rests on you!
These beatitudes are an extending way of saying that the kingdom of God is near. He is saying that the kingdom of God is breaking into the world and setting up shop. The world as we know it is breaking out in blessedness.
But be on notice! There are forces in this world that do not welcome the Kingdom of God. There are those who are invested in keeping the poor just as they are. There are those who are invested in activities that cause some to be sad. There are those who are invested in keeping some people powerless and insecure. There are those who are invested in unrighteous enterprises and unjust practices. There are those who cannot show mercy or they stand to lose. There are even those who are invested in war and conflict. And it is not simply because they have dark sinister hearts, but its because they have made built their house on the foundations of the world as we know it. Christ is putting these on notice as well. Tell them it is time to re-invest! And Christ is saying that if you are one of these who needs to re-invest or even if you are one of these who welcomes that change it wont always be easy. The forces and powers that like things as they are will insult you, lie about you and persecute you. But even if that happens, Gods favor rests on you!
In the weeks ahead, our founder, our Lord, our teacher is going to show us the path to start living in the world of Gods blessed favor even now before it comes in all of its glory. This is a notice an invitation for all of us. Shall we, as a church family, live for the world thats coming? Shall we strive to be merciful, pure of heart, and make peace? Will we commit today to living out the virtues of the world that is coming?
In baptism and in the Lords Supper we witness the kingdom of God breaking into the world as we know it. These are not status quo symbols. They are symbols of new birth and new life. The forces and powers that are invested in a corrupt broken world broke Jesus for preaching this sermon. But Gods favor rests on Him and he lives to preach this sermon again, and again, and again.
Who will live out the teaching of Jesus Christ?
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