Saturday, February 15, 2014

Inhabiting the Words

Matthew 5:17-37
February 16, 2014
William G. Carter

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. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

We are in the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount is tough! Jesus is on the mountain like a New Moses, laying down the demands of God’s kingdom. “Your righteousness has to exceed that of the Pharisees and the scribes,” he says. All those professionals who study the Bible, who know the Bible – you have to be better than them!

He does not spell out what that means. We could, I suppose, take a potshot at the professionals, and ignore our own ignorance. They know the Bible; we have to know the Bible too, if we’re ever going to exceed them.

What is he talking about? We can surmise a few things. Sometimes people study something without ever learning it. A student will cram for the exam, pass the exam, and then forget all the undigested data. Maybe he’s talking about that, although the Pharisees and the scribes had their heads full of the Bible --- and their hearts full of the Bible. We have to be better than that.

What is he talking about? Sometimes there is a gap between “book learning” and common sense. The smart person has a nose in the book but forgets to unplug the iron. Or they can recite the recipe without ever making the dish.  Especially in these technological times, there can be a disconnection between the concept and the practice, between the idea and the reality. Maybe that is what Jesus is saying, except the Pharisees and the scribes specialized in interpretation. The people had the Law of Moses for 1300 years, but they wanted to know how to apply it.

  • God said, “Keep the Sabbath, don’t do any work.” If the kitchen fire goes out, can I put a log upon it?
  • God said, “Do not covet what your neighbor owns.” OK, I don’t want his flat screen TV, but can I get one of my own?
  • God said, “Do not curse somebody who is deaf?” I understand that, Lord, but they aren’t going to hear it anyway.

Trust me when I say: if you interpret scripture for a living, you may always have job security. There is always something to figure out and explain.  

But this isn’t what Jesus is talking about. He speaks of a “higher righteousness.” In his spiritual imagination, heaven rules over earth. We simply can’t take that lightly. Like John the Baptist, he came preaching, “The kingdom is near. God is right here, at hand.” There is an ethical earnestness which is our gateway. It’s more than doing the right thing; it’s being the right kind of person.

That’s why Jesus pays so much attention to the words. The words! God speaks, we speak. It can go either way. We can most resemble our Creator when we speak. Or we can find ourselves condemned by the Judge because of what we say. It matters what we say.

In the Bible, when God speaks, God shows up. God is present in the Word spoken. God inhabits what God says. There is no division between the speech of God and the being of God: they are one and the same. God has integrity. As the children of God, we can be like that, too.

But since we are children, rather than God, it is quite possible that we don’t inhabit our own words. 

  • My wife calls out to say, “Supper is ready,” and I reply, “I’ll be right there,” and then I sit and putt around for another ten minutes while my plate goes cold and she gets hot. I said, “I’ll be right there,” but I didn’t mean it.
  • We are surrounded by messages all the time. Here’s one: “New and improved.”  Do you know how many varieties of toothpaste are for sale in America? 352.[1] Every one of them, new and improved. It’s hard to take those words seriously.
  • Or the politician lands in the private jet, is met by limousine to whisk him to the old house. He puts on over-alls and pulls on a cap from the seed company, and then wanders down in a pickup truck to the Agway to say, “I’m just one of the regular folks.” Sure he is, and you know why he says that.
Now, we heard the list of hot button topics that Jesus mentions today: murder, adultery, divorce, and swearing. Beneath each one, he is teaching about words . . . and whether or not they are inhabited.

“You have heard it said, ‘don’t murder,’ but I say to you, don’t insult anybody.” If you insult somebody, it is the same as killing them. Jesus says a sure-fire way to fall into hell is by calling somebody names. He’s talking about words, words like, “fool, idiot, no-account, good-for-nothing, loser.”

Now, I know nobody in this room has ever done that. And I know the people out there do awful things. They are mean and demeaning. They prove the doctrine of sin over and over again. As I have heard someone say more than once, “Why be an idiot if you can’t prove it?” But if we can step over the anger that naturally comes with daily life, we can perceive the deeper truth that all of us are more alike than different. All of us have our share of disappointments. All of us live in an unfair world, and all of us contribute regularly to its unfairness.

And all of us are children of God. Every description of a human being begins there. Child of God: that’s who we are. And to demean other people is to insult their Maker. To put somebody else down falsely puffs us up.

The rabbis tell a tale of a certain Rabbi, Simon ben Eleazar. He was coming from his teacher’s house, and he was felling very smart. After a day of learning, he was feeling uplifted at the thought of his own smarts, his own erudition and goodness. On the road, a very ill-favored passer-by gave him a greeting. The Rabbi did not say anything.

