He Would Love First
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 2, 2020
4th Sunday after Epiphany
Micah 6:1-8; Matthew 5:1-12
By the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ ministry is in full swing. He has called his first disciples and he has trekked throughout Galilee teaching the good news of God’s kingdom breaking in. And he has demonstrated what that looks like by healing every disease and sickness among the people. It’s no wonder that quite a crowd has gathered. Noticing them, Jesus goes up the mountain, much like Moses, and begins speaking. But instead of offering the Ten Commandments, Jesus provides a new teaching—one that invites hearers to move beyond external obedience to the law toward a new way of life guided by love. Essentially, Jesus’ way of being in the world informs the question posed by the prophet Micah, “…And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”[i] To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God, well, it looks a lot like Jesus. So pay attention!
Seated on the mountain side, Jesus begins his “Sermon on the Mount” with the Beatitudes. “Makarios,” the Greek word for beatitude, can be translated happy, fortunate, privileged, favored by God, blessed. But notice the people whom Jesus claims to be blessed: the poor in spirit, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. “Really, Jesus, those are the folks you call blessed?”
If we were asked to come up with a list of people our culture considers blessed, happy, fortunate, privileged, I daresay it would highlight character traits that are very different from meekness, mercy, and poverty. Instead, steeped in the reality of the consumeristic, power-hungry machine that our society has become—the list of beatitudes for our nation in the 21st century might look more like this:
Blessed are those who have more money than God because they don’t have a care in the world; Blessed are those who are not sorry for their behavior because they do not have to ask for forgiveness or make amends; Blessed are the 24/7 news channels with their talking heads for they guide the convictions of the people; Blessed are the mean, hateful ones for they know how to get even; Blessed are the insurance and pharmaceutical companies for they hold the quality of our healthcare in their hands; Blessed are those on Instagram and Twitter who have millions of followers for they have the power to influence the world for good or for ill; Blessed are those who are angry and violent because they use fists and weapons to take care of their problems.
Of course, as Christians we know this list is not right. Yet, in a world that seems to be spinning out of control, who wants to worship a God who blesses the poor and the persecuted? We do! We NEED to worship a God who blesses the least of these because it means that we are all included in God’s wide embrace—come what may! It means God blesses your son who can’t seem to find his place in the world. God blesses your friend who just got a diagnosis that can only be shared in a whisper. God blesses your neighbor who just lost his job and is worried about his future. God blesses you when you sit by your mother’s bedside waiting for her to draw her last breath—waiting for her to enter her eternal home. God blesses! That’s just what God does!
While the Sermon on the Mount has provided inspiration down through the ages, even for people of other faiths, like Gandhi, still most of us have difficulty getting a handle on the Beatitudes. As a result, we tend to pay them little mind. Maybe it’s because we fear what they require of us. Maybe it’s because we do not understand them. To complicate matters, an in-depth study of the beatitudes provides a host of interpretations. In recent years, liberation theologians have adopted them as proof that God prefers the poor over the rich. While there is evidence of God’s love for the poor, the outcast, the downtrodden throughout Scripture, there is also ample examples of God blessing those he loves with abundance, long life, and shalom. And when it comes to how Jesus interacts with the wealthy; it is love of wealth that he repeatedly condemns. Moreover, let us not forget the wealthy women who wrote the checks for Jesus’ ministry. Can you imagine Jesus taking their money and in the same breath, condemning them for it?
It’s so easy to fall into the trap of binary thinking, arguing that something is either this way or it is that way. It is black or it is white. It is the healthy, wealthy, and wise who are blessed, or it is the sick, poor, and foolish. Perhaps the Beatitudes can provide a new lens for us to see that Jesus does not love the down and out more than the up and coming. Jesus does not prefer the poor over the rich. Blessedness, happiness, favor—it’s pure gift—and it is for everyone. Remember the words of the Apostle Paul: Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.[ii]
With God, blessedness is not a reward for righteousness. It is sheer grace. And in the realm of God, even mourning, poverty of spirit, and meekness can reveal an inbreaking of the abundant life. If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, we may listen to a woman who is in constant prayer for a friend who has just entered hospice care. “Blessed are those who mourn.” We may have a clergy friend who yearns for his congregation to nurture new seeds of ministry so they may take root and flourish. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” We may notice the passion in the voice of our Break Bread Together Coordinator when she speaks of the 40 people a day we are currently feeding and the numerous folks who remain on the waiting list. “Blessed are the merciful.” We may give thanks for our Commissioned Ruling Elder who readily sees the good in both people and circumstances and who longs for love to grow in our midst. “Blessed are the pure in heart.”
Recently I preached a sermon entitled WWJBD? What Would John the Baptist Do? The premise of the sermon was that it is often difficult to know just what Jesus would do (harkening back to the WWJD bracelets, of course). When we are in doubt, though, we can always fall back on what John the Baptist would do. And what is that? He would point others to Jesus. This week the topic of WWJD? bracelets came up again in an email from Katharine Phelps. You see, a young 7th grader at Hahira Middle School is battling cancer, and someone is selling bracelets to raise money for her care. Elise Phelps, who has a heart of gold, was the first in line to purchase a pink HWLF bracelet—touted to be the answer to what Jesus would do. And what is that exactly? HWLF? He Would Love First.
What might “loving first” look like for those of us who happen to have adequate food, clothing, shelter, and resources? It might look like humbly listening to those weighed down by the cares of this world and then, if more than listening is required, doing whatever we can to help. It might look like moving out of our comfort zone to put the needs of vulnerable members of society before ours. It might look like taking Christ’s love out into the world in brave, new ways.
In all that he said, in all that he did, Jesus was guided by a heart overflowing with love. He came to breathe new life into the law. He came to show us how to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. And he came to teach us that whether we feel like it or not—we are blessed because we are God’s beloved. May we follow in his footsteps. May we, too, choose to love first. Amen.
[i] Micah 6:8.
[ii] Romans 8:38-39
*Cover Art “View from The Mount of Beatitudes” by Deror Avi via Wikimedia Commons; used by permission;