A sermon by Reverend Michael Precht preached on January 29, 2017 based on Matthew 5:1-12.
Psalm 53 says "my sins are ever before me..."
If I was writing that Psalm I'd just say "My sins are in my newsfeed."
I logged on and saw a guy I'd preached to for two straight years
He's standing next to a brand new Camaro that he got for a graduation present
And his comment is testifying, saying
"this was one of my dream cars to have just goes to show you the Lord can make your dreams come true trust in him and he Will Provide" #blessed
Yall, that's on me!
Two years, let's say a minimum of 72 sermons I preached to this fella.
And the lesson he took away was "trust in the Lord and you'll get a Camaro."
I don't have to tell you that there is a little bit of a gap between "blessed are they that grieve" and
"blessed are they that are given Camaros."
I don't have to tell you that there is wide spread confusion about what it means to be #blessed
Of course, we all know that Facebook is full of fake news these days so I went where any sane person goes for clarity
I searched the fifty most recent posts to be labeled "blessed" on Twitter.
And I got some fascinating research back.
Did you know that 58% of all blessings God gave yesterday were a scholarship to play college football?
If you add championships and trophies and teammates, then a full 78% of all blessings are sports related.
the remaining 22% of blessings are evenly distributed between family, sunrises, and new cars.
Now maybe you think there's a better methodology to looking for blessings than random internet searches.
And maybe you're right.
But I'm less interested in how you look for blessings,
and I'm more interested in how you recognize them.
When you are looking for a blessing, what exactly are you looking for?
That's the question I asked two weeks ago,
when we began this series on how Jesus evangelizes.
In each of the last two weeks we have read the stories of how Jesus first called his disciples.
We heard Jesus asking "what are you looking for?" and we dared to answer honestly
Then last week, we heard Jesus say "Follow me" because if we want to discover the goodness of Jesus,
we have to go where Jesus goes.
Today, we are a little further along the road.
Jesus has been going from town to town.
And he has been healing people all over the place
He's been announcing "Change your hearts and lives because The kingdom of God is here"
And he gathered quite a following.
Matthew 4:25 tells us that people had walked 100 miles from Jerusalem
and 250 miles from Syria, just to follow Jesus.
And as the crowds kept growing, Jesus decided it was time to teach.
So Jesus walks to the top of a mountain,
and for the very first time in all of Matthew we hear Jesus preach and teach.
Maybe you've heard of this teaching - lots of folks call it the sermon on the mount.
Now, nearly all of Jesus' early followers were Jewish.
And Matthew wrote this gospel to a jewish audience,
to convince them that Jesus was the promised Messiah.
And every Jewish hearer would know that something special happens when God leads a crowd to a mountain.
Every Jewish person was raised on the story of how God led the people of Israel to Mt. Sinai,
Everyone knew that Moses had gone up the mountain to meet God, and had come back with the Law of God
And every Jewish person knew that it was when they received the law that they had gone from being
a really, really big family reunion and became a true nation and people of God.
So here's Jesus. he's been saying "I'm bringing God's own nation with me"
and now he's walking up a mountain...
But instead of starting with 10 commandments, he gives them 8 blessings.
Then he doubles the last one to make sure it sinks in.
the only commandment comes at the very end,
when he says "be full of Joy and be glad!"
But of course, none of the blessings we heard today sound like the things that would make us glad.
When we are looking for blessings, we tend to look to the people who have the things we want.
We do it in the church - even though we know we should know better.
This is Kate Bowler
Kate is a church historian, who spent years studying how Americans invented something called the prosperity gospel.
You know it from TV.
Prosperity gospel preachers, the successful ones anyway, always draw massive crowds and have megawatt smiles.
They live in preposterous houses and fly on their own private jets, and everything about them seems so shiny and confident.
To a certain kind of eye they look... blessed.
In fact that's the name of a book.
Kate wrote that book after spending years traveling with Benny Hinn and attending the largest churches in every city she visited.
She dug into the roots of prosperity gospel and traced it back to a philosophy from the late 1800s called "New Thought."
"New Thought" teaches that our mind creates our circumstances.
Positive thoughts create positive circumstances
Negative thoughts create negative circumstances.
Later, a preacher named E. W. Kenyon adopted New Thought into his preaching.
He taught his followers to say:
"God is in me. God’s ability is mine. God’s strength is mine. God’s health is mine. His success is mine. I am a winner. I am a conqueror."
You can imagine why it's so important for the Prosperity Gospel preachers to look so good,
You can understand why their followers *want* them to be so blessed.
If my leader can seize the blessing, then I can too.
Blessed are the confident for they shall be shameless in what they promise.
After years of visiting the Prosperity Gospel preachers,
Bowler was touched by how much powerfully this message can strengthen people.
