This is a sermon about a sermon: the Sermon on the Mount. The church sometimes refers to it as The Beatitudes. One way of looking at the word beatitudes is to think of it as "Be-Attitudes" or "Attitudes for Being."
Just as the Preamble to the United States Constitution seeks to define the essence of our nation's vision, and describes the sort of citizenry it hopes to embody, so the Sermon the Mount and the Beatitudes form, for Matthew, the "constitution" of the church.
The Beatitudes proclaim unambiguously that which is true and holy for those who choose to follow Jesus in living in "the realm of the kingdom of heaven," Matthew's equivalent to "the realm or kingdom of God."
So there they are, seated on a hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee. The view is literally breathtaking. One can see the city of Tiberias, the River Jordan, and the Golan Heights. Mountaintops have long been the geographical location for God's revelation and instruction. Remember the stories of Abraham and Isaac on Mount Zion, of Moses on Mount Sinai, of Elijah on Mount Carmel?
Mountaintops are at once removed from all that lies beneath them, and at the same time allow us to see everything that surrounds us on all sides. One suspects, however, that the people gathered about Jesus are too tired and too poor and too oppressed by the political and economic domination of the Roman Empire to notice the view. They are worn out trying to keep up with the ever-escalating system of taxation that sends the fruits of their labor out and away from their part of Caesar's vast empire.
The people gathered about Jesus have obviously heard about him and have come to hear what he has to say. And what he has to say is a blessing and the word for being blessed connotes honor. Honorable are those who are poor. Honorable are those who hunger. Honorable are those who are peacemakers. Honorable are those who are merciful.
What an odd thing to be saying -- then or now. What on earth is honorable about being poor? But then perhaps those of us in the crowd may begin to realize that he is not talking about "honor" in the ways we usually think of it. This is not honor among our peers, or honor conferred by the arbiters of power, whoever they may be.
What Jesus seems to be saying is that this honor, this blessing he speaks of, comes from the only one who can really bestow honor and blessing, the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the being that Jesus addresses simply as abba, as father, or daddy.
Like Micah before him, Jesus seems to be saying, "Take your pick!" He has showed you 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. (Micah 6:8) That is as good a definition of mercy as we have been given-and it is mercy that stands at the very center of the Beatitudes, the Preamble, you might say, to our "Christian Constitution." Those listening to Matthew's Gospel, or those who first read it, would look to see what was at the center of these nine Beatitudes. They would find mercy at the center.
One Palm Sunday, at St. Clement's Episcopal Church in New York City, the novelist and satirist Kurt Vonnegut observed that being merciful is the one good idea that we have been given. "I am enchanted by the Sermon on the Mount," Vonnegut said. "Being Merciful, it seems to me, is the only good idea we have received so far. Perhaps we will get another good idea by and by-and then we will have two good ideas. What might that second good idea be? I don't know? How could I know? I will make a wild guess that it will come from music somehow. I have often wondered what music is, and why we love it so. It may be that music is that second good idea's being born." (Palm Sunday Sermon, Saint Clement's Episcopal Church, NYC, in The Nation, April 19, 1980, p. 469.)
And at the heart of this mercy is justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God. This concept turns the world's values upside down; it constitutes a flat reversal of what is considered true in our culture at large; a culture that pronounces a benediction over the self-sufficient, the assertive -- the power brokers. Those people that such a world sees as pitiful are the very people we hear Jesus proclaiming as truly joyful: the poor, the meek, those who seek peace, and those who are merciful.
If we as Christians consider ourselves to be His Body the Church in the world, we might need to consider just how this Preamble to "Jesus' Constitution" might shape our lives together. Just how might we be those people who make peace in an age of terrorism? How might we satisfy hunger and thirst? How might we lose our swagger and walk humbly with our God?
In the end, it all has to do with walking with God.
But statistics suggest that we are walking elsewhere. We are told that 70% of North Americans will walk to a shopping mall each week, a far higher percentage than those who go weekly to a church, synagogue, or mosque. Apparently, many of us use shopping as a way of procuring feelings of honor, blessing, and prestige, even though most of what we buy ends up in the attic, the garage, or the dump. We throw away 7 million cars a year, 2 million plastic bottles every hour, and enough aluminum a year to build 6,000 airliners.
Consider that by age 20 our children and grandchildren will have seen a million commercial advertisements on television, in newspapers, in magazines, and on the Internet. On average, we will all spend a year of our lives just watching television commercials! And tonight, at half time, we will all make sure to bow down to the gods of all commercials as we watch to see which will be chosen as the most clever and enduring commercial of the year. For the next week this will probably be all we talk about!
And all this goes on while the gap between the rich and poor of our world widens every year. In the United States this gap is the widest of any industrialized nation on earth. True, when disaster strikes we reconsider everything. When we lose our cars or other possessions in floods, tornadoes, or hurricanes we reexamine our ideas of what really matters. In the days and months since September 11, 2001, we have all come to realize that life and relationships are more precious than all our time at the mall. People have come back to church in record numbers.
But soon we will return to collecting material possessions and we will resume our habits of conspicuous consumption-all signs of American honor. We now even proclaim that one of the best ways to combat the evils of terrorism and to improve the American way of life, somewhat reduced by post-September 11 problems with the economy, is to buy even more than ever before.
Jesus offers some alternatives -- nine of them, to be precise. Jesus says there is greater happiness and joy to be had. Jesus says that there are other ways to become blessed and honorable. And Jesus says that being merciful counts for more than just about anything else.
Our God is the God of mercy. True mercy grows not out of some intrinsic human goodness, but from our acceptance and acknowledgement of God's mercy. Those who discern that God is merciful are freed, themselves, to be merciful. There were undoubtedly people on that hillside who came away feeling blessed and honorable. That is undoubtedly why we are gathered here today. The people who were on that long ago hillside went out and told others about this blessing of God's, and so we are blessed. The realm of heaven is there today for those who follow Jesus without delay.
Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. Be merciful. This is the one good idea we have been given so far. We are promised that if we place mercy at the center of all that we do and say we will be blessed and honored-we will receive more than all that the mall and tonight's Super-Commercials have to offer.
And it might not be such a bad idea to take so more time out to listen to music. It just may be that music really is the next good idea being born.