“A Backwards Sermon” Matthew 5:1-16
Rev. Sean Weston
Lyonsville Congregational UCC, Indian Head Park IL
January 27, 2019
Hear these words of blessing from the gospel of business-as-usual:
Blessed are the rich, in things and in self-assurance
Blessed are those untouched by loss.
Blessed are the powerful.
Blessed are those who are “realistic” about righteousness, compromising at every turn.
Blessed are those who demand and exact an eye for an eye.
Blessed are the crafty and opportunistic.
Blessed are those bold enough to make war.
Blessed are those who receive many accolades for doing good things. Blessed are those who are widely praised and adored for following Jesus.
But woe to the poor in spirit, for they will be left behind in a dog-eat-dog world.
Woe to those who mourn, for they shall lose friends and be told to get over it.
Woe to the meek, for they will get nothing.
Woe to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be unsatisfied while those who don’t care about what’s right win.
Woe to the merciful, for they will be taken advantage of.
Woe to the pure in heart, for the world is too messed up for them to handle.
Woe to the peacemakers, for the human appetite for war never ends.
Woe to those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for they will be silenced and imprisoned and even killed.
Woe to you when people come after you for following Jesus, for you will lose everything you have.
Maybe these words of blessing, sounded funny to you.  Maybe they sounded true to you, whether you like it or not. After all, that’s business as usual.
But as you’ve already heard, Jesus gave a very different set of blessings. Sitting on a mountain, facing a crowd of people, he spoke words of blessing that take the gospel of business-as-usual and turn it upside down. He says that God’s world doesn’t actually work the way the world around us it seems to work. Instead, in God’s world, those who are truly blessed are the gentle, the merciful, the peacemakers, and the poor – in spirit and in possessions. I know that doesn’t seem true. It seems like Jesus stood up and gave a backwards sermon.
That’s why I began with words from the gospel of business-as-usual. In order to hear Jesus’ words of blessing and get some sense of what to do about it, we need to know what the other options are. And one option – maybe the most popular option – is to look at the world as it is and accept the world as it is. Like it? Not necessarily. Complain about it? All the time. But allow ourselves to believe there might be something more, something different, something better? We’re smarter than that. We’re stuck with the world we’ve got and might as well admit it.
I bet the people who gathered to hear Jesus preach and teach that day felt a similar way. After all they had been stuck with the world for quite some time. They were not the rich and powerful. But they showed up to hear Jesus for some reason. They took the time out of their busy lives to hear a teacher, a rabbi, sit on a mountain and preach a backwards sermon. They came for some reason.
And you, too, are here for some reason. We are here for some reason. All of us are far better off than those who gathered to hear Jesus preach that day. Even so, you can’t be human without being poor in spirit at some point. You can’t be human without mourning, without hungering and thirsting for the world to be set right. And so I imagine that the reasons people gathered then aren’t too different from the reason people gather now to hear the gospel, to hear sermons that might so often seem backwards.
Hope that maybe we aren’t just stuck with the world we’ve got.
Hope that there might be another way, another option.
Hope that somehow God is doing something in the world, something that
blesses those who are least and last and lost, something
Hope that what seems backwards is somehow true, and what seems true is
Hope may seem so ridiculous in this time of government shutdowns. Hope may seem ridiculous in this time when those who have always had the hardest go of it in this nation continue to be oppressed, hope may seem ridiculous in this time of empty pews and difficult budgets, but it is precisely in times like these that hope is needed the most.
And so, looking out on the faces of people who needed hope, Jesus offered words of blessing. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, those who thirst for righteousness. The greek word translated as blessed, makarios, can also be translated happy. Either way, it’s not about something in the future. It’s about right now. There is hope and blessing and maybe even happiness right now, and maybe, just maybe, another world is possible. Now.
How could that be?
