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Virture of Humility

A Sermon based on Matthew 5;1-12 (The Beatitudes)

Every Sunday morning –in fact every time that I come into this sanctuary –I look into the radiant face of Jesus in the stained-glass window front-and-center above our altar-space, behind the choir. On bright mornings, when light streams through, it’s as though we make eye contact. Jesus is carrying a lamb in his arm, but he’s looking out at us.

He is stuck up there, in the window--a radiant reminder of the Man of Nazareth, who came to us, shared our common lot, taught us about God’s Kingdom, and demonstrated by how he lived his own life in the community of his day how we, too, could be good citizens in that realm. Jesus, the Christ (represented in that most-central window) laid out a pattern and a plan to change the world for the good for God’s sake.

In our choir’s anthem, we heard: "Know that He has overcome every trial we will face… and none too lost to be saved, none too broke nor ashamed… all are welcome in this place! By your mercy, we come to Your table; by your grace, You are making us faithful." ("Remembrance" by Matt Maher and Matt Redman, © 2009 Thank you Music, Word Music: Nashville, TN)

As I said, the Jesus figure is stuck up there –aglow with hope and love, accessible by faith, like a beacon to guide us on our daily journey. But we, who gather here in this sanctuary dedicated to that purpose, are the ones who have the ability (the mobility!)to get it done. We have the hands and feet… We have the resources of time and energy and money to do our part so that God’s Kingdom may "come", and God’s Will may be "done on earth, as it is in heaven."

Isn’t that our prayer every time we gather? We call it our "Lord’s Prayer" because Jesus himself taught it to his followers in that famous "Sermon on the Mount" in Matthew’s Gospel (part of which we heard this morning in the text Dottie Haase read for us.)

Jesus laid out for the crowd that day (in easily-understood language)just what it would mean to be his disciple, a follower of Christ –what life would be like if people chose to be a part of the Jesus-movement to reform their society in ways more aligned with God.

That stained glass picture of Jesus here in our sanctuary reminds me of the transcendent ideal he brought(his vision of heaven), as well as the deeply personal relationship with God that he demonstrated for all to see. Jesus invites us into a daily lived-relationship with a God who not only created us, but who knows us, and loves us just as we are "warts and all", and accepts us despite our frailties and our failings, our short-comings and mistakes; a God who wants to live with us--within us, among us --shaping us through the Holy Spirit, giving our lives deeper meaning and enduring purpose.

That’s the Jesus I came to know during my formative years here at First Congregational (United Church of Christ)in Alpena. I was a class-mate of Jim McNeil, who just gave his own personal testimony a few minutes ago. I followed Edith Gerber (Rosenthaler) and Blair Diamond and Mary Minnick (Standen) and Dave Zeller in Pilgrim Fellowship, right here in the days of Rev. Barksdale and Mrs. B, of blessed memory.

I describe all that about Jesus and his love --Jesus and his ministry, Jesus and his personal involvement in our lives through the indwelling Holy Spirit --for one purpose: to let you know what I think it means to be "Christian" ("Christ-like"). It means to be aglow with that same inner light and fire that Jesus revealed to us, starting with his Sermon on the Mount.

And the opening words of that Sermon reassure me that the people who are poor, and those who are poor in spirit–people who are merciful, people who mourn, people who attempt to be peace-makers, even at the cost of being misunderstood and even persecuted –are beloved by God. They are congratulated by Jesus for being just the way they are.

Here’s the setting the way Matthew tells it: Jesus’ fame spread throughout Syria (which was the general name for the province that included Israel), and great crowds followed him from the Decapolis(the Ten Roman Cities of the Trans-Jordan frontier), and from Jerusalem, and from all Judea, coming from both sides of the Jordan River. Jesus was surrounded! People were coming to him from every which-a-where!

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain and sat down to teach. Jesus began his Sermon on the Mount with a list of Blessings or "Beatitudes." We heard them again this morning.

