Where Do We Even Begin?

July 22, 2018
Matt Skinner

Psalm 1; Matthew 5:1-12

The beginnings of sermons are very important. A beginning is supposed to hook an audience. But hook us for what? Are there cues in the beginning to tell us what kind of sermon it’s going to be? Who is this new preacher, anyway? Has he ever preached before? If so, why haven’t I ever heard of him? Why are there so many rhetorical questions?

Maybe the beginning of a sermon provides cues about how long the sermon is going to last.

I say all of this because the New Testament reading for today is the very beginning of Jesus’ most famous sermon—The Sermon on the Mount. Our twelve little verses set the tone for the whole sermon.

But there’s more to it than that. The New Testament reading isn’t just the first thing Jesus says in a sermon. These verses are also the first things he says in an open, public setting in the entire Gospel of Matthew.

In other words, these are the words—and the Sermon on the Mount is the activity—that this Gospel (Matthew’s Gospel) thinks is the best way to begin the story about Jesus and his ministry.

It’s different in the other Gospels. Consider the Gospel of Mark: the first thing that that Gospel lets readers experience in Jesus’ ministry is an exorcism. That’s Mark’s style: BAM—right from the get go, Jesus is about the business of delivering people from the powers that oppress them.

In Luke, the first thing we experience is a sermon, but a different sermon than this one. Jesus declares that he fulfills prophecies from Isaiah and announces the beginning of a new age of divine hospitality and renewal.

Know what the first public scene in John is? At a wedding, Jesus takes a lot of water and turns it into wine. Yes, John wants us to experience abundance, delight, fullness, glory.

By contrast, Matthew puts Jesus forward as a teacher, and as someone who will praise and promote people of “little faith.” Matthew is a Gospel that understands that faithfulness is a vulnerable thing. These verses introduce that point of view just about perfectly.

So these twelve verses, from Matthew’s perspective, aren’t just random sayings from Jesus. They are foundational for his life’s work. The whole sermon is Jesus’ inaugural address, so to speak. It’s where he begins.

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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 will inherit the earth.

With his opening lines to the assembled crowd, Jesus announces, boldly, that things are going to be different now. With his tender words about who is “blessed,” he isn’t speaking fluffy folk wisdom. Or wishing a better life for people who struggle. He is announcing that it is not going to be business as usual anymore.

At least, it won’t be business as usual with him. Not with this “kingdom of heaven” that he has come to bring about.

We should notice that Jesus begins with poetry. He doesn’t introduce himself to us in Matthew with big and complex theological principles. He doesn’t come with explanations. No flashy miracles or exorcisms to break the ice. He doesn’t make a lot of noise. The poetry pulls you in.

There’s a riveting rhythm to his words. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pure in heart. For they will be comforted. For they will inherit the earth. For they will receive mercy. For they will see God. The rhythm maybe starts quietly, but it continues and gains energy. Before you know it, the repetition means emphasis. It’s a rallying cry. Its tones create an overture that introduces Jesus and his ministry.

And that rhythm, full blown, establishes a sense of promise. The poor in spirit will receive. The meek will receive. The merciful will receive.

He begins, quite simply, with promises. The rhythm carries promises. They are essentially promises of who Jesus has come to help. They aren’t good-luck charms. Instead, they declare where Jesus will be. Who he will be with. He announces where you can find him, from this point forward.

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So, Jesus inaugurates his ministry by pronouncing certain groups of people “blessed.” OK… But what in the world does “blessed” mean, anyway? Who uses “blessed” in daily speech? The word has gotten very churchy and lost a lot of its meaning.

I mentioned that Jesus isn’t dispensing good-luck charms in these verses. He isn’t saying, “I hope God takes care of you.” This is different from what’s going to happen later this morning, for example, with the blessing of bicycles. The wording and form of this part of the Sermon on the Mount is different. The Greek word translated “blessed” here [makarios] really means “satisfied.” It has the sense of “unburdened.” Even “happy,” in a contented way. “At peace.” It means that you have been seen, and your needs are met.

Something similar is going on in Psalm 1, which declares that those who situate themselves alongside God’s sustenance will find ways to prosper. Those people are happy [’esher] because they are secure, like trees planted near streams. Unburdened.

Again, the statements in Jesus’ sermon are declarations. And what’s jarring about them is the groups of people that Jesus talks about. Jesus says he will bring satisfaction and peace to the very people who seem almost certain to lack those things.

