Word of the Week

Peacemaking Back at Home

"Be Blessed" Matthew 5:1-12

Washington Plaza Baptist Church, January 30, 2011, Rev. Elizabeth Evans Hagan, preaching

If you were thinking of asking for a blessing in your life, what would you ask for? What circumstance, object or thing do you believe would make you feel the most blessed?

If you or I were part of the Catholic Church and were seeking to have an audience with the pope for a  papal blessing during a visit to Rome, the way that the majority of us would answer this question according to Vatican would be, “May my marriage be blessed.” For regularly it seems that people request a papal blessing when they’ve reached marriage milestones like their 50th, 60th or even 75th wedding anniversary.

And while those of you who are in a covenant of marriage in this room might agree and say, “Yes, Pastor, come bless my marriage . . . you don’t know how crazy my wife or husband is . . . ” studies have shown that the majority of the American public desires blessing in the simplest of terms. Prayers that go up to the heavens on a daily basis go something like this:

Bless me, O God with the winning lottery ticket numbers.

Bless me, O God with a new home—this run-down neighborhood is really not my style.

Bless me, O God with a life partner—these nights are getting too lonely for my tastes.

Bless me, O God with a new job—one where my co-workers don’t get on my nerves so much.

And when all else fails, bless me, O God with a parking spot close to the door at Costco.

This, morning, we are presented with among some of the most popular, most avoided in actual practice, and most quoted “blessing” passages in all of scripture—it is our turn to wrestle with what these words of Christ might actually mean if we are indeed on a life path of following him. Asking ourselves the question of: “How might Christ want my life to be blessed?

When we look at the “Beatitudes” as they are most commonly known as a whole, what emerges is a life path of blessing that usually is completely contrary from what our worldview calls a preferred state of being. For never do we hear Jesus talking about—blessings of new cars, luxurious homes, or even places of employment that we actually like.

Instead, we hear Jesus saying things like, “Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the peacemakers.” It’s a list of descriptions about those who are already living a blessed life that shocks us from the start: because those Jesus seeks to highlight here are among those we, like the original hearers, are shocked to find on a “blessed” list.  Those who are poor in anything are ALWAYS assumed to be unfortunate from the get go.

Such is probably why Matthew 5:1-12 is assumed to be one of the most “spiritual” of all passages in scripture—spiritualized in the sense that they are often read as what can not and will not happen while on earth. Rather, the blessing of being poor in spirit or a mourner or a peacemaker comes in the life to come.  Or another way of saying, “Struggle on, you disenfranchised of this world. Struggle is all you are going to get in the here and now, so be glad that you’ll meet God one day and get your reward in heaven.”

Seems kind of patronizing to me, doesn’t it to you? Yet, a natural interpretation tendency for those among us who are living in the land where democracy has given us nearly every opportunity to “work” our way into blessing: we don’t have to worry too much about those without because in the need God will give those with less on earth more in heaven . . .

Yet, when we go back to the original Greek translation of this text, what we discover is that Jesus’ blessing phrases: “Blessed are the . . .” are all in the indicative mood. This grammar nuisance is important to note because the indicative verb form means Jesus was speaking of fact, not a condition or an exhortation.  

Often times, I think we read into most direct statements in the Bible an “If/ then” clause that is not there. How many times have you heard of preachers coming hard down on their people, “Well, you don’t get your act together and do ___ then you are not walking in the path of God.”

Such is not true of the Beatitudes. Jesus opens his Sermon on the Mount talking about “whosever x, then y” but is unconditionally declaring those who are x will be y. Jesus is stating the way of things in the kingdom of God exactly as they are.  This is not a time in scripture when you hear Jesus giving requirements about what you must do to follow him, rather, he is telling all what the lives of others are like who are ALREADY following him.

Pardon me for the personal stories I am about share for this has been a very impactful past couple of weeks for me. Just on Monday morning, I visited, along with several of our guests at worship this morning, sites in the Galilee region of Israel where Jesus was said to have spoke these Beatitudes (talk about some amazing sermon prep time I had!).  Yet, even during our visit to this region of Israel, it wasn’t the actual mount that struck me the most or the other very holy sites we visited, rather, it my interaction with those who were seeking to live these words of Jesus out, regardless if they did so from the Christian tradition or not.

I met many whose life mission was framed around the words, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called sons (and I like to add in daughters too) of God” especially.

In our meetings with leaders both on the Palestinian and the Israeli side of things who were Jewish, Christian and Muslim—it was obvious that they were ALREADY blessed. Though engaging big issues like peace agreements, political boundaries and interfaith dialogue were hard, very hard in fact, there was something about their being in the world, just in their comfort with themselves and with their relationship with their Creator that glowed a sense of blessing to all in whom they met.

While conversations about how all of this works out from the perspective of an interfaith dialogue are best to be saved for another day when we have the opportunity to all sit down and talk to one another in conversation—I want to turn the corner in our discussion about blessing to ask this:

Do you think that these words of Jesus as read in their entirety a few moments ago describe your life and our life as a congregation? Do you think that our little, yet mighty community of faith is being a center of blessing, just as Jesus talks about, of a way of living in this world that bring more of God’s goodness to the here and now?

