June 28, 2020

“Are These Really Blessings?”

Matthew 5:1-12

A sermon for Hawaii Kai UCC by Janice Ogoshi

June 28, 2020 (Pentecost +4)


“God, in these last few weeks I have with Hawaii Kai UCC, what do you want me to preach?”  This was my prayer as soon as I knew that my time with you all had a definite end date.  I went through a list of possible themes or Scripture readings.  I looked at different lectionaries, skimmed short books in the Bible.  I had sketched out a couple of different plans, but then they just didn’t seem right.


Then I thought about this church, and how we have lived and ministered together through many ups and downs.  This coronavirus pandemic is probably the toughest time that we have gone through together while I have been the pastor. We never imagined that we would be interacting only online.  We never imagined that we would not be meeting on Sunday mornings for worship at Hahaione School.  And we have had to continue to be church, be the body of Christ together, even though we can’t gather in the same space anymore.  In the midst of this, I thought a message of some encouragement and affirmation would be fitting.


And then I remembered that a seminary professor once said that he read the beatitudes as a description of a community of faith that tried to be faithful to Jesus and the gospel he preached.  This is a description of a community that is faithful and loved by God.  I realized that this is what I needed to preach these last five weeks with you.  The beatitudes were actually a message of encouragement and grace from Jesus to his disciples and the crowds who had begun to follow him.  I want us to read this as Jesus’ encouragement to continue to build the body of Christ and to allow the Holy Spirit to shape and form us into agents of God’s love and grace to the world.  This is what you have taught me.  This is what we have learned together over the past 23 years.  This is what you will continue to do going forward.  You will be Jesus’ faithful followers.  You will be God’s blessed people. 


So beginning today, we will dive into the beatitudes, focusing on two each week.


Our Scripture reading begins with Jesus seeing the crowds, and going up on a mountainside to teach them, along with his disciples.  The gospel writer Matthew placed the Sermon on the Mount at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  He had been baptized, then spent forty days in the wilderness being tested.  Then he began to preach, he called his first disciples, and healed many people.  Large crowds began to follow him because he was a powerful healer.  He saw the crowds and knew they needed to hear a word from God.


The setting of the mountainside is important because in the history of God’s people, significant things happened on mountains.  Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.  The prophet Elijah heard the Lord whisper to him as he stood on a mountain.  The Transfiguration took place on a mountain.  In these stories, God speaks to people, reveals God’s self to people on mountains.  When Jesus sat on the mountainside and taught, he spoke the word of God.


And the first word Jesus spoke was “Blessed….”  Jesus began his teaching by telling the disciples and crowds who and what they already are.  They are blessed—present tense.  And he repeated this word eight times.  When you live with and under God’s rule, you are blessed, you are favored by God.


We all want to be blessed.  Years ago when Luke was young and the store in Aina Haina Shopping Center was still called Doe Fang, we went to get Icees, and Uncle Clay, the owner of the shop began talking to us, as he did with all his customers.  He had a way of asking questions and learning about his customers’ lives.  I eventually told him I was the pastor of a church.  Immediately, he reached out his hands to me and said, “Pastor, please give me a blessing!”  


“God, please give us a blessing!”  We all want to be blessed, to know that we have God’s favor, don’t we?  Isn’t it wonderful that the first thing Jesus does is affirm that we are blessed?  But what exactly did he mean by saying they were blessed?  The disciples and the crowds wouldn’t have counted themselves blessed.  They were living under the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire.  Their lives were not their own.  They had to please Caesar and those who represented him, otherwise….  They were poor.  They were sick—that’s why crowds gathered whenever they got word that there was a healer in town.  Were they blessed?  It seemed like a funny kind of blessing, to be poor and oppressed.


And yet Jesus declared that the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted are blessed.  Jesus was describing the folks in his audience.  Looking at them from the perspective of the Roman Empire, these folks would not have been counted blessed.  They had no power or influence, no wealth.  But, in Jesus’ eyes and from the perspective of the kingdom of heaven, they were blessed.


In this season of the COVID-19 pandemic and all its devastation, we may not be feeling very blessed.  We’re tired of staying home and wearing face masks., but we don’t want to get sick or unknowingly infect our family members. We’re worried about our economy that has been shut down for three months.  The social isolation that has kept us safe has also put many at risk for mental health problems.  We don’t know when we will be able to gather together in person for worship.  Are we really blessed?


