"The Blessing of Choice"

February 7, 1999 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon Matthew 5:6-8

One of my favorite fiction writers is Stephen R. Donaldson, the son of a Methodist medical missionary who worked in a leprosarium. In his first book, actually a series of books, Donaldson used his experience growing up in such a place to write about leprosy from the inside out. His main character suffered from this disease, and through six volumes the reader is taken on a journey upon which this main character eventually comes to terms with his leprosy. I wonít go into the details of the story, but let me share a quote from it.

Thinking about how he was enslaved by his disease, just like many of us become bound by similar circumstances we face in life, the main character makes this statement. "Freedom doesnít mean you get to choose what happens to you. But you do get to choose how you react to it.... Power depends upon choice." (The One Tree, p. 87)

Last week, we began a series of our own, journeying through the beatitudes of Jesus as found in Matthewís gospel. "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who are mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth." The Sermon on the Mount begins with the blessing of experiences that fall outside our ability to control.

These first three beatitudes describe life in the raw, where "running on empty" is the way things often are, where loss is a fact of life, where humiliation is one of the tools used to control people. Jesus began his sermon by touching upon life as it really is. And yet, he spoke beyond these end of the rope, end of the line, end of control circumstances in the direction of Godís kingdom. His note of blessing was not a sugar coating to disguise the rotten experiences of life, that we might pretend them to be something they are not. Instead, he pointed to something better.

So often in life we donít get to choose what happens to us. We do, however, get to choose how we react to it. We can focus upon our emptiness, our loss, our powerlessness, or we can choose to see and step into and toward that which we do possess. Jesus didnít say "choose to be poor," but rather said, "amid your poverty remember, you possess the kingdom. Step toward this blessing." Jesus didnít say "choose to be mourners," but rather said, "amid your grief, remember, the comforter is there. Step toward this blessing." Jesus didnít say "choose to be downtrodden," but rather, "amid your meekness, remember, the whole earth is your inheritance. Step toward this blessing." In other words, things arenít always what they appear to be.

There is blessing in the choices we make, in how we respond to lifeís broken edges that cut and tear. Let me now shift focus to the next three beatitudes of our Lord. There is almost a parallel in them to the first three. As I said last week, the element of choice is more obvious in these. What is blessed is a chosen action, not so much a reaction. These arenít so much statements of the way things are, but visions of the way things could be, if we so choose.

In your bulletin is a folded page on which youíll find all the beatitudes from Matthewís gospel in five translations or paraphrases. I found this helpful in preparing this message. Perhaps youíll find it useful, also.

Itís interesting that whereas the first beatitude speaks of the experience of emptiness (the poor in spirit), the third points in the direction of fullness (the satisfaction of those who hunger and thirst for goodness). Likewise, while the second beatitude lifts up those who lose what is most important to them (the mourners), the fourth presents those who reach out and gain what is most important (with mercy, they forgive). Lastly, at least for this day, the third beatitude tells of folks whose eyes are pointing down (an attitude of humility). The sixth beatitude, on the other hand, reveals eyes looking up (the pure in heart who see God). Now, Iím not sure how far Iíd take this comparison between the first three and the second three of the blessings that begin Jesusí sermon on the mount, but it does seem interesting, doesnít it?

After Sunday School weíre having a pot luck meal. Anybody hungry yet? Itís always a bit difficult to concentrate in our classes while last minute preparations are being made - dishes being warmed in the stove, their aromas floating through the building.

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness," Jesus said. Thatís getting things down to a pretty basic level. Everybody knows what itís like to be hungry or thirsty. Granted, there are those whose stomachs really know what it is to go without food, whose bodies have experienced dehydration. Perhaps these words mean more to them. Even so, all have felt the pangs at some point. We donít have to be referring to what we stuff into our mouths. There are many types of hunger, and a variety of ways of satisfying that thirst. Thatís where the choice behind this beatitude is.

Isaiah spoke of ways of satisfying hunger and thirst that donít really satisfy, asking "why do you spend your money, your time, your energy on things that only leave you as hungry and thirsty as when you started to eat or drink them, perhaps even more so?" Does it really satisfy hunger, for instance, to bite into some pornography, or does it only leave us feeling even more empty than before? Addictions, no matter which drug we speak of, often begin because we think theyíll satisfy the thirst within, but they never do. If anything, we die of thirst when we spend ourselves upon them.

Those preoccupied with the ingathering of wealth, or the climbing of the occupational or societal ladder can be as poor as any street person, unsatisfied and ever more hungry. Why waste yourself on bread which isnít bread? That was Isaiahís question. In his beatitude, Jesus opened up that hunger and thirst to the moment of choice. "Youíre blessed when youíve worked up a good appetite ... for God," his goodness, his righteousness, his Word, his life, his very self. "Heís food and drink in the best meal youíll ever eat." There is a blessing in such a choice.