"Prosperity gospel makes everyone feel special.
It makes everyone feel uniquely chosen.
Every detail of your life is God’s ultimate concern.
I’ve seen that do wonders for people."
But she saw a darker side to it as well...
"It creates the problem that it tries to solve.
It says we can always know the will of God because God has given us a special kind of faith which we can use to act.
What that means is every single thing in your life becomes your fault or your reward.
That’s a terrifying place to be."
"The saddest stories that I heard in my research were when it was obvious that people would lose to whatever sickness they were facing.
But the church was not able to surround them with comfort and tell them that they weren’t to blame
or that there were questions and uncertainties beyond our knowledge.
They couldn’t tell them that God was present in the suffering of his people, not just in the triumph of them."
Kate Bowler also knows a little something about the God who is present in suffering.
Just after she published her book on the prosperity gospel, Kate Bowler was diagnosed with stage 4 of a rare and aggressive cancer.
When asked about her own faith, she said
"I’m desperate. I pray for the day because I can’t get through it without God.
As it turns out, desperation is better for me, because I just can’t assume that I’m able to cobble this thing together.
Prayer has become radical dependence on the assumption that God will be there no matter what.
It’s just been a radical revelation of God’s presence."
Desperation is better for me...
The people who came to hear Jesus that day were desperate.
They were sick and possessed and hungry.
We know this because Matthew tell us,
And he tells us They had walked from Jerusalem and Syria
but we also know they were desperate because who else but someone desperate could have wandered into the countryside to hear an itinerant preacher?
Apparently, no one was expecting these people at a job.
They come desperate to Jesus and Jesus tells them
You. Are. Blessed.
You know what, let's not say it like that.
Maybe "blessed" has too much baggage.
Let's try it a little differently.
Let's say bless-ed.
I can't back this up from any dictionary or theology class.
But it seems to me that in Alabama, people meant a little something different when they said something was blessed, and when they said it was "bless-ed."
Blessed was always beautiful, picture perfect. Blessed is just like we wanted it. Blessed is something I can show off because I'm not really bragging. I just happened to come across this amazing thing I've always wanted. I'm just blessed.
"Bless-ed" was reserved for things holy, mysterious.
The blessed virgin.
Blessed be the name of the Lord.
When you can't see a blessed thing, the thing you can't see is itself the mystery, something set apart.
And there on that mountain Jesus looked at the desperate mass and said
You are bless-ed.
When given up on the things you thought you could do for yourself,
when you know how desperately you need GOd's grace,
You finally will have eyes to see it.
As for me, I once heard a preacher tell me that all I needed to know Jesus was to be desperate
And I walked away sad, because I knew I was not.
I knew that I was really quite content with my life just as it was.
And I knew that desperation isn't a feeling you can fake to God.
I tried for a while. I tried to "make myself desperate" but that was just more striving.
You can't make yourself desperate any ore than you can achieve humility, or make yourself persecuted.
But I have learned something along the way.
When I don't feel especially desperate for God,
I can still discover my need by loving someone in desperate circumstances.
There is a special kind of need, a special kind of helplessness that comes from loving a child, a parent, a spouse, a friend or a neighbor whose problems are more than you can fix.
If you want to pray desperate prayers to God, then work for the good of someone desperate.
You'll figure out pretty soon what it means to discover how powerless you are.
You'll discover what it means to pray with radical need and radical dependence.
This is how the church brings good news.
Not by saying "you can do it if you earn it"
Not by saying "try harder" or "stay positive."
But by looking at the desperation of the world and saying "God is in there somewhere, no matter what.
"And if God is there, then we can be too.
"You are not alone, and you are not and you will not be forgotten, not even at the very end of all things."
We look at the need for which the world has no words and we say
holy, sacred, Bless-ed
Blessed is the patient made humble by the hospital gown and the dripping bag they cannot live without
Blessed are the Coptic Christians who were beheaded while whispering Jesus is Lord
Blessed is the pastor beaten to death in Selma because he dared march arm in arm with Christian brothers and sisters
Blessed are the officer and protestor in Dallas who embrace each other and offer each other peace.
Blessed are the those who remember that the pure religion and undefiled is in the care of a widow or abandoned child who cannot repay the blessing.
Sacred, holy, Blessed are those who grieve over flag draped coffin
Blessed is the couch in ourcold night shelter, a mercy seat on cruel night.
Blessed are those who will not offer anything less than a full apology, who need to be forgiven and not excused
Blessed is a three year old boy, washed up dead on a beach in Greece,
blessed is a blood stained boy in an ambulance in Aleppo
when the kingdoms of this world will not welcome them, theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
This is how the good news of Jesus unfolds.