What Defines Us?

Matt 5:1-20; Psalm 1; 1 Cor 1:18-31

Jennifer Hosler

            On Friday (1/20), we had about 100 people in our fellowship hall as I co-led a training on being an active bystander. You may have heard that incidents of harassment have increased over the past two months: more people are being targeted because of their skin color, sexual orientation, religion, language, or immigration status. The goal of the training was to equip people as active bystanders, people who not only witness situations of harassment but take steps to de-escalate the situation and support the targeted person.

Before people came to the training, the organizers directed them to several resources in advance preparation. One resource was a “Nonviolence Pledge” that all trainers and attendees were asked to adhere to. I’ll list a few of them: “1) While engaged in actions associated with our movement we will refrain from violence in deed, word and, as far as possible, even in thought. 2) We will remain aware that our opponents are systems, not people; that our goal is wherever possible to awaken people to the justice of our cause even while resisting what we see as their unjust acts. Therefore, we will not indulge in abusive language or threatening gestures toward anyone.”

I am grateful for these and other principles that guide the training movement, called Swamp Revolt (www.swamprevolt.com). It was helpful to know that everybody was on the same page. We were agreeing to act and train by these values together, and there were core principles to guide us as we prepared for difficult situations. We could think about scenarios and potential actions, then look back and think about whether the potential actions aligned with our values.

During my sermon preparation, I researched nonviolence pledges and found another version, one used by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during the 1963 Birmingham campaign (Van Hook, 2016). It reads as follows:

1) meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus;

2) remember always that the nonviolent movement in Birmingham seeks justice and reconciliation — not victory;

3) walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love;

4) pray daily to be used by God in order that all [people] might be free;

5) sacrifice personal wishes in order that all [people] might be free;

6) observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy;

7) seek to perform regular service for others and for the world.

8) refrain from the violence of fist, tongue or heart;

9) strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.

10) follow the directions of the movement and of the captain of a demonstration.”

It is striking to me that there are principles for meditation on scripture and prayer combined with principles that guide words and actions. The Civil Rights Movement needed active nonviolence that flowed out of marchers’ inner spirits and into their words and deeds.

Many of us here marched yesterday, a march that was a significant and powerful demonstration of the values that we want to see the US defined by: justice, equality, dignity, diversity, and protection for the vulnerable. This is a moment where many of us are asking, “What are our values? How can I be ready to stand up for what I believe in, for what we believe in?”

At Washington City Church of the Brethren, we believe that following Jesus is a way of radical love, service, simplicity, and peace. Like the Civil Rights movement led by Dr. King, we look to the life and teachings of Jesus to transform us and empower us for God’s work of reconciliation in this world.

Today marks the first of a six-week series on the Sermon on the Mount, a section from the gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7. The ministry team—pastors and worship leaders—thought it was particularly important and relevant to spend time on this core teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. In the life and teaching of Jesus, we see what defines us. Meditating on the life and teachings of Jesus inspires us, guides us, and provides the space for the Holy Spirit to shape us in love and courage.

Sermon on the Mount Series

What are the values that bind us together? As citizens (and permanent residents) of the US, values of religious freedom, freedom of speech, and civil rights for all people—these are values that bind us together. During naturalization ceremonies to become US citizens, immigrants renounce allegiance to other countries and swear/affirm to uphold the US Constitution and protect those values from enemies foreign or domestic. A constitution describes what is to define our lives together in the US.

One theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, sees the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ first recorded message to his disciples, as a “Constitution” of God’s people.  He writes that the Sermon is “not addressed to individuals but to the community… of the disciples.  The sermon is not a heroic ethic. It is the constitution of a people” (2006, p. 61). The values defined in the Sermon on the Mount are the ones to guide the life of the church.  What’s more, the Sermon shows us the values and demonstrates the power needed to enact them. Hauerwas says, it’s clear by the standards the Sermon sets that “You cannot live by the demands of the sermon on your own, but that is the point.  The demands of the sermon are designed to make us depend on God and one another” (p. 61, citing Hauerwas, 1993, pp. 63-72). The Sermon on the Mount “is not a list of requirements, but rather a description of the life of a people gathered by and around Jesus” (Hauerwas, 2006, p. 61).

The Sermon on the Mount is not a set of rules that we fail to live up to but the illustration of how our lives begin to look as we walk together, empowered by the Holy Spirit.  We are people who follow Jesus together, we work through Scripture together, we choose to belong to a community that lives by the difficult words of Jesus, like being merciful or being a peacemaker or loving your enemy.  We figure out what defines us, together.

The Beatitudes

The Sermon on the Mount begins in Matthew 5 and Jesus has just started his ministry. In the chapter before, we see Jesus preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Jesus calls Simon (Peter) and Andrew and James and John, away from their lives as fishermen, to come and follow him as a teacher. Jesus then goes throughout Galilee with them, teaching in synagogues and proclaiming good news of the kingdom, curing people of illnesses and diseases. Great crowds start following him everywhere. When we enter the scene in Matthew 5: Jesus is surrounded by crowds, and heads up to the top of the mountain to teach. His disciples join him and, presumably, some of the crowd does as well.

Jesus starts with nine statements that are called “Beatitudes,” which comes from the Latin word for Blessed. The NT was written in Greek, but Christians used Latin for a long time and some of it stuck. Each of these statements begins with the same Greek word, makarioi.  This word can be translated as “blessed” or “happy.” The French translation of the Bible that I read uses heureux, or happy. “Happy” here is more objective than subjective. It’s not material blessings. It ties back to a usage in the Hebrew Scriptures, “expresses the happiness which is the result of God-given salvation” (DJG, p. 741).

