The Blessing of the Promise of a Reordering of Things

A sermon based on Matthew 5:1-12
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on February 2,  2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott

One of our family traditions is to watch the movie Groundhog Day on this auspicious holiday, Groundhog Day. I really like that movie and have actually used it in discussions about  movies with Spiritual meaning. Most folks don’t think of it as a Spiritual movie, but I think it is, and very much so.

Have you seen it? A self centered weatherman is begrudgingly sent from Pittsburgh to cover the Groundhog Day events in little  Punxsutawney, PA. His conduct from the git-go is selfish and arrogant and just plain mean at times. His name is Phil and he’s played by Bill Murray, so as you might imagine he’s also grotesque in his the-world-revolves-around-me approach to life. It’s also very funny.

Accompanying Phil on the trip is a meek, peace loving new producer named Rita who’s played by Andie McDowell. Phil is smitten with her. At the start of the movie he acts boorish in his feeble attempts to woo her. What’s worse, though, is his conduct is awful towards others especially the poor, sick and outcasts he encounters during the day. By the end of the day he’s behaved like a real jerk. And then something mystical happens, Phil awakes to find he has to live through the same Groundhog Day in the same place with the same people and noone knows it but him. It’s a zany time loop. Phil wakes up hundreds, maybe thousands, of times reliving that one Groundhog Day.

Very quickly Phil concludes since there are no consequences to messing up in his do-over day, he can die, get arrested, eat junk food, it doesn’t seem to matter, because he awakes to a do-it-over day. So at first Phil does more self-centered things stealing, conniving, killing. But he also spends a lot of time trying to get better at wooing Rita, but day after day his self-centeredness causes him to fail.

Slowly, ever so slowly, Phil begins to take an interest in relating to all the people he’s stuck in this time loop with.  In his awkward pursuit of Rita he gradually learns how to love all his neighbors and he learns appreciation of the world. He learns to have compassion and the desire for well being of everyone he is stuck in the time loop with. He learns their names, their troubles and all the little accidents and needs and illnesses they face in the day, and eventually he goes about saving everyone he can in that one little community in the only life he seems to now have.

By the end of the movie Phil blesses the poor, needy and outcasts with kindness and compassion. He is transformed. People he treated as expendable now matter very much to him. In the final segment of the film Phil is Christ-like, a man who lives for love, not just love of Rita, but love of every single person in the community.  It’s a remarkable story of reincarnation and resurrection . . . and the power of love. It’s a story of one man’s transformation through the pursuit of love, from a way of lust and selfishness, to a way of love and selflessness, a way of being Christ in the world. It’s a story with a message that no matter what we have done we can make this moment, and the ones that follow, about bringing heaven to earth. We can transform the world we live in, write a new script, change roles, and bring heaven to earth. 2.

Jesus’ teachings are about doing just that, they are about bringing heaven to earth. For Jesus heaven is about making life good for all, in life, not after life. Phil ends up doing just that in Groundhog Day for all of Punxsutawney.

The text we heard Dick read is Jesus’ way of describing what the new world will look like when we do our work and heaven finally fully breaks in. It’s a big portion of of Jesus’ roadmap to heaven.“Beatitude” is the Latin word for blessing. Today’s teachings from the Sermon on the Mount are called, “The Beatitudes” because (as we heard) they’re  about blessings.

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 [Jesus’] account.

Most of us have heard and read these words so often that sometimes I think we have become a little numb to them. We have trouble hearing what they are saying. They are like lyrics to a song that we tend to just hum along and hear in our head, but not really pay attention to.

And even if we do pay attention we may not actually understand them. We’re usually taught they are telling us how we are to be in life, if we want to get the stated rewards.  But understanding “The Beatitudes” that way doesn’t mesh with our experiences. The truth is the poor in spirit, those in mourning, the  meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted and the reviled by and large DO NOT get rewarded in this life. The earthly way, as a whole, does not doll out rewards to us when we are any of those things.  And certainly no one longs to be or strives to be, or wants to be, poor in spirit or in mourning or persecuted. While it is a good thing to be meek, merciful and pure in heart those things are generally also not rewarded in the worldly way of doing things. Even peacemakers as a whole usually go unrewarded, at least in earthly ways.

