Saturday, February 1, 2014

Blessings in Brokenness

Matthew 5:1-12
February 2, 2014
William G. Carter

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.”

Meet the Skutniks. That is the nickname given to the guests at the annual State of the Union address. The Skutniks are the people who sit up in the balcony with the president’s wife, invited guests who are often named during the hour-long speech.

Lenny Skutnik was the first, introduced to us by President Reagan in 1982. He was the ordinary citizen who dove into the Potomac River to try to save some lives after a deadly plane crash. The president honored him as a national good example, and every other president since has selected some others who do the same. The press calls them the Skutniks.

If you watched last Tuesday night’s address, you probably saw some of these people: two survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing, the fire chief of a town ravaged by a tornado in Oklahoma, a single mother who got health insurance just before she became catastrophically ill. The most poignant guest was the last one: Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg, an Army veteran who was critically wounded in his tenth deployment in Afghanistan. I don’t think there was a dry eye anywhere when that young man was introduced to the world.

Did you see it? It struck me as a Beatitude Moment, a moment when someone was blessed in the middle of their brokenness. None of the people who were recognized publically could claim to have their lives together. But each one was nationally blessed, held up and affirmed. The world had not dragged them down.

Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are the merciful. Jesus speaks his blessings into the air, launching them to land on whomever they find. Much has been made of those who don’t receive a direct blessing. He does not bless the aggressive, but the meek. He does not affirm the intact, but those hungering for God’s righteousness and peace.

Jesus notices these people, affirms them as they are. And we cannot separate his words from the context. Jesus has just had a long stream of needy people coming to him. Matthew gives us a general list: those afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics (4:24). It was an enormous long line of people in great need. He healed every one, says the Gospel writer, no small feat when there were so many needs. Imagine how much time that took! We get frustrated when the patient load is backed up at the doctor’s office and we must wait our turn . . . and Jesus gave each person whatever time they needed.

Then he steps back, climbs to the top of the long sloping hill near Capernaum, calls his followers around him, and begins to bless the best of what he sees. In my mind, the first beatitude unlocks all others: Blessed are the poor in spirit. They are those who cannot complete life under their own power, blessed precisely because it is only God who can save them. The blessing comes as a surprise.

One of the speechwriters for the president spoke the other day about contacting the Skutniks, and inviting them to sit with the First Lady for the speech. Every single one is surprised, she said. “We have to say, ‘that’s right, we’re not kidding, this is the White House calling.’” Every single one says, “Why me? Are you sure you have the right person?”[1] That’s a parable for the greater blessings of Christ. Those who mourn? Those persecuted for doing the right thing? Are you sure you have the right people?

I visited with a lady from our church family recently. After a series of health concerns, she doesn’t get here very often. It was a pleasant visit. I was there for forty minutes or so, and I admired the enormous physical and medical challenges that this lady has lived with. And still she is alive from the center, full of the joy of Christ, still undefeated. We concluded with a brief prayer, and then she reached for a box of frost pink cookies that her daughter sent. “Take one,” she said with a smile, “take the cookie.” Then she whispered, “I love you.”

How does this happen? She has every reason to be cranky, but she is not. She has every reason to withdraw, but she refuses. The joy of the Holy Spirit spills out of her. In the middle of her place of need, there is deep peace. Blessed is she. She is blessed.

In one of his historical studies of Jesus, John Dominic Crossan tells of the oppressive weight of the first century. And he declares how Jesus stood out:

He is watched by the cold, hard eyes of peasants living long enough at subsistence level to know exactly where the line is drawn between poverty and destitution. He looks like a beggar, yet his eyes lack the proper cringe, his voice the proper whine, his walk the proper shuffle. He speaks about the rule of God and they listen as much from curiosity as anything else.[2]

This is a great open secret of the Gospel. There is something about Jesus, something that is alive from the center. He is internally strong, yet still approachable. Even though life around him is difficult, he has not been beaten down. It is a signal of what God’s kingdom is like. You don’t have to have it all together to receive God’s blessing. God can find you right in the middle of your incomplete life, and God says, “Blessed!” If God rules over your heart, the blessing is yours.

Some people would want to turn the Beatitudes into behaviors, perhaps believing if they do the right thing, God will give them the blessing. That’s especially true when people are called to be peacemakers. “Get out there and make some peace!” Is that the pathway to blessedness?

I don’t know. I sat once with a conflict resolution specialist. Know what that is? That’s a peacemaker. He said he had an ulcer, confessed to popping some antidepressants. Resolving conflicts can be difficult work. He steps into divorce proceedings, sits in on labor disputes, mediates financial settlements, and works with estranged teenagers. It’s burning a hole in his stomach and he says, “There is no more important work.” It sounds like that is his blessing: he knows how important his work is. He is a child of God.

Most of the other beatitudes don’t simplify into ethics. Imagine the cheerleader: “Give me an M – E – E – K! What’s it spell?” That’s ridiculous. That’s like saying, “Let’s go, gang! Let’s get out there and mourn!” This is not what Jesus is saying.

No. We heard the text. After a long slog of healing and mending and tending to worn-out people, Jesus climbs the mountain, turns around to smile at those following him, and declares, “Blessed are you.” Even if you are meek, especially if you mourn, particularly if you are merciful - - - blessed are you. For there is a power at work in the world through Jesus Christ that is greater than anything that threatens to break us. It is the power and blessing of the God who rules over our hearts. Even if life smacks us, God holds us securely and never lets us go.

I tell you this as truth. As God rules over our hearts, there is nothing else that can have dominion over us. Nothing! And if you say, “Where’s the evidence?” we point to Jesus himself. We can’t ever separate the Teacher from the Lesson. What do we know of Jesus?

·         He was poor in spirit, limited by his incarnation.
·         He mourned for Lazarus and every broken heart.
·         Meek, the very opposite of forceful.
·         Hungry and thirsty to do God’s righteous work.
·         Merciful, to the point of criticism.
·         Pure in heart, as he looked toward God the Father.
·         Making peace, both with his words and his broken body.
·         Persecuted for righteousness’ sake – you know the story.
·         Reviled with all kinds of evil uttered against him.

Jesus was all these things. Yet one thing more: he was blessed. He is blessed.
Today he looks at you and he says, “Blessed!”

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[2] John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (New York: HarperCollins, 1994) 194.

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