You can listen to this sermon here.
1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
It was quite the experience to wake up yesterday morning and to look at my phone and to read this headline: Refugees Detained at U.S. Airports.
And of course, my mind immediately went to our refugee family Paul, Ariat and their 7 beautiful children, who were here with us just 6 weeks ago. The refugee family we pray for every single week.
And my mind started racing with the thought about how if this were six months ago, the family that we’ve welcomed to this country because of our faith, because we felt called by Jesus to welcome the stranger, the outcast, the one in need…that family that we welcomed in the name of Jesus, would’ve likely been detained at the airport.
Now you might think that this is a moment when your preacher is engaging our politics, but no. We can play those games out there if we have to, but in here, we are one body of Christ. One family. And as your pastor, I’m asking you to let this moment to engage your faith. What does your faith have to say about this? Surely, in honor of our refugee family, we can sit with that question, for the sake of all the other refugee families seeking safety.
I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that we’ve all become gripped by fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of the other. Fear for the other. Fear of violence against us. Fear of violence from us. Fear of the government. Fear of the people. Fear. Fear. Fear. We seem to be drowning in a sea of fear.
In light of all of this, I was helped by a sermon from our friend, Alan Storey, who was here in this fall and whose videos some of us are watching on Mondays at noon. He reminded me of the inaugural words of Franklin Roosevelt, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Which are necessary and urgent words for us at this time.
Fear is our greatest enemy because the bible says that just as love casts our fear…fear casts out love. A fearful people will be a loveless people.
You see, what fear does is it makes us forget who we are. And fear makes us forget who other people are. The moment I forget who I really am and the moment I forget who you are, I can do all sort of inhumane things in that state of forgetfulness. Driven by fear. Out of fear, I’m more likely to respond out of prejudice than principle. Out of fear, I’m more likely to be selfish than generous. Out of fear, I’m more likely to lie than be truthful. Out of fear, I’m more likely to be judgmental than accepting. I’m more likely to be violent and forceful than gentle.
Therefore, if we have one enemy that all of us needs to resist it is fear. Because fear casts out love. And we are called to be a loving people, so that we can be a fearless people.
So we are living in a context of fear. And here’s the thing: the same is true for our gospel reading for today. You see, we’re so used to lifting the Beatitudes off the page and hanging them on the wall and making them look and sound beautiful that we forget the context into which these words were spoken.
To find the context, we have to go back to last week. If we look back at our reading from last week, we’ll recall the line, “When Jesus had heard that John had been arrested.” In other words, detained. And these words would’ve instilled great fear. John has been detained by King Herod. John – Jesus’ friend and mentor, the one who baptized him. And now John has been arrested and will never be set free, because King Herod will take his head.
That is the context. A context in which the powerful empire prevails and the powerless people get pulverized. It is a context of danger. Of threat. Of fear.
And that is the context into which Jesus enters his public ministry. He goes into the fear. That is the context that Jesus calls his first disciples, which tells us that perhaps this is the time for church outreach. That is the context that Jesus teaches and cures the sick and vulnerable, which tells us that perhaps this is the time we are most needed. Perhaps we were born for just such a time as this. And it is that context of fear that he delivers his sermon on the mount, beginning with the beatitudes.
Now, in the light of that context, what could the Beatitudes mean? What is Jesus doing with them? What could they mean for us today?
The first thing for us to notice is that Jesus is speaking to his disciples, and he isn’t just speaking to them. He’s not just handing out blessings on the street corner. He’s teaching them. 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.
Why do we teach? We teach to equip. To empower. We teach so that the student can go and do.
And in this moment, perhaps Jesus isn’t just blessing people, perhaps he is teaching his disciples to recognize blessedness, where others might see fear.
You see, it dawned on me that all of the people listed in the beatitudes could just as easily be fearful people.
Fearful are the poor in spirit, for the world is cruel.
Fearful are those who mourn, for death wins everytime.
Fearful are the meek, for they get trampled on.
Fearful are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will never be filled.
Fearful are the merciful, for they will never see justice.
Fearful are the pure in heart, for everything is a threat
Fearful are the peacemakers, for war never ends.
Fearful are the those who are persecuted, for they achieve nothing.
They could be seen as fearful people. Perhaps they see themselves as fearful people.
But that’s not what Jesus’ says. Jesus says, Blessed are they. And in doing so, Jesus is teaching the disciples how to see rightly. How to see as God sees.
Now throughout the Gospel of Matthew, there is a major theme of sight and seeing. We will hear Jesus talk about the eye a lot.
We think we know how the eye works. Light comes through the pupil, it strikes the retina and generates electrical impulses to the brain and images are formed. That isn’t the way they thought the eye worked in the first century. In Jesus they thought of the eye not as a receiver of light but as a source of light. When you looked at something, they thought that light streamed from your body onto whatever it is you were looking at, so the eyes quite naturally became a metaphor, a symbol for the soul.
In fact, Jesus talks about this in the sermon on the mount. Listen. He says, “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eye is healthy, your body will be full of light. And if your eye is unhealthy, your body will be full of darkness. And if the light in you is darkness, how deep is the darkness.“
Or perhaps to put it another way. The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes is healthy, if you can see the world as God does, through Jesus as deserving of mercy and kindness, justice and redemption, your body will be full of love. But if your eye is unhealthy, if you see the world not as God does, but simply as punishment and reward, your body will be full of fear.
Maybe, in this opening class lesson from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is teaching his disciples how to see. How to see and recognize blessedness. How to see that there is blessing and light in places that the world cannot see, but that God sees.
Might it be that it be that in teaching them to see blessedness among the fearful, he is also teaching them to proclaim blessedness to the fearful. And in doing so, transforming fear in love. Despair into hope. To call them blessed is to drive out their fear.
Now, let me be clear. This isn’t some ignorant sermon about how we just have to see the good in everything and we will be okay. But it is to say that Jesus’ followers were no strangers to suffering and darkness. They have been living under the boot of the Roman Empire. And Jesus is giving them a flashlight for their soul. A light, a lamp for their body. New eyes. Because if all the eye sees is darkness, then the body will be full of darkness. But Jesus seeks to correct our vision. So that we might see the world around us, our neighbors, and God anew. And in turn, to go and build our life around that and live accordingly. So that, as one preacher has said, “Rather than merely take pity on people’s losses, we are invited to enter into them. Rather than judge people’s failings, we are invited to forgive and remind them that they are blessed by God and born for more than they’ve settled for. And rather than despise weakness, we are invited to see in it the truest point of meeting between God’s children. For God reveals God’s self to us most clearly and consistently at our places of deepest need.”
My friends, Jesus is trying to correct our vision. To see the world, our world that seems to be instilling so much fear… to see with kingdom eyes. That where we have been trained to see darkness, God sees blessedness and light. Because God is there. Because that is who God is. And God is teaching us to see light there too. So that we will not, in our fear, turn away from such places but rather, in our love, risk ourselves to go there too. Because that’s who we have been called to be.
May these beatitudes not be words that lull us into soft sweet comfort. But rather may each one be a corrective lens at the optometrists office, clicking into place to slowly focus our eyes on who our God really is and how God see the world.
Blessed are the pour in spirit…click.
Blessed are those who mourn…click.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…click.
Blessed are the merciful…click.
Blessed are the pure in heart…click.
Blessed are the peacemakers…click.
Blessed are those who are persecuted…click.
Blessed are you….click.
Do not be afraid.
But go, and in the name of Jesus, love bravely.
 This section and this sermon are more indebted to Alan Storey than I care to admit. See: http://cmm.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/2017-01-22-ALAN.mp3
 Tom Long.