The Way God Sees the World
Matthew 5:1-12 (Micah 6:1-8)
Sermon Preached at St. Matthew’s Presbyterian, Silver Spring, MD
Let me start off this morning by saying that I realize the sermon title: “The Way God Sees the World” is presumptuous. Last time I checked, I was not nor ever would be called God. Even with a seminary degree and all from Duke Divinity School like your pastor (Go Blue Devils!) and with ordination accreditation ascribed to my name, I claim I am a human being with limitations to understanding the mystery of the Divine. And if there is one thing I am certain of in this world, God is God and I am not.
But this morning, the message I feel I have to offer is exactly this: a glimpse into the way that God sees the world. And I boldly offer such based on our New Testament lesson for this morning taken from Matthew’s gospel, chapter 5. For within the first 12 verses of this text, we find Jesus laying out for us some very straightforward, yet often misinterpreted descriptions of the world. God looks upon and says, “These folks get it. They’re not waiting on arriving in heaven to see my face and know me. They are living in the kingdom of heaven right now.”
Last week in our lectionary reading, the first disciples of Jesus have just been asked to join this new spiritual movement. Jesus met Peter, James, John and Andrew and said you’ll be fishermen no more— “Come fish for people with me.”
And as chapter 5 opens, Jesus’ teaching ministry is about get quite busy. Folks from all over the countryside have heard about him and are curious to know more. The crowds want to know what is Jesus’ next move. The disciples, however, are given premier access. Matthew 5 opens by telling us that the crowds have followed Jesus up to a mountainside. Jesus sits down with the disciples beside him and begins to say words that no one could have seen coming.
Jesus was expected by many to be a political leader after all—one who rose up to mobilize the Jews in force to overtake the oppressive Roman leadership. If he truly was the Messiah—the one for whom they had been waiting for hundreds of years, then surely he’d have a message of power proclaiming himself ruler of all. Surely he would teach this crowd gathered to raise up an army and fight back
But instead of anything like this, what we hear is:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they that mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. . . .
Biblical scholar NT Wright talks about this paradigm shift when he says: “When God wants to change the world, God doesn’t send in the tanks. God instead sends in the meek.”
And it is meek Jesus on the scene. But, was Jesus out of his mind? Did Jesus really know what he was saying?
Yep. He did. For Jesus goes on to call out these groups of people as blessed: poor in spirit, mourners, meek, the hungry, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and persecuted. He’s making some very clear statements about what life will be like for those who want to follow him.
There are so many preachers and teachers who at this moment of a sermon would parse out this text for you by explaining the difference between blessed and happy. Some translations say these are the blessed statements others say these are the happy statements. These pastors would say, “Happiness is short-lived and blessing is eternal.” And their message could be summed up as: “We oh people of God need to focus our attention on less worldly things”
Then there would be some preachers who would go down the route of telling you that the Greek adjective markarios which the NRSV translates to English as “Blessed” can actually mean “fortunate” “happy” “in a privileged position” or “well off” (all true in fact) saying if you follow exactly what Jesus says then you have more fortune, happiness or privilege in your life, etc. Joel Osteen, anyone?
And even others would go down the route of saying that the beatitudes are about missions. Jesus doesn’t favor the rich and well off in life they’d say. Then these preachers would come down hard on their congregations with a strong voice: “We’ll be a better church, oh people of God if we spend more of our budget on the “least of these” instead of on our fancy new buildings or big staff salaries.”
And to all of these interpretations, I say there would be some truth found within, but maybe not the deeper question that Jesus is trying to help us understand. And this is: how does God see the world?
I have been blessed (pardon the pun given today’s scripture) over the years to travel a lot internationally. When I was in high school, college and even seminary, I always jumped at the opportunity to go abroad on service learning trips. When I was 14, I took my first big adventure out of the country without my parents to the island of St. Vincent in the Caribbean to be mentored by a missionary teacher. And after that I was hooked. There was just something about seeing another country with a culture different from my own that enlivened me like nothing else could.
Maybe if you have traveled a lot or lived in another country other than the US, you know what I mean. Cultural immersion trips have the power to change our lives forever — if we are open to take in what we see and hear.
When I was 18, I booked a trip alone to Tanzania and Kenya for three weeks. Though I would be staying with friends of our family when I arrived, who were Americans, I was eager to get to know Africa as I’d had read and studied about it in school. I wanted to taste the food. I wanted to smell the air. I wanted to shake hands with new friends. I wanted to see Africa the way Africans saw their country.
But I have to tell you that whole trip turned out to be a bust. Never did I taste Ugali. Never did I go into any non-expats homes’. Never did I go anywhere that a person of non-European descent would go. My hosts wouldn’t allow it.