The traveler repeated the greeting, to which the Rabbi said, “You Raca! You fool! How ugly you are! Are all the men of your town as ugly as you?”  “That,” said the passer-by, “I do not know. Go and tell the Maker who created me how ugly is the creature he has made.” And so the sin of contempt was rebuked.

Child of God – that is what the neighbor is. Worthy of dignity and respect. And that leads to the next word: “You have heard it said ‘don’t commit adultery,’ but I say don’t look upon someone with a lustful desire to possess.”

I’m sure those words of Jesus have slapped a number of craving spirits. He suggests a number of dire measures. If your eye leers upon another, get rid of it. If your hand reaches out to grab or pinch, take a hacksaw into your other hand. Fortunately, he stops there. And please understand: the Bible is not always to be taken literally, it is to be taken seriously. Be serious about the demeaning power of wanting somebody. And be serious about who that person is, who they really are.

The story is told of some good old boys in Texas, gathering out back of the barn. One of them had a picture he was showing the others. I will let you imagine what it was, who was on it, what she looked like. They’re making all kinds of noise, hooting, poking one another, making comments, saying a lot of suggestive things.

They hear somebody clear the throat, turn around, and it’s the preacher, come to make a visit. “I was looking for the rancher, but nobody answered at the house. What do you have there, boys?”

They looked at one another, one of them smiled devilishly. “Well, preacher,” he said, “take a look at this. What do you see?”  He looked at the picture, gazed deeply, and without a change in expression, he said, “I see somebody’s daughter. I see somebody’s sister… I see a child of God.” There was a painful silence and they all walked away.

Ever regard somebody that way? Somebody’s sister or brother, somebody else’s wife or husband. Somebody’s child. Worthy of dignity and respect.

And that leads into the next word rather directly: “You have heard it said, ‘give a certificate of divorce ’. . .” You know what a certificate of divorce was? In the time of Jesus, it was a simple conclusion to a marriage. The Pharisees, the scribes, and the religious leader had debated and discussed for centuries all the various teachings in the Bible about divorce. Contrary to some popular opinion, the Bible has diverse views in its pages about divorce. Moses said, “It is lawful to divorce.”

But first century Israel was a man’s world. The woman had not legal rights. All he had to do was proclaim “I divorce you” and then walk away, and that was it. She was destitute and ashamed.

The purpose of marriage is to inhabit the words, to put ourselves into the vows and promises that bind us together. In our own fast-paced world, where people don’t take the time to get to know one another deeply, the answer is not to whisk through the words and hurry on to self-fulfillment. It’s to slow down, to sink roots into the ground, to grow from there. It takes a while.

I’ll never forget it. The phone rang a year or so ago and I didn’t know his name. A voice at the other end said, “Are you the minister? We want to get married.” I said, “Congratulations!”

He said, “Can you marry us?” I said, “Sorry, I’m taken. You’ll have to marry one another.”

Then he said, “What’s the quickest time it takes to get married?” I thought for a minute and said, “About forty years.” And he hung up.

If he would have stayed on the line, I would have continued: there is a world of difference between getting two names on a piece of paper and getting married, really getting it. Even after you say the vows and exchange the rings, it takes years to get there. “What do you think this is,” I said out loud, “a drive-in window?” There’s too much of that, too much rushing through words that we don’t mean, words that we can’t completely mean yet. It takes years to inhabit our words, to show up and to live in them.

Do you know what I mean?

So Jesus gives one more test case in today’s text, one more sign of the higher righteousness of heaven:  “You have heard it said, ‘Don’t swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord ’. . .”  Wait a second, there’s more to it, and before I get to that, let’s talk about the word “swearing.”

Jesus is not referring to that vocabulary list of words when some of you might slice on the 14th fairway. He’s not speaking of curse words that exhale when you slide into a snow bank or when a lousy driver hits you from behind. No, that’s just foul language. He is not referring to the belch that comes from an angry heart.

Actually he is speaking of that practice of pulling in an external authority to preside over the promises we make. Here’s one: “I swear on a stack of Bibles that I’m going to clean up the dishes.” What do you need the Bibles for? Just do the dishes!

Or: “I swear to God that I will take you to the hockey game tomorrow night.” Well, what’s that about? Is the Creator of heaven and earth your personal referee?

Or (and I heard this from the stage of “Jersey Boys” on Friday night): “I swear on my mother’s grave…” Your mother’s grave? Your mother’s gone. Leave her out of this.