The question is this: How can the people Jesus is talking about—those who lack so much power, prestige, and agency according to our conventional standards—how can they possibly enjoy the benefits and the fullness that come from God?

Listen to him:

You—he says—the poor in spirit! I see you. He’s talking to people who are broken. People who have been robbed of their spirit or liveliness. People whose eyes never leave the floor. People who have given up on a sense of their own dignity or worth.

Those of you who mourn! Those of you who suffer loss and who live with the emptiness that follows. He’s talking about the kind of grief that never goes away. You who have been deprived of joy, who have lost a spouse or child. Those who lost a job you loved. Anyone robbed of innocence or your physical health. Jesus says that you will know peace.

The meek! The people who get stepped on. The ones with no legal representation. The people who don’t count and don’t get counted. Jesus will make them blessed—unburdened. Jesus will go to those who have no power over others or who refuse to exploit others to get what they want. He will make them satisfied. He will raise them up. The earth will belong to the meek.

He sees the peacemakers! Not the people who put their names on petitions, but the people who put themselves directly in harm’s way. The people who stand between warring groups, whether those groups are nations, neighborhoods, or members of a war-torn family. Peacemakers are the opposite of sycophants. They intervene. They are the people who put their careers and their reputations on the line to oppose violence and injustice. They surrender privilege. They are people who provide sanctuary for those who have targets on their backs. People who will do whatever it takes to protect the powerless, even at the expense of their own lives. Jesus has come for those people and to be seen in them.

Even the persecuted will be relieved of their burdens. The people who have had their dignity or their wholeness denied or stripped away from them. The people whose quests for truth and equity earn them rebuke or a door shut in their face. They are the ones for whom Jesus has come.

Right here, then, at the opening of his ministry, in his first big speech, Jesus announces his intentions for the kinds of people who stay out, or who are kept out, of public view. These are the kinds of people who suffer brokenness and grief as chronic conditions. The people taken advantage of by friends and strangers. The people who often end up treated like objects, not subjects.

Jesus announces that he intends to bring happiness and contentment right there, to those people and places. He intends to invert our taken-for-granted expectations about where satisfaction can be found. It won’t come from success or from winning. It comes from being where Jesus is.

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The point is this: Jesus has come to turn the world upside down. He’s come to reaffirm dignity among those whose dignity is too easily cast aside. That’s where he begins.

Perhaps some of you have watched the Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby’s show—called “Nanette”—on Netflix. If you haven’t, find someone with Netflix and get them to show it to you. It’s a breathtaking show, as she reflects on shame, abuse, and the ways society aids and abets those who misuse power. The show has many central points, but one of the most important ones is summed up when Gadsby says: “To be rendered powerless does not destroy your humanity…. The only people who lose their humanity are those who believe they have the right to render another human being powerless.”[i]

That’s the kind of world Jesus addresses. His sermon is not a rhetorical feather bed or advice for building respectable virtues. It’s not about escapism. It’s addressing a world that has a large share of both tormenters and the traumatized. He’s addressing a society that lives by the lie that some people simply have to be expendable.

In the beginning of his sermon, he says that he has come not only to comfort the powerless and to notice the forgotten but to give them a place of honor. His message is not: “Cheer up—I will help you find a silver lining in your circumstances.” His message is not: “All of you need to try to be more humble, because then you’ll be happier.” No! His message is: “I have come for the powerless. I will be found among the forgotten. I will give them—you—the kingdom of heaven. I will not just notice you. I will do more than make the world safe for you. Rather, I will make the world yours. I’m gonna turn it all around! I will turn your indignity into a badge of honor. I will bring community to your isolation. I will legitimize the illegitimate. I will end the quarantine.”

It’s upside-down thinking. It doesn’t seem to fit.

Blessed—happy—are the scapegoats, for they shall receive honor.

Blessed—unburdened—are the uninsured, for they will experience abundant life and health.

Blessed—satisfied—are those who risk everything for asylum, for they and their children will receive welcome and a new home.

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If any of you have ever visited the Mount of the Beatitudes, which overlooks the Sea of Galilee in modern-day Israel, you know it’s beautiful. It’s the traditional site of the Sermon on the Mount. On this hill, there’s a lovely twentieth-century Roman Catholic church. It’s surrounded by gardens and vistas for looking out over the lake. The church is dedicated to precisely these verses in Jesus’ sermon, and the architecture and landscaping prompt visitors to reflect on his words. It’s a great spot for quiet, peaceful contemplation. The problem with this, in my mind, is that the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount should take our minds to much less comfortable places.

