I was invited to be the speaker at the Reformation Festival at St. Dysmas Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation behind the walls of the South Dakota State Penitentiary. It's a place where your vision of what the Body of Christ looks like will be exploded. And it's a place I regard as the highest honor to preach at. Today's sermon for a room full of incarcerated believers, seekers, and sinners, is based on the All Saints Sunday gospel reading in Matthew 5:12 — the Beatitudes, from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount.
Today’s gospel reading comes from a string of chapters in Matthew’s gospel that we call the Sermon on the Mount. It’s an account of what Jesus taught to the people who followed him one day at the top of a hill. We call the section we just heard The Beatitudes.
Speaking as an old sinner of long standing, I have to say that the Beatitudes are ridiculous. If Jesus thinks I’m gonna buy what he’s selling here, he’s wrong. It’s just not the way the world works. It’s a pitiful evangelism scheme, and it’s no way to get your fellow inmates out of their cells on a Thursday evening to make their trek up all those stairs to this prison chapel. Any smart person is going to turn away. No one wants to be poor inspirit. Who willingly asks to lose a loved one and grieve or mourn? Being reviled and persecuted? Fuggedaboudit. But these Beatitudes are just the beginning of the trouble in the Sermon on the Mount. Before Jesus is done with his work in this gospel, he’ll have us hoping to receive every single thing in this list of blessings.
The real problem, though, isn’t the list. It’s the person hearing Jesus’ words: me. Our rejection of what Jesus is up to has been the human story since the Garden of Eden when our first parents spurned God’s limits on them, mistrusting his word, and eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The problem was present for their son Cain who regarded his offering to God as better than the one God liked that was given by Abel, whom Cain murdered. It’s right there in Jacob’s grabbing his twin brother’s heel whilst being born and cheating his way through life. It’s there in King David’s demand that the bathing Bathsheba be brought to his quarters. It’s right in the middle of Jesus’ disciples when James and John argued about who’s the greatest, when Peter denied his Lord, and when Judas sold Jesus down the pike for thirty pieces of silver. Every single one of them operated on the principle that their own way was the best way.
What’s God going to do with us? He simply can’t let us be our own gods. Although God is a loving God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, God demands that our roles be clearly defined and strictly limited – at least on our part. God will be God, and we will be God’s people, and not the other way around. And yet we still want the whole relationship with God, the world, and our neighbors to be about us: our goodness, our, righteousness, our performance, our actions, our religion.
Here’s what Jesus does with it in the Sermon on the Mount: He starts by saying, “Lemme tell you the things that will make you blessed, happy, whole, full of peace, and joy and hope.” It’s an unlikely list. But it’s like he knows that we won’t have truck with any of it, so he turns things around with a bit of ethics that we’ll for sure go for. He talks justice. I can handle that. I keep good track of all rights and wrongs, especially when they concern me. Adultery? I’m married and I’m keeping my pants zipped and my eyes focused on the one I love. Retaliation? Well, you inmates know how that works. It might’ve been a problem in the past, right? But you’re good now. At least your intentions are aimed right. And loving others? We’re right there with Jesus, especially if your loved ones still want to be in contact with you.
We like that business. It’s a hidden, arbitrary God who insists on his own way, on choosing the better offerings, on judging us that we don’t like. So we think, “don’t just leave me be, God. Don’t hide behind your veil without revealing your plans for me. Just give me something to do.” But be careful what you ask of the Lord. Contrary to what lots of pious people say, God will always give you more than you can handle.
When Jesus talks about anger in the Sermon on the Mount, he says, “You’ve heard it said, ‘You shall not murder.’ But I say it’s bigger than that: One tiny bit of anger is equal to any murder in the first degree.” When Jesus reminds us of the command no to commit adultery, he says it’s more than about which body parts rub against each other and with whom. He says that lustful thoughts are just as bad, and you should cut off the body parts tempting you (church legends say that St. Origen obeyed Jesus and castrated himself to prevent those thoughts). Jesus recounts the old adage “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” but he won’t stand for justice like that. He tells us to turn the other cheek and give your cloak when someone asks for your coat. Worst of all, he tells us loving our loved ones isn’t enough. We need to love our enemies, too.