Either you show up on time or you don’t. Either you make a commitment or you don’t. Either your word is good or your word is empty, meaningless, and uninhabited. So Jesus said, “Let your word be yes, or let your word by no; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”

Words, words, words. It matters what we say. It matters that we live what we speak, that we live within our promises. Not only is this the foundation of integrity; it is the sign of heaven’s higher righteousness. Because God always keeps his Word. God lives in what God says. So we have to be careful what we say, and inhabit whatever we speak.

Did you ever hear about Abbot Agatho? He was one of the first Christian monks. He lived in the desert of Egypt. It is said he took a small stone, put it in his mouth, and kept it there for three years.[2] It was a reminder. He wanted to be careful what he said.

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

[1] Wall Street Journal, 23 February 2011. See online at    
[2] Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert (New York: New Dimensions, 1970) 30.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Letting the Light Shine

Matthew 5:13-16
February 9, 2014
William G. Carter

“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.”

A few years ago, a marketing man paid a visit on us. Remember the packets of advertising postcards that once appeared in our mailboxes? He was the man behind some of those postcards. He dropped in to say, “Your church ought to be advertising on my postcards.”

When I pushed him a little bit, he made his case. He had just spent an hour walking up and down State Street, asking everybody he met, “Do you know where First Presbyterian Church is?” Other than the funeral home, nobody knew. None of the shoppers, none of the store owners. At one point, he stood down the hill next to the sign that points up to say, “First Presbyterian Church,” and like one of Jay Leno’s old comedy bits, nobody had a clue where we are.

In one memorable conversation, he stood down on the corner and pointed up the hill. “Is that First Presbyterian Church?” he asked two passersby. A woman said, “You mean the church on the hill?” Her husband said, “Is that a church?”

Needless to say, we bought a two year subscription to the postcards. They didn’t make much of a difference, but they did create a fertile conversation. Who are we? Where are we? Is this a church? One of our church comedians suggested we install a huge pink neon cross on the side of the building. Another one said, “Why don’t we make it a blinking light?” We talked about better signs, more press releases, and a deeper engagement with the community. As sometimes happens, there were more ideas than people to actually do something about them. We do a lot of things to get out the word. We could always do more.

From that conversation, one tangible thing surfaced that has stuck – a logo: the church on the hill, with light streaming out of it. The image was a direct reflection on the words of Jesus: 

“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 you good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

We live in a time when people want less and less to do with churches. An increasing number of weddings are planned with secular officiants. In good consumer style, brides and their planners can do whatever they want without some uptight priest telling them they can’t staple their ribbons to the pews. Or scan the obituaries while you still can, and notice what my friends in the funeral business tell me: there are more and more secular funerals every month. Some have grown indifferent to God or the afterlife, so they have celebrations of life and the dearly departed is never actually handed back to God. The cultural message is “We can do this without the church.”

Among many of our neighbors, there is indifference about all things religious. Our society has developed ways to celebrate Christmas without mentioning the birth of Jesus. Easter is a great time to go to Disneyworld, because some schools still schedule vacations around that time. I told my kids about my faint memory of businesses being shut down on Sundays and they looked horrified. They have grown up in a world where people spend the Lord’s Day any way that they want.

So here is the question, O church of God: where is the light? If it doesn’t shine through us, this dark world is not going to see it. If there isn’t something distinctive about us, something distinctively about Jesus, something as distinctive as the taste of salt, then we have lost our flavor, of no use to God or anybody else.

That’s the challenge within these words of Jesus. He looks to those who follow him. You are the salt of the soil. You are the light of the created order. He affirms us in the simplest of analogies.

You are salt. Not the main course, but the spice. You pull out the richer flavor of the meat. You come in tiny granules to call attention to the larger meal. You cause the deer of the woodlands to discover their greater thirst. If you are dissolved in water, you are still present. If there were a way to actually lose your flavor, you would lose who you are. All of you are salt.

You are the light, emanating from Jesus who says, “I am the light.” We can be what he is. We reflect who he is. We bear him to the world. I often wake near dawn, as light breaks into a dark room. Light announces it’s a new day, a fresh beginning. Light reveals the truth. There are no sideways shadows, light shows what we really are. Light brings clarity. It enables vision. It saturates darkness, just as a bit of salt flavors the food. All of you are light.

You and I make our way through a world that has resisted its Creator for thousands of years. There is nothing new about that. But here comes Jesus. He announces a heavenly dominion on earth where the meek are blessed, where the hungry of heart are fed, where those grief-stricken by losing someone or something so familiar are given the astonishing comfort that all things in Christ are made new. This is a distinctive dominion in a world that is addicted to its own destruction and increasingly bored with its illusions of progress. To say that God comes to a world like this is going to be a disputed word unless there are people who believe it and live it out together.