I spent a lot of time over the past two weeks thinking about what it means to have a particular witness as a Christian person of faith in comparison to others who find faith from other paths. During our journey throughout Israel as we were constantly dialoguing about the religious driven conflict between the three major Abrahamic religions throughout the Holy Land and theology in general, I thought a lot about how Christians as a whole are viewed by those outside of our tradition and what type of Christian pastor I was, especially as the other pastor on the trip was from an non-denominational, evangelical congregation.

All of this internal pondering came to a head for me last Friday as our group was on the way back from some meetings near the Gaza border and were having an amazing lunch at the family home of one of our tour leaders, Elad. As the homemade Moroccan feast we’d been served was settling in our stomachs, a theological conversation of great proportions arose among our group as we reclined on the porch. Among those present were a Muslim Imam, our Palestinian friend Aziz who many of you met this morning and served as our guide, two Jewish Rabbis—one conservative, one Reform, our Israeli Jewish tour guide, the evangelical pastor, myself and your very own first dude, Kevin.

As we talked about the some of the particularities of the conflicting narratives described to us by various leaders throughout the country, some generalities were suggested about the contributions of Christians worldwide to Middle East war and lack of peace.

Most of what was mentioned led back to the Christians who had the loudest voices in our land and around the globe. Those who define our witness as Christ followers in terms of speaking first as to what we are against instead of speaking first as to what we are for; loud voices shouted not toward blessing for authenticity, transformative relationships and an open mind, and most of all loving our enemies, but a Christian witness of “You are bad people. We want to convert you.”

And, while yes, in context of this conversation, I desired to take credit for all the many ways that my fellow believers and Christian history through the centuries had done things completely out of the spirit of being as described by the beatitudes—you know, we all have to take responsibility for the fact that our tradition is not completely right all the time—I also wanted to shout (and maybe my voice was raised just a little), “This type of Christianity is not my church.” And, in fact, I went on to say just this.

I talked very highly about you on that Israeli porch last Friday to some skeptical hearers. I talked about the many ways that I see our way of being together as “blessed” way of following Jesus. 

I talked about our loving fellowship with one another, even though many of us come from different theological backgrounds, different regions of this country and even our world, and different sides of the Washington DC metro area.

I talked about the ministry of hospitality that is important to all that we do—how our Sunday meals together are a reflection of our desire to truly know and love each other well.

I talked about our ministries and mission—how we host an English as a Second Language program, how we take meals to the homeless through the hypothermia project each winter, and how we are even now exploring more ways to show through our service the love of Christ. And, most of all, I talked about how this is congregation where all are welcome—even as we are all in different places in our spiritual journey.

None of this is new to you, because it is what you’ve heard me say to you and about you in the Reston community all the time. However, I tell you, you should have seen the looks of some present at the table as my description and the passion it invoked in me as I spoke—it was as if some of them had never heard anything like it before. A moderate, open minded Christian witness? A Baptist church? Was I really serious? And, indeed I was.

Yet, while some at the table, wanted to suggest that my work with you was not peacemaking—that if I really wanted to do the work of peace, I needed to be on the ground working with conflicting sides in an area like Israel, I left this conversation with more insight than ever about my calling as a pastor and about the importance of this congregation to truly be a light of “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

I realized in conversations both that afternoon and with other global citizens that we encountered on the trip that the type of Christian community we are seeking to create here is more powerful than we realize . . . . For all the cheerleading I’ve done with you on your identity truly hasn’t been me blowing smoke up your skirt.  I say this to you with all the conviction that I can muster up that what you are doing as a congregation—in your mere existence is peacemaking work.

Do you understand what the world most thinks of a Christian? Do you understand that the beauty of Jesus’ teachings about what a blessing of following him looks like has been so corrupted by images of violence, war, and persecution? It’s no wonder my friends, then, that your life and mine are filled with people in it who say that they have no need for church and who are “spiritual but not religious”? For, our Christian history tells a story of a people whose understanding of blessing has been totally skewed from what Jesus speaks of in this passage . . . it makes sense- why would people want to join a group of us when they aren’t sure Jesus is the one we are following?

So, while I am confident to say with pride today, that you my Washington Plaza friends are on the right track. Your witness of blessing is a bigger light in the world than you give yourself credit for (take a moment and hear me say this again), simultaneously, I tell you that our calling to be a light, a peacemaking community is bigger than we imagine it to be. To whom much is given, much is required.

I believe Jesus’ words on blessing are an exhortation to us to consider how we might enlarge the glow of our light.

How might we share the good news of our community in even larger circles?

How might we be the leaders in the Reston and the Washington DC community as a whole to reach out to those who look, act and believe differently than us?

How might we use the good gifts of our friendship with one another to be Jesus’ non judgmental love to all those who walk in our doors?

How might we be to see the poor, the non-English speaking, the Jew, the Muslim, as not “the other” but as those who are our friends?

Hear these words of faith again, oh congregation, oh blessed people who desire to walk down even more roads of Christ’s good ways:

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 be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.