The Africa they saw, I learned, was the Africa through their American eyes. Their body had no sight or no taste for anything that didn’t resemble what was most familiar to them. For three weeks, I ate a lot of pancakes, pizza and tacos in Nairobi—strange, right? I came back to the US three weeks later only having tried bottled water from an African bottling company.
In the same way, I believe many of us read and understand the beatitudes much like my “Americanized African” trip.
We read these scriptures through the lens of what we know: being human, the way my friends introduced me to American food in Africa.
We digest scripture literally. We make salvation about where we go when we die. We might even look at beatitudes as a checklist for righteous behavior. And we stop engaging the scriptures right there.
We don’t take a step back and see the bigger picture. We don’t see the feast of a new kind of life that Jesus is offering his followers. “Come learn of me,” Jesus is saying, and “You will never position yourself in the world in the same way. Because the kingdom of heaven is not about some specific action you do. It’s not about how poor or rich you are. It’s not about how many mission trips your church takes. It’s about seeing the world with God’s vision, taking your place as a citizen of heaven even as you abide as a citizen of earth.”
I’ll say it again, you take your place as a citizen of heaven even as you abide as a citizen of earth.
This feast of living is what makes the gospel of Christ so mind shattering! The kingdom of heaven IS here and it can be known through human ambassadors like us. How? When we see the world as God sees it.
Again, I’m not God. But one of the gifts of my travels over the years and especially my most recent travels with our family’s ministry within Feed The Children has been seeing the face of God in what most people would call the unlikely places.
In August of 2012, my husband and I traveled to Malawi and Kenya for our first overseas adventure since he took over as President and CEO of Feed The Children a few months before. It was a trip of many jewels but one of the most important encounters for me during our time there was with a group of young men called the Hardy Boys—a group of 20s and 30s something young men with special needs. They had lived in the Feed The Children orphanage in Nairobi since childhood but had aged out of the system. (Thus, the “Hardy House” was created for them to live in for the rest of their life for most all of them have no family that is interested in caring for them).
Though full of life challenges and unable to do the one thing that they all wanted to do—work—for there are no jobs with persons with disabilities in Kenya (like most developing countries), the joy in their faces communicated to us beyond words and moved me to tears. During our time, one of the men, Christian gave me a year’s worth of his beautiful paintings in a sketchbook (pictured to the right). We ate together a meal with foods they thought we’d like the best. And later around chairs, we sang one of their favorite songs, “Kumbayah” together while drool rolled down the cheeks of some their faces and the blind ones twitched their heads back and forth and the rest of them couldn’t stop clapping their hands.
It was in this motley crew that most everyone in the world had written off as unimportant and insignificant that I saw something about God that I, as a seminary educated, able-bodied, able sighted person hardly knew: that God dwells where people have given their life to Jesus—all of it.
These men were using their life, even with all their challenges, as instruments of God’s love in the world.
And this is truth: the way God sees the world is much like the Hardy boys do. And on that August day in their living room, I was standing on holy ground.
This does not mean, however, that we should any way glamorize the harsh realities of poverty. It does not mean that embodying compassion or enduring persecution is a bed of roses. It does not mean that hungering for righteousness is a delightful kind of labor.
No- not at all: injustice is real in this world and God asks us to lend our voices to do what we can to speak out against the greatest ills. Doesn’t our Old Testament reading for this morning make it plain? “What does the Lord require of you? But to do justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.”
But in all of this, the world that God sees and Jesus exhorts us to get to know is a world where every mourner is comforted, where the meek inherit the earth, and where those who endure persecution KNOW they are doing divine work. And in this world there is joy, even in the midst of pain and suffering.
This kind of life goes against all modern notions of happiness. For in a nation where we constitute the “good life” with a well-paying job, children in good schools, the ability to go to see as many movies in a weekend that we want, granite countertops, stainless steel appliances and having enough money to hire someone to clean our house and cut our grass, we don’t realize how POOR and OFF the mark we really all.
Again, not that having things is bad. But just that we’ve got the narrative of blessing all wrong.
Are we focused alone on our little kingdom on this earth or are we seeing the kingdom of heaven come to earth?
This is what I know without a shadow of doubt: when we come and see the world that God sees it, we are blessed. God’s kingdom IS among us! How could we not be?
We are blessed as we mourn.
We are blessed as we purify our hearts.
We are blessed as we make peace.
We are blessed because we are living within the kingdom of heaven. And though onlookers may say falsehoods about us and mock the ways we spend our time, our talents and our money, we can not be shaken for God gives us vision for the plans of his world. We just need to follow.
For Jesus’ coming and showing us the way to the kingdom of heaven, today we can rejoice and be glad. There’s more than meets the eye in this world in which we live and this is good news for all of us today.