MESSAGE – ATTITUDE DETERMINES ALTITUDE
Sunday Message, 02.21.21
SCRIPTURE READING Matthew 5:1-11
In listening to these familiar words from what we often call the Beatitudes I am struck again by what some have called the great reversal.
It is a theme that is common in the Gospels from the Magnificat of Mary to the Song of Zechariah to the parables of the Rich Young Man and the good Samaritan and the various versions of the Wedding Banquet, where it is the high and mighty who are left on the outside looking in, while the poor, and downtrodden, and outcasts of the community are rounded up by the King’s servants and brought to the feast.
The Beatitudes share this theme of Jesus challenging us to think about things differently.
Today’s reading begins with Jesus going up on the mountain. Now if you have had the opportunity to visit the traditional site, or even seen pictures of the Church of the Beatitudes, you know that it’s hardly a mountain, it’s more like a hill, overlooking the shore of the Sea of Galilee, a natural place from which to address a crowd gathered below.
It also mentions that Jesus did that when he saw the crowds. Many times in scripture we read of Jesus, seeing the crowds, being moved with compassion for them, and healing or teaching.
Not seeing the crowds and calculating the ticket sales, not seeing the crowds and being filled with self-importance, but seeing the crowds and being moved by compassion for them.
And he sat down and began to speak.
“Sat down” seems counterintuitive to us, because the preacher stands in a pulpit, and the teacher stands in front of the classroom, and the politician rises to speak.
But in Jesus’ day, and Roman times, and well into the middle ages, it was common in public gatherings for the crowd to stand around, even in churches the congregations stood.
But the one teaching, the leader whose words mattered, sat.
Kings sat on their thrones. The one who gave commentary on scripture in the synagogue, sat to do so. We call cathedrals, cathedrals, from the Latin phrase ecclesia cathedralis, the church of the bishop’s seat.
And sitting down, he began to teach:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit…”
“Blessed are those who mourn…”
“Blessed are the meek…”
“Blessed are the merciful…”
And so on.
Now when you consider the real meaning of that word blessed, these pronouncement seem even more backwards. For the contemporary translations which use the word happy are not far off in capturing the sense of it.
For in English, we have used the word bless in several very different ways. Sometimes, it means to praise: “Bless the Lord, O my soul…” Sometimes it means to wish well, a blessing is pronounced upon those persons and situations which we want to prosper and be protected. And taking off from there, we use phrases like count your blessings.
Blessings are good things, things to be happy about. Blessings are rewards, again, things to be happy about.
And thus Jesus, finishing each of these phrases:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” why? “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
“Blessed are those who mourn,” why? “for they will be comforted.”
“Blessed are the meek,” why? “for they will inherit the earth.”
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” why? “for they will be filled.”
“Blessed are the merciful,” why? “for they will receive mercy.”
“Blessed are the pure in heart,” why? “for they will see God.”
“Blessed are the peacemakers,” why? “for they will be called children of God.”
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” why? “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
What we are seeing here is a list of the kinds of things which God rewards.
And it is the opposite of many of the things our culture would tell us will be rewarded, Poor in spirit, humble, peacemakers, persecuted for righteousness’ sake…
Nah, I don’t think so. Assertive, grasping, greedy, self-centered folks are the ones who are often set up as role models. They are the winners, the ones who get the rewards which life has to offer: money, power, and all the rest.
But do those things buy happiness?
You can have it all and be miserable.
You can have nothing and be miserable.
The satisfactions of fame and fortune are fleeting, unless they are rooted in something deeper. At the end of the day we have to live with ourselves.
I can never be good enough…
I can never have enough…
I can never be enough…
Unless I have in my heart the conviction that God loves me in spite of it all.
Knowing that I am poor in spirit opens the door to the kingdom of heaven. Knowing that if I hunger and thirst for righteousness God will fill that void. It all boils down to attitude.
One of the things I used to love to do was to go flying with Sue’s mom. And from her I learned a maxim that was drilled into aspiring pilots:
Attitude determines altitude.
It may seem obvious, but we often forget it in the press of everything going on around us.
Look up, aim the nose up, and the plane will climb, look down, aim the nose down, and the plane will descend.
And so it is with everything in life, my friends. A positive attitude makes everything better.
I certainly not one to endorse everything that Robert Schuller, you know, the Hour of Power guy, had to say, but it was genius to identify these things that Jesus has to say as “The Be-Happy Attitudes.”
Because if God is love, and I think that is the central truth of scripture, (don’t take my word for it, just read I John 4:7-21) then we can count on being loved unconditionally. Love is not merely an attribute of God, but a part of God’s very being.
We do our best and let God take care of the rest.
That doesn’t set us free from our calling to love, but it means we can do it freely and fully, without reservation or calculation.
To quote Martin Luther, “Pray and let God worry.”
And the best prayer is often deeds of love.
We too often do the opposite.
Lent is a time for me to contemplate again my shortcomings in this regard. Not to beat myself up, I don’t think God wants penitence and penance, the woe is me what a miserable wretch I am shtick nearly as much as God wants repentance, a change of mind and heart that will motivate a change in what I do.
So often, as we proclaim the Gospel, I fear people are inclined to say about us as Christians, “What you are doing speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you are saying.”
I think it is time again to share a few words from Rob Bell in his book, Love Wins. He wrote:
“I believe that Jesus’ story is first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us. It is a stunning, beautiful, expansive love, and it is for everybody, everywhere.
“There are a growing number of us who have become acutely aware that Jesus’s story has been hijacked by a number of other stories, stories Jesus isn’t interested in telling, because they have nothing to do with what he came to do. The plot has been lost, and it’s time to reclaim it.
“A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spend forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better. It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.”
Let us use this Lenten season to once again resolve to act and speak in ways that are true to Jesus’ message of love, peace, forgiveness and joy.
And let us start by proclaiming that message to ourselves.
In the name of God,
Our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.