Sunday February 2, 2020

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time - 2020a

Old Testament - Micah 6:1-8

New Testament - Matthew 5:1-12

A Lifestyle

INTRODUCTION: It’s one of the best known and shortest speeches in American history.


On November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln climbed onto a platform in Gettysburg to deliver his famous address. Referring back to the signing of the Declaration of Independence just 87 years earlier, Lincoln began the Gettysburg Address with that now iconic phrase, “Four score and seven years ago...”


Four-and-a half months earlier, of course, the Union and Confederate forces had waged a bloody battle over three days in and around the town of Gettysburg. When it was finally over, a 46,000 to 51,000 soldiers in total were gone - making it the most costly battle in American history. Many still consider Gettysburg the turning point in the war, since until then the Union forces tended to be on the losing side of most engagements.


And so with what many now believe to be a mild case of smallpox at the time, Lincoln arrived not long after the battle for the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery. In just under 275 words, he gave a speech for the ages extolling the sacrifice of those who had died in defense of the still unfolding nation and the great experiment that was (and is) America.


Contemplating the lives lost and the great cost, Lincoln exhorted those in attendance to not forget the sacrifice made by those at the battle of Gettysburg. Or as he said, in part, at the end of the speech, “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion…”


In terms of American history, surely one of its more important and defining speeches.


Of course, over three chapters in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus also gave a pretty important address as well, right?


Fresh on the heels of his baptism, being tempted by the devil in the wilderness, and calling his first set of disciples, Jesus climbs to a hill-top in order to give what amounts to his inaugural sermon. You see, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is frequently cast as a kind of new Moses. And so in the same way Moses climbed to the top of Mount Sinai to receive the ten commandments, Jesus climbs to the top of a hill to give his first address, which we know today, obviously, as the Sermon on the Mount.


And perhaps given its own brevity, it is only three chapters long after all, we can forget just how central the Sermon on the Mount is to Jesus’ teaching. For it is considered by many to contain the essential tenets of Christian discipleship. And such a notion? Well, it comes straight from Jesus own words. After all, Jesus himself concludes the Sermon on the Mount with his famous comment about wise people being those who hear his words and act on them, while foolish people are those who hear his words and don’t act on them. Wise people, in other words, are both hearers and doers.


No wonder the great church theologian Saint Augustine could begin a book he wrote about the Sermon on the Mount by saying this: “If any one will piously and soberly consider the sermon which our Lord Jesus Christ spoke on the mount, as we read it in the Gospel according to Matthew, I think that he will find in it, so far as regards the highest morals, a perfect standard of the Christian life.”

So the Sermon on the Mount is its own pretty important speech. Why, some might even argue it’s one of the most important ever given.


Of course, let’s be honest and admit Jesus’ famous sermon, right from the very get-go,  has a kind of odd and discordant ring to it. For as far as I am concerned, he sure seems to have some pretty strange notions about what it means to be blessed.


Yep, Jesus opens his sermon by talking about who the blessed people are in life, and we have to wonder if he isn't a tad deranged. After all, we don’t usually consider people who are persecuted, pushovers, longing for justice, and crying over the hurts of this life as blessed. And yet there’s Jesus going on about the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, and the crying being blessed. 


You will no doubt recall Robin Leach had that show back in the 80s and 90s called Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Tagging along with high flying business moguls, popular entertainers of various stripes, and high paid athletes, Leach would spend each episode letting viewers peer into their luxurious and lavish lives.


And I will admit it. I absolutely Ioved the show! There was just something about getting to see that line of expensive cars in some famous athletes' driveway, or the giant yacht that a NYC business tycoon got to float around on, that was just alluring. Now those folks...those folks were blessed! Or as Leach would say at the end of each show to his viewers, "Champagne wishes and caviar dreams."


So we hear the people Jesus likes to claim are blessed and we just have to wonder - wonder what world he’s living in. Because he sure doesn’t seem to be living in ours. It’s the people on the Forbes annual list of the wealthiest people in the world that are blessed. Now that is a lifestyle, right?

But ya see, here’s the thing. Jesus, in a way, really is living in a different world. Yep, we, rightly, get to wondering what world Jesus is inhabiting only to realize he has firmly taken up residence in, of all places, God’s planned world for us all.


You see, in Matthew’s Gospel, there are actually two worlds people can live in. The first is the world as it currently exists. It is the world we experience everyday with all its struggles and trials and failings. Granted, life as we know it isn’t always bad. For there are moments of joy and beauty and love and happiness, for sure. But for Matthew, the world as it currently exists is, on the whole, a pretty messed up place. And if we simply glance at a newspaper, or just look up from our computer screens and phones for a bit, well, it’s hard to argue he isn’t right.


But there is also a second world, according to Matthew, that is also available to us, if we’re willing to see it. And that world? Well, it is the world the way God intends it to be - a world of grace, and charity, and mercy, and welcome, and neighbor love for all. And so Jesus seems so odd to us because he is always living the way God intends the world to be. Amidst our fallen broken world, Jesus lives as a herald, a representative, an ambassador, of God’s intended world.


In our world, revenge is usually the name of the game; but in God’s world and where Jesus lives, forgiveness is paramount. In our world, holding on to and acquiring more and more stuff is considered of ultimate value; but in God’s world, giving is seen as the preferred way. In our world, being at the head of the line is considered to be pretty darn important; but in God’s, it’s actually standing at the back of it. And in our world, being served is often viewed as the good life; while in God’s world, serving is actually seen as the ideal life.


And so no wonder Jesus seems so odd to us at times. Because he runs around living in the world not as it is, but rather in the way God intends it to be. And because of that, he is bound to sound strange.


And so do you see how the Christian life has its own kind of, well, lifestyle to it?


Normally, we talk about people having a certain lifestyle and we’re quick to think about the fancy homes, the closets stuffed with high end clothes and shoes, and other such niceties. But we can forget that people of faith are also supposed to have a kind of lifestyle as well. Among other things, we’re to have lives of grace, and mercy, and forgiveness, and hospitality, and neighbor love. In other words, like Jesus, we’re to live as if we’re residents in God’s kingdom as well. That kingdom which can’t necessarily be seen, but is there nonetheless.


Back in 1960s reality therapy was all the craze. When working with patients in declining health in nursing homes and other such places, staff were instructed to try and keep folks grounded in reality. Nurses and other people would pester patients with questions like, “Mrs. Johnson, can you tell me what day it is?” And, “What state do we live in?” Or, “Sir, do you know your address?”


Well, there is the story of a young seminary student serving as a chaplain for a nursing home while on summer break. Grilled to use reality therapy with the residents, he would enter each person’s room bombarding them with questions. “What state do you live?” “How old are you?” Blah, blah, blah.


Then one day the young seminary student was kind of brought to a halt by one of the residents in the nursing home. After running through his series of questions, she responded, “Young man, I am 92 years old. I feel, well, I feel the location of this building, the name of this state, and even the day of the week are completely irrelevant to me.”


Well, the woman was far from being senile, right? Instead, she just had a different way of looking at reality. A much bigger and grander way, I would argue.


CONCLUSION:  Well, Jesus also had a different way of looking at life too, right?  For most of the things the world sees as important, Jesus really didn’t seem to value all that much.


Instead of living in the world as it is, Jesus lived in it the way God intends it to be. No wonder he can sound so strange to us sometimes. Because his kind of lifestyle, well, it surely wasn’t a typical one.  


And so if you find people are looking at you strangely, or they often seemed confused by the things you do and say, or dare I say are even reviling and persecuting you for your lifestyle, well, good. Cause that just means you too are living in the world not as it is, but rather the way God intends it to be.  


O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.