February 3, 2002
The Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany
Rev. Margaret B. Gunness
Gospel reading from the Gospel of Matthew is the well known and much loved
Sermon on the Mount. It's easy to imagine the scene: Crowds of people
have gathered around Jesus, eager to hear his words. They settle down,
and he begins to speak to them about the characteristics-the qualities
and the actions-that bring joy to the heart of God and so receive
God's blessing. A good story it is, drawing a wonderful picture in our
minds. Yet the words of the story have become so familiar to most of us
that in some ways they have lost the power of their meaning. "Blessed
are they who mourn, who hunger and thirst, who are poor in spirit."
Can we still hear what these words are really saying? Can we
identify with them and realize that Jesus is speaking them still--to us--today?
I wonder. So this morning, I'd like to approach them differently to see
if we can hear them and grasp them anew, as words that are still being
spoken today--to you and to me.
As I tried
this last week while I was preparing for today, I was reminded of an event
that occured very early on in my ministry. I was working in a church in
Cambridge, MA. then. It was during the years that the so-called "youth
culture" was making a name for itself green and orange hair,
lots of pot smoking, loud music, sing-ins & sit-ins. Our church was
right across the street from the Cambridge Common, a big park that was
the gathering place of choice for some several hundred youthful "hippies"
of the day. The rector and vestry--exhibiting no small amount of courage-decided
to extend a very particular type of ministry
to these young people. "Two things," they said. "We will
run a large-volume electrical cord from our parish hall building across
the street to the park for you to plug in to your amplifiers, and you
may use both of the restrooms of the main parish hall floor." Well,
let it be said that many people in the congregation disagreed strongly
with the Vestry decision, but it held, nonetheless.
later, when this epoch was well passed, I was interim rector in that same
parish, and I had a young seminarian working with me for a year. At the
end of that year, on his last Sunday with us, he climbed up into the pulpit
for his final, farewell sermon, and said he wanted to begin with a story,
a confession. "Do you remember those trying days of the so-called
Youth Revolution?" Most of the congregation vigorously nodded "Yes."
He then went on to describe it in some detail. But then he said, "You
know, I was one of those nearly wrecked lives. My hair was long &
dirty; my clothes were a mess; my mind was a mess. But you let me come
here to wash up. Your people were nice to me. I even snuck into the back
row here some Sunday mornings, and you shared your bread and your wine
and your greetings of peace with me." Then he paused for a minute.
"Today, I want to say, thank you."
are the poor in spirit...Blessed are the merciful... Blessed
are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake...for
your reward is great in Heaven.
it is that the Church never stop acting like the church, that it never
stop being the church, the presence of Christ in the world.
I want you
to go on a journey of imagination with me for a while this morning.
Let's say that you and someone you choose-a neighbor, a friend, a
member of your family. Let's say that the two of you go out for an evening
walk together. It's a beautiful time of year, and the talk between you
flows easily, with long, comfortable silences in between. But as you go
along, you suddenly realize that someone else has joined you. So you turn
and you see that it is Jesus. Somehow it seems natural and easy, so you
continue on, the three of you now, together. For a long time no one speaks.
Jesus seems quiet and thoughtful. But then, after a while, softly, reflectively,
he begins to speak, almost as if to himself, yet knowing that
you are there to listen.
he says, "sometimes my people seem to be so dispirited. It's as if
worn out and threadbare." He becomes quiet and thoughtful for a while.
Then he says to you, "But I want so desperately for them to know
that the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs. Why, they only need to recognize
it! How I hope that they will see this and then prepare to enter into
it." And then he lapses into silence, and the three of you continue
to walk along together.
if musing to himself, he begins to speak again. "Sometimes my people
mourn and are bowed down with grief. How I wish they could realize that
I will comfort them and give them the strength they need to endure."
And slowly a tender, wistful smile appears, first just in his eyes before
it touches his lips ever so lightly.
shakes his head and continues. "And the dear meek ones, so self-effacing.
It's almost as if they're half trying to make themselves invisible, simply
because they don't quite know how to handle the depth of their caring.
Little do they realize that it's into the hands of just such folks as
all of them are, that I feel I can entrust the entire world itself."
What a wonderful
thing to hear! You and your walking companion look at each other and smile.
And then the three of you continue on for a while in silence. Then
again Jesus begins to speak in a musing, reflective voice, almost as if
to himself. "Those
who yearn so desperately for righteousness," he says, "why,
they will be filled with righteousness, right up to the very brim, and
all those whose lives they touch as well!
everyone who is merciful towards others, why they, themselves, will receive
mercy!" And he begins to get more and more excited about his vision,
and he starts talking faster and walking faster, and you have to hurry
to keep up with him. "And
the pure in heart," he says, "why, they will see God! And
the peacemakers will be called the children of God! And
anyoneeveryone-who has suffered for the sake of what they know to
be right and good and true, why they will be given nothing less than the
Kingdom of Heaven!"
suddenly he stops talking and he stops walking-and he turns and looks
straight into your eyes, first one of you, then the other. "Oh my
people," he says, "Oh my people, please help me make it happen,
will you? You see, I need you. I need what you can do." Then slowly,
he begins to walk toward you. Slowly he becomes one with you. And you
can't see him standing there anymore. You can only see him in the love
in each other's eyes.
has the power to transform us and to give to us a strength we've never
had before. And a strange thing about such love is that the more you give
it away, the more you pour it out for others, the more filled with it
you yourselves become.
you, or you, just might be the only experience of Christ's love that someone
will ever have. Be alert to that possibility. Be alert to the Spirit of
Christ that dwells within you, yearning to be known. And help each other
along the way. Because that's what the church is all about. That's what
Christian community is all about. This old world is such a wide and wonderful
place, and our work in it has only just begun.
2002 St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he
sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught
them, saying: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom
of heaven. "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. "Blessed
are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. "Blessed are those who
hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. "Blessed
are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. "Blessed are the pure in
heart, for they will see God. "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will
be called children of God. "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness'
sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. "Blessed are you when people
revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely
on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven,
for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.