The late, great Rev. Robert Schuller --the famous founding minister of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California --calls the Beatitudes: the "Be HAPPY Attitudes." A cute turn of phrase…but it actually represents quite well what the Latin word "Beatitude" means: "beate" is to be blessed… to be congratulated… to be pleased with oneself. In other words, Jesus gave them eight reasons to be happy!

The Beatitudes follow a certain poetic pattern: "Blessed are they which do thus-&-so… for they will be rewarded such-&-such."

Now, the eight traits (or characteristics of the people) whom Jesus points to as "blessed" are not the kinds of experiences that most folks would see as all that positive! Comforting those who mourn; feeding the hungry; blessing the meek, the merciful, & the peacemakers… the poor in spirit… Frankly, these are not the kinds of folks usually considered very high on the Happiness Scale!

I mean: Blessed are the poor in spirit… they that mourn… the meek& the merciful? These traits tend to fly in the face of general opinion. In a competitive economy, with cut-throat business and dirty politics, people might say: "Baloney, Jesus! You’ve got to get out there and fight; make your own way in the wilderness; hack your way through the urban jungle; you’ve got to look out for #1!The meek and mousy won’t inherit anything; they’re gonna eat humble pie, or else go hungry."

Now, I’ll admit that’s a caricature--a rather simplified and biased depiction of civic arrogance and social indifference--but it seems to me that there’s a lot of that going around these days: abuses by media personalities and among very public politicians(you fill in the names!).

Actually, arrogant self-aggrandizement is not really all that new in Western society. The "rugged individualism" and "pioneer spirit" of our American history has forged an assertive independent streak in many of us…a reliance on the self-made man(or woman) who "pulls them-selves up by their own bootstraps"…a society and economy in which people (like Horatio Alger’s heroes from long ago) "strive &succeed."

But then, once they’ve established their place on the continent… once they’ve made as much money as Midas, standing with feet planted firmly and with their hands on their hips… have they wondered:"is thatall there is"?I mean: what’s thepurpose to be a Daddy Warbucks if you’ve got nobody to share it with? Why be a Wall Street tycoon, if everyone you have used in order to get rich hates you in the end? Enduring happiness does not come from centering one’s life around oneself.

More blessed than even a wealthy ruler (according to Jesus) are the poor in spirit, those who are able to mourn, those who show and receive mercy, those who seek to be righteous, those who walk humbly with God.We don’t see such traits modeled much in media, sports, or politics.

Let’s take being " pure in heart" for example. The pure in heart have no ulterior agenda nor manipulative motive in what they do. Their words and their deeds "line up"–in other words, what they say, is also they do; what they promisethey actually perform! Thepure in heartdon’t just talkthe talk, they walkthe walk.When you meet a person with a "pure heart", you know they are "the real McCoy." Their word can be trusted, even if you disagree with them…because they will live up to it.Their behavior matches their words. It can be counted on. To be "pure in heart" means to live with transparency, and integrity, and consistency.

It’s opposite(its nemesis)is "hypocrisy" –to present a false face.

So, to be a "Jesus follower" is not about agreeing to a particular social code of conduct in public, while behaving differently at home. To be Christian –means(first of all)to live without a mask, without a false-front, or a hidden agenda, or a secret life. What people see is who you really are.(!) I say that comes "first of all" because without that sense of personalintegrity, your words mean nothing! What you saythat you "believe" is only so much smoke & mirrors if you hide who you really are.

What I’m trying to say is that what a person projects to the public--even if they do so in the name of Jesus Christ --does not make them " Christian" unless it is Jesus-like in its attitude and its intended outcomes. If I may put it bluntly: one cannot be a follower of Jesusanda hypocrite.(!)The terms are mutually exclusive--diametrically opposed. To be a hypocrite and claim to be"Christian"should strike our ear oxymoronic: like an "embezzling" banker, or a "jumbo" shrimp.

To repeat what I said a moment ago: Jesus reveals a transcendent ideal…of living in a personal relationship with the God he called "Our Father" –a God who knows all about you and loves you unconditionally, accepts you as you are(faults and all), and wants to shape us together into a community of grace and faith which will give our lives deeper meaning and provide a sustainable purpose for our world as a whole. To me,