You are the salt. All of you, it’s plural. All of you are the light. The extent to which this is true depends on our commitment to make it real, to show in our skin and bones and breath that the Risen Christ is among us, continuing to teach and heal and govern us by God’s grace.

What’s this look like? I have a story that might make you squirm. In recent weeks, the people of First Presbyterian Church of Easton, Pennsylvania, have discovered that their long-time church treasurer has been stealing the church’s money. Over seven years, she took over $317,000 and used it to pay some of her personal bills. The church leaders discovered it. She confessed to the crime. She promises to pay it back. It was a breach of trust and deeply disturbing.

Here’s the thing: when the judge called her in, the new church treasurer went to the bail hearing, and requested she be released on minimal bail. He said, “What she has done is wrong, but she has owned up to it, openly shared information about her crime, and offered to restore what she stole. Furthermore, she is one of our own. She is a member of our church.” The judge wasn’t sure what to do with that and said, “She shouldn’t be involved in church finances anymore.”

Well, there was no question about that. The new church treasurer explained, the church members struggled to balance their anxiety about the financial betrayal with the Lord’s teachings about forgiveness. He said, “The church has to rally around the values it preaches… It’s around family life. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”[1]

How interesting. You should read the anonymous comments that people put online after reading this story in their local newspaper in Easton. On second thought, don’t read them. They are scathing and mean, along the lines of “If you steal from church, you’re going to hell.”

But what is the distinctively Christ-like thing to do? A Christian woman steals from Christian brothers and sisters, and then repents and says, “I want to make it right.” What would Jesus say to that? What would he say? He would say, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” (Matthew 5:7)  Or as he says in the very next chapter, “If you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive you.” (Matthew 6:15)

It is difficult being a Christian. It is hard to follow Jesus closely enough that we will act like him. It can run counter to how we think the world ought to run. It is to carry a cross that demands everything, beginning with our own sense of righteousness. It will require a life-long conversion. It means we must set aside our own stuff – our assumptions, our opinions, our fears, and our naturally brewed poison – set those things aside and live like Jesus. That is our distinctive salt. That is the light we carry to a world that prefers its own darkness. It is our testimony to the kind of God we have, and what God is doing by coming to the world in Jesus Christ.

The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw this clearly, particularly in a time when he was teaching preachers to stand up to Adolf Hitler and his empire. Reflecting on this Bible passage, Bonhoeffer wrote,

If the good works were a galaxy of human virtues, we should then have to glorify the disciples, not God. But there is nothing for us to glorify in the disciple who bears the cross, or in the community whose light so shines because it stands visibly on the hill – only the Father which is in heaven can be praised for the “good works.” It is by seeing the cross and community beneath it that [people] come to believe in God. That is the light of the resurrection.[2]

And that, friends, is really why we are here: that people come to believe in God. That they would look at us and determine God has to be forgiving and good-humored. That they would see people who love one another in ever-expanding circles. That they would taste the salt for themselves, see the light, and then believe. If we are doing our work well, we can never hide God on this hill. God’s light must shine, and with all our deepest hope, the light can shine through us. Let the Christians be Christians.

Next weekend, I imagine somebody on State Street, walking along the street for the Clarks Summit Festival of Ice. They stand on the corner, point in this direction, and say, “Is that a church up there on the hill?” They want to know. Some have never been in a building like this. Others were in a church many years ago and never thought they would go back. If they come in these doors, where are they going to see any light? Maybe you’re at the door handing out a program, or downstairs spooning up a bowl of chili. Will they see the light in you?

Or say you are talking to somebody you’ve met. There’s an opening in the conversation. She mentions she’s afraid, or there’s something troubling her. She feels an empty space in her life. Do you think you could invite her to come here with you? Could you invite her to come back a second or third time? Seventy percent of the people who come to a church the first time come because a friend invited them. You could offer them light.

Or you sit at a conference table, sealing a business deal. You know all the characters in the room. The pressure is off, and they start joking around. One of them cracks a joke. Another pipes in, tells a joke that puts down another person. A third joker jumps in, but notices you’re not laughing. What’s up? Maybe you say, “Sorry, but I think everybody is important to God. I learn that every week in my church.” Church? You go to church? And you can say with all humility, “Everybody is welcome in my church. Why don’t you come?” Ah, you’ve got a salty tang. You haven’t lost your flavor.

Is that a church up there on the hill? What would you say?  

Ever hear what the Native Americans said to the first Christians who crossed the prairie? “Is your church built upon sacred ground? Then we will come.”[3]

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

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Touchstone, 1995) 115
[3] Thanks for Fred Craddock for this story.

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.