Rev. Dr. Martha Jacobs
January 29, 2017
“Teach Us Your Ways”
Micah: 6:6-8, Matthew 5:1-12
In this morning’s reading, we heard Matthew’s version of the start of Jesus’ ministry where Jesus is speaking only to the disciples. In Luke’s version, where Jesus speaks these same words, he is preaching to a huge crowd. I wonder if it mattered to Jesus how many people he was talking to. Maybe Luke was giving his readers “alternative facts.” Either way, I don’t think it mattered to Jesus, because for Jesus it is the message that is important, not the numbers.
One of the reasons scholars say there is a difference in recollections, is because in Matthew, Jesus is portrayed as a teacher, an interpreter of God’s law. Jesus starts his teaching with how to recognize blessedness….not how to become blessed or how to bless each other, but rather to recognize who is already blessed by God, which then leads people to doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God.
When I was a professor at NYTS, at the beginning of class, I would check in to see how students were doing and if there was anything that they needed prayers for as we started our session. At the start of the semester, students would often say, “I am blessed because….”, and then name the most recent thing that happened to them that was positive. Often, it was almost like the students were trying to see who was the MOST blessed – trying to top each other with how blessed they were, or thought they were.
Now, knowing this reading, I don’t think that was what Jesus had in mind. So, eventually, I would put a stop to their comments by saying something like, “Well, I guess I must not be blessed because none of those wonderful things happened for me. Jesus taught that the poor are blessed, those who mourn are blessed. So, how do you think your thinking that you are blessed stands up to what Jesus is trying to teach us?”
Well, that usually quieted the room…and then I would ask them, “What does God require of you?” – and of course, their answer would include to do justice, to love kindness (or mercy) and to walk humbly with God. I would follow that up with, “So, how have you done those things when all you talk about is how positively blessed you are. Is that being humble? Is that helping others? Suppose you said what you were just saying in front of someone who is struggling to put food on their table or a roof over their head or is grieving the loss of a loved one.” Do you think that they too would feel blessed, which is who Jesus says we should consider blessed?
Well, you can imagine how uncomfortable things got in the classroom. I was calling them out on bragging about being blessed by God, when in fact, so many people around them didn’t feel blessed by God. In our society, for the most part, we have turned blessings into something that we get when something positive happens to us, as opposed to something that might appear or in fact be, negative.
This changing around of what a blessings is, is not confined to seminary students. It seems to be human nature for many of us, so I can understand why the first thing Jesus teaches them and us is how to recognize blessedness. Not how to become blessed, or even to bless each other, but rather to recognize who is already blessed by God. The important part of all this is that it’s not who we think of as blessed who are blessed, at least in God’s eyes. It is those who mourn, those who are poor in heart, those who are reviled.
Now, you may think that I am contradicting today what I did last Sunday at our Annual Meeting, when I asked you to turn to each other and say, “You are a blessing. When I look at you I see a glimpse of God.” My guess is, that many of you thought I was only talking about the positive and wonderful things that you have done at this church. And, yes, you have done wonderful things and have provided many blessings to this congregation and the wider world. However, in my heart, what I was remembering were the difficult times that many of you have shared with me. Difficulties in your life. Losses almost too much to bear, disappointments almost too much to name, fear almost too scary to share. And yet, you shared them with me and through me, each person in this congregation and, of course, shared with God.
You may not be aware of the difficulties some of our members and friends have. But, during our Pastoral Prayer, not only am I naming the people who have said it is okay to name, but I also include those who would rather not have their name spoken aloud. And I do so, when near the beginning of our prayer, I say, “We come before you today and every day with our prayers of thanksgiving and prayers of concern knowing that there are things on our hearts, some that will be spoken, and some that remain unspoken but, nonetheless, we know that you hear them.” Dear ones, in that way, I include all who asked for private prayers and those who have been afraid to ask, and those who can’t even begin to put into words what they need prayer for. I hope that during our Pastoral Prayer, as I am naming people and lifting up various concerns in our community and the wider world, that you are naming in your own heart, those people and situations that are of concern to you. In that way, I believe that we are praying for those who God considers blessed because of their burdens.
Blessings can be powerful in a world that rarely blesses. I could feel the energy shift in Centennial Hall last Sunday as people turned and blessed each other. I truly hope that you felt the love coming to you through that blessing. But, this reading reminded me that in addition to blessing others, it is important for us to recognize and remember that those we don’t often perceive as valuable, are precisely those God chooses to bless and honor. God reveals Godself to us most clearly and consistently at our places of deepest need.
I wonder what it would be like if we were mindful in recognizing that God comes where we least expect God to be – amid our brokenness. So, when we see someone who is struggling, when we see someone who is being bullied or ostracized because they are of a different culture or faith-tradition than we are, we need to be mindful that God is there. When we see the need to help refugees, or those who are fearful of being deported or separated from their loved ones because they were born in this country and their parents weren’t, we need to be mindful that God is there.
When we see the need to reach out and support someone who is being evicted, we need to be mindful that God is there. When we respond to those who are hurting, are broken, are in need, then we are participating in what God has called us to do – to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God. When we do that, we bring God’s kingdom into our lives now. Recognizing that whenever we honor each other as God’s children, help each other, stand up for each other, support each other in whatever way we are able, we are engaging in the work of God’s kingdom.
Remember, Jesus was fully human. Jesus entered into the blessedness of those who were poor, sick, grieving, disheartened, prejudiced, and beaten up in body or in spirit. Jesus knew what that felt like, to walk with someone, even for just a short part of their journey, letting them know that, while not all things can be fixed, at least they are not walking that road alone. We are a place that provides forgiveness, kindness, grace and goodness. We can be vulnerable, vulnerable enough to bless each other. Jesus showed us that one can be fragile and vulnerable and open to the needs of others and that blessings sometimes require more from us, as we seek to help others.
The late Henri Nouwen offered an insightful description that I think fits our need to be present with those who are hurting. He wrote: compassion grows with the inner recognition that your neighbor shares your humanity with you. This partnership cuts through all walls which might have kept you separate. Across all barriers of land and language, wealth and poverty, knowledge and ignorance, we are one, created from the same dust, destined for the same end. We are distinct, but more importantly, we share that gift of being created in God’s image; thus we belong to one another as family.
The man who came into my office 2 weeks ago, seeking financial help so that he and his family would not be evicted, shared his burden with all of us, especially since I could say “Yes” to his request for help. We are here to bear each other’s’ burdens, to bind each other’s’ wounds, and, when we can, to meet each other’s needs.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the pure in heart, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and who are persecuted on Christ’s behalf. It’s quite a list. And blessed are you who see the blessings of God in your neighbor’s need. I invite you next time you reach out to help to give thanks to God for the privilege of being able to help them. Do justice, love kindness and as hard as it sometimes is, walk humbly with God. For, only when we walk humbly with God will we come to learn and understand how to do justice and love kindness. And, then we will truly come to learn the way that Jesus taught to his disciples and also teaches us.