Sermon delivered by David Burrow January 30, 2011 - First Congregational Church, Algona, Iowa
Click here for an audio version of this sermon. (17.2MB - .mp3)
‘With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with tens of thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
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.
Well, once again it’s time to call in the third string. I’m pleased to say that next week Rev. Dearchs will be back from visiting her family in California. In the mean time, though, we have one more week of filling in for the fill-in pastor—and this week that job comes to me.
I must first mention that I was a little slow in putting the finishing touches on my message this week. There were a couple of things that kept coming to my mind and kept me from finishing my work. One of those was what was in the news this week. Two of my co-workers were directly affected by one of the biggest world news stories. Right now their daughter is on a college exchange program in Cairo. When she made plans for that trip, everyone thought of Egypt as one of the safest and most stable places in the Middle East. Now, with no phone or internet services, my friends have been understandably worried that they can’t get in touch with their daughter—and their worry has in turn worried me.
On top of that, this week, of course, we learned that Judy Johnson, a longtime member of our congregation, passed away. Judy’s death was not unexpected, and while we’re relieved that her suffering has ended, there’s no question that losing Judy brings great sadness—for Keith and his family—and for all of us who knew her as a friend. Judy was also in my mind as I put together a few rambling thoughts that I hope just might have a point.
When John Scuffham asked if I’d deliver a message today, the first thing I did was check the lectionary, the list of Bible readings that interdenominational authorities suggest for each Sunday. Here in the United Church of Christ, there’s no requirement that we use the lectionary, but it’s a good place to start. When I saw the suggested gospel reading for January 30, my reaction was that this should be easy to write something about. After all the Beatitudes are among the most familiar and most beautiful passages of scripture. They were a highlight of Jesus’ great Sermon on the Mount, so surely it must be simple to come up with a modern sermon based on them.
After spending nearly a month with writer’s block, it became clear that the Beatitudes weren’t such an easy topic. The biggest problem was that Christ Himself said these words, and He was pretty clear about just what the blessings meant. I certainly wouldn’t presume to improve on the work of Jesus.
So next I went to another possible source of inspiration for what to say in my message—where this Sunday happens to fall in the church calendar. There are some times of year, like Advent and Easter, when the nature of the season lends itself well to a message. Unfortunately this is the fourth Sunday after Epiphany, hardly a highlight of the Christian year. In Catholic and Episcopalian churches they call this season “Ordinary Time”. If you ask a priest, he’ll tell you that “ordinary” doesn’t mean “plain” in this sense. It comes instead from “ordinal” numbers like first, second, and third and the fact that the season counts through the weeks of the year. That may be true, but whether you call it Ordinary Time or Epiphany, it’s still a big, long season of green altar cloths when not much is happening at church. You won’t find “ordinary time” enshrined in the name of a great cathedral. No one composed a cantata for this time of year, and we don’t hold any special services at church. Compared to Christmas before and Easter afterwards it’s a pretty boring time of year.
When I thought of the ordinariness of the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, though, it fit perfectly with today’s readings. In the Old Testament reading God shuns great displays of devotion in favor of three simple requirements: doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God. In the Beatitudes, Jesus doesn’t single out the rich or the mighty, nor even the holiest or most reverent of people. Instead His blessing goes to the meek, the merciful, those who mourn, and the poor in spirit. He takes the most ordinary of people and sets them apart for His special blessing.
The Beatitudes go beyond that, though. Some versions of the Bible begin each of the Beatitudes with “blessed”, while others say all those mentioned are “happy”. If you think of the second translation, what Jesus is doing in the Beatitudes is giving us a blueprint for happiness. That’s something people have been trying to find since long before Christ’s time, and it’s something they continue to search for today.
Like you, I’ve spent much of my life searching for happiness—sometimes looking for it in wrong and often silly places. When I thought about looking for happiness, I happened to remember one of the first purchases I made as an adult. I bet you won’t guess what it was. … Give up? It was a pair of Adidas shoes. (I bet you didn’t see that coming.) You see, back when I was a kid, back when good athletic shoes were made in Europe rather than Asia, brand-name shoes were expensive. When I was growing up all the “cool” guys wore Adidas, while I always had shoes made of fake leather—shoes that had either four stripes or two.
Well, I knew I was no athlete. I knew those Adidas shoes wouldn’t make me run fast or jump high or play decent basketball. At age 21, though, I was a marketer’s dream—I thought cool shoes would make me cool, so I bought them. I was looking for happiness, and I thought I’d find it Westdale Mall in Cedar Rapids.
Well, I’ve probably bought two dozen pairs of Adidas shoes since then, and I’m certain it’s obvious to all of you that they didn’t make me cool. I could try Nike or UnderArmour, but I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have much effect either. There’s times in my life I’ve felt happy and times I haven’t, but with age and wisdom I’ve managed to figure out that my happiness didn’t have much of anything to do with what was on my feet. I’ve learned that when I’m searching for happiness, Footlocker isn’t the place I’m going to find it.
I happened to type “happiness” into the search box on Amazon.com, and I was amazed to see 41,528 results. That’s 41,528 different books, DVDs, and other products from authors who think they have the key to a joyful life. Obviously happiness is big business.
