Sermon for May 3rd, 2015
1When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
20Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 24“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. 26“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
Beautiful Attitudes: The Purehearted and the Peacemakers
- Video Clip: Blessed are the Cheesemakers
Blessed are the cheesemakers. This clip is from Monty Python's Life of Brian, and is probably one of my favorite films. Unfortunately, the characters in this clip aren't the only ones to get this verse wrong. The second edition of the Geneva Bible (produced by our own Presbyterian founding fathers, John Calvin and John Knox, among others) misprinted this verse as "Blessed are the placemakers, for they shall be called children of God." I'm not entirely sure what a placemaker is, but if you are one, know that for a very brief window time in the 16th century, you were blessed.
As far as Bible misprints go, that one's not too bad. The 1631 printing of the King James Bible rendered the 7th commandment as "Thou shalt commit adultery." As you might imagine, today it is a highly valuable and sought-after edition of the Bible.
Blessed are the peacemakers. Even when correctly printed, this beatitude is not as simple as we might like it to be. What is a peacemaker? The Nobel Peace Prize, awarded almost yearly since 1901, has named as peacemakers social advocates like Martin Luther King, Jr., Albert Schweitzer, Mother Theresa, Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama. They've also nameed as peacemakers several diplomats and world leaders like Woodrow Wilson, Henry Kissinger, Mikhail Gorbachev, Yitzhak Rabin, Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter (and more recently, Al Gore and Barack Obama).
The creator of the Nobel Peace Prize, Alfred Nobel (who ironically made his fortune by inventing dynamite) established in his will the criteria for a peacemaker as someone who has "done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses."
But that definition would have been entirely foreign and strange to anyone in Jesus' first-century audience, as he pronounced "blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God." In fact, the image of "peacemaker" in Jesus' time was pretty well established: It was the image of the Roman centurion--the representative of the Roman Emperor and the "Pax Romana" or the "Roman Peace."
The Pax Romana was part imperial propoganda, but part truth as well. For almost 200 years, the Mediterranean lands controled by Rome experienced significantly more peace and less violence than the centuries immediately before and after it. But it was peace through strength, peace gained through warfare, and peace often maintained by brutal violence.
And that's where this beatitude gets tricky. Because there is a stream of thought that runs throughout Christian history that envisions Jesus as a pacifist. Turn the other cheek, and love your enemies, which probably means don't kill them. This version of Jesus inspired peacemakers like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. and the whole notion of passive, non-violent resistance.
But there's another stream of thought that also runs throughout Christian history, championed by Saint Augustine of Hippo (who is regarded by Catholics and Protestants alike as the greatest theologian of the first millennium). Saint Augustine taught that sometimes a Christian had the obligation to take up arms precisely in order to protect the weakest and most vulnerable in our society. In Augustine's view, sometimes war--in a limited sense--was necessary in order to establish and protect the greater good, the greater peace. Augustine and others in this stream of thought point to Jesus taking up a corded whip in order to drive the money changers out of the temple, money changers who were exploiting the poor.
When I read the news headlines lately, I am often torn: Who are the peacemakers? Is it the law enforcement officers who are trying to establish and maintain peace in the face of riots and looting? Or is it the protesters who are who are crying out for justice in the face of what they believe is wide-spread police brutality and race discrimination? Which ones are the peacemakers?
Our country has deployed military forces to establish and keep the peace in distant parts of the globe. I have no doubt that without their presence and often heroic efforts, many vulnerable people would suffer. And yet, when I hear reports of torture, mistreatment of prisoners by American soldiers, or needless casualties inflicted among civilian populations, I am torn. Which ones are the true peacemakers? Those who fight for peace, or those who protest against the fighting?
Unfortunately, neither side is completely without guilt. We are human beings, after all. And yet I believe there are good, well-intentioned people--peacemakers--on both sides of these hardened lines, people who need each other.
I also think it's entirely possible that Jesus, when he said "Blessed are the peacemakers" was addressing both streams of thought: Those who believe in peace through force, and those who believe in peace through non-violence. Three chapters after the Beatitudes, in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus shows great compassion to a Roman soldier, and does not chastise him for his profession or tell him to "go and sin no more." But in the garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus has been betrayed and captured, he does tell his disciple Peter to put away his sword. I suspect that being a true peacemaker requires knowing when to draw one's sword, and when to put it away.
