Thoughts Between Sundays

Some of what crosses my mind between Sundays

Blessed are the Cheesemakers: Sermon for January 30, 2011

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Texts:  Isaiah 61 and Matthew 1:1-12

Matthew 5:1-12

5When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 1

1“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

 


Rev. Julie A. Jensen
FPC Cartersville, GA
January 30, 2011

“Blessed are the Cheesemakers”

 The 1979 classic movie “The Life of Brian” is a completely irreverent look at what the ministry of Jesus could have been like, if Jesus were not Jesus, but rather his next door neighbor, Brian.  Written, acted and produced by the British comedy troupe Monty Python, it is certainly in the category of “Not for Children” but is where today’s sermon title comes from.  One of the few glimpses we have of Jesus in the movie comes at the beginning during the Sermon on the Mount.  We see Jesus standing on the hillside, preaching what we may know as his most famous sermon ever.  This is the Jesus we know from all the famous paintings and pictures, complete with white robe and beard.  And then, waaaay down the mountain, are Brian, his mother Mandy, and a group of onlookers.  Jesus’ voice is dim and distant – there were no microphones and most of the people were talking over the sermon.  Mandy, in fact, declares that she would rather go to the stoning.  Several spectators are arguing about the size of someone’s nose – an argument that eventually comes to blows.  It’s the miracle of the day that anyone can hear what Jesus is saying at all.  And then, we hear the lines from which today’s sermon title comes.  Something Jesus says breaks though the noise of the crowd, but this group is not sure they hear the right thing.  One spectator asks what he said, and the other replies: “Blessed are the cheesemakers”. A woman named Mrs. Gregory asks, “Aha, what’s so special about the cheesemakers?”, to which her husband answers, “Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.”  The scene continues, (past the point we could show it today – -there is some cursing) and once again the crowd is confused by what Jesus says – “Blessed are the Greek?  Why them?….Oh….the meek….”

            It seems we may have been mishearing this famous passage since Jesus first spoke the words “blessed are those…”  It also seems we may have been asking the same question Mrs. Gregory asked – -well, what’s so special about the cheesemakers, anyway?   I have to admit, the makers of Tillamook Cheese from Tillamook County Oregon make some of my favorites, so I think they are pretty special.  And if you are from Wisconsin, and are a football fan, you may even go so far as to wear cheese shaped hats on your head during football games.  But, I don’t think Jesus was talking about football fans.  Nor was he talking about manufacturers of dairy products, specifically.  Truth be told, even if those who were gathered, all the way down the mountain, had been paying attention and heard what Jesus said, they still may have had the same question – what’s so special about them?  Why are you blessing the meek….the poor in spirit….those who mourn….  Why is Jesus talking about them at all?

             Partly because Jesus has already encountered them in his ministry.  Today we are in the 5th chapter of Matthew, still near the beginning of the Gospel, and already so much has happened.  After his baptism, Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days and was tempted by the devil.  He emerged and began his ministry in Galilee.  The description of that first ministry, in Matthew chapter 4 is short.  We heard the first part of the story last week when Ted told us about the calling of the first disciples.  Jesus called them to become fishers of people, and so off they went.  Their early ministry and work is summed up in 2 verses of chapter 4 – 23 and 24:  23 Jesus* went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news* of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. 24So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them.  As Jesus was doing this work and curing the afflicted something else was happening – the great crowds were beginning to follow him.

            Jesus saw the crowds, and went to the mountain.  His ministry has taken off exponentially, and his reputation as a healer has spread rapidly.  He is performing miracles at every turn, and the crowd follows him.  He is doing some teaching, but one wonders if that is what people were noticing about him.  Jesus came to teach, and that was getting lost in and among all the other activities that surrounded him.  He came to teach and the crowds were following him for the wrong reasons. As commenter Scott Hoezee puts it, “It is as though the very crowds are what drove him into this private teaching session with the disciples.  It is as though Jesus looks around and him, saw that things were taking off quickly in the direction of a “successful” career in the worldly sense of the term, and so he quickly backs off, retreats to a less accessible place, and says to his disciples, ‘we need to slow down long enough for me to tell you the real shape of what my kingdom is.’”  Jesus really does not mind slowing down the breakneck pace which his ministry has taken to simply talk to those who surround him.[1] 

            The people who heard the conversation that day were those gathered near him – disciples and followers.  Jesus addresses a community that is trying to learn who he is and what he is about.  He addresses a community that is searching for how they are to be, if they are to follow him.  He addresses a community to whom he is promising to bring in the kingdom of God.  And in recording his words, Matthew makes us eavesdroppers on the conversation.  We hear more than those hurling insults about big noses, or thinking they heard Jesus bless cheesemakers.  Actually, in reading the words of this most famous of sermons, we are included in the audience, even though it is almost 2000 years later.  And in-between the time of the original audience and us, was the Matthean community.  Matthew had a worldview that is a little different than ours, but it makes all the difference in how we hear the beatitudes.  For Matthew, there are only 2 times in history.  The first is the present evil era that God will soon end, and the coming realm when all things will take place according to God’s purposes of love and justice.  The way God moves us from the old to the new is through the coming of Jesus Christ –an apocalypse that moves us through history.[2]  As Jesus proclaims “blessed are those who….” What he is implying is not a state of happiness, but a state of inclusion in the coming realm and kingdom of God.

            This is an important thing for us to wrap our heads around.  The Beatitudes are not a to-do list.  They are not a list of entrance requirements for the kingdom of heaven, but rather, eschatological blessings.  [3]They are not written in the imperative – not as commands – but rather in the indicative – showing something that already exists.  These words are a comfort then to those who wonder if they are included in God’s kingdom.  The people who are often not valued in our society and in the secular culture hear that there is a place for them – be they cheesemakers or those trying to follow the teachings of Jesus.  Not only are they included, but they are embraced, welcomed, and included in this kingdom.  What would that sound like?