According to Jesus, the answer is yes.  He said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…”  When you are poor in spirit, you are aware of your deep, desperate need for God.  Haven’t you noticed that you pray a lot when you’re going through difficulties and challenges, but when times are good, not so much?  So it is a blessing when you are poor in spirit, because then your focus on your relationship with God is sharpened.  And when you are totally dependent on God, you are in the kingdom of heaven, living under the reign of God.  And I’d call that blessed.


As the people of God, we are keenly aware of our need for God.  That’s why we are part of the church.  Together, we seek to know and love God.  We encourage each other to grow in our relationships with Jesus because we know that’s what we need most in life.  We know it’s very difficult to stay connected to Jesus all by ourselves, so we join the church so we can collectively acknowledge our poverty and need for God.  We help each other see our poverty of spirit and seek the living water of Jesus Christ.  Together.


And having experienced life in the kingdom of heaven, we see how impoverished the world is.  We want the world to know that everyone needs God.  So we invite folks to taste and see that the Lord is good.  We find ways to help them invite Jesus to scratch the itch that they’ve had all their lives.  


We are blessed to know that we are poor without God, because then we seek a relationship with God.  And when we turn toward God, when we seek God with all our hearts, we find that God is present, and has always been present.  Blessed are the poor in spirit, for in recognizing their need for God, they receive the kingdom of heaven.  We are really blessed in our poverty of spirit.


Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  We primarily think of mourning in relation to losing a loved one to death.  And it is true that those who mourn, who acutely feel their loss, can turn to God for comfort and peace.  They are blessed when they find comfort in God.


God also brings comfort to those who mourn over the sinful state of our world.  In this season, we mourn over the devastation caused by the coronavirus.  We mourn the deaths caused by COVID-19—already over 120,000 in the United States, almost 494,000 worldwide.  We don’t need to personally know anyone who has died to mourn the loss of life caused by COVID-19.  We mourn for the healthcare workers who have been overwhelmed by the great need for their services and all the death and illness they have witnessed in the pandemic.  We mourn for those who have lost their jobs and income due to the shutdowns to flatten the curve.  We mourn for all those whose lives have been upended in the pandemic, from school children and teachers, to parents working at home, to retail and restaurant workers who are exposed to the possibility of infection to nursing home residents and their families who haven’t been able to visit with each other for months…the list of impacts goes on and on. 


We also mourn the economic inequality and injustice in our world, made more evident in the pandemic.  The poor are the most vulnerable to the coronavirus.  And as we have become more aware of the racism faced every day by African Americans, our mourning over the racism has deepened.  We mourn the lives of way too many African Americans who have been persecuted and died because of the color of their skin.  


When we mourn, we are blessed because we acknowledge the fallen and sinful world we live in, and we turn to God for help and comfort.  If you don’t admit you are sick or need help, you won’t be able to receive healing.  We cannot receive help without acknowledging the hurt and pain in the world.  When we mourn, we speak the pain, and then we are in a position to receive healing and comfort.  


Every Wednesday, a group called The Many broadcasts a service of lament on YouTube.  The first time I watched their service, I cried in a way that I hadn’t been able to during the order to stay and work at home.  I didn’t realize how much pain had accumulated in me.  The service helped me to acknowledge the pain of the pandemic—my own pain and the pain of the world that I felt, and then I was able to give it to God and receive God’s comfort.  Before each service of lament begins, there is quiet music and an invitation to be quiet and center.  An image is projected with the question, “Why do we gather to lament?”  The answer is a quote from Father Richard Rohr who said, “If we do not transform our pain we will most assuredly transmit it.”  


When we acknowledge our pain, when we mourn for the ways in which our good world has been devastated by sin and evil, we will not transmit it and we will be in a position to receive God’s comfort and then bring comfort to those around us.


Blessed are those who mourn, who see and experience the pain of the world, who name it and call it out, because then we find that God is present to comfort us.


Debie Thomas wrote, “What Jesus bears witness to in the Beatitudes is God’s unwavering proximity to pain, suffering, sorrow, and loss. God is nearest to those who are lowly, oppressed, unwanted, and broken.  God isn’t obsessed with the shiny and the impressive; God is too busy sticking close to what’s messy, chaotic, unruly, and unattractive.”

(Source: https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/2511-the-blessing-and-the-bite  Accessed 6-26-2020.)

And where God is, there is blessing.


Friends, we are poor in spirit, and we mourn.  Our worship of God puts us in company with the world of poverty and sorrow.  This is the character of the people of God.  And because God is near to those who are poor in spirit and who mourn, we are blessed.  Yes, because of our Loving and Tender God, these really are blessings.  Thanks be to God.