Living Into God’s Blessings

A sermon on the beatitudes from Matthew 5:1-12 preached on February 2, 2014.

Sermon audio

This is Jesus’ first sermon. And like a lot of first-time preachers, in one big torrent of speech, it seems, Jesus crashes this humongous wave of everything onto us with his sermon. The Beatitudes can be overwhelming.

What are we to do with these Beatitudes?

Blessed are the poor in spirit.

Is Jesus asking us to become the poor in spirit?

Blessed are the meek.

Does Jesus want us to become meek? What good would it do for us to become meek? Is meekness something to strive for?

What is Jesus saying to us here?

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During college, I went to Honduras with a group of 10 others from my home church. I actually went twice. Once after my freshman year and another time after my junior year. We spent most of our time during those trips in remote villages far outside of any major city. We traveled bumpy dirt roads to get to each place. During my first trip, we slept on dirt floors. We drank purified water while the villagers drank from their contaminated stream.

During my second trip to Honduras we spent most of our time in a similar village. 2 years had passed, and this village had running water. Toilets we could flush. Even a cold shower to wash ourselves with.

During the first trip, I felt sorry for the way the Honduran people had to live, but I was ready to leave the muddy village we had spent 6 days in. I was looking forward to going back into the city to stay at a climate-controlled hotel with tile floors and a mattress. All I could think about was eating that steak dinner at one of Copan’s finest restaurants that we had been promised to dine in at the end of our trip.

Something was different about that 2nd trip, though. Maybe my eyes were ready to see the suffering of the people we met there, but spending time with the people of Honduras was the greatest gift of that 2nd mission trip. Instead of wanting to rush through the trip in the eagerness of staying at the hotel and eating a steak dinner, I wanted to stay with the people.

On the last night of our stay at the remote village we has been serving in, the entire village threw us a party and made us orange punch—something simple to us but extravagant to them. As I sipped my punch, I listened to the patriarch of the village, their pastor, speak to us. He spoke through our translator. He said to us that they know what they don’t have. They see that we have it—the Nike sneakers, the fancy watches, the clean t-shirts, the shiny jewelry.

His words struck me hard. They know what they don’t have. That thought had never occurred to me. As naïve as it sounds, I had convinced myself that they had no idea what living in a 1st world culture was like—that they were completely ignorant of our wealth and extravagance. But they knew all about wealth. Here, I thought they were happy only because they didn’t know what they didn’t have.

I’m not quite sure why that thought hit me so hard. That night as I was washing dishes in the concrete sink outside with another member of our cohort, I talked to him about the torrent of thoughts that were tumbling through my head. Walls were suddenly crashing down inside my brain. What that village pastor said threw me and sent me spinning.

When I came back home, I started devouring books. All the sudden, I began craving ideas. I wanted to know more about the world. I was now thinking for people other than myself. I now knew of a culture other than the upper-middle class one that I had spent all of my life in. I was now experiencing a bigger world. One where the needs of others were just as important—or maybe more important than my own.

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Jesus blesses the poor in spirit. As he pours blessing on the meek, the hungry, and the thirsty he says that they too are people who deserve to live full lives, and to experience God’s full blessing. That the poor and the meek are close to God’s heart.

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We are people who don’t have to worry about where our next meal comes from, but that doesn’t mean that we are separate from those who will go hungry today. We are people who don’t have to worry about where our clean water will come from, but that doesn’t mean that we are separate from those who will go thirsty today. We are connected to those who have less, because just like them, we too are dependent upon the blessings of God for all that we are given. Just because we can easily afford those blessings doesn’t mean we’re more blessed.

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Through these words of his first sermon, Jesus is trying to wake us up to the fact that all of us should concern ourselves with the plight of the have-nots just as much as we concern ourselves with providing for our own loved ones.

The beatitudes are really all about compassion. Compassion means “to suffer with”. When we practice compassion, we walk with those who are in misery. Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to risk entering into someone else’s pain—to share in the brokenness of another.

There’s a wonderful video on the web of a talk given by Dr. Brene Brown on the difference between empathy and sympathy. In short, sympathy is feeling for people and empathy is feeling with people. The greater of the two is empathy—feeling with people. Empathy is risky because in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something within myself that knows what you’re feeling.

Sympathy, on the other hand, happens when we are unable or unwilling or too scared to put ourselves in the place of those who suffer. When we say “I’m feeling for you, but I don’t want to feel with you.” Sympathy, Dr. Brown says, drives disconnection while empathy fuels connection.

So often we hear words of sympathy from others. Sympathy is a feeling that says, “Wow, it sucks to be where you are. Too bad. Bless your heart.” Sympathy happens when we keep some emotional distance between another and ourselves because we’re scared to go to the same emotional place as them.

It is empathy that is most like compassion. When we practice empathy, we try our best to understand another person, we stay out of judgment, we work to recognize another’s feelings, and we give the feeling back to them in our own real and heartfelt way. Empathy happens when we dive into the same hole that another person is stuck in—when we take the chance to be with them in their suffering. Empathy happens when we risk entering into relationship with another—when we risk being vulnerable with them.

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This coming Tuesday some of us in the community will be meeting at First United Methodist Church to talk about what we in the village can do for those among us who may not have all that they need to get through these long and cold winter months.

You may not know him by name, but it’s David Norton. He’s the man who pushes his shopping carts full of assorted stuff up and down the I-60 corridor. I have mostly seen him up there around Walgreens and Rite-Aid. No one really knows exactly what happened, but he was rushed to the hospital weeks back for severe hypothermia after spending one of these bitterly cold nights outside. Thank God he did not die from his exposure to the cold. I imagine someone called an ambulance for him and he survived.

This incident has shaken a few people in our community to act on behalf of those like David who go, not just without shelter, but without adequate food, or who have trouble paying some of their bills.

Just as one church, we may not be set up to handle requests coming from those in our community, but in our meeting on Tuesday evening we will put our heads together to discuss what we can to do as a faith community in here in town to uplift the homeless, the struggling, and hungry among us. I hope together we can make a dent in some of the unmet needs of the most impoverished in Barboursville.

We cannot simply feel sorry for those who go without adequate food and shelter, whether it’s during the winter or at any other time of year. We who follow the One who blessed the meek, the hungry, and the thirsty should try our best to live into God’s blessing by practicing compassion and empathy for those who hurt in so many different ways.

It is when we sit with them in their suffering that we realize that spending a night without shelter, that going hungry or thirsty in our community should make us all uneasy. Their suffering is our suffering too if we’re willing to go beyond sympathy and take the risk to empathize instead. And if we’re willing to do that, then their problem is really our problem.

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The beatitudes are not a bunch of qualifications for getting on God’s good side. We don’t have to accomplish the beatitudes. That’s not their point. Rather than a list of to-dos, the beatitudes are a sketch of how we should live step by step into God’s blessing.

It’s easy to simply feel sorry for those who have less than we do. But feeling sorry for others is not relationship. The beatitudes invite us into relationship with those who suffer among us. They tell us that the hungry and thirsty, the poor in spirit are just as blessed as everyone else. That their needs are the same as our own. That they are just as much a part of the community of God as anyone else is.

The beatitudes imagine a new and redeemed community who cares for everyone in it. A community that comes into being when we no longer live our lives for ourselves, when we risk being just as exposed as the most exposed among us. A community that dares to enter fully into the lives of the most vulnerable among us.

Absolutely everyone is close to God’s heart. May we live into God’s blessings by entering fully into each other’s lives.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful.

Alleluia! Amen.

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