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Sunday, January 26, 2020


An sermon based upon Matthew 5: 1-20 
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDivDMin. 
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership,   
Third Sunday after the Epiphany, January 26th, 2020 

‘Have a blessed day’!   

In my younger years, the 60’s and 70’s, I never heard anyone say it exactly this way.  certainly heard other warm wishes: “Have a nice day!”  “Good Day!”  “See you later.  But even among Christians, I didn’t hear this until years later, perhaps during the late 1980’s or 90’s.     

So, what does it mean to ‘wish’ God’s blessings on someone?   

In today’s text the wish for God’s blessings is being used by Jesus’ as a preamble to his Sermon on the Mount.  Interestingly, the preamble of our US Constitution also contains a wish for ‘blessings’:  ‘We the people, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.  Even this very secular document contained a wish for blessings. 

But Jesus did not mean it the way we normally do 

Jesus flipped the normal, biblical, Hebrew meaning of blessing upside down, or maybe we could say right side up.  Jesus used ‘blessed’ in a way that might take whole lifetime to understand.   

BLESSED ARE…  (A disciple has a different perspective on life) 
What does Jesus mean when he says, “Blessed are…the poor in Spiritblessed are the mournersthose who hunger for righteousness, and so on?    Perhaps a comic strip can help us begin to get on the right track.    

Life is a mystery Charlie Brown," says Lucy, "Do you know the answer?" 
Charlie Brown answers, "Be kind. Don't smoke. Be prompt. Smile a lot. Eat sensibly. Avoid cavities and mark your ballot carefully . . . Avoid too much sun. Send overseas packages early. Love all creatures above and below. Insure your belongings and try to keep the ball low . . ."   

Before he can get out another platitude, Lucy interrupts: "Hold real still," she says, "because I am going to hit you a very sharp blow upon the nose!" 

How do we live for God’s blessings?  Is blessedness something we do; a state of moral perfection or even, as our catholic neighbors say, a form of ’sainthood’ that very humans can obtain  

Tradition has named these life altering words of Jesus Beatitudes, but what kind of attitudes are these to replicate Should we try to be poor in spirit?  Should we wish to mourners?  Do we try meekness in order to grow real estate holdings? Should we feel blessed because we are hungry for what is good and right?  And while we might imagine that being mercifulpure-heartedor peace-making might be a blessing for someone else, Jesus actually means we are blessed before blessing someone elseMost puzzling, perhaps, is the last one: how can anyone dare suggest that when you are persecuted you are blessed? This sounds more like tragedy rather than blessing?   

Surely, Jesus doesn’t mean to wish such difficulties upon his disciples, nor was Jesus giving us lessons what to do to be a Christian.  These ‘beatitudes’ should not be made into ‘steps’ to heavenly bliss or blessing based on good deeds or behavior.    

So, if these ‘beatitudes’ are not methods to gain God’s blessing, what are they?  Let me try to guide your understanding with a very familiar name.  When the late Billy Graham once wrote book on the Beatitudes, he entitled it ‘The Secret to Happiness’.  Now, of course, everyone wants to know a ‘secret’.  But that word can be easily misunderstood.  Besides, once the ‘secret’ is told, it isn’t a ‘secret’ anymore.  Perhaps an even better word Billy Graham might have chosen today is the word ”mystery”.   

Here again, we can agree with Charles Schultz’s character Lucy‘Life is a mystery, Charlie Brown.  But Charlie Brown, and we too, are wrong to think that we solve this ‘mystery’ by simply doing all the right things.  Good Grief, Charlie Brown’, life is more mysterious than this.  This is the one thing Jesus is not suggesting; that we achieve God’s blessing by being poor, by grieving, or by being persecuted.   The blessing Jesus wishes or grants is not dependent upon what we do, but it’s more about who we are, or even better, it’s a the blessing that comes from ‘whose’ we are.  

Let’s go back to what Billy Graham was explaining when hdiscussed the very first Beatitude, Blessed are the Poor in Spirit’.  He told his readers how many very wealthy people he had know had all kinds of money, wealth, and access to almost anything they wanted, but they were still miserable (p. 20).  What is most needed, Billy Graham suggested, is ‘contentment Contentment, Graham went on suggestis not an any amount in our bank accounts, but it’s based on the state of our soul  

If you remember hearing Billy Graham preach, or you have read any of his books, you’ll discover that the major message in everything Graham wrote or preached was just like a continual ‘invitation’ in an a old style revival meeting: ‘Come to Christ!, he’d say. Every message Billy Graham preached would conclude this way.  He was giving an invitation, but it wasn’t just his invitation.  It was the kind of invitation Jesus gave.  It is the kind of invitation the Spirit still gives to us.  We are invited to confront the challenges and mysteries of life by trusting God’s promise and by living with the knowledge of God’s presence.  When Jesus said ‘blessed are the poor, blessed are the mourners,the meek, or the persecuted,  Jesus promises God’s presence, to those who trust their lives to God, even when life gives them nothing and even when everything seems to be against them.   

