Matthew 5:1-12; Psalm 15
A few weeks ago, I welcomed a skilled tradesperson into my home to complete a few repair projects. One project took us to the second floor, and we passed a mirror propped up against the wall. Two questions are printed on the mirror: What do you see? What does God see? As we passed the mirror, I gestured toward it and quickly explained I used it years ago for an event at church and had not erased the words. Because I am so in the habit of passing the mirror several times a day, I did not think about how others might encounter the mirror and the beckoning questions. This tradesperson knows I am a pastor and he seemed not to think it was strange to have questions written on a mirror—or if he did find it strange, he hid it very well.
Both of the texts we heard today offer wisdom for us as we individually and as a community seek to answer questions about our relationship with God, our identities and our relationships with each other.
In our Gospel text we find Jesus climbing up a mountainside, taking a seat, and sharing in conversation with the disciples. The eager crowd who followed Jesus from place-to-place was within Jesus’ sightline.
Earlier chapters of Matthew recount the experiences of Jesus and the community from which he and the disciples emerged. Jesus, the disciples, and the gathered community came to the mountainside with a story.
The gospel opened with Jesus’ genealogy, and we learn he and the people he ministered to are part of the story of Israel. Their story includes God’s faithfulness to each person named in the genealogy. Their story includes displacement and violence. Jesus and the disciples were among the ones who survived the violence King Herod initiated when he, frightened of Jesus’s birth, issued an order to kill all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and younger. Surely some in the crowd remembered and still mourned the senseless death of children Herod instigated.
Like some in the crowd, Jesus was baptized by John. Their story included travelling to the wilderness to be baptized in the waters of the Jordan.
Their story included disappeared, missing and murdered relatives such as John the Baptist who was not with them on or near the mountainside because Herod had John arrested.
For some the story included disruption of familiar patterns such as the two sets of brothers who walked away from their family’s traditional work in the fishing economy. Their story included everything they witnessed as they joined Jesus in the early days of his ministry preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing diseases and sickness among the people. (Mt 4:23)
As Jesus, the disciples and the crowd gathered that day in many ways their story had been written by others. Jesus determined it was a good day to re-narrate their story. Jesus decided it was a good day to free the disciples’ imaginations about: God’s presence with them, their identities, and God’s unwavering love for and involvement with the crowd gathered below the mountainside.
The Gospel of Matthew was initially addressed to a people who asked big questions evoked by the circumstances they lived through. Warren Carter, a New Testament scholar, described how Rome’s devastation of Jerusalem “raised significant theological issues and questions about their identity, their way of life, and [the] future of Jewish communities under empire. [The people asked:] What was God doing? Had God withdrawn God’s presence and blessing?” (Carter “Matthew” in Fortress Commentary on the NT, p. 128)
As the Gospel of Matthew addresses us today, what big questions emerge for you in response to the circumstances we are living through? In the last seven days alone such big questions…. For each of us worshipping here and online there are so many questions.
Of all the questions our circumstances could evoke, as I have been involved with the texts we heard today, the question this worshipping community heard on Coming Together Sunday rose to the top, “Who will we be for each other?”
Both Psalm 15 and Matthew 5 offer wisdom to help us respond to this question. Both texts beautifully depict the depths of God’s relationships with us and God’s commitment to accompany and equip us to enter relationship with one another that are characterized by God’s good purposes.
Psalm 15 offers a picture of lives shaped by being in the presence of God such that we choose actions and words that do not hurt our neighbors.
Matthew 5 urges us to be confident God is blessing us and God is commissioning us to act out those blessings in the world.
For all the wisdom God offers to us in Psalm 15 and Matthew 5 and elsewhere in scripture when we are responding to the question, ‘Who will we be for each other?’ we have been more likely to be influenced by sociology, politics and economics than by our good theology.
Even though we have this rich and trusted source, we turn away from it. Willie James Jennings in his work The Christian Imagination summarized, “I think most Christians [in the Western world] sense that something about Christians’ imagination is ill, but the analyses of this condition often do not get to the heart of the constellation of generative forces that have rendered people’s social performance of the Christian life collectively anemic.” (p. 6) In other words, we know that we are struggling to be in relationships with each other according to God’s good purposes.