Living a faithful and full life brings far more blessing than anything business-as-usual could offer. Standing for what you believe is right brings a blessing – pride in oneself, assurance that you are a person of integrity. Even times of poor spirits and mourning bring blessings, though they aren’t often recognized until later. I have experienced countless times in my own life and heard from so many people who had a sense of calm in incredibly difficult times that seemed to come both from inside themselves and outside themselves. I’ve heard people talk about going lower and lower in despair, until they realized they were in the presence of God and there was no lower they could go. This is what the early church leader Paul called “the peace of God which surpasses all understanding,” a peace that “will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
This is not an attempt to wrap things up in a nice little bow. Jesus knew and I know that there is profound tragedy in the world, that business-as-usual takes lives. After all, just a few chapters before in Matthew is the story of the Slaughter of the Innocents, when King Herod wanted to kill the baby Jesus so badly that he had every child under two killed in Bethlehem. Matthew itself was written after Rome came in and destroyed the temple in response to Jewish uprising. Today there are countless people in horrible situations who do not feel hope. Yes, the vast majority of people even in those situations get up every single day to face life, to find joy even in sorrow, to give and receive love even when surrounded by hatred. In such a harsh world, I believe that’s evidence of blessing itself.
I think that’s why Jesus follows up these blessings with words about salt and light to his followers. Like salt, bring out the best in the world. Like light, shine in the dark places. Jesus expects his followers who aren’t in the grips of despair and difficulty to do something to bring God’s blessings to others. To let our light shine. It’s not enough to simply say “blessed are the poor in spirit.” Those of us who are doing a bit better must also extend God’s blessings to the poor in spirit.
There are so many people who followed Jesus in this way, shining light in
the darkness. Just this past Monday of course was Martin Luther King, Jr. day.
I think also of Dorothy Day, who co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement that provides aid to poor people while challenging a society that allows poverty in the first place.
Both were arrested countless times. I also think of Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian woman who led a mass woman’s movement for peace in Liberia, challenging the power structure with bravery and grace.
We ordinary people don’t have to live lives like that, but it’s good to have people to look up to. Because at a certain point in life we realize the gospel of business-as-usual is backwards and we need something different. Christine Chakoian, a leading Presbyterian pastor with deep roots in the Chicago area, speaks of this in words that deserve being shared directly: “For many of us who follow the road our culture sets out for us, the initial way may look very appealing….Then somewhere down the way, the culture’s promises turn out to be erratic, and there are traps and dead ends that we did not expect. We hurl ourselves at work, yet we find ourselves spending more and more time there at the expense of our relationships, with no guarantee of success. We pursue every medical test available, yet sooner or later our bodies fail us. We chase after power, but then find out that we always have to defend it. We aspire to popularity, but then can never say anything controversial, lest someone dislike us.
“The path that Jesus offers may not initially look as appealing, but the farther down the road of faith one travels, the more truth one finds. We discover that humility, unlike power, needs no defense. We realize righteousness – doing the right thing – is its own reward. We find that a pure heart is much easier to live with than one filled with jealousy, resentment, or cynicism. Step by step, we learn that following Jesus – even if we are persecuted for it – leads to a joy that nothing can take away.”
What blessings might God be giving you now? Us now? Today?
How will you offer others God’s blessings this week? How will you let your
It begins today, with you and me and us. It begins if we dare to believe that Jesus had it right and our culture has it wrong, if we dare to believe that there is Hope, and that Hope makes all the difference.
 Matthew Myer Boulton. “Matthew 5:1-12 Pastoral Perspective.” Edited by E. Elizabeth Johnson. In Feasting on the Gospels — Matthew, edited by Cynthia Jarvis, E-Book. Vol. 1. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013.
 Liu, Gerald C. “Commentary on Matthew 5:1-20.” Working Preacher. Accessed January 24, 2019. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3861
 Chakoian, Christine. “Matthew 5:1-12 Homiletical Perspective.” Edited by E. Elizabeth Johnson. In Feasting on the Gospels — Matthew, edited by Cynthia Jarvis, E-Book. Vol. 1. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013.