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Welcomed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Embraced are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Included are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Welcomed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Included are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Embraced are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Welcomed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Included are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Embraced 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.”

            The words of Jesus echo the promises made by God in the 61st chapter of Isaiah, a chapter which Jesus would have studied growing up.  Like any good preacher, he has done his homework, and the beatitudes are a direct echo and reflection of the words from Isaiah.  In the first verses of our reading from Isaiah, we hear of one who is coming to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit..blessed are those who mourn…”  Isaiah continues to promise to comfort those who mourn in the second verse, and then promises to “provide for those who mourn in Zion, to give them garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.”  “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”  Isaiah 61 is a reflection of Jesus’ ministry, and the beatitudes are the way Jesus expands on that vision of his ministry.

             We can see the beatitudes as a call for us to think about who we are when we hear them. Are we the ones who need to hear “welcome and included and embraced and blessed” are those as a reminder to welcome and include and embrace or do we instead hear them as a reminder that there is indeed a place for us in the kingdom?

            Have you ever had the experience of rereading a familiar passage of scripture and seeing a word that pops out or speaks to you differently than the last time you studied the same passage?  Every time I come back to these words of Jesus, I settle on a different verse or a different word.   Mourn.  Peacemakers.  Meek.  Persecuted.  Pure in heart.  Depending on the state of the world, the state of my life, the state of my heart, the blessed-are-they’s ring differently in my ears.  Has that ever been the case with you?  I also seem to be coming back to the question asked by Mrs. Gregory from the Monty Python clip – “what’s so special about them?”  Maybe it is because it is January and we have just passed Martin Luther King Day, and conversations about civil rights are in the air, or because I have friends and colleagues working on varied justice issues in and among the church at various levels that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness come to mind. Maybe it is because of the political rhetoric or my weariness of living in a culture of fear and violence and war that highlights the peacemakers. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” calls to mind those who stand up for their beliefs that run counter to those they encounter everyday.  There are people who spend their lives, personally and professionally advocating for those who have no voice.  Representing children and victims in our court systems.  Trying to change systems that continue to impoverish the poor and find solutions for issues such as hunger and poverty.  They advocate for those we disagree with, often violently.  Their work is not glamorous.  It is not pretty.  Often it puts them in contact with people we might cross the street to avoid.  And yet, they long for the day when their hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled.  The peacemakers are countercultural to the world in which we live.  Most of my lifetime has been spent with our country at war with another.  Almost the last 1/3 of it, in fact.  War is a part of our vocabulary, our everyday news cycle.  Seeing soldiers in the grocery stores is not a rare occurrence, and we have members of our congregation who serve in the military, or have loved ones who serve.  Like it or not, we are not a culture of peace.  And yet, Jesus calls out to us, blessed are the peacemakers.  Those who work behind the scenes to promote living in ways that will end the need for code orange threat levels and armed soldiers in train stations – -which is what I used to see anytime I went to Penn Station in New York.  There are those who go against what we consider normal to find a better way, who long for that day when the other words from Isaiah ring true and swords are turned into plowshares and lions lie down with lambs.  And those who are persecuted – those who are persecuted for any number of reasons.  My mind goes to those who are bullied in schools, to those who are called out because they want things that not what the world wants.  My heart aches for those who stand up for what they believe and are reviled for it.

            This text speaks to us today in two ways – as a call for inclusion and as a reminder to each of us.  A call for inclusion first – -that those we may not see as “worthy” or someone we consider eligible to be in the kingdom of heaven, are in fact exactly the kind of people Jesus calls us to embrace and welcome with open arms.  Not only with words and theory, but with action.  Perhaps looking at the second statement in each of the beatitudes is a way to consider going about living in to the spirit of the beatitudes.  Comforting those who mourn – -all those who mourn.  Calling those who oppose us Children of God.  Offering mercy.  Working to feed and quench the thirst of those who hunger for righteousness.

            The second way God speaks to us through God’s word today is as a reminder to each of us that there is a place for us in God’s kingdom.  A place where we will be welcomed and embraced and included.  Jesus is reminding his disciples, those gathered on the mountaintop, those who heard Matthew when it was spread by oral tradition, and us today that his ministry was not one of simply the sick and casting out demons.  It was one of touching the untouchables, dining with the least likely to receive an invitation, reaching out to the forgotten and the ignored.  Blessed are they…. And from this, his first sermon, all the way to his last act on the cross, Jesus made it clear that there is a place for each of us.  At the font, at the table, in the kingdom, and in his salvation.  He did not distinguish, but rather said “all who believe in me.” 

            Maybe you are a cheesemaker.  Maybe you are a Green Bay Fan, or a Steelers fan.  Maybe you are trying to figure out how to comfort those who mourn, or being comforted yourself.  When Jesus said “blessed…” he was speaking not only to each of us, but to any and all who are on the edges, who in this day and age live lives that may feel counter to what our culture expects.  He was speaking to those who were on the edge of the crowd, to those who heard his words at a distance.  The hope of the words of Christ this day is that there is a place for each of us in the Kingdom of God.  In this kingdom where God makes things new, where all things take pace according to God’s love and justice.  When Jesus says “Blessed,” he is speaking to you.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.     


[1]  (Hoezee 2011) — Center for Excellence in Preaching

[2]  (Allen 2010) — Feasting on the Word, Year A Volume 1

[3] (Driel 2010). — Feasting on the Word, year A, Volume 1 — complete cite in manuscript.

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