That day on a mountainside Jesus announced God’s blessings to the disciples. The disciples and the community they emerged from were blessed and would always be blessed. God’s blessings over them could not be moved—could not be shaken. Jesus gave the disciples an unassailable source of identity as they assumed their new roles helping Jesus to minister to a people who needed to be undergirded.
I picture Jesus periodically nodding toward the crowd and saying:
- See the ones who are disheartened, they are blessed. They are owners of a soon-coming kingdom with new economic, social, and political arrangements.
- All the parents, siblings, extended family, neighbors, and friends who this day are aching because a loved one was taken away from them suddenly and senselessly, they are blessed. God is comforting and encouraging all who ache with grief.
- And do you see the unassuming ones who have been discounted and undervalued, are blessed. One day they will own this whole world.
- The people who want so badly to taste justice—the advocates for righteous treatment and dignity for the ones who are being harmed—they are blessed. Their hunger will be satisfied.
- See that group who moves through challenging spaces with grace and always treat everybody right, they are blessed. They will experience God’s grace and kindness.
- The ones seeking to keep the peace, they are blessed. Working for peace, they are emulating God and they are without a doubt God’s children.
- And to you my disciple, sometimes, because of our relationship, people will mistreat you, speak false and evil words about you and hurl insults. Even as this happens to you, you are blessed. This mistreatment is the opposite of what is waiting for you in heaven. For generations people who have followed God have been mistreated this way. You are in very good company.
Jesus re-narrated the story of the disciples and the people they would serve. In the words of Fred Craddock, “On these Jesus pronounces God’s congratulations, with these God identifies in Jesus, to these comes the Good News of God’s interceding grace.” (Craddock, “Hearing God’s Blessing” in The Christian Century, 1990)
God will re-narrate our stories too.
On Wednesday mornings during the months of September through March, women of Westminster gather for Bible Study in person and online. The Horizons Bible Study series published by the organization Presbyterian Women is among the resources used for Wednesday morning Bible study. Ten years ago, Margaret Aymer, a New Testament scholar, developed a Bible study based on the beatitudes. It is a powerful, thought-provoking study with nine lessons for each of Matthew’s “Blessed are…” statements. What I value most about Aymer’s study is that she commended the practice of processus confessionis. She explained it as “a three-stage process of truth telling: [1st] recognition of what is true; [2nd] education about what is true; and [3rd] confession of what is true.” (Confessing the Beatitudes p. 4)
At the conclusion of each lesson, trusting in God’s mercy and grace, Aymer offered a personal confession evoked by her reflection of the lesson and she invited the participants to do the same as part of their Bible studies. Aymer encouraged this practice because, “Confession marks Christians as a people who recognize the truth…both about God and about ourselves.” (Confessing the Beatitudes, p 10) I trust the kind of confession Aymer modelled and commended will free our imaginations.
When our imaginations are freed, we:
- Regard and declare people and places are pervaded by a God-ordained, God-bestowed sense of holiness that endures forever. Everything and everyone who God created is sacred through-and-through and remain so always.
- Will not be afraid to pay attention to persons experiencing injustice and we will join them in imagining out and beyond their present circumstances God is working out wholeness and restoration.
- Allow God to send us to serve our neighbors who thirst for justice—to respond both to their immediate needs and to disrupt the sources of injustice.
With our imaginations freed, we understand we are called to take on a particular Christian identity. Wille James Jennings described it as an identity rooted in “the power of love that constantly gestures toward joining, toward the desire to hear, to know and to embrace.” (Christian Imagination p. 291) And doesn’t this sound like the ministry Jesus brought to us. God-with-us.
Jennings continues, “…such a theological identity enters imaginatively into various social forms and imagines the divine presence joining, working, living, and loving inside boundary-defying relationships.” (Christian Imagination p. 291)
Who will we be for each other? With God freeing our imaginations let us explore this question together.
Thanks be to God. Amen.