In Psalm 1, one of our other readings this morning, we see a similar usage. “Blessed or happy” are those who don’t head down the same path as the wicked, who don’t tear down and scoff, but who take delight in the law of the LORD and, on his law, they meditate day and night.” They are like trees planted by streams, nourished and healthy, yielding fruit when they are supposed to. Not so the wicked, they are dried up and brittle; they will not endure, but be blown away in the wind. Those who delve into corruption and mocking will eventually be blown away like the dry grass. Those who dwell on God’s word are blessed, finding wholeness and meaning, rooted deep down, nourished by streams of living water.

Nine Values That Define Us

Moving back to the Beatitudes – there are nine in total. The first reads, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven!” Poor in spirit? Does that mean the depressed? The discouraged? This one has always been a beatitude that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, though I surmised something about repentance. As I dis some research, I found some insight in the words of Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, a Catholic peace activist: “Poor in spirit means that we understand a profound truth about ourselves – the truth that none of us is responsible for our own existence and our own continuance of existence. Poor in spirit means we understand our need for God and who God is and who we are. Poor in spirit means we understand that without God and God’s gift to us of existence, of life, [that] we would not be” (Gumbleton, 2014). Poor in spirit is an orientation to the Creator, acknowledging the gift of life and the need for loving power beyond what we ourselves can muster. 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 those who mourn – not just those who are sad, but those who mourn and recognize the injustices in the world; those who recognize their own hatred and prejudice and seek to transform it. In the end, those who mourn will be comforted because God will bring justice. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted!”

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth! Meek isn’t a word that we typically use today. In grade 10 careers studies, we had to write a resume and include several characteristics that define ourselves—which we wanted to share with prospective employers. 10th-grade Jenn chose meekness. Slightly nerdy, I agree. During my mock interview with my teacher, he was like, “Tell me about this word you chose: meekness. Some people think being meek is weak. Why would it be a good characteristic?” Since I had heard in church that meekness meant humility, I explained why I thought humility was a good thing.

The meek are those who endure injury with patience and without resentment; who don’t choose violence in deed, word, or thought. This isn’t saying to be a doormat, but to not fight hatred with hatred; the goal is reconciliation. In the end, those who don’t return hate or violence with hate or violence are those who will receive the inheritance of the Kingdom. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth!

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Fulfilled are those who seek to be the change they wish to see in the world. Blessed are those do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Fulfilled are those who, in the face of hate and anger and wrongdoing, choose forgiveness, choose mercy, choose love. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Pure in heart here doesn’t mean perfect, but those whose motives are not self-seeking, who work for the good of others without considering what they will receive in return. This is what makes God manifest in our world, selfless giving love. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God! God is in the business of reconciliation; we are taking part in the family business by seeking to build understanding, to love those whom we disagree with, to love our enemies. 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. Fulfilled are the people who get in trouble—not for being arrogant jerks or having the right answers or being the smartest—but who get in trouble for living lives of integrity and justice, who get in trouble for doing the right thing. Rep. John Lewis for a while has been using a hashtag #goodtrouble to tag pictures and comments about nonviolence and his work in the Civil Rights Movement. Getting into good trouble coincides with the Kingdom of Heaven being near. John Lewis got beat up for marching for integration and civil rights. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven!

Finally, the last beatitude has a pronoun aimed at Jesus’ disciples and, by extension, at us. “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.” Jesus explains that it’s likely that the disciples will face resistance for their Jesus-values, the values in the other 8 beatitudes. When you are reviled, and persecuted for following the Jesus who says all these things, you are blessed—you’re not wasting your life, but testifying meaningfully to God’s presence and light in the world. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on Jesus’ account.

What defines us?

There are a lot of tools and tactics that go into resisting evil. We saw some of them this weekend. Training, pledges, media, posters, voices, and getting your body together with other bodies to visibly demonstrate a message. Another tool, a source of strength, courage, and power, is to “meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.” As a church, the Sermon on the Mount is our Constitution. It shapes our life, empowers us, and guides us as we discern together how to seek justice, wholeness, and community through the gospel of Jesus.

How does our witness, our protest, our signs, our tweeting or facebooking, reflect the values the Beatitudes? What defines you and where do you get your source of strength? If you’re looking for something to sustain you in the push for justice these next four years and beyond, I invite you to keep exploring the Sermon on the Mount with us, meditating daily on the teachings and life of Jesus, praying daily to be used by God in order that all [people] might be free.

Sisters and brothers, as a community of faith, we are committed to “seeking justice, wholeness, and community through the gospel of Jesus.” As we do this work, let us be guided by the beatitudes: blessed, happy, and fulfilled are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted. Blessed are you when you model these values of Jesus and face resistance. Amen.

 

References

Gumbleton, T. (2014, Feb 6). Blessed are the poor – but what does that mean? National Catholic Reporter. Retrieved from https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/peace-pulpit/blessed-are-poor-what-does-mean

Hauerwas, S. (2006). Matthew: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible.  Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos.

Van Hook, S. (2016, Jan 18). Why Martin Luther King’s pledge of nonviolence matters today. Waging Nonviolence. Retrieved from http://wagingnonviolence.org/feature/why-martin-luther-kings-pledge-of-nonviolence-matters-today/

 

 

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