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Bible verses for reflection: Matthew 5:1-11
Pre-scripture: Today we are beginning our summer sermon series on the Beatitudes which are the beginning of Jesus’ first discourse in the Gospel of Matthew called the Sermon on the Mount. From the mountain top the Beatitudes give us a bird’s eye view of God’s vision of hope and joy for the world. Mother Theresa once called the Beatitudes, “something to live for and live by” and I believe we will see as we journey through the Beatitudes this summer, how they call us to respond to God’s promises as we live for the day when God’s vision of peace, mercy and justice will be fulfilled.
“Well, bless your heart!” Down here in the South we know this phrase all too well. Said with a sweet southern twang, “Bless your heart,” is commonly used to express ill of someone without hurting their feelings. Sometimes it can be used to express genuine sympathy but we all know its usually just an excuse to say something not so nice about someone else. I remember when I moved to North Carolina from Nebraska back in ’99 and my dad bought us a Southern dictionary so we could learn the language. In addition to learning that we now “cut the light on” or just go a “fair piece” down the road, we learned quickly that in the North someone might say, “Wow, you are so clumsy!” but down here in the South it was said, “You’re so clumsy, bless your heart.” As if saying “bless your heart” negates the fact that you just called me clumsy!
This summer we are going to be walking through the Beatitudes in worship and I’m grateful that beginning next week we will focus on just one of the Beatitudes each week. I think it will be a gift to take them piece by piece and really ponder their meaning. Some of us may read the Beatitudes and hear a beautiful, familiar piece of scripture and feel comforted by their poetic words. Some of us may read the Beatitudes and wonder, are these the ancient version of the South’s “bless your heart” phrases? It seems like you could easily translate them into southern speak, “She’s so poor in spirit, bless her heart.” At first glance, some of the Beatitudes seem so true without having to dig deeper, others seem like such contradictions. But there is so much more to the Beatitudes.
In the Beatitudes we hear the word “blessed” over and over. The Greek word “makarios” means blessed or happy and ties to the Hebrew word, “Ashrey,” that we often hear in the Psalms (As in “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” Ps. 32:1). It is important to note that these words have a deeper meaning than they do in our secular culture today. These words do not refer to a kind of superficial happiness that can be created with the wave of a magic wand or built for ourselves using our own human strength and accomplishments. In particular, the word “blessed” is one we often throw around today to describe good luck or personal achievements. Now I realize that many of you here do not use things like Facebook or Twitter but the way that our culture uses words on social media has begun to influence the way we all talk and in turn these trends have influenced the way people view God and the world. On the internet hashtags (# sign) are used to compile people’s posts of similar topics so it was pretty easy for me to do a search and find out the most common reasons people are feeling blessed these days. Let me give you a few examples…
“Yesterday I graduated as salutatorian, with many honors and scholarships and a brand new ’16 Chevy Cruze #blessed”
I went to the dentist expecting a root canal but just had to get a filling #blessed
When your mom is going to Publix and asks if you want a PubSub #blessed
I couldn’t decide between grape and strawberry jam on my toast, and then I realized that I could cut my toast in half and have both #blessed
This is the theology of blessing floating around us. If we run into good luck we say God must be on our side, but this kind of theology leaves no room for God when things are not going so well. In the Beatitudes Jesus’ use of the word “blessed” points far beyond our human achievements and random occurrences of good luck. The word blessed refers to a deeper sense of happiness that comes from the receiving of God’s mercy not as a reward but as a gift and from the promise that God alone is our redeemer and savior, who wipes away our transgressions, who comforts and heals us, and whose steadfast love abides with us even in times of mourning or persecution. Blessing comes from being a child of the God who came to earth to be with us, who felt our human pains, died and rose again so that we might know grace and peace. Blessing comes from knowing that God has promised a greater vision of hope, peace, and love and that this remains true even when the world around us does not give us the evidence.
So if the Beatitudes are not a sugar coated, “bless your heart” or a “Just hit four green lights in a row, #blessed” type of blessing, I wonder where God might lead us this summer if we challenge ourselves to read them from the mountain top view where Jesus initially taught them? What difference could they make in our lives and in our world? Ultimately I think as we contemplate the Beatitudes piece by piece that we will begin to sense the ways in which God is calling us to reorder our lives to work for the reordering of creation as depicted in the Beatitudes.
But to get there we have to start at the beginning and we can’t rush to the end. As we will next week, we start with the first beatitude, “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This Beatitude reminds us that we are fully dependent on God’s grace and we must take this to heart before we can ever go out to be peacemakers or stand up to persecution, lest we think that we can do any of this by our own strength.
Over the years, many have made a connection between the Beatitudes and the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. The first of the 12 steps is admitting that we are not God, that we are powerless over our addiction/tendency to do the wrong and that our lives have become unmanageable; very similar to acknowledging that we are poor in spirit and fully dependent on God. The 12th step of AA involves sharing the message you have learned with others and trying to practice the principles in all that you do. So if one aim is to live out the spirit of the Beatitudes, beginning with our poverty in spirit sounds like a good place to start. Anyone who has worked through the 12 steps or supported someone who was doing so knows that you can’t skip ahead to step 12 before you’ve gone through the first 11. I don’t believe we can skip ahead to being peacemakers or find comfort in mourning, for example, if we think we can do this all on our own.
So I hope that we might all take a little time to ponder over the Beatitudes this summer and that in doing so we might experience the power of God’s grace in new ways and dig into the depth of the blessing of an ever-present God who is with the meek, the grieving, the persecuted and those striving for justice even when it seems the world has left them behind. What a blessing it is indeed to know that God has far more in mind for our world than we can accomplish on our own and that God’s blessings are not dependent on us hitting four green lights in a row. Friends, may we pray over these Beatitudes this summer as something to live by and live for as we wait, watch, pray and participate in God’s blessings coming to life in this world.
Rev. Allysen Schaaf
Decatur Presbyterian Church
May 29, 2016
Allysen Schaaf graduated from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia with a Master of Divinity and a Master of Arts in Christian Education. Prior to that she received a Bachelor of Arts in Exercise and Sport Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The Rev. Dr. Todd Speed has served Decatur Presbyterian Church since August, 2007 and has been an integral part of the Decatur community ever since. As a part of his personal calling and service, Dr. Speed regularly serves on local non-profit or education-related boards, has led or co-led over 20 mission trips in various cultural contexts, and has participated in learning seminars on five continents.
Rev. Alexandra Rodgers was born and raised in Dallas, Texas. She grew up in a large Presbyterian church where she and her family were very involved. Alex has a degree in interdisciplinary studies from Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, and a master of divinity from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas.
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The mission of DPC is to share Jesus Christ's love for the world.
Founded in 1825, Decatur Presbyterian Church has contributed in numerous ways to the cultural development of Decatur over nearly two centuries, transforming Decatur from a tiny frontier settlement to building the foundations of the city we live in today.
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