Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
My friend and colleague Marilyn Cornwell, rector at Church of the Ascension here in Magnolia, often closes her email messages with these words: “You are blessed and a blessing.” What a wonderful reminder that blessing is not only something we can receive from God’s hands, but also something we can pass on.
From the very start, with God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12, the children of Israel were promised blessings from God, but were also promised that through them, all families of the earth would be blessed. Blessed, in order to be a blessing.
So, too, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel begins with this list of those who are blessed, but then turns immediately toward what Christians are called to offer the world: salt and light. Be flavorful, folks; share your unique zest as disciples of Jesus with the world. And don’t hide your light under a bushel – let it shine! Again, blessed, in order to be a blessing.
The particular list singled out for blessing in Matthew 5 (often called the Beatitudes) is an interesting one. It certainly doesn’t read like a who’s who of the rich and powerful. There are churches today that preach a ‘gospel of success,’ claiming that God will pour out blessings in the form of earthly riches on those who follow him. But that’s not what Jesus is talking about here at all. Blessed are the poor in spirit, he says. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers. And in a line that particularly caught my attention this week, as we grieve the loss of our good friend Eloise, blessed too are those who mourn.
There’s been plenty of debate among commentators on this passage as to the precise nature of these blessings, and their timing. Is Jesus saying the rewards are imminent, or far off? For instance, we’d be hard pressed to claim the meek have inherited the earth, just yet, so surely there is a future dimension. But at the same time, there seems to be an interesting mix of present and future tense rewards here.
This in turn gets us into broader discussions of the kingdom of God. What does it look like? To what extent is it something there and then, and to what extent here and now? We’ve been having good conversation about this in our Sunday morning adult class, and have concluded there may not be simple answers to these questions. At the very least, Jesus seems to me to invoke both “now” and “not yet” aspects of the kingdom of God in his preaching. What does seem clear throughout is that Jesus’ followers are blessed, not in order to keep that blessing for themselves, but in order to be a blessing to others. To shine God’s light, and to salt the earth with kingdom-of-God flavor.
For it also seems clear that to be a follower of Jesus is to follow an alternate script. In a world overwhelmed by everything from nasty political arguments to sickening levels of violence, a world in which so many seem to be out to save their own skin, to get ahead, stomping on the other guy in the process, Jesus offers us an entirely different vision of what life can be like. A world in which we are called to love our enemies. A world where it is greater to give than to receive. A world in which the poor and outcast are treated like kings and queens.
In New Testament scholar N.T. Wright’s words, “Jesus is not suggesting that these are simply timeless truths about the way the world is, about human behavior. If he was saying that, he was wrong. Mourners often go uncomforted, the meek don’t [seem to] inherit the earth, and those who long for justice frequently take that longing to the grave. [The world described here in the Beatitudes] is an upside-down world … [but] Jesus is saying that with his work it’s starting to come true.” (Matthew for Everyone, Part 1, p. 36) For the church, this passage is “a summons to live in the present in the way that will make sense in God’s promised future… It may be upside down, but we are called to believe, with great daring, that it is in fact the right way up.” (Wright, p. 38)
World Vision president Rich Stearns reminds us that churches are meant to be outposts of the kingdom of God. We’re called to remind the culture around us that such a world is possible. Granted, it won’t be entirely fulfilled in this lifetime. But even a little of the Church’s best salt and light can go a long way toward mending what’s broken. What a difference Christians could – and can – make in the world when we remember to keep our focus on the things Jesus said were important, rather than being diverted by divisive arguments among ourselves.
And lest we fear we don’t have what it takes to make that difference, look back again at those Jesus chose to bless. I see nothing here in the Beatitudes to indicate only the confident and mighty need apply. Instead Jesus heaps blessing on those who are hurting, those who have been beaten down and discouraged by life. Blessing those with broken hearts, and those whose spirits long deeply for justice. Blessing them, in order that they might be a blessing.
As beloved children of God, we know that blessings will come. Some less visible than others certainly, at least at first. And some of them in unexpectedly hard moments. Like when we’re hungering for justice. When we’re grieving. When we’re feeling discarded, or depleted, or weak. But God’s blessings will come.
And then what? Well, then – because it’s God who lights us up from the inside out, and gives us kingdom flavor – then we are salt and light for this world. We are these things even when we’re not feeling at the top of our game. We are these things simply because Jesus says so. And because the world needs us.
So be flavorful; share your unique zest as disciples of Jesus with the world. And don’t hide your light under a bushel – let it shine! Let the season of Lent this year be an opportunity for all of us to show the world what it looks like to be citizens of God’s kingdom. And never forget: you are both blessed, and a blessing. Amen.