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Worship and Sermons
Jan. 29, 2017

 

“Blessed to Be a Blessing” by the Rev. Don Wahlig

Year A / 4th Sunday After Epiphany - Micah 6:1-8  •  Psalm 15  •  1 Corinthians 1:18-31  •  Matthew 5:1-12

THEME: God blesses the downtrodden and those who help them, giving both a foretaste of the Kingdom of God where we are to be a blessing to one another.

 

          Have any of you studied Biology?  Do we have any biology majors here?  I took it in high school, but I’ll confess, I was never very good at it.

          Our youngest, Jane, has been taking advanced biology this year.  She’s doing well, but it’s a struggle for her.  She has a mid-term exam tomorrow, so I peaked over her shoulder to see if I recognized anything.  Most of it I had no clue.

          There is one thing she’s studying that I do remember.  That’s ecosystems. 

          I bet you remember it too.  An ecosystem is the community of all the living and non-living things in a particular environment.  Together, they form an interconnected web.  All of them work together to create a sustainable system that supports them all.  

          Think of the ocean.  It holds a multitude of ecosystems that support living things as tiny as phytoplankton and as large as the Blue whale.  Yet they’re all connected; they all support one another. 

          As I read our gospel passage, it occurred to me this is exactly what Jesus is teaching his disciples.

          This passage is familiar.  We know it as the Beatitudes.  These are the opening words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which many consider the most frequently read portion of scripture.  

          This is the first of five great blocks of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew.  They’re intended to remind his audience of Jewish Christians of the 5 books of Moses. 

          When Jesus ascends the mountain and assumes the classic seated position of a teacher, these Jewish Christians would have thought, “Aha, I know who this is – this is the new Moses!”  Jesus was that, alright – but also much more.

          Let’s take a closer look.

          The first four beatitudes are addressed to the downtrodden.  They’re poor in spirit.  They’re either materially poor or spiritually broken – or both.  They mourn because they’re forced to eke out a living in a world whose value system is based on power, where might makes right, and where the lowly are crushed underfoot. 

          They’re meek, because they’re subject to systematic oppression from Roman forces far more powerful than they are, so they dare not resist.  Consequently, they hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness, because God is their only hope of salvation.  

          The remainder of our passage is addressed to a second group.  These are those who would follow Jesus’ teaching.  At the moment, that means the 4 disciples – Peter, Andrew, James and John – and, presumably, the crowds who’ve gathered to follow Jesus because of his miraculous healing and teaching.

          To this second group of potential disciples Jesus addresses the next three beatitudes, and two warnings. The disciples are to act according to a set of values that are the polar opposite of the worldly Roman culture.

          Their blessings are directly tied to their willingness to show mercy to the first group, the poor in spirit.  Their hearts are to be oriented solely to God in order to do his will.  That means rejecting violence and oppression and, instead, making peace with others, especially by lifting up those downtrodden whom the world kicks to the margins of life.

          Both groups are promised the Kingdom.  The poor and needy inherit the renewed earth when God finally brings his Kingdom here at the end of the age.  They’re comforted because they’ll finally receive the righteousness they’ve craved their entire lives.

          Likewise, the righteous who help them in this life will also be ushered into God’s Kingdom.  In the final judgment, they’ll receive mercy as God’s very own children.

          What the Beatitudes give us is the promise of God’s saving grace for those in need, and Jesus’ command to his disciples to help them. 

          That begs a question.  Where do you and I see ourselves in this text? 

          I suspect, at first blush, most of us identify with the disciples whose role is to help the downtrodden.  On the whole, that may well be true.

          But it’s actually more complicated than that, isn’t it?  All of us, from time to time, experience what it’s like to be those who are needy and broken.

          This happens when we go through dark times, when we’ve seemingly lost all hope.  Maybe it happened when we lost a job or a loved one.  Maybe it was a dire diagnosis or a child making a mess of their life.  When that happens, we get a glimpse of what it means to be poor in spirit.