Jesus wants his disciples, and us too, to be assured that we have God’s blessing because we trust our lives to God and not based upon what does, or doesn’thappen to us.  For even when we are ‘poor in Spirit’, that is humbled by life, God still blesses us.   Even when we mourn, God is there to comfort.  Even when we are meek, or when we take the higher, harder, and more demanding ways of mercy, of purity, or peace-makingso that we are persecuted for doing what is right; the blessing of God’s goodness and grace does not leave us, but comes comes even closer to usbecause God is with us and is being revealed in us By trusting our lives to God’s promise we can be assured of the blessings of God’s presence.   

So, rather than being prescriptive of what we should do to have God’s blessings, Jesus words are descriptive of how life looks from God’s point of view.  Jesus turns the normal way of perceiving the spiritual situation of our lives upside down (or right side up)so that those who seek God can know that God hasn’t left or abandoned them, even when they don’t feel blessed.   

YOU ARE THE SALT  (A disciple is a preserver of life) 
When we live our lives, with the ‘blessed assurance’ of living in God’s presence and blessing, disciple not only learns to see life differently, but we also have an influence on making life turn out differently too.   

This is what Jesus means by calling his disciples ‘the salt of the earth ‘.  We all know the value of salt for both flavor and preservation.  In the ancient world, and even up to just a few years ago, you may remember your family salting down hams or grandma canning vegetables.  Before the advent of refrigeration, having an adequate supply of salt was practically a matter of life or death 

once saw how important salt has been first hand when I visited a salt mine, going underground 500 feet.  It was big enough to fit an ocean liner with multiple large rooms, where salt sculpture now filled the rooms.  ‘Take a deep breath’, our guide told us, as we traveled even deeper underground.  She continued, ‘The air you’re breathing down here is much healthier than the air you were breathing up there’, pointing upward were we all came from.  Many people with lung or breathing problems come down here to breathe the salt-purified air.”  Then she reminded us, “For most of human history, mIning salt has been much more important than even mining gold.  In some parts of Asia and Africa salt is still used as a form of currency. 

Jesus says his disciples are just that important for preserving civilization.  But what does this mean in the real, everyday, world in which we live?  What does it mean, for a person to live such in such a way that, as old timers used to say, they are ‘worth their salt’. 

I don’t know a better example of someone ‘worth their salt’ than the one given by Fred Andrea, who told of living in Aiken, South Carolina, and going to breakfast at Gene’s Restaurant.  In the middle of various modern office buildings, with all their high-tech, carpeted offices, Gene’s represents the best of a world gone by—tile floor, booths with Formica topped tables, and an atmosphere that feels like the best of small-town Americana. 

But the best part of Gene’s Restaurant isn’t the setting, or even the food, but for most people it was the employee named Goldie.  She looked older than most my mother, Fred says, and she’s the only one who took his order for years.  She always greets us, “You want coffee, honey?” “How about you, sweetie?” Goldie talks to everyone that way.  That’s how her spirit of intimacy and warmth brightens up the antiquated decorum which is transcended by the color of her personality.  “Want your coffee warmed up, sugar? “Sure,” Fred answered, “who would ever refuse an offer like that, even it meant you had to float back to the office.”  

Goldie is a widow, and as long as she can, she always brings the pie before she brings the salad.  That ensures you get dessert before the kitchen crew runs out of pie.  You can understand why so many people love and appreciate her. She adds a little spice for everyone’s day.  As Fred Andrea concludes, ‘There we were on a Friday morning.  It had been a long and exhausting week.  The sky was a bit dark. The weather outside was cloudy and rainy.  But the forecast inside was bright and sunny.  Goldie the waitress was doing her thing. At Gene’s Restaurant, the food is pretty good, but Goldie made it even better. She was a person who was ‘worth her salt’. 

You’ve met people like that.  For me it was a Physical Therapy Tech at Wake Forest Baptist named Hiawatha.  He wasn’t Native America, but he was African-American.  After a two month stay in the hospital, when doctors said I had to learn to walk again, Hiawatha was the man who took a weak, anxious, 17 year-old by the handinstructing, encouraging to stand, to take painful, awkward steps, until I finally was able to make it back and forth across the room, and then out the door, on crutches, and still in a body cast.   

