Tuesday, February 4, 2014

“Blessed are the Cheesemakers” Sunday Sermon@Highlands

“Blessed are the Cheesemakers”
Highlands Presbyterian church
February 2, 2014

Close your eyes and imagine for a moment that you are on that hillside 20 centuries ago; you are a part of the large crowd huddling closer, trying to hear his words. You have heard of his reputation. It seems this man has something important to say and you have a need to listen.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“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. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Did you hear those words? Every one of them? Some may have left you confused; others may have surprised you. Did you ever see the Monty Python movie, “The Life of Brian?” It is a raucous comedy. Part of the movie depicts the Sermon on the Mount. There is a huge crowd. Mrs. Gregory is near the back and doesn’t hear well anyway.

She asks another spectator what Jesus is saying. “I think it was ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers.” To which Mrs. Gregory replies: “Aha, what's so special about the cheesemakers?” Another spectator says, “Well, obviously it's not meant to be taken literally; it simply refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.”

If you had a time machine and you set the dials to take you back to that day so you could sit on the hillside and listen to Jesus, don’t assume you’d have the slightest idea of what he was saying even if you were fluent in Aramaic. Without having been immersed in 1st century social, political, and religious life, you’d lack the foundational understanding necessary to comprehend the message.

But even if you a first century citizen and were in the front row that day and had excellent hearing, you might have questioned what you thought you might have heard. Your life was lived in a world that celebrated the strong, marginalized the weak and the hungry, a world that showed little mercy, rewarded the warriors, reviled and persecuted those who questioned authority.

And along comes this teacher from Nazareth and says those who mourn will be blessed, those who are hungry will be filled, those who are merciful will receive mercy, the peacemakers will be seated at a place of honor, those who are persecuted will be rewarded, that the meek and not the strong will inherit the earth, …and those who are poor in spirit will receive the kingdom of God.

The Sermon on the Mount is the Jesus Party Platform. All you really need to know about Jesus is here in these words. These words are the fundamental Christian doctrine…the Party platform…what it’s all about. In Jesus’ first sermon…remember…he said I have anointed by God to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.

These are the words that explain how Jesus intends to do that and how Jesus expects his followers to…well…follow.

The poor in spirit are blessed and will inherit the kingdom; those who mourn are to be comforted; the meek, not the smug, will inherit the earth; the hungry will be fed; those who give mercy will receive mercy; and the peacemakers will be known as the children of God.

By the way Jesus said…when you follow these precepts…the world will revile you and reject you and criticize and persecute…but he says, that’s okay. When they do, it is a cause for rejoicing for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who came before you and for this your reward is great in heaven.

There is a lot in the Sermon on the Mount to preach about, but for this morning I am going to focus on what Jesus says first, his first words, the opening line in his sermon.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Those who are poor in anything never received anything, which is probably why they are poor in spirit…but now Jesus says they will win first prize…the kingdom of God. Who are the “poor in spirit”? This is an important question because not only does Jesus open his sermon by talking about them; he says that the kingdom of God belongs to them.

Say again Jesus? “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

The poor in spirit? The starting place is the language in which this was written before being translated into English. Whenever I talk about how many times the original words of the Bible were translated before they got to us, I am reminded of a story.

There was a hot argument in Texas in the 1920s—one that is still going on in several states—about whether Spanish should be used in the classroom to teach kids who came from Mexico, or whether only English should be permitted.  Miriam “Ma” Ferguson had become the state’s first woman governor, after her husband, Governor “Pa” Ferguson was impeached.  She ended the debate by holding up a Bible and proclaiming loudly, “If the King’s English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for the children of Texas!”

But of course, Jesus didn’t speak English. He spoke Aramaic. The Aramaic word, which has been translated into “poor” as in “poor in spirit” actually refers to one who has been reduced to begging. The poorest of the poor, those who are in such great need that they are willing to expose themselves to ridicule by begging for help. In other words it refers to those who have nothing left to rely on, nothing in which to place their hope…nothing at all left in their lives…but their faith in others.

Jesus is not necessarily speaking of those in abject poverty…though I gotta tell you, when Pat and I worked in Nicaragua, we met people those who Jesus spoke of, the poor in spirit, who had nothing but their daily bread, who slept on dirt floors, in shacks, wearing rags on their bodies…who were among the most faithful people I have ever known.

But Jesus isn’t saying you have to be dirt poor in material things to be blessed with the kingdom of God…he says it is those who are poor in spirit, those who don’t assume that what they have, who they are, what privilege they enjoy…don’t assume that they have great knowledge and know all the answers…but those who are reduced to begging for a spiritual relationship with the God of the universe…they are the poor in spirit to whom belongs the kingdom of Heaven.

The question we often ask ourselves is, “Who are we?” The question being asked by those who are “poor in spirit is, “Who are we in God’s presence?”

We might answer the first question (Who are we) by talking about where we live, where we work, what we have or want, what we know, where we went to college, what titles we have, positions we’ve held, awards we’ve received, the color of our skin, the church we attend…we might answer with our bio or resume. Being asked, “Who are you,” seeks to know where you stand in the community pecking order.

It’s not often we are asked, or that we ask of ourselves, “Who am I in God’s presence.” That is an altogether different question. How does one begin to answer that question? What does it even mean? Does the interrogator want to know where we go to church, how often, whether we tithe and can repeat the creeds? Does he want to know whether we’ve been baptized? Saved? Chosen? Those answers sound like status answers.

I read a sermon by a preacher who said “we know God is always with us!” Really? Do you KNOW that? Are you so certain of God and your standing with God that you are absolutely certain God is always with you?

That sort of certainty is in stark contrast with Mother Teresa. Shortly after beginning her work in the slums of Calcutta, she wrote: “Where is my faith? Even deep down there is nothing but emptiness and darkness. If there be a God — please forgive me.” In letters to friends eight years later she was still expressing “such deep longing for God,” adding that she felt “repulsed, empty, no faith, no love, no zeal.”
Her smile to the world from her familiar weather-beaten face was a “mask” or a “cloak,” she said. “What do I labor for? If there be no God, there can be no soul. If there be no soul then, Jesus, You also are not true.”
Mother Teresa was ‘poor in spirit.’ You see…it’s a doubt, an emptying of certainty that strengthens faith…certainty becomes little more than an idol. Certainty fills us, doubt empties us…certainty means our spirit needs nothing that the ambiguity of God and faith and salvation can offer.
Mother Teresa was so poor in spirit that she dedicated her life to doing the work God called her to do.
But being poor in sprit, doubting or questioning even the existence of God reduces us to spiritual begging. Emmet Fox writes that the kingdom of Heaven comes not from knowledge, not from possessions or status, neither from self-satisfaction or pride or accomplishments.
He says the poor in spirit suffer from none of these embarrassments. They have, he writes, gotten rid of the love of money and property, of their fear of public opinion, and of worrying about the disapproval of friends and family. One is poor in spirit when they shed the cock-sured-ness of their own opinions and admit that the things they believe the strongest are likely not true.
They are poor in spirit when they are ready to begin again…at the very beginning…reduced to begging to come into the presence of a God who’s ambiguity will cause us to rely on faith…to beg for faith. If we can become that poor in our spirit, Jesus said the kingdom of God will be ours.

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