A sermon by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo.

The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Matthew 5:1-12

February 2, 2014

Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15; I Corinthians 1:18-31

Things are seldom as they appear and truth is not exempt from that observation. We know that when we observe that what should be true is proved to not be true and what should not be true is actually, mysteriously true.

Example:   I spent most of two days this week trying to get to Atlanta for a series of meetings. I did all the right things and from my Midwestern knowledge of snow and ice I assumed that little problem they were having would be short in duration and would things would quickly get back to normal. But the rules governing snow and ice don’t follow the same rules in Atlanta that they do in Kansas City. Jason Edwards, the pastor of Second Baptist in Liberty and I watched as one flight after another mysteriously vanished and the airlines went into convulsions moving passengers from city to city as they tried in vain to keep their agreements with travelers who, like us, wanted to get to Atlanta! On the second day of naïvely trying to get there, it dawned on me there are things worse than getting to where you want to go.

After my day of flying from city to city to city on Purgatory Airlines as I was rerouted on my original non-stop trip, I finally said to the gate agent who was working hard to get me to Atlanta, “Forget it. Just get me home.” Some mountains can’t be moved and getting what you want could actually be the worst thing to happen to you!

This is, of course, an example of counterintuitive thinking. Straight-line thinking is what they teach us in kindergarten and elementary school. Counterintuitive thinking is what we learn in the real-life school of hard knocks.

Counterintuitive thinking is the interpretive key to understanding what Jesus meant in his opening lines of what we call “the sermon on the mount.” Jesus sat the crowds down and began his sermon by speaking counterintuitively about the characteristics of one who is “blessed.” [Some translators throw us a lifeline when they translate the word “blessed,” with “happy,” such “happy are the poor …”]

Counterintuitive truths are a goldmine for parents and pastors and leaders who are in a community with others. This week I asked online for examples of counterintuitive thinking and here’s some of what I heard …

·         In nature, the bigger mammals’ ears are the better they hear. Not true for humans. The older humans get the bigger their ears get and the worse their hearing becomes. That’s why some believe Jesus said, “Blessed are the cheese makers.” I’m not sure peacemakers are happy most of the time.

·         Happy are those who live in Creation to be their Authentic Self(s), for the world will change and they will see miracles.

·         Happy are they who know, as the James Taylor song says, “The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.” I am 67 years old and don’t aspire to be one day younger.

·         Happy are those who are overweight for they can identify with those who are judged by outward appearances. I always felt I could identify with those of different races because I understood being judged by my heaviness.

·         If you want less teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, the worst possible thing you can do is teach abstinence only. That seems absurd. It shouldn’t be the case. It makes no sense.  But that’s what the data shows.

Standing on a hillside overlooking the deep blue Sea of Galilee with the huge crowd that was now following him, Jesus took society’s standards of happiness and turned them upside down. We think more will make us happy. We act as if putting ourselves first will get us what we want. We think in competitive terms, thinking that if we can climb to the top of the heap, it will make us feel significant.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount was his way of saying something radical about the false premises of those assumptions. He came to tell them that what appeared to be the world’s wisdom was the world’s foolishness. He seems to be saying, “Stop it! You’ve got it all wrong! What you thought was down is up. What you have seen as empty is really full. What you thought was lowly is actually the beginning of exaltation. So stop knocking yourselves out for dreams that can never satisfy your deepest craving for meaning and satisfaction. Listen closely for the real wisdom of God that teaches you how to turn things on their head … then give yourselves to it!”[1]

The Beatitudes are Jesus’ way of helping us see the world through new eyes allowing us to live in proper relationship with God. This new way of seeing wasn’t meant just for the lucky or the privileged. Rather, hear Jesus describe those people who are “blessed” in the sermon he preached on a hillside overlooking the sea. Such people he called blessed we might insult as a bunch of losers. They were the poor, the hungry, the grieving, the naïve, and the persecuted. Hardly the model of success that drives so much of our thinking! And yet, there’s something so truthful in his words that we are compelled to learn and absorb the wisdom that Jesus describes.

If a counterintuitive truth is straight-line thinking turned on its head, what happens when you turn a counterintuitive truth back into straight-line thinking? Flip it back over to its origins and what do you get? One of my friends re-wrote the Beatitudes by over-turning the statements of Jesus:

Blessed are the rich, for they shall wield power.

Blessed are the hard-hearted, for they shall seldom mourn.

Blessed are the assertive, for they shall rule the world.

Blessed are the satisfied, for they can sleep late on Sundays.

Blessed are the merciless, for they shall climb to the top.

Blessed are the cunning, for they shall manipulate their way to success.

Blessed are the belligerent, for they shall win.

Blessed are the powerful, for they shall never be persecuted.[2]

The key to understanding this new way of living unlocks a reality based not on our limited, ego-driven way of living. Instead, it’s based on what Jesus meant when he called us “blessed.” In so doing, Jesus upped the ante for both our self-esteem and stripped us bare in how we relate to God.

Henri Nouwen taught at such prestigious universities as Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard. But there came a period in his life when he left teaching and the visible importance it gave to his life as an author and speaker to go teach at the Daybreak community near Toronto. It was a community designed to care for mentally handicapped persons. Upon leaving the prestige of the ivy covered walls, he experienced something of an identity crisis because now he served persons who did not recognize him as a rather important person. They did not know of his many books, nor did they even care much that he was famous.

Nouwen observed, “This experience was and, in many ways, is still the most important experience of my new life, because it forced me to recognize my true identity. These broken, wounded, and completely unpretentious people forced me to let go of my relevant self … the self that can do things, show things, prove things, build things … and forced me to reclaim that unadorned self in which I am completely vulnerable, open to receive and give love regardless of any accomplishments.”

The mystery of that kind wisdom is to recognize the God who is with us and to open up our lives to that kind of loving presence. The upside-down, inside out life is a new orientation to how the processes of our lives are experienced. It is the way to grace. And in finding our way to grace, we can finally come to terms with how things really are, not just as they appear.

[1] David W. Crocker, “When Down is Up, Matthew 5:1-3,” from The Sermon on the Mount, edited by Scott Nash, Smyth and Helwys, Greenville SC, 1992, 48

[2] Bethune, “The Power to Bless,” University Baptist Church, Austin, TX, 1/28/90

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