The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany: Year A

“What Do We Practice?”

A sermon by Lay Preacher Ginnie Glassman

Today’s Gospel reading takes place right after Jesus has chosen his first four disciples: Simon, Andrew, James and John. We heard that passage last Sunday. Today we hear the beginning of The Sermon on the Mount where Jesus is teaching these men and the crowds that are following him. The whole sermon is actually three chapters of Matthew’s Gospel and can be divided into many short teachings. You will hear more of it in the coming weeks.

Some scholars believe that Matthew collected what Jesus may have told the crowds over several days into this sermon. For today, we will focus on the Eight Beatitudes or Be-Attitudes.

How would you feel if you had been there and heard Jesus speak? Would you feel that you could not measure up? Would this be a checklist for you? Or would these thoughts provide guidelines for you? Or a mirror to reflect on yourself?

Maybe just sit back and let me tell you what I have learned about these beatitudes and what I understand that Jesus meant by them.

The day is still early as Jesus says:

I have seen you all following me for the last few days. I know you are curious about who I am and why I am here. Find a spot on the hillside and let’s talk. My Father in heaven sent me here to tell you about His plan for this world and your hearts. He wants people to change the way they treat each other, how they act with one another and how they interact with him. What I am going to tell you are not qualities that will make you rich or famous in this lifetime but actually values that are contrary to the ways of the world.

You have Ten Commandments which you must follow but I want to tell you about other blessings that we look for in those who want to be my disciples. These are not commandments but special qualities that people have or can develop through their relationship with my Father.

We are looking for people who are poor in spirit. This doesn’t mean you have to be broke or homeless. Even rich people can be poor in spirit. This is an inward quality. You recognize that you are struggling in life and cannot please God on your own. You know that you need God and allow him to be in control of your life and let him lead you into His kingdom.

We seek people who mourn. Of course, if you have lost a loved one, you are grieving. But this is different. You know what my Father expects of you but realize you cannot measure up. Knowing that sin offends God, you are saddened by your own sin. You are grieved too by the sin that you see in the world around you. You yearn for the comfort found in forgiveness and the caring of God.

You have heard that Isaiah mourned that he was a “man of unclean lips” and lived “among a people of unclean lips.” After being cleansed of his sins, he became a prophet to the people of Judah and tried to warn them of events that were to come and how they needed to change their lives.

In the psalms, you have heard that those who are meek “shall possess the land and delight in an abundance of peace”. (Isaiah 6:5) Meek does not mean that you are weak, self effacing or abused but that you know where your gifts come from. You do not take advantage of others or go on about your own accomplishments. You are happy with what you have and where you are. You make room for others and help them to succeed.

My cousin John is a good example. He is strong enough to survive and preach in the wilderness. He has led many people to repent and seek God. He has done so much to prepare the way for me to do my work. But rather than talk about all he has done, he steps aside to make room for me.

We also want to find people who hunger and thirst for righteousness; your driving passion is to bring about justice and righteousness in the world. The Word of God fills your hunger and teaches you. You take what you learn and work to make justice and peace happen in the world around you.

We need people who are merciful. You appreciate the mercy my Father shows you and are compassionate to others. You know how good it feels when someone reaches out and helps you, now you pass that along to others. In Proverbs, you have heard that “it is a sin to despise one’s neighbor, but blessed is the one who is kind to the needy” (Proverbs 17:5). Sometimes having a merciful heart is a gift from God; sometimes it is learned through your life experience.

If you are pure in heart, your mind and heart are in the right place. You are cleansed of your sin by grace and God’s mercy.  Remember the psalm in which we pray “Create in me a clean heart, O God and renew a right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10)? This prayer for constant renewal is for help in seeing God in your own life and in the world around you. God works from the inside out.

Ah, and then there are peacemakers who lead others to inner peace and try to bring peace to the world. You bring others to God and show them the way to be at peace with God and with the people around them. Your calling is to promote peace; to teach people to cooperate rather than compete.

The kingdom of heaven will be waiting for you who are persecuted for your faith. You are so committed to God that it shows. You hold your beliefs strongly. You will not be not understood in the world, you may be mocked, excluded and even killed just as the prophets were but you endure through faith and dependence on God.

These qualities that I am telling you about are not commandments but virtues that you may be blessed with or drawn to or challenged by. No one is fortunate enough to have all of them.

Am I teaching you something new? No. You have heard these qualities talked about in the Psalms and Proverbs and through the prophets. It is not the whole law to not do what is wrong but you must also do what is right. It is not as important to conform to the law as it is to develop an inner spirit that wants to please God.

It is your inner spirit that my Father looks at. Look deep within yourself and see what seeds are there. Focus on them, let them grow and develop, fed by my Father and His Word.

Now off the hillside and back in our pews:

There is a famous story of two rabbis, one who interprets the Torah quite strictly while the other goes to a more lenient interpretation. There was then a man who was interested in Judaism but did not like to study, so he went to each of the rabbis. He said he would convert to Judaism if the rabbi could teach him the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) while standing on one foot. The rabbi who strictly interpreted Torah chased him away with a stick. The other rabbi considered and then stood on one foot and said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to another; that is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn.”

Looking at today’s readings, we could say, “Love God. Love your neighbor. The rest is commentary.” If we love God and love our neighbors, everything else falls into place.

The beatitudes are contrary to what the world values. We can all think of people who embody these beatitudes. Imagine the world without people like Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln. But we don’t have to be famous to be blessed with these virtues. There is a spark of them in all of us. We just have to be willing to fan that spark and let it burn brightly. We can recognize these blessings in other people and support them and work together. Our world can change as our hearts change. What has God blessed you with? What we believe and how we live matters! What we believe and how we live counts! What do we practice?

As the prophet Micah has told us

As the prophet Micah said “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”  (Micah 6:8)