One of the curious ironies of preaching is that what a preacher says and what members of the congregation hear are sometimes different things. The prism of context can change the shape and sometimes the meaning of what is preached.
A marvelous example of that comes from a satire created by the Monty Python group, Life of Brian. The movie is an irreverent depiction of what it would have been like to live in the time of Jesus. There is a scene when some bystanders on the edge of the crowd are trying to catch Jesus’s words about the peacemakers. This ribald congregation couldn’t hear well, and so they were constantly asking each other what Jesus was saying. Jesus’ beatitude about peacemaking takes a turn that chills all preachers:
“What was that?” “I think it was ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers’.” “What’s so special about the cheesemakers?” “Well, obviously, this is not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.”
My point in mentioning this is not so much to plug the movie (By the way, when it was condemned by religious groups, the number of theaters pledging to show the movie doubled!), but to point out the fact that what is preached is sometimes not heard, conceivably even for Jesus.
Take his most famous sermon, for example, the one known as the Sermon on the Mount. The fact that we have it at all is rather remarkable. Who copies down a sermon word for word, other than other preachers? That aside, the sermon has not been without its critics. Over the years scholars have suggested that this is not one sermon but a collection of Jesus’ sermons, all rolled into one, a “greatest hits” repertoire, as it were. Then there is Luke’s take on the sermon, one that reveals a different perspective altogether. The context is not on a mountain, but on a plain, and the contents reveal a more socially conscious depiction of the sermon. What is said and what is heard can be altogether different.
With all that noted, my point has little to do with form or textual criticism. Rather, it is to pay attention to Jesus’ opening words from the sermon, commonly called “The Beatitudes.” During these strange days when we have been asked to quarantine ourselves away from crowds and even from church, I would like for us to take some time to pay attention to what Jesus was saying in these power-packed words defining membership in the Kingdom of Heaven.
“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 receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
As we take these words to heart, we might pause to consider what it means to be “blessed.” Does it mean the conferral of gifts that make us special? Does it mean to see ourselves through a patronizing confidence that we are better than others because of our spiritual heritage? I don’t think being “blessed” is an honor as much as it is a joyful responsibility, the recognition that God’s Kingdom is based not on some divine “bill of rights” that guarantees our successful place in the world, but rather a declaration of dependence on a kingdom that promises to be radically different than the cultural kingdoms in which we now reside. It is a kingdom where blessing is defined by the spiritual calling of giving rather than receiving.
Therefore, in these days of inconvenience, let us take time to consider Jesus words not so much in terms of accolades but of calling – the calling to bless. The wonderfully wise and kind teacher, Henri Nouwen says it well: “To give someone a blessing is the most significant affirmation we can offer.”
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
What gifts have you been given for the sake of blessing others? Thank God for those and consider how those gifts might be used.
Who may need the affirmations of grace that you have to share?
Who in our church might need a call, a text or a letter during these days of isolation?
A Guided Prayer: Ernest T. Campbell at the Riverside Church in New York City
We thank you, God, that praise is therapy, and gratitude the meditation of the soul. At least for the time it takes to pray, we set our minds on your mercies and give up feeling sorry for ourselves. You have blessed us with the gift of life:
surrounded us with friends;
trusted us with responsibility;
endowed us with conscience;
provided us with all things needful;
and set your love upon us
Here within the quiet of this hour we remember those whose sacrifices have secured the good that we enjoy:
parents, teachers, and soldiers;
artists, inventors, and crusaders;
scholars, pioneers, and prophets.
Chiefly we remember Jesus Christ:
his selfless life;
his voluntary death;
his victorious resurrection;
and his continuing power to save.
Our praises rise to you, from whom our blessings come.
We embrace in our prayers today those who live with a sense of running out of what they need:
those who are running out of time, their dreams still unfulfilled;
those who are running out of patience, wondering how long they can endure;
those who are running out of health, who feel their powers waning day by day;
those who are running out of money, fighting growing costs on fixed incomes;
those who are running out of faith, having borrowed too much and too long from others;
those who are running out of love, finding it easier all the time to accuse and criticize and hate;
O God who alone can keep us from falling, whose power is unbounded: where our reserves are low, fill us again, for we wish to endure all the way to the end.
We pray now for this church:
its officers and members,
its varied publics,
its impact on the city around us.
Give us, we pray, a lively sense of mission;
the ability to choose priorities;
the grace to deal creatively with differences;
the hope that belongs to the gospel;
the faith to believe, when to doubt or disbelieve would be the easier way.
Let it be enough for us that we have seen the Christ and heard his call; lest craving the good opinion of the world or our own comfort we should leave the work entrusted to our care.
We seek; now let us find.
We ask; let it now be given to us.
We knock: O God, open the door.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord, amen.