Every step of the way in this gospel, Jesus pushes our buttons. He tells parables that don’t spare us. He makes demands beyond what we can do. Finally in chapter 19, the disciples have had it. And they ask, “Jesus Christ [literally], who can do this?” But they’ve forgotten Jesus first sermon in the gospel where he announces “I have come to fulfill all righteousness. You can’t git ‘er done, but I can.”
As God’s only-begotten Son, Jesus knows what he’s come for. And he knows how helpless our case is. If you want to spin your wheels trying to gain traction against the world bearing down on you, he’s okay with that. But he knows how it’ll end up.
|That's my 1972 Vega. The red one. Sadly, 40 years later it sits rusting behind the windbreak in a pasture at my grandparents' ranch.|
Imagine my friend Neil’s SUV four-wheel drive with the removable hard top. He’d take us out for a spin on Forest Service roads back in the late 1970s when we worked at Bible camp in the Black Hills. Then imagine my very special 1972 red Chevy Vega with a three-speed stick, aluminum engine, and about two inches of clearance. If I’d taken that cheap little car out on those trails I would have been toast. The axle or the oil pan or the u-joint or something else a non-gearhead like me knows nothing about would have gotten hung up on a boulder. And there I’d be, stuck on some Forest Service road until the cows come home. If I’d wanted to try that, Neil would have said, “Go ahead. See how far you get. If you don’t want to tool around in my truck with me driving, that’s fine by me.”
Back in 1518, Martin Luther understood what it is to get hung up, to get stranded on our own desires and plans, and, more important, why God relishes it. He said, “Unless we completely despair of ourselves, we cannot merit the grace of Christ.” What he meant was, “As long as we’re stuck on ourselves and on our potential, we’ll have no need of what Jesus has to give us. And that’s what our Lord is up to in the Beatitudes. He’s pointing to the places in our lives where we’ve lost power, bottomed out, and encountered the end of our rope. They’re the places where our desire to be limitless and in control comes to naught, and we find that we’re severely limited and have no control.
When we get to that point, then Jesus can do what he’s come to do for you: Be the righteous one for you, offering himself on your behalf. Imagine you’re on trial (not something difficult for anyone wearing tan inmate scrubs in this room). God is at the judge’s bench, and the prosecuting attorney is ripping you apart: “You’ve done wrong. You haven’t done enough. You’re an out-and-out sinner.” But you’ve got the best possible person at your defense: Spiritu Sanctu, Esquire, Attorney-at-Gospel. And your lawyer's counsel is that when you stand up to deliver your plea, plead guilty. But don’t stop there. Look the judge in the eye and pin your sin on Jesus, the divine judge’s son. You see, Jesus knows you can’t do it, so he trades places with you and pits himself against God’s righteous demands.
Now when we look at these Beatitudes, we have to say there’s nothing especially noble or saving about grief or persecution in and of themselves. And God certainly doesn’t want to inflict that on anyone. But when you land in these places, then you can see. You are already blessed but have never been able to see while spending the energy on maintaining the illusion of control or the façade of goodness. But in these moments when all else is stripped away, then we can turn and spot what God’s doing.
When things are right and good, God has been afoot, spinning a swift dance step around you, patiently waiting to take you out on the floor. And when things go bad, as they often do – when you lose your freedom, when you lose your good name, when you lose all choices, when you lose a life on the outside, for instance – the blinders come off. Then you can see what Paul in Ephesians declares: Christ, God’s Son, has given you his inheritance, his good name, his freedom, his own life. Then he promises one more thing – to take you through all this loss, all this mess, all the grief and persecution and death to the other side where you find yourself made new.
If that’s what happens with the Beatitudes, then, in spite of what a lousy church marketing plan they are, every time we find ourselves in those places, we will count ourselves blessed and bid Jesus to just give us more of the loss so we can have the everything he’s ready to give. Amen.