I looked through some of the results for “happiness” on Amazon, and it’s amazing what I found. There’s a paperback guide that gives ten simple steps to happiness, an audiobook that has nine goals for happiness, a DVD with eight facets of happiness, and a Kindle text with seven principles of happiness. If I kept going, I could probably re-write “The Twelve Days of Christmas” counting down different authors’ guides to self-improvement.
One book is entitled Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose. It defines happiness as “life’s most important skill” and urges us to “achieve a joyful state of mind through fulfilling measurable goals”. Another book suggests we reach happiness through what they call “the Tetris effect – retraining our brains to spot patterns of possibility”, and yet another suggests that “identifying your blue zones and eliminating them” is the way of finding lasting bliss.
While I didn’t look through all 41.528 results, I did sift through about ten pages of “happiness” products on Amazon. The vast majority of these publications seemed to define happiness in a remarkably self-centered, materialistic way. I suppose that makes sense given our world today, but that’s not at all what Jesus says in his guide to happiness.
“Happy are the poor in spirit. … Happy are those who mourn. … Happy are the merciful and the peacemakers. … Happy are those who are persecuted and reviled and slandered.” Jesus definitely doesn’t say happiness is a path to profits, passion, and purpose, and he doesn’t want us to eliminate our blue zones. He teaches that everyone should be happy because everyone has God’s blessing.
Jesus teaches us that they key to happiness is to let God take our ordinary lives and make them extraordinary. He tells us to be who we are—poor, sad, hungry, whatever—but realize that we are blessed. Happiness comes in everyday things and happiness belongs to everyday people.
The key to happiness, according to Jesus, is to find God’s blessing in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. Are we poor in spirit? Then God will give us his kingdom? Do we mourn? Then God will comfort us. We need to feel God’s presence—whatever our condition may be. We need to let God take our ordinariness, the ordinary things of our lives, and make it into something extraordinary.
Beyond that, Jesus tells us we can find happiness by being merciful, righteous, peaceful, and pure of heart. He said the same thing in other ways elsewhere in His teachings. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and “love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself” are commandments we all take to be the heart of the gospel. In today’s lesson Jesus is saying that if we follow the Golden Rule and the Great Commandment, we will have God’s blessing and be on the path to happiness. That’s a lot easier to remember than ten steps, nine goals, or eight facets, and it’s a whole lot simpler than re-training our brains to spot the Tetris effect. Treating people well, though, is what Christianity is all about, and it is the key to happiness. It’s how we take our ordinary world and make it truly extraordinary.
Today’s readings mention one other key concept. Instead of the self-centered view of happiness today’s self-help gurus have, the passages from both Micah and Matthew stress that meekness and humbleness is the way to find God’s blessing. It’s no surprise that I thought of Judy Johnson when reading those passages. Meek and humble describe Judy well, and she was a great model for all of us in almost everything she did. We can all remember the many times she shared her musical talent with us—and it wasn’t for money or thanks or acclaim. She shared her talent as a way bringing something special to our ordinary little church.
I remember a little mnemonic I learned decades ago back in Sunday school. I learned that you get “joy” by putting Jesus first, others second, and yourself last. It tells you something that I remember that all these years later, and it’s something I try to keep in mind as I go about my life. Of course it’s overly simple, but that’s really what both of our readings are saying. The blueprint for happiness is “JOY: Jesus first, others second, yourself last”.
God’s blessings and the happiness that comes with it are for everyone. That’s what Jesus tells us, but it’s something a lot of people find hard to accept. A few years back the national United Church of Christ started a campaign with a tagline that said, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here.” That's exactly what our readings are saying. They tell us that God’s love really is for everybody. The prophet tells us that all the Lord requires is to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. Jesus goes on to mention several specific groups that do exactly those things, but whom society looks down on. Public opinion doesn’t matter, Jesus says. All those people are happy, all those people are blessed, and all those people are welcome in the Christian church.
I purposely chose a hymn today that I don’t think we’ve ever sung before in this church. I wouldn’t normally do that, but I think it has a good message that fits with our theme today. The song, “Gather Us In”, is considered an old standard in the Catholic church. A lot of Lutherans sing it, too, but it’s less common in other Protestant churches. Interestingly, though, “Gather Us In” was actually written by a member of our own United Church of Christ: Marty Haugen, who is the Director of Music at Mayflower Congregational Church in Minneapolis.
I chose this hymn because it is a prayer for God to take us, the ordinary people who make up the church, and transform us. Let me quote a few lines from the song, and see if you can’t find Jesus’ teachings in the words you hear:
Gather us in, the rich and the haughty:
Give us a heart, so meek and so lowly.
Gather us in, the lost and forsaken,
We shall arise at the sound of our name.
Not in some heaven light years away
But here in this place the new light is shining
Gather us in, all peoples together.
God does transform our ordinary lives through his extraordinary blessings. That’s the message Jesus has for us in today’s Gospel. “Rejoice and be glad,” Jesus says. Our lives may be ordinary, but with God’s transforming power, they become extraordinary.
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