Today is the last Sunday in the six-part sermon series on the Beatitudes at St. Thomas Church.
Remember that Jesus is addressing a diverse crowd, announcing the kingdom of God, and turning conventional wisdom upside down.
Jesus says people who are poor in spirit, who mourn, who are meek, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who are honest about their own failings (what he calls pure in heart), and who are persecuted and reviled — these people — are blessed.
They are in the kingdom of God now, they are in intimate relationship with God now. It may not sound like it, but Jesus is trying to get the crowd (and us) to hear something that has always been true.
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Today is also “Bible Sunday,” if you will, in the Episcopal Church with the lovely collect that urges us to “hear … read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Scriptures, which God has “caused to be written for our learning” (BCP 236).
What the Scriptures say about salvation is that it is to be found in intimate relationship with the God who created us, not in the things we humans desire out of a false sense of need or out of envy of others.
Professor John Dally at Bexley Seabury in Chicago lays out a brilliant summary of the biblical story. He says, in part, “salvation is knowing where you fit in the story.”
The biblical story is organized into four parts: the creation of the world, the creation of Israel, the creation of the Church, and the end of the world.
The story begins in perfection, moves through imperfection, and ends in perfection.
Creation of the World
The creation of the world is characterized by intimacy, purpose, and naming.
The Lord God formed human beings and breathed life into us, invited us to name every other living creature, and walked in the garden with us at the time of the evening breeze (Gen. 3:8).
However, sin enters the story when Adam and Eve eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We were under the illusion of need, the illusion that the garden and the intimacy and the purpose were not enough.
Humankind is “cursed” by having to leave the garden and earn the knowledge that we stole.
Creation of Israel
Following the catastrophe of the Exile into Babylon, the people of Israel looked back over their history and came to understand their origins in the Exodus from Egypt.
During the Exodus, God freed the Hebrews from slavery and made them a chosen people in special relationship with him. God gave them the Law to guide them in that relationship.
Over time, the people of Israel came to desire a kingdom and anointed first Saul, then David, then Solomon as their kings.
The Temple — built eventually by King Solomon — grew in importance as evidence of God’s presence and as the focus of religious practice.
The simple relationship of covenant with God was not enough. Israel labored under the illusion of need and created a Kingdom and a Temple.
Creation of the Church
Jesus came in opposition to both the Temple and the Kingdom, and the catastrophe of the Cross revealed the depth of their violence.
Jesus spoke of living in direct relationship with God, praying in secret (intimacy with God), and giving away the knowledge that the kingdom of God is at hand.
The Temple fails to bring knowledge of God, and its hierarchy exploits the poor. Likewise, the Kingdom of the world (in Jesus’ time, the Roman Empire) rules through military might and exploitative power.
As the Church becomes linked with the Roman Empire under Constantine, Temple and Kingdom become one. The Church continues to obscure the believer’s direct relationship with God and to exploit the poor.
End of the World
The story begins in a garden, but it ends in a city.
The Kingdom and the Temple (which were never God’s idea) are taken up into “the holy city, the new Jerusalem,” but John says that “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb” (Rev. 21:22).
In the center of the city are the river and the tree of life, just like in the garden … only this time, “the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”
The perfect creation of the Garden is restored to perfection in the City, and humans are reconciled to God.
Things like kings and rulers, a Temple adorned with stones, even Christendom and the towering structures of economic and political power, those will all be thrown down eventually in favor of the new Jerusalem, the heavenly city.
As our final hymn says,
Mortal pride and earthly glory,
sword and crown betray our trust;
though with care and toil we build them,
tower and temple fall to dust.
But until they do fall to dust, “the powers that be” – both political and religious – will not be able to comprehend the self-giving love that Jesus invites us to practice, and we who practice it will get into all kinds of trouble with Tower and Temple both when we do.
That is when the kingdom of God is near, says Jesus.
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Jesus is the lens for reading the Scriptures, suggests Fr. Richard Rohr in his books and his daily meditations.
When the Scriptures represent people acting like Jesus = people get it.
When the Scriptures show people not acting like Jesus = people don’t get it.
The Scriptures are the record of the people of God working out how God has been acting in salvation history.
When Jesus says “Let the children come to me” and the disciples do (Matt. 19) = they get it
When the poet sings of Babylon, “Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against a rock” (Psalm 137) = he doesn’t get it.
When the apostles set apart deacons to care for the Greek-speaking Gentile widows who are neglected (Acts 6) = they get it.
When the priests force the returning exiles from Babylon to divorce their foreign-born wives in order to be “pure” (Nehemiah 13) = they don’t get it.
When the Hebrew people live in intimacy with God who saved them from Egypt, walking in the desert for 40 years as a covenant people (Exodus) = they get it. They grumble about it a lot, but they get it.
When they are in the Land and they want a powerful king like everyone else (even though Samuel warns them he’ll be a tyrant and they’ll hate it) = they don’t get it.
When David the king wants to build God a house, a splendid Temple adorned with jewels (2 Samuel 7) = he doesn’t get it.
When David confesses his sins of committing adultery with Bathsheba and murdering her husband Uriah (2 Samuel 11-12) = he gets it.
When the disciples who’ve been with Jesus for three years are still gawking at the tall buildings and the splendid Temple (in today’s passage from Luke) = they still don’t get it
Jesus tries to help them and the crowd see that when you are hauled before synagogues and judges because you don’t fit in their orderly, successful scheme, that’s when you get it.
That’s when you are on the right side of the story of salvation history, the story that has been unfolding all along.
In fact that’s when you’re blessed, because you’re nearer to the Kingdom of God than ever before.
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Not one of the Beatitudes suggests that political power or religious control is part of knowing God’s near. God’s always been near, but our desire for power and control and our need to prove to others that we’re right means we’ve missed him. We’ve looked right past those who are near him.
Not one of the Beatitudes suggests that words are part of knowing God’s near. Jesus says poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, hunger and thirst, purity of heart, and persecution — these states of being — are the places where God is present.
When you are in those places yourself, when you are grieving and aching over injustice, worn down, sick at heart over your own failings, words don’t help much. Words are often part of the problem, especially when well-meaning religious people like us tell you everything is really all right.
Everything is not all right, but hear this: God is near.
Can you hear that?
Everything is not all right, but God is near.
Even Jesus — the Word of God as John calls him — even the Word of God stopped speaking in order to demonstrate God’s presence. That’s how far God will go in order to carry out his plan of salvation.
Just imagine – the Word who was with God and who spoke over creation is now a newborn baby, speechless and helpless. Just imagine – the Word who was with God and who spoke over creation is now alone, a beaten and broken man, thirsty and suffocating on the cross.
That’s how far God will go in order to carry out his plan of salvation.
We Christians who are fortunate to have plenty are called to empty ourselves, like Jesus, to stop grasping for political power and religious respect, to stop talking about how we’re persecuted or how our plan is right, and instead to follow Jesus, to demonstrate by our presence with people who actually do suffer that God is with them.
Until we go farther – until we listen to people’s needs, until we join them in their cry for justice, until we stop looking for power and respect and risk being reviled and falsely accused ourselves, we don’t get it.
Let those with ears “hear … read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Scriptures and let us join with God in God’s plan for salvation.
Then we can truly sing:
But God’s power
Hour by hour
Is my Temple and my Tower