Epiphany 4 January 30, 2011

Micah 6:1-8                                                                         

1 Corinthians 1:18-31                                                        

Matthew 5:1-12

Friends of mine, active Episcopalians, are trying out a new church. They’re tired of their big, rather safe and stuffy church. They’ve been visiting another Episcopal church in the city where they live: a mission founded to minister to people released from prison. It meets, they write, “in a drafty hall with folding chairs; the music is amateurish and in many genres; the service is one of several modernized versions of the Eucharist; the sermons we have heard have been full of energy and commitment. The place has a strong bent towards social action; it is interracial and clearly gay-friendly. The people are friendly and warm, clearly connected with each other, and clearly engaged in worship.  After the sermons, the priest hands around a mike and a few people talk about the sermon or the text, so far as we can tell in pretty real ways, connecting what they have heard to their lives.”

But my friends have one concern about this new congregation: “whether there is a discipline here and if so what it is.” By “discipline,” they mean what is the standard, the criterion, by which the life of the congregation is measured and held to account. And that’s a very important question; an important question for all churches, and for each of us as individuals. Is our “discipline” just what we like? What makes us feel comfortable or happy? The way we’ve done things in the past?

Well, of course, no. Our discipline, the measure of our worship and our lives, what holds us to account, is no simple thing. It’s the texts of Holy Scripture that we hear each Sunday. It’s the shape of the Eucharist, this action that Christ commanded us to continue in his Name and the basic pattern of our lives. It’s the Creed which we recite each week, renewing our belief in the God of Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit. It’s all of these things and more. But in simplified form, if you want something you can carry around in your pocket, something you can pull out and consult in the midst of your daily life – in simplified form our discipline is Jesus.  He is our standard, our criterion, by which we measure ourselves and hold ourselves to account, in our worship and in our lives.

Perhaps the high point of my time in seminary was an incident that happened at the end of a series of brilliant and intense lectures in our systematic theology class. Our teacher, Fr. Griffiss, had been talking about the doctrine of the Incarnation: that Jesus is truly and fully God and also truly and fully human. Fr. Griffiss had concluded his lectures and was leaning back against the blackboard, inviting questions. Charlie, who was not the sharpest shovel in our tool shed, raised his hand. “Well, Fr. Griffiss,” he said, “I’m not sure I followed everything you said, but the way I think of it (and here Charlie began to move the index fingers of his two hands towards each other through the air), is that the sperm of God met the egg of Mary, and BAM: Jesus.”

(Just to reassure you, Charlie is not a priest in the Episcopal Church today. But that’s a whole other story.) I tell that story to make the point that Jesus is not some hybrid god-man, some demigod utterly unlike you and me. Yes, Jesus is the revelation, the disclosure, in human form and human history, of what God is like.  We look at Jesus, and we see God, in God’s fullness. But Jesus is also the image of what we were created to be.  Forget for the moment the miracles, the walking on water and raising the dead, the things we can’t do at least in literal form; this side of Jesus has another meaning for us, which we can talk about another time. What is important to grasp is that Jesus the human being is our discipline and our life. Jesus: nothing less.

Which brings us to the gospel reading this morning: the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount. St. Matthew wrote his gospel for a Jewish Christian audience. So he presents Jesus as the new Moses. Moses went up on Mount Sinai, disappearing into a cloud, and brought down the Ten Commandments, the Law by which the people of Israel were to live. Jesus goes up on a mountain and his disciples come to him, and he teaches them the Gospel, the new Way by which they are to live. So just as the Ten Commandments are the great summation of the Old Testament (and they are not superseded by anything in the New!), so the Beatitudes are the great summation of the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Children used to memorize the Ten Commandments; they were hung on church walls; law suits have been fought over whether we can have them in courthouses or public parks. But we could do worse than memorize the Beatitudes, worse than have them on our walls and on public display.

Several things to notice about them. First, they are put positively, not negatively: these are not “thou shalt nots”; they are “blessed ares” – or the Greek word can also be translated “happy are.” And they are not delivered out of a cloud with thunder and lightening. They are taught by a friend to his friends, seated together on the grass. The Beatitudes are intimate, personal. Christianity is about who we are, our selves, our souls. Never just a list of rules, never just a religion, a something “out there.”

But . . . these Beatitudes are sort of Good News upside down. There’s a saying that the Good News is bad news first: meaning it strikes us as contrary to our usual way of looking at things until we get deeper into it. Also, that the Gospel comforts the afflicted, but afflicts the comfortable. So, who is it who are “blessed”? “The poor in spirit” – meaning those who know their need for God, those who know they can’t make it all on their own. “Those who mourn.” “The meek.” “Those who hunger and thirst after righteousness.” “The merciful.” “The pure in heart.” “The peacemakers.” “Those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” As a friend of mine once put it, the losers. Striking, isn’t it? The Good News of God is, in the eyes of the world, bad news first. As St. Paul tells the Corinthians, “the message of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.”

I’ve been going to physical therapy for my back. In the waiting area are copies of People magazine. People magazine is an icon of what our popular culture today holds up as blessed. And it’s a very ugly icon. I don’t need to elaborate on it. It’s everywhere, not just in People. And even many churches today, trying to survive by pandering to our culture, have substituted market standards for the discipline of the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, the true Good News of Jesus Christ. People come to church to be soothed, to be affirmed in their prejudices, to be made comfortable with their hypocrisies.  Not to encounter the discipline of the Living God, the God of the Beatitudes.

My friends, Jesus calls us, in the words of that old hymn we quoted last week: “o’er the tumult, of our life’s wild, restless sea; day by day his clear voice soundeth, saying ‘Christian, follow me’.”

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