Friday, January 31, 2014

Jesus Hits the Reset Button (Sermon on the Mount part 1, Feb 2 2014)

Homily:  Yr A Proper 4, February 2 2014, St. Albans
Readings: Micah 6.1-8; Ps 15; 1 Cor 1.18-31; Mt 5.1-12

Jesus hits the reset button (Sermon on the Mount #1)

In 1990, George H. Bush gave a speech to a joint session of Congress in which he proclaimed a new world order.  It was the end of the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Bloc.  It was the eve of the Gulf War in Kuwait and Iraq.  It was a time of hope, of hope that the superpowers and the UN could work together to usher in a new era of peace.  And so President Bush proclaimed a new world order, one in which “the rule of law governs the conduct of nations.”

It hasn’t worked out so well.  As I speak, there is war in Syria, in South Sudan, and in the Central African Republic.   The USA and Russia are at loggerheads and the UN has been ineffective.  So much for President Bush’s new world order.

Now, this wasn’t the first time that someone had proclaimed a new world order.  This morning we begin the first of four Sunday readings of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, beginning in the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew.  And make no mistake, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is the proclamation of a new world order.  By the time he gets to the end, Matthew records that “when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astonished at his teaching.”  And we should be no less astonished.  Because beginning with the Beatitudes which we heard today, Jesus proclaims a new world order, a world in which the economy of exchange is replaced by the economy of grace.

Since the dawn of humanity, we are used to thinking in terms of exchange.  We say things like:

“you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”
“people should get what they deserve”
“That’s not fair”
“work hard and good things will follow”
“God helps those who help themselves”
“If you obey God, you will be blessed”

That’s the language of exchange.  Another language for this economy of exchange is to talk about Karma.  This past week, Romi sent me a link to an interview in which Bono of U2 talks about the difference between Karma and Grace.  In it he says,

“You see, at the centre of all religions is the idea of Karma.  You know, what you put out comes back to you, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics, every action is met by an equal and opposite reaction.  And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that.”

Grace is a gift of God.  Grace is the free and unmerited favour of God towards you.  You can’t do anything to earn grace.  You can only receive it, and respond to it.

Jesus in the sermon of the mount is proposing a revolution.  The economy of exchange, the idea of Karma needs to be overthrown and upended and give way to Grace.

Because we’ve got it wrong.  When Jesus looks at the world around him, when we look at the world around us, we still see a world that is dominated by the principles of exchange.  Even when we look at our religious tradition, which is supposedly based on the teachings of Jesus, we still can see the power of exchange at work.  In our Psalm that we read this morning, a psalm that Jesus would have read, the first line reads:

Question:  Lord who may dwell in your tabernacle, who may abide on your holy hill?
Answer:  Whoever leads a blameless life and does what is right, who speaks the truth from his heart.

I think most people hearing this would immediately think in terms of exchange:  If I lead a good life, then I get the goodies, in this case meaning I get to dwell in the tabernacle of the Lord.  Certainly that’s the way most of Jesus’ contemporaries heard it.  The religious authorities of the day had constructed a vast array of rules and regulations to assist them in leading what they understood to be a blameless life.

But according to Jesus, they’ve got it all wrong.  They’ve misunderstood what God was trying to teach them way back in the days of Moses.  When the people of Israel were slaves in Egypt, God heard their cry and responded to them, “Blessed are the slaves in Egypt, for I will rescue them from their oppression.”  That was grace, the gift of redemption in the Exodus.  It was only after the Exodus that God through Moses gave the people of Israel yet another gift, the gift of the Law which would teach them how to live together in community, how to be the people that God created them to be and how to be a blessing for others.

But for the most part, the people who came after misunderstood.  They forgot that the blessing came first and then the Law.  The dominant interpretation in the Old Testament became that of Deuteronomy, this idea that obedience to the law of Moses brings God’s blessing and disobedience brings God’s curse, the withdrawal of God’s favour.  A divine economy of exchange.

And so Jesus hits the reset button.  He goes back to the beginning.

Just like Moses, Jesus went up the mountain, up to the place where God and humanity meet.

When Moses goes up the mountain, he warns the people not to come up the mountain with him.  It’s too dangerous.  He sets limits around the mountain.

But when Jesus goes up the mountain, he invites his disciples to come up the mountain with him.  It is a new image of God, it’s the image of a God who looks upon us with favour and invites us into relationship.

When Moses speaks from the mountain, he proclaims Commandments.

But when Jesus speaks from the mountain, he does something different.  He proclaims not commandments, but blessings.

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 shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

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

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

What does it mean to be blessed?

I must admit that I wrestle with the idea of blessing.  Even though I am the person officially sanctioned in our tradition to do blessings, even though I bless people every week, I’m not always sure that I know what I’m doing.

One of the problems is that I often hear people say things like “I am blessed” or “count your blessings”.  Maybe some of you use that sort of language.  The problem is, when I hear someone say that they’ve been blessed, rarely are they talking about being poor or hungry or in mourning, like the people that Jesus blesses.  Instead, they usually mean that something good has happened in their lives, and they’re giving God some of the credit.  They’ve got a good job, or a nice home, or a loving family or whatever it is.
The problem is that this sort of language gets so easily infected with the language of exchange, with the idea that if you do good and if you obey God and you believe the right things, then God will respond by showering you with blessings, with good things.  And then, we can go one step further and turn this around and say to ourselves, “hey, my life is good, I’ve got money, and I’m happy and I must have all these blessings from God because I’m a good person.”  And then we go a step further, and do some sort of horrible integration between this sort of theology and capitalism and consumerism and we get what’s sometimes called the prosperity gospel, which says that those people that are healthy and doing well economically must be living good and faithful lives that are pleasing to God.  And then we use that to justify income inequality, and to look down on the poor and blame them for their own poverty.

And as soon as we even start to go down that trail, it’s time to hit the reset button and hear Jesus say again,

“Blessed are the poor, those who mourn, the meek, the hungry, those who are persecuted.”

Jesus is offering an alternative vision, a new world order, a radical, subversive, revolutionary way of understanding both the world and God based on grace.

What does it mean for you to be blessed?  It means that God sees you, is with you, cares for you, and will act for you.  Not because you’re good.  Not because your deserve it.  Not because you’ve earned it.  But because you are a child of God, and God loves you and God especially reaches out to those who are in need. 

Which is all of us, by the way.  It’s just that some of us don’t know it.  Some of us are rich in spirit.  We think we’re okay, we’re good, we got things under control, we don’t really need any help right now.  The economy of exchange works pretty well for us.  In fact it works so well that I’m just not ready give up relying on my own abilities, possessions, rights and actions and to rely on God’s grace instead.

But some of us are poor in spirit.  Crushed by life.  In desperate circumstances.  Aware of our own inadequacy, of our own sinfulness. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  The kingdom of heaven is all about grace, and the poor in spirit are ready to receive grace with open arms, just as those who mourn are ready to receive the gift of comfort and the hungry will take what they’re given.  People who are poor in spirit get this grace stuff.

Jesus blesses people who have no claim on God’s blessing.  It’s not a quid pro quo.  It’s pure gift.  Grace.


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