It is said that the greatest sermon ever preached is the Sermon on the Mount. Parts of it are found in the Gospels of Mark and Luke as well, but the Gospel of Matthew devotes three full chapters to this sermon. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus had just been baptized, had gone into the wilderness for 40 days and forty nights, and he had begun his ministry preaching in Galilee and had called his initial disciples to follow him. He had built up a following healing the sick and proclaiming the Good News of God and now took time to teach those who were his new fledgling apostles.
So Jesus went up a mountain with his disciples and taught them the message he had been sent to proclaim. And this sermon began with the Beatitudes, and then followed it with a foundation of Christian theology including his teaching on prayer and an example of prayer that has become known as ‘The Lord’s Prayer’, his teachings on the Golden Rule, and his core belief of an acceptance and a lack of judging of others.
The Beatitudes can be seen as the foundation of our faith. And being that Lent is the period of time before Easter that we are to wrestle with our faith, it seems appropriate to spend the next few weeks learning about them. So as a part of our Lenten Discipline, we will look at these well-known phrases and see what they mean today with its complexity of ethics and social issues. During these Sundays in Lent we will be looking at the Beatitudes. To start, we must think about exactly what Blessed could have meant to Jesus and the people to whom he was speaking. So…. I went to work studying the various theologians’ interpretations of just that word in the context of the text. And… of course, there is not one easy answer but several different views. Some commentaries describe the meaning as ‘Happy’; so instead of saying Blessed is the one who does this or that, we should say Happy. But others disagreed saying it means something much more profound. The word in ancient Aramaic, which was Jesus’ native language is Ashray which comes from a verb Yashar. Ashray is not a passive word but is an active one which would best translate, ‘to set yourself up on the right path for the right good, or to repent or turn around, or to become straight or righteous. It is action oriented requiring us to get up, go ahead, and do something. But that should sit well with you. My dear Riviera family, the fact you are a missional group of people, came out loud and clear from the questionnaire results which we are still compiling for you. Churches can be perceived by their membership in one of two ways. Either they are an institution you look to for its programs to care for you (a consumer church) or you see church as an institution from which you do mission (a missional church). The truth is all churches have both characteristics, but the majority of your responses, told me that we here at Riviera know that our faith is not passive but is energetic, alive, and moves us beyond despair into action.
So perhaps Blessed for us is a goal to achieve in our faith. The Beatitudes then can become a measuring stick and way of life we wish to follow. Catholic mystic, Richard Rohr described the Beatitudes as the refinement of the 10 Commandments. Where obedience to the Law was set up to balance and contain our impulse control, the Beatitudes reveal a world of Grace and Abundance.
Theologian Arthur Lee McClanahan, writes that the key to understanding the Beatitudes is the first one. Blessed are the poor in Spirit….AS with all the statements in the Beatitudes this is set up much like a computer program with an If//Then statements. If you want to know God’s Realm/Then you must be poor in spirit….. You must admit you cannot do it all.
The first one is Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who know their need for God. Blessed are those who acknowledge their inadequacies that acknowledge their dependency on God and others in life….
But how can that be? It seems counter intuitive to our way of thinking and the society in which we live! We live in the world in which those who are independent survive… right? Those who are rich in spirit are the confident ones… they are the ones filled with courage, with hope, and with joy. Well, it was not much different in Jesus’ day when the rich and powerful were also the ones to which people looked up. So, it must have been a shock for Jesus to open his famous sermon with these words… Blessed are the poor in Spirit. Blessed are the lonely… the frightened… the depressed… and the wounded.
AND, if we are honest, we don’t want to talk about those people…. it is painful, because deep down they remind us of parts of ourselves we would like to forget. We like to put up a facade that we are independent… we put up walls and say we are fine, we don’t need other people or any help. But Jesus says no… those people are the ones that miss out. Jesus says that dependence is a strength. Blessed are you when you have reached the absolute bottom of your réservoir of your fiercely independent spirit, because it is only then when you will know God. Only when you know you need other people will you know God, will you feel blessed, and you will be fulfilled.
Blessed are the poor in spirit. After all it is our weakness that allows us to recognize our dependency on God. If it was not for our weak moments, we might live with the illusion we can make it on our own. And… well, we were not created to live that way. It is more fulfilling to reach out and be of help and get help from another and certainly is easier to not go it alone. In fact God never meant for us to be independent. We are meant to be in community and relationships with each other and with God.
There have been times in each of our lives when things are going well and we think we are on top of the world. We don’t need anyone and we don’t need God. But the reality is that those instances, those peak moments in life do not last forever and if we live with the illusion they are, we will be crushed when things come falling down.
There have also been times in each of our lives when we think we have hit rock bottom. We feel that we are at the end of our rope, and might feel powerless and beaten. But, it is at that time, that we also know our need for God, the importance of community, and the love of others. It is at that moment when we know that we are indeed blessed. What an odd reality that is in life. It is exactly when we are at our lowest point, when we know all that we are offered and the sure foundation on which we stand.
I have told a few of you that sometimes I cry, and yell, and scream at God. Sometimes I think things are so lousy that I shake my fists at our Creator and say it isn’t fair. But, I will tell you with utmost sincerity, that at those low points I also have a strong sense of God’s presence. That I am not alone. That we are not alone. We are held in love, we are carried, and we are cradled by God and at Riviera we are also held in love by each other. As Jesus preached: Blessed be the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Amen.