In the prayer our Lord taught, thereís that line about forgiving our debts or trespasses as we forgive those who are indebted to us, or who have somehow stepped over the line in our lives. How quickly we rush over the words "as we forgive." Forgiveness is never an easy process. We donít get to choose the ways in which we are wronged. It happens all the time. We can choose, however, how we will respond to it, and there can be freedom in that choice. On the other hand, we can choose to become enslaved by bitterness. Iíve known a lot of persons lost in that wilderness. Perhaps you are struggling in similar ways.

I like the parallel between this beatitude and the one about those who mourn being blessed, for in both cases there is loss. A certain amount of grieving goes into the process of forgiveness as we seek to let go of the way things were before the wrong happened. Just like grief, mercy is neither quick nor easy. Just like those who mourn, however, there is a comfort, a comfort-er, Godís presence in Spirit to walk with us through it. A holy mercy flows through us that helps us to be merciful, a divine forgiveness that guides us along the way. Without this presence, forgiveness is so often beyond our ability.

Now, I do not hear this beatitude, or that line in the Lordís prayer, as saying that we are forgiven only "if" we forgive. That is, only to the extent that we are able to be merciful to others will our God be merciful to us - as if we can ever deserve mercy. What I do believe is that we are able to "receive" Godís mercy / forgiveness as we grow in giving mercy, in extending forgiveness. Both giving and receiving involve open arms, open lives. How hard it is for a bitter heart to receive that which it most desires. "Blessed are the merciful." There is a blessing in such a choice.

Speaking of open arms, thatís the image which comes to mind when I think of the "pure in heart" Jesus spoke of as blessed. This beatitude is not about moral purity, so much as it is about an attitude for facing life. Hungering and thirsting for the things that donít ultimately satisfy results in a lot of back-stabbing, kicking, and "me-first"-man-ship. Life becomes a battle to get what you can, come hell or high water. Because of this, the wounded are everywhere. When you get kicked enough, you develop a cynical outlook toward life.

We long for the days gone by when we could naively believe that the teacher would take care of the bully, that the playground was fair, and all that was needed was a glass of milk, a cookie, and a nap. This "purity of heart" we associate with the innocence of childhood, an open-armed embrace of the world as a safe place. However, we know the truth as adults. With arms folded for protection we face into life.

"Blessed are the pure in heart," Jesus said. He wasnít describing an ideal situation. He wasnít calling us back into a spiritual naivete. He was and is urging those who hear him, those who havenít had a great deal of choice when it comes to the rotten things that come their way, to choose to open their arms.... Sincerity is a risk, indeed. To be genuine, to approach others without mixed motives or hidden agenda, to be on the outside the same as the inside (which is what "integrity" is all about) - thatís risky business in a dog-eat-dog world.

Now, the blessing behind this beatitude, the direction toward which Jesus is pointing, is the only way living like this (as person of real "character") becomes possible. "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God." We can choose to nurse our wounds, to see only the tainted aspects of others and even ourselves, or we can choose to focus upon God. The promise is that we will see what we truly desire to see.

The Quakers have a saying, "there is that of God in each person." We donít ignore sin, indeed we confess it, we turn from it. Such turning, however, is done with open arm, open eyes, and heads raised.

Itís interesting that the early Christians often prayed in just such a way. Thatís how Jesus, in his sermon, is calling us to live - hungering for good, full of mercy, pure in heart. With open arms, open eyes, heads raised, we become the salt of the earth, the light of the world. Thatís the blessing of such a choice. May it be so for us. Amen!

Hymn "You are salt of the earth" 226

Benediction

Last week in my sermon, I extended an invitation to share stories of reconciliation next Sunday. "Blessed are the peacemakers," Jesus said, a beatitude weíll explore at that time. If you have experienced a time of such reconciliation (on the giving or receiving end, or as a bystander), a time when youíve seen peace being made, weíd like to hear it. Too often we hear just the opposite.

My message will be brief with open space for you to complete it with your story. If you choose to share, please try to put it as simply and concisely as possible, ready to use a microphone so all can hear. If you donít feel able to share it yourself, contact me ahead of time, and I can share it for you - or someone else can, for that matter.

For now, let me end this worship with a blessing from the prophet Isaiah, from a chapter that has been seasoning this entire service.

"When you are set free, you will celebrate and travel in peace. Mountains and hills will sing as you pass by, and trees will clap. Cypress and myrtle trees will grow in fields once covered with thorns. And then those trees will stand as a lasting witness to the glory of the Lord."

©1999Peter L. Haynes

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