The “kingdom of heaven” that Jesus came to talk about—that he came to embody in his words and actions—is not about going to a far-off place where the streets are made of gold and everything’s quiet. First and foremost, this “kingdom” is the arrival of an alternate reality. Jesus is talking about a new society—here—that we cannot see, because our current circumstances have told us it can’t happen here—that it won’t work. The kingdom of heaven breaks in here—in human society. It rises up as a protest against the status quo; it stands against our ugliest inclinations as human beings. God’s kingdom is a way of being that seems impossible because we are bombarded by messages that tell us to preserve our strength, protect what’s ours at all costs, cast aside the losers, and make sure that the first stay first and the last stay last. This kingdom from heaven has values that we have a hard time adopting, because most of the time we would rather secure our own blessings by ourselves.

That’s why Jesus starts his ministry with poetry. Because he’s trying to stir your imagination. Like any good poet, he’s trying to get you to see things differently. To start over.

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It might seem like Jesus is playing favorites here in the Sermon on the Mount. Didn’t he come to bless everyone? Isn’t he among everyone? Can’t he bring satisfaction to everyone? Why would he privilege the meek and the persecuted? Or, don’t all of us fall into at least one of these categories from time to time?

Of course he offers satisfaction to everyone. We need to read different passages from the Gospels, however, to see what Jesus has to say to those who are already, like me, relatively powerful and comfortable. But the point to notice today is that he doesn’t start there. The energy of the kingdom moves in a different direction. The kingdom of God begins at the bottom. Or, at least, it begins at the places we’ve been conditioned to call “the bottom.” He starts with the poor in spirt. He begins there. He exists there.

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These days I hear a lot of people asking: “So where do we even begin?”

Where do we begin to claim and proclaim God’s new society when it seems so far away?

One place—not the only place—but one place we start, friends, is where the kingdom of heaven starts. At the foundations. We start where Jesus started his sermon. We show mercy to those who have been denied it. We open doors to those who are being walled off. We follow his promises about where to find him and his gifts.

One of my teachers was fond of telling a story that Kathleen Norris tells in her book Dakota. It’s an old joke about two monks: An older, wiser monk is talking to a younger monk and says, “I have finally learned to accept people as they are. Whatever they are in the world, a prostitute, a prime minister, it is all the same to me, But sometimes I see a stranger coming up the road and I say, ‘Oh, Jesus Christ, is it you again?’”[ii]

Here’s the thing: in a world with an alarming surplus of need and suffering, we can have various good motives for pursuing solidarity with the powerless. But the distinctively Christian basis for us to do so is because that is where Jesus is found. The church’s mandate—our mandate—for pursuing justice and compassion in the world isn’t based in an abstract notion of charity or kindness. It isn’t even primarily about a desire to help or a sense of duty. Instead, it derives from the conviction that solidarity with the disempowered is sacramental—it’s something that involves an encounter with Jesus himself. To encounter God is to live among those whom we might otherwise consider of little account. Or to find ourselves in those same vulnerable circumstances.

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Where do we even begin? We start by insisting that this alternate reality called the kingdom of heaven has indeed come near. And it remains here—at the door.

Here, today, we gather on this side of the door. We do so to remind one another that we can see it, the kingdom. And on the days that we can’t see it very clearly, we pray, just as Jesus teaches later in this same sermon in Matthew, “Thy kingdom come.”

Some Sundays we taste that new, upside-down kingdom around this table. Some Sundays we splash it all over kids and adults over at the baptismal font. We do this here, so we might show the kingdom to others, who are out there, just beyond the doors.

We do this week, after week, after week, after week, after week. We keep doing it, until it forms a beat that won’t go away. Until we hear a rhythm that sticks in our head and gives us new ways of interpreting and engaging our world. The rhythm persists—and sometimes it resists—until at last it breaks open into an unburdened symphony.

[i] The full quotation is: “To be rendered powerless does not destroy your humanity. Your resilience is your humanity. The only people who lose their humanity are those who believe they have the right to render another human being powerless.”

Note to readers: Gadsby’s show is powerful as well as brilliant. For some people, it is able to resurface personal traumas. The language and subject matter make it most appropriate for mature viewers.

[ii] Page 191.

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