          When our Spirit is crushed like that, the only thing we have to hold onto is Jesus’ assurance that we will, eventually, know life in God’s Kingdom.  It’s all we have left.  That gives us a sense of the power of God’s grace for the downtrodden.

          We felt that grace here at SSPC this past summer.  In August, we hosted three visitors from our partners at the Newcastle Presbyterian congregation in Madedeni, South Africa.  Though life for them is much better today than it was 20 years ago when we first entered into this partnership, living in the primarily black townships of South Africa is still not what any of us would want for our families.

 

          Which makes the sheer joy of their faith all the more striking doesn’t it? They inspired me – and I’ll bet they inspired you, too.  We were definitely blessed by their time with us.

 

          In talking with our visitors, it quickly became apparent that they, too, were blessed to be with us.  They were blessed to be a blessing.

 

          This week it’s our turn to bless them.  Mike and Nancy Gawlas leave on Thursday for a 2-week stay with our partners in South Africa.  In addition to offering them the reassurance of solidarity, Mike and Nancy will work with them to develop a health ministry.  

 

          We’ve already heard from our partners how eagerly they’re anticipating this visit.  Do you remember Jabu, or JJ as she’s called?  This is what she wrote to us in a recent email: 

 

          “We thank the Lord almighty for keeping us up to this far.  We say "EBENEZER" – (You’ll remember that’s the name of the stone Samuel erected to commemorate God’s help in the Israelites’ victory over the Philistines.  An Ebenezer is a symbol of God’s grace and providence.)  

 

          JJ goes on to say, “Its unbelievable:  there are mountains, rivers and seas but the love of God binds us together. I am glad to know that I have brothers and sisters in America.”

 

          And the blessing here is a two-way street.  The truth is that Mike and Nancy will also be blessed.  This trip will change them.  In reaching out to help our partners with God’s love, God will work in their lives, too.  He’ll transform THEIR hearts.  They’ll bring that transformation back and they’ll help transform us.  

 

          And so, we too, will be blessed to be a blessing. 

 

          The same thing will happen with our ROAR Team. They also leave this week.  They’re headed for Crystal River, Florida.  They’ll work with Habitat for Humanity to help rebuild the homes of those in need.  In being a blessing to those folks, they too will be blessed.

 

          That’s how it’s meant to be in God’s Kingdom.  It’s a divine ecosystem.  Its overall well-being depends on the mutually beneficial interaction of its members.  The well-being of any one member of the system is dependent on the well-being of the others. 

 

          That’s how it is with you and me.  Our spiritual and often physical well-being is dependent on our willingness to support and inspire one another in Christ.  None of us can pretend to know Christ, or the Kingdom he ushers in, if we pretend that we’re self-sufficient, that we don’t need one another.

 

          Thomas Merton, the great 20th century Christian writer and mystic, said precisely this in his book “No Man Is an Island”.   He said, “It is therefore of supreme importance that we consent to live not for ourselves but for others. … if we live for others, we will gradually discover that … we are human, like everyone else, that we all have weaknesses and deficiencies, (and) It is because of them that we need others and others need us.”

 

          This is the real lesson of the Beatitudes.

 

          Frederick Bruner, one of our brighter theological lights and a fellow Presbyterian, summarizes the lesson of the Beatitudes like this: “God helps those who cannot help themselves.  God also helps those who help others.  But God does not help those who are out to help themselves.”

          So, wherever you see yourself in this divine ecosystem of God’s Kingdom, whether you’re in dire need, or able to help relieve someone else’s suffering, let’s remember this:

 

We are all in this together:  Sometimes we’re the meek and the poor in spirit. Sometimes we’re the spiritually strong who can show mercy. 

          But we all need each other; and we’re all blessed to help one another. We are blessed to be a blessing.

 

          May it be so.

Last Published: July 3, 2017 11:36 AM
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