Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“Dizzy and Blessed”
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City
(Matthew 5: 1-2; 1 Corinthians 1: 18-31)
January 29, 2017 (4th Sunday after Epiphany)
If you are a connoisseur of church websites as am I, you are aware that every one of them has a picture of the congregation at worship and, in every picture, the crowd is overflowing. You have probably noticed that there are lilies or poinsettias in every picture. You’ve got it: the pictures are always taken on Easter or Christmas Eve when the gatherings are the largest. No congregation dares use a picture taken on July 23. We all want to look big and important.
That is why the Sermon on the Mount or the Beatitudes feels so unnerving. Jesus forces us to look at our lives upside down. We prefer worldly standards, standards of power and wisdom; we are repulsed by the standards of Christ’s cross that appear weak and foolish.
Listen, for a moment, to Eugene Peterson’s Beatitudes from his “Message” translation of the Bible: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.” Make you squirm?
In these days, no matter what our political persuasion, we want to be powerful, to fight for what we believe to be right, just, and sensible. Blessed are the peacemakers—are you kidding me? These days call for backbone and fisticuffs, a tough streak that gets results done TODAY.
I suppose that is why it is so hard to be a Christian, at least the kind of Christian Jesus seemed to envision.
We began worship this morning with a cross leading the way. Did that, by chance, make you feel a bit queasy? My dear friends, Jesus died on that cross. You can almost imagine Pontius Pilate using the water-boarding technique as he screamed at Jesus, “What is truth?” We feel so unsettled when we are forced to listen to St. Paul’s dribble, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the woe world to shame the strong.” “No way!” we holler. We prefer the powerful and important.
When I was a pastor in Washington, D.C., we got word that President Clinton might be worshiping with us on Sunday morning. Volunteers dusted every nook and cranny, trimmed bushes and raked leaves, removed the clutter of old bulletins and frayed offering envelopes stuffed in the pews; those in charge of refreshments made certain they were fit for a queen…or at least a president.
…By the way, President Clinton never showed up that morning. Remarkably, though, a lot of important people did show up. They were not powerful or important by worldly standards but they did end up feeling honored by a spic and span church, stunning music, and delicious food.
What if we treated every person with such honor and respect, or in Jesus’ terminology, as blessed by God? What if we celebrated the presence of the poor in spirit, the peacemakers, the persecuted, the meek, and the bedraggled—US!—as if we were the most important people in the world? What if, this morning, we saw the world as Jesus saw it? What if we viewed people from Syria and Iran, Iraq and Libya, Somalia and Sudan and Yemen, as blessed?
I know what you are thinking, “Pastor, Stop! That’s all I read these days on my iPhone, all that I hear on television. I came here for shelter from the storm not more blather from a guy who, quite frankly, doesn’t have a clue about the world order. Hush.” And yet, shouldn’t we at least try, as the Bible commands us, to see the widow and orphan, the strangers and sojourners, through the immensity of God’s love and not through the narrowness of our little hearts? Of course, you are right: that’s seeing the world upside down and that’s not easy. Didn’t I tell you seeing the world through God’s eyes will make us dizzy?
New Year’s Day fell on Sunday this year. Attendance was spotty that morning, not a worship service we will show on our website. I ended up opening our front doors. There was quite a bit of trash around the steps. Having no gloves or broom, I tore off a piece of cardboard from a discarded box to create a make-shift dustpan. I gingerly cleaned up cast-off Kleenex and other disgusting rubble. As I bent low to pick up a lipstick-stained cigarette butt, two visitors stopped to inquire when worship began. They were from central Pennsylvania—a retired pastor and his wife. Later that week, they sent a lovely email. Regrettably for me, they made no mention of my “towering sermon” that day—not a word! What they did mention, though, was their amazement that the pastor of this so-called “prestigious Lutheran congregation on Central Park” was picking up trash; “there must be a sermon there somewhere,” they said. What they realized—and what I had forgotten—was that Jesus was coming to church that New Year’s morning. They were so delighted by the possibility of it all and there I was, begrudgingly at best, cleaning up trash on Jesus’ behalf.
The Beatitudes work like that. They surprise us with whom Jesus calls blessed. Think of just one of the beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Have you ever felt so walked over and ignored that not in a million years would you expect Jesus to tap you on the shoulder? Maybe that’s why the Beatitudes are so unsettling: they invite us to see ourselves and our neighbors just as Jesus saw the poor and orphaned and, yes, the aliens…as blessed. It isn’t just presidents who are important. Suddenly, by heavenly standards, we are all important, no matter how much is in our pocketbook or from what country we come.
When I was feeling so sorry for myself that New Year’s morning, I forgot there was no greater honor than to clean the church steps, hold the door open, and usher Jesus in. If only I had noticed Jesus down on his knees picking up the cigarette butts with me, I would probably have been much happier and certainly more blessed.
Do we notice Jesus in our lives? I wonder if Jesus would have been turned back yesterday at JFK Airport—you do know what he looked like and, if the truth be told, many of those who followed him thought the best way to bring about the kingdom of heaven was through violence.
It’s so easy to forget that God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. Let us always remember that Jesus chooses us, too, by bowing down to us and calling us blessed.