Knowing that difference hinges directly on our next beatitude: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
The word "pure" is a bit problematic. In English, it tends to mean something that is 100% made up of one substance; not a mixture of two different things. And so to be "pure in heart" seems like a pretty high bar. 100% good. Sheer perfection. And obviously, that's not any of us.
But the word translated as "pure" is the Greek word καθαρός (katharos), and it's a very common word in the New Testament. Sometimes it is translated as pure, but far more often it is translated as "clean." Blessed are the clean-hearted. That sounds a bit weird in English, so I suspect that's why we usually translate it as "pure" here.
But it wouldn't have sounded weird at all to a 1st century Jewish person. That's because being "clean" was a big part of 1st century Jewish belief. We're a pretty clean bunch of people today, we take showers, we wash our hands, we cover our mouths when we sneeze, so that maybe doesn't sound too strange. But cleanness in 1st century had little to do with our 21st century notions of cleanness. You could actually skip showering for a few weeks and still be considered clean. But there was a very long list of other things you could do that would make you unclean.
I won't list all of them, but just for fun, let's play a game: Could everyone stand up for just a moment? When I list something that would have made you unclean in 1st century Israel, sit down. Ready?
- If you've ever touched a dead animal (dog, cat, mouse, squirrel)
- If you've ever produced or given birth to children (so that's both genders here)
- If you've ever eaten shrimp...or a ham sandwich.
Ok, that's pretty much everyone. That didn't take too long, and there are dozens more items on that list.
So you're unclean. So what? Well, according to the Levitical law, now you aren't allowed to come to church, you're not allowed access to God. What do you do? No worries, everyone becomes unclean at some point or another, and there's an entire set of laws that tell you exactly what you need to do to become clean again. Usually it's a matter of sacrificing an animal or two...a big one if you're wealthy, or a smaller one if you can't afford anything better. Oh, and you can only sacrifice them in one place: The temple in Jerusalem.
Over time, as Israel grew and spread out over the land, this came to be a problem for the poorest people. It was expensive to travel, even more difficult to do so with live animals. For a price, you could buy the animals once you finally arrived at the temple, but only with the right kind of currency, which you could also buy...for a price. One more thing: If you're not Jewish...if you're a gentile, Greek or Roman? You're permanently unclean. No price allows you access to God in the temple.
So when Jesus preached the sermon on the mount, it was likely to a crowd of poor Gallileans (and possibly a gentile or two) who, being unclean, had no hope of ever becoming legally, outwardly "clean." No hope then, of ever "seeing God." And to them, Jesus says, Blessed are those who are clean...in heart--or in other words, inwardly--for they shall see God.
And how does one become clean inwardly, in heart? It doesn't require money. It doesn't require sacrifice. It doesn't require a long trip, or even the right ethnicity. It's simple, really. Jesus put it this way, in a parable:
Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee (clean) and the other a tax collector (unclean). The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week (outward behavior); I give a tenth of all my income (outward behavior).’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other.
By the way...that word, "Justified?" It's from the Greek word δικαιόω (dikaio), which is often used to translate an even older word in Hebrew: זָכָה (zachah), which means...clean.
How does one become clean-hearted? By acknowledging that you're not, and humbly asking God for mercy. That's it. It's free. It's simple. It's between you and God. And you can do it as often as needed. All it requires is inward sincerity and humility. God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.
Blessed are the clean-hearted, for they shall see God.
I have said many times throughout this series, that the beatitudes are not a magic formula--If I adopt this attitude, God will bless me. No, the beatitudes reflect God's beautiful attitude, and it is this:
Whether you wear a police officer's uniform, a soldier's uniform, a worn-out t-shirt, or a protest sign...whether your skin is black or white or yellow or red, whether your hair is dark brown or bright blue...God looks inward to the heart. If your heart longs for peace in our land, and in our world...you are a peacemaker, and you matter to God--a God who calls us all to work together for peace, in every vocation, with whatever skills he has given us.
God's beautiful attitude is this:
You don't have to sing like the choir to come before God. You don't have to preach like the pastor. You don't have to put $50 in the offering plate (although we won't turn it down if you do!). You don't have to act a certain way, or dress a certain way, belong to this club or that family. If the only thing you have to give is your broken, imperfect heart...that's good enough. You matter to God. You are clean, pure, and welcome in this place where we see God in the faces of each other, in the faces of the ones he loves.