So what the heck is Jesus teaching us in The Beatitudes? We need to consider the context they were preached in to answer that.  As first century Palestinian Jews, Jesus and his followers had two great calamities that weighed heavy on their minds.  One was the existing occupation and oppression by the Roman Empire which had the Jewish people’s spirits down. The other was the Babylonian Exile, the story from hundreds of years earlier that set the bench mark for Jewish homeland calamity, but also led to Scriptural instruction and wisdom and a theology from which all future generations could turn to during calamities.
In both the Roman and Babylonian occupations, oppressive overwhelming military forces captured the homeland and caused the Jewish people to mourn the losses that came with the brutal violence that brought them into meek submission.
As a people of the-God-of-love-and-justice, they hungered and thirsted for righteousness. Jesus’ teachings called them to this by loving God and neighbor, by being merciful and pure of heart, and by being peacemakers.
In keeping those teachings, and following Jesus, Matthew’s community had experienced being reviled and persecuted, just as Jesus did.
So we have Rome crushing Jesus contemporaries, and the memory of Babylon crushing them in the past, and the lessons learned and passed on. This is the context in which Jesus gives the Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus, we are also told, in the reading went up a mountain, sat down and his disciples came to him.  Matthew’s community would have heard this as an echo of Moses giving the law out on Mount Sinai, as well as the usual image of the day of a revered rabbi whose followers gathered round as they all sat and the rabbi taught.
So the context sets up this other thing WE don’t tend to hear, that Jesus is the new Moses and a revered rabbi who is teaching. And what he  teaches in today’s text echos Isaiah who wrote during the Babylonian exile. Listen to this excerpt from Isaiah 61 and see if you can discern its echos in the Beatitudes, Isaiah wrote:

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;  2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor . . .; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion– to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness . . .
Because their shame was double, and dishonor was proclaimed as their lot, therefore they shall possess a double portion; everlasting joy shall be theirs.
For I the LORD love justice . . .I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
. . . [A]ll who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the LORD has blessed. (Isa 61:1-9 NRS).

Hear how Isaiah – and Jesus– address the realities of brutal occupation very similarly? The occupation and oppression has people broken and poor in spirit; mourning and subdued by oppressors.

Brilliantly both Isaiah and Jesus offer the promise of a reordering all of this. They propose a new script where all the parts being played are transformed, they are re-written and the lowly are blessed on earth. See when heaven comes about, when we are in God’s domain here, the tables are turned, and not just later, but now, and not just now and later, but before too.  The message is all who have been broken and poor in spirit, those who have been in mourning and subdued by oppressors have had God with them. God always has, and always will be, at the side of those in sorrow, those who are distressed, those who are reviled, those who are oppressed. And God is, always has been, and always will be with – and in– those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who are merciful, who are pure in heart, those who are peacemakers. These declarations serve to comfort and honor those in the past and the present who have, by their oppressors, been made meek, broken in spirit, and set to mourning. And they also comfort and honor those who oppose oppression and find ways to be merciful, pure in heart and peacemakers even in the face of persecution and revilement.

See, The Beatitudes announce the blessing of those who have been oppressed and those who non-violently oppose that oppression. They call humanity to a time and a place in the future where heaven is on earth precisely because humanity reorders things to God’s way, a way that already exists in God’s realm.

The good news is– borrowing the metaphor in the movie Groundhog Day–  humanity keeps living in this loop that seems unending, but it will end when we learn as a whole to bless with love and compassion those who are broken in spirit;  those who are mourning; those who are meek and subdued and outcasts. It’s heaven on earth because the honoring of powerful oppressors is replaced by the honoring of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; those who are merciful; and those who are peacemakers.

To Isaiah and Jesus, God already blesses the broken and those who are responding to God’s call to mercy, justice, righteousness and peace.  In other words God’s way exists and it needs to come to earth and be our way. Jesus is not just teaching the oppressed and the opposers of oppression having God’s blessing, Jesus is teaching that humans – not just God– need to dare to also bless the oppressed and the opposers of oppression, thus bringing heaven to earth.

People, most especially the powerful, have tried to make the Beatitudes about being docile and getting a rewards from God in the end, for submission to oppression.  But the Beatitudes are NOT about that, they are about a radical transformation from the earthly way of accepting oppression and its results, to the heavenly way of compassion and caring and honoring ALL, so that oppression is ended and we are ALL blessed by humanity, the way God blesses us ALL now and always.

1. Hodgin, Michael 1001 More Humorous Illustrations for Public Speaking, p.158
2. I got this idea from the wonderful book by Stephen Patterson, The God of Jesus, p. 95-97.