Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Massillon Ecumenical Lenten Service

MACA 1st Lenten Service, 2017
Matthew 5:1-3
Preached at First Baptist, Massillon, OH

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

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

My name is George Baum, and I am the new priest at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church here in Massillon.  I’ve only been in town since August, but am already deeply impressed by how active and involved the Massillon Area Clergy Association has been for so long in this area, and I am honored to be with you tonight.  Fair warning: Episcopalians have notoriously brief sermons.  And I do not intend to disappoint.

When a group of us clergy types sat down to plan out these Wednesday night Lenten services leading up to Easter, they told me that the new pastor in town always preaches first, which is probably just to set the bar comfortably low for the sermons that will follow.  When we discussed what we should all preach about, we decided to focus on the Beatitudes, as recorded in the 5th chapter of Matthew.  So this first week, we get the first verse, one I just read:  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

At the same time, since this is the first of many nights we will be gathering together, I want to take a few moments to discuss the Beatitudes as a whole, to sort of set the stage for our Lenten journey together.  And if my taking that liberty is way off, well, Pastor Steven Gower can fix things next Wednesday night.

So, The Beatitudes, right.  You’ve heard them before: in pieces and in whole.  They’re part of our culture.  If I say, “Blessed are the meek,” you’re automatically thinking something about inheriting the earth.  Since the Beatitudes are so familiar, we sort of tune out when someone starts reading them.  And tuning out is fitting in a way, because Beatitude is where the Beat Generation gets its name.  Beatnik comes from Beatitude, Beatific, that kind of thing.  It suggests a bit of disengaging the mind, and living in harmony and understanding.  The Beatitudes have lost much of their power for us, because of their familiarity, and also because we don’t often think about what they mean, or what they imply, or how they apply to us.

Or, worse, we think of them as a list of things to try to achieve in order to get the promised result.  We switch them around, focusing on the promise as a reward for the suffering.  We put the cart before the horse, and then realize the horse is not worth pushing the cart.  For instance, we think, if we want to inherit the earth, then we have to be meek.  Or, if we want to receive mercy, then we have to be merciful.  Or, if we want to have the kingdom of heaven, then we’ve got to be poor in spirit.  I blame this thinking on math class, personally.  You know, if 2 plus 2 equals four, then 4 minus two equals two.  We’re trained to reverse a process since, all things being equal, that should also work.  But, of course, all things are never equal, no matter what your math teacher may have told you.

And this way of approaching the beatitudes is like saying, aspirin cures headaches, so I’d better get a headache.  If Jesus had said, “Blessed are the homeless because they get blankets,” it shouldn’t make us want to be homeless, in order to get a blanket.  The promise of the resurrection doesn’t make us want to die . . . hopefully.  These sayings of Jesus, these Beatitudes are messages of hope.  They are not threats, and they are not ethical guideposts.  They are reassurances for those who are suffering.  Reminders that the present state of things is not going to last forever.  Appeals to keep our minds on a heavenly system of judgment, rather than allowing ourselves to be co-opted by society’s evaluation of what matters.  (You see why the Beatniks loved these?)

And let me just point out what the text does NOT say.  Nothing in these Beatitudes suggests that the merciless will NOT obtain mercy, or that the rich in spirit will NOT obtain the kingdom of heaven.  These are not backhanded judgments about how we are to behave.  They are statements of hope, for those who need to hear a bit of good news, and the good news is that God’s kingdom is a totally different way of being, with a totally different set of values.

Blessed are you when you’re down and out, with your back against the wall, when you’ve got nothing but hope to cling to . . . because nothing is stronger than hope.  If you have hope, you can get through anything.  And without hope, you can’t get through anything for very long.  That’s why some of the richest people in the world still commit suicide, and some of the poorest people in the world are smiling every day.  Hope is what makes the difference.  Hope is what comforts those who mourn.  Hope is what helps us endure suffering and persecution.  And hope comes from the promises of Jesus.  What appear to be insurmountable odds are nothing in the face of hope, because we put our hope in the promises of Jesus.  And when we trust God’s promises, anything is possible.

These Beatitudes are hope for those who suffer.  If everything is absolutely great in your life, this text is not for you.  If your world is perfect, and your heart is not broken by the suffering of others, and you’ve never been persecuted for standing up for what’s right, I guess you don’t need to hear these beatitudes.  For the rest of us, this is a gospel of hope, not judgment.  A gospel that says in the presence of Jesus, what looks insurmountable is surmountable.  What seems like a deficit, or “handicap,” is made perfect.  And in the present, what we are is made useful to God, no matter what the world tells us.

My friend Bart’s father is a public speaker who travels around, speaking.  Which is what makes him a public speaker, I suppose.  One of my favorite stories he tells goes like this . . .

A friend of mine out in Hawaii told me about a young man who was in a horrible automobile accident and lost his left arm.  He was so depressed, so his father, trying to cheer him up, said, "Can I do anything? Is there anything I can do for you?"

The boy said, "Yes. I would like to take judo lessons. I understand you can do judo with one arm."
The father got him a sensei, a teacher, to teach him judo. After learning the basics of the art of judo, the sensei concentrated on one move, just one move alone. That one move over and over and over again, day after day, week after week. After two and a half months, the sensei said, "We're entering a tournament."

The young kid says, "You've got to be kidding. I've only been taking judo for two and a half months. I only have one arm. My left arm is gone and I'm going to be in a tournament?"

They go to the tournament and the boy wins the first round, the second round, the third round. He can't believe it. He keeps on winning right up until the final. He wins the final. On the way home, he says to his sensei, "I don't understand. How is this possible? I've only been taking judo for two and a half months. I really only know one move. How could I have just beaten the champion of the state?"

The Sensei says, "You won for two reasons. First, the one move you do know is the most effective move in all of judo. The second reason why you won is because the only defense against that move is to grab your opponent’s left arm."

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  It is easy to look around our little town of Massillon and find ourselves poor in spirit.  There is a lot of suffering.  A lot of pain.  Poor in spirit is an easy place to end up when we think that it’s all up to us.  It’s easy to lose hope when we forget that God is also here in Massillon.

But I just want to remind you that when we face what may seem like insurmountable challenges—because you’re a small church, or because you rent another church’s building, or because you’ve only got a part-time pastor—these challenges may just turn out to be the things that make us unbeatable, when it comes down to it.

Just as the sensei had faith in the one-armed judo student, God has faith in us, because God is with us.  Our imperfections become perfect in the presence of Jesus.  God has called each one of us into our little communities of faith . . . at least for today, at least for right now.  And God will guide us each into carrying out our unique role in the kingdom: as part of congregations here in Massillon, and as part of the larger body of Christ in the world.  God strengthens us for that journey when we continue meeting together, and praying together, and eating together.  God calls us together to strengthen us for the days ahead.

God is calling the poor in spirit, and those who mourn, and the meek, and those who hunger, and the merciful, and the pure in heart, and the peacemakers.  God is calling you.  For yours is the kingdom of heaven.


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