Interestingly, 32 years later, after returning to the area, I was on an elevator at Wake Forest Baptist hospital, and who did I see as I was getting on.  It was Hiawatha with graying hair, but I recognized him immediately.  I spoke to him, telling him who I was, reminding him what he did for me, and how much it still means to me.  Of course, he’s helped thousands since then.  He didn’t remember, though he politely pretended to.  But the point is that I remembered him, not just because he was doing his job, but he was a person who worked and cared in a way that made him someone who is ‘worth their salt’.  He told me, as we parted that day, that he was headed to a retirement party were he was to be recognized for his many years of service.   

People like Goldie and Hiawatha are the kind of people who have not only cared about their work, but they also care about the people they work with.  This is what made them people ‘who are worth their salt’.  And this is very much what Jesus meant when he called them ‘the salt of the earth’.  Living out God’s love and compassion is how human life on earth is preserved.    

Back in biblical times, in Palestine, people used brick ovens outside to cook their food.  To ensure that there would be a cooking fire the next morning, people cut a trough in the bottom of their ovens and poured in layers of salt.  The salt acted like a catalyst.  It maintained the heat level in the coals that were spread over the top of the salt.  Thus, after the fire had burned down for the evening, and was ‘banked’ for the night, the salt below kept the heat.  Then, the next morning, the oven temperature could easily be built up again.  (These ideas found in Following Jesus, Sermons on Discipleship, Hulitt Gloer, editor, 1994).     

Isn’t this the call of Christian discipleship, and right at the core of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ?  Christians not only can ‘take the heat ‘, but we keep the ‘fire of life and love going, and we have God’s blessing, not because of what we have or don’t have, but because of who we are and how we live.  

YOU ARE THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD  (A disciple points to the source of life) 
The final part of being ‘blessed’ is that by living ‘salty’ lives we also become ‘light’ in a dark world.   

Notice, Jesus doesn’t say that his followers reflect God’s light, like the moon reflects the light of the sun, but Jesus told his disciples: ‘You are the light of the world.’  Then Jesus also clarifies that we are Light not simply because of our belief, but we are light because of the ‘deeds’ we do as a result of our belief.  Of course belief matters, but belief matters because our belief causes us to do the kind of things that reveal God’s love in the world.   

We spoke about mines earlier, but now I need to speak about a cave.  The first and only time ever went into a cave was when I was a child.  I went with my parents and took along a friend to Linville CavernsThey tried to prepare us for what was going to happen, but picture was worth far more than 1000 words.  We descended down into this cave and then with a quick warning, the guide turned off the flashlight.  It was suddenly darker than I ever knew possible.  It was so disconcerting and disorienting, I began to feel dizzy and sick too.  I didn’t have any great fear of darkness before, but then realized I had no clue what real darkness was.  If this what darkness is, I was terrified.  I have seldom been more relieved than when that guide turned on his flashlight!   

Most of us also little understanding of what spiritual darkness means.  Of course, some of us have seen movies about demons, evil spirits, or some kind of living, walking dead, but none of this is the kind of real, human, spiritual darkness the Bible means.   When the Bible speaks of a people ‘walking in darkness’, or of ‘light shining into darkness’, the darkness the Bible means is not always visible or noticeable until somebody turns on the light.  This is what is so dark about any spiritual form of darkness.  The ‘darkness’ isn’t realized because it is dark, but it’s realized because there is light. 

This is why Jesus said, ‘don’t hide your light under a basket’, but ‘let it shine out before everyone’.  The kind of light that makes a difference isn’t the ‘light that is within us’ but it’s the light that shines, radiates, and projects out from us into the world.   

To quote a great preacher: ‘Light is only important if it is taken to the darknessThe place to shine your light and show your light and share your light is not inside the church, but outside the church.  Now we should come to church to recharge our batteries but God didn’t call us to be a light in the light, but a light in the dark. If you are living in darkness you need to get to the light. But if you are living in light, you need to get to the darkness and shine your light’ (James Merritt).  I’ll certainly say ‘Amen ‘ to all this. 

So, how can we summarize Jesus’ introduction to Christian discipleship In short, we are blessed to be a blessing.  When we come to understand that are blessed by God’s presence and promisewe in turn become God’s presence and must convey God’s promise of life and love in the world, both through our words and in deeds.  We are blessed to be salt in a decaying world and light in a dark world.  This is the kind of ‘righteousness’ that brings ‘praise’ to God in heaven, and brings ‘heaven’ down to earth where we live.  It’s the kind of righteousness that makes life feel blessed.  Amen.