“The Space in Between” Reflection on Matthew 5:1-12 for 1/29/23 #sermon #pittsfield #berkshires

The Beatitudes we read this morning begin what is traditionally called “The Sermon on the Mount.” Although there’s a good chance that these were not shared all at one time by Jesus, these are an essential collection of stories, parables, and words of wisdom that begin here in chapter 5 and end with chapter 7. 

Reading these chapters would cover a good bit if you were thinking about being a Christian and wanted a basic understanding of Jesus’ teaching. If you took more time and studied what Jesus was talking about in his context, these chapters would cover most of it. These chapters are the ethical, philosophical, and theological guidelines that speak to the heart of what Jesus called his followers to build their lives around.

These verses we read today are particularly full. On the surface, they’re not complicated. These are words of hope that build on each other and explain each other.

The first verse (“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”) has been frequently interpreted as solely speaking about spiritual matters. However, Jesus lived in a time when the spiritual and physical, the self and the other, were all intertwined and connected. So, someone being “poor in Spirit” didn’t speak of solely a spiritual condition but some of the reasons they might be “poor in Spirit,” which Jesus goes on to explain by naming some of the conditions that might lead to someone being “poor in Spirit.”

“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.”

Within each of these is the assumption that those who are mourning, those who are meek, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are doing so because of the world or societal conditions that lead to mourning. A world that beats one down into a sense of meekness, a world that is so unright that it has people hungering and thirsting for righteousness. In this part of the verses, it is not a call to be poor in Spirit through mourning, being meek, or hungering and thirsting for righteousness but a recognition of these things that some don’t have and the way God will comfort them.

But then, Jesus makes a turn and suggests ways God will provide comfort. After first addressing those who have suffered loss, Jesus turns to those who God calls to address those losses:

“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.”

Jesus looks at the community in front of him and addresses those who have little and those who have much. The first part of these verses is about recognizing those who have needs and what they need. The second part is about those who are called to fulfill those needs with mercy, a pure heart, and peacemaking.

But Jesus doesn’t assume that this work comes without a cost:

“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.”

Acting mercifully, with a pure heart, and as a peacemaker upends systems of oppression and power. It is an oppressive system’s power to act without mercy, as we saw this week on a street corner in Memphis. It is an oppressive system’s power to counter a pure heart by manipulating self-interest, preserving privilege, and all the “isms” while promoting the assumption that sacrificing a few to poverty and injustice is necessary to protect the many. It is an oppressive system’s method to disrupt the peace by ensuring that those who would be powerful if they worked together work against one another.

Those that choose to go up against these systems of oppression are frequently persecuted. Every time a movement for justice arises, there is always an act by the systems that thrive on injustice to hold it down; to persecute those who are hungering and thirsting for righteousness and their allies. Every time a movement for justice arises, there is always an act by the systems that thrive on injustice to dehumanize and discredit those seeking justice. You can count on it. 

And, Jesus says, recognize that when you do and you feel that pain, there is still a far greater reward because:

“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.”

It’s not unusual for Jesus to talk in these ways that seem like a closed loop but are more like a deepening spiral. 

Later on, in this same chapter, Jesus says, “Love your enemies,” which, on the surface, sounds good and righteous. However, if you take it just a little further, by definition, you don’t love an enemy. If you love someone, they are not your enemy, so… Tricky, tricky Jesus. If we look at his sayings on the surface, they’re platitudes suitable for t-shirts, coffee mugs, and bumper stickers. But, if we start to practice them, they change our lives and, in fact, the world.

Yes, Jesus is calling to change the world. To work to align ourselves with those who are made poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek, and those who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness. Jesus is calling us to be merciful, to be pure, and dedicated in our motivations. Despite the conflict and recriminations bouncing around our world, Jesus is calling us to be peacemakers. Yes, Jesus recognizes that sometimes – as in his own life – this may mean persecution, dehumanization, and some hate coming our way, but – promises Jesus – we will find what we need if we stick with it. We’ll find ourselves in the presence of God. We’ll be comforted when we mourn. We’ll find strength when we feel meek. Our hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled.

Last Thursday, First Church had its annual meeting, and South Church has its meeting today. On the surface, such meetings are about the church’s business and can, for many, seem pretty darn dull. But, except for a few of the church geeks among us, we don’t do them because we rejoice in meetings but because, well, we’re required to by our constitutions and bylaws that are required by law.

However, they also take what might seem like vague commitments and transform them into specific ones. Our proposed mission statement for what South and First might become together is based on Micah 6:8:

“Embraced by Christ’s love and in community with one another, we

seek to practice loving-kindness, do justice, care for all creation, and walk humbly with God.”

Annual meetings have the opportunity to take a broad intention like this and begin to move it into a more specific plan. It is what transforms this somewhat mundane work into sacred work that outlines, as Jesus calls us through the Beatitudes, how we are going to be merciful, how we are going to be pure in heart, and how we will be peacemakers. If we can’t point toward these callings in more than one or two steps from the items in our reports and on our agenda, we have some more work to do. 

And we always have more work to do. We sometimes focus on the fact that we were created at some point and some time or that we will create something at some point or some time in the future instead of recognizing that, indeed, we are constantly creating and, in fact, being created.

One of my favorite hymns about the church’s work is “We Would Be Building,” and I am partial to the one in the UCC’s New Century Hymnal. Hum along with me if you know the tune.

“We would be building; temples still undone, o’er crumbling walls, their crosses scarcely lift, waiting till love can raise the broken stone, and hearts creative bridge the human rift. We would be building, Architect Divine, reveal the shape of life in your design.

“Teach us to build; upon the solid rock, we set the dream that hardens into deed, ribbed with fine steel, both time and change to mock, the unfailing purpose of our noblest creed. Teach us to build; O Maker, lend us sight, to see the towers gleaming in the light.

“O keep us building, Savior; may our hands ne’er falter when the dream is in our hearts, when to our ears there come divine commands, and all the pride of sinful will departs. We build with You; O grant enduring worth until Your promised realm shall come on earth.”

May God bless the work that happens in our annual meetings. May Jesus be pleased. May the Spirit give us the persistence we need to make it through. Amen.

The Rev. Mike Denton is the designated pastor of First Church of Christ (UCC) and South Congregational Church (UCC) in Pittsfield, MA. Join us for worship at 10 am on Sundays! Click here if you’d like to donate to the church and its ministries!

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