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"Jesus Proposes a New Kind of Identity

A Sermon based upon Matthew 5:1-16

When I was away last Fall, and the Rev. Gene Bacon filled in during my Sabbatical, he preached nine sermons on the text from this morning… “the Beatitudes” from Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount”.

Brian McLaren’s treatment of these verses (in his book “We Make the Road by Walking”[1]) asks us to imagine yourself in Galilee, on a windswept hillside near a little fishing village called Capernaum. Flocks of seagulls circle and land. Wildflowers bloom among the grasses between rock outcroppings. The Sea of Galilee glistens blue below us, reflecting the clear midday sky above.

A small group of student-disciples circle around a young man, who appears to be about 30 years old. [But that’s just the inner circle.] Huge crowds extend beyond the inner circle of disciples. In effect, they are “eavesdropping” on what Jesus is teaching them.

This is the day they have been waiting for. [Like an “inaugural” address, or a State of the Union speech] this is the day Jesus is going to pass on to them the “heart” of his message. [This is his “agenda”.]

Jesus begins his sermon by using the term “blessed” to address the question of identity – the question of who we want to be.

In Jesus’ day, to say “blessed are these people” is like saying “Pay attention: these are the people you should aspire to be like. This is the group you want to belong to.”

To be among the blessed is the opposite of being among the cursed. “Woe to those people” means “Take note: you definitely do not want to be like those people, or counted among their number.” [This dividing of “us good folks” form “them outsiders” was typical of religious and cultural thinking in Jesus’ day – as it is (unfortunately) among many people in our own day!]

Jesus’ words [that day on that hillside, however, would] no doubt have surprised everyone! [You see, that’s] because we normally play by these rules of the game:

(1) Do everything you can to be rich and powerful. [Then you can get things your way! Then you’ll be successful: rich & powerful.]

(2) Toughen up, and harden yourself against all feelings of loss. [Loss is for losers! Grief is for wimps!]

(3) Measure your success by how much of the time you are able to think only of yourself and your own happiness. [They may call it “narcissism” -- ego-centric selfishness -- but you can slough that off. Who cares what they think! It’s really all about you anyway, right?]

(4) Be independent and aggressive – be hungry and thirsty for higher status in the social pecking order. [That’s what counts! Be somebody. Make a name for yourself. After all, if your name isn’t held in high regard… what do you have to show for all your effort?]

(5) Strike back quickly when others strike you… and guard your image so that you’ll always be “popular” [regardless of what you do].

In a world like that, Jesus defines “success” and “well-being” in a profoundly different way. [It was a subversive -- radical reversal -- of the conventional way of thinking.] So, according to Jesus, who are “blessed”?

What kind of people should we seek to be identified with?

(1) The poor, and those in solidarity with them.

(2) Those who mourn… who feel grief and loss.

(3) The non-violent and the gentle … [the meek & humble].

(4) Those who hunger and thirst for “the common good”, and

who are not satisfied with the Status Quo.

(5) The merciful and compassionate.

(6) Those characterized by openness & sincerity… by motives unadulterated by profit and greed, self-aggrandizement & power.

(7) Those who work for peace and reconciliation.

(8) Those who seek justice, even when they are misunderstood.

(9) Those who stand for [social] justice, as the prophets did… Those who refuse to back down, or quiet down, when they are slandered, mocked, misrepresented, threatened, and harmed!

Jesus has been speaking for only a matter of minutes, and he has already turned our normal “status ladders” and “social pyramids” upside down! (!) He advocates an identity that is characterized by solidarity, sensitivity, and non-violence.

He [lifts up as role models] those who long for justice, embody compassion, and manifest integrity. … He creates a new kind of hero: not warriors, corporate executives, politicians, [or celebrities]… but brave and determined activists for peace, who are willing to suffer with him in the prophetic tradition of justice.

Our choice [then] is clear from the start: If we want to be Jesus’ disciples, we won’t be able to simply “coast” along… and conform to the norms of our society. We must choose a different definition of well-being, a different model of success, a new identity with a new set of values. [We have to be prepared to “march to the beat of a different drummer” (to use Henry David Thoreau’s metaphor) and to “take the road less travelled by” (a metaphor from poet Robert Frost).]

If we do so, Jesus is clear: we will pay a price for making that choice. (!) But he also promises that we will discover many “priceless” rewards. … We will experience the true “aliveness” of God’s kingdom, the warmth of God’s comfort, the enjoyment of the gift of this Earth, the satisfaction of seeing God’s restorative justice come, the joy of receiving mercy, the direct experience of God’s presence [among us], the honor of associating with God and of being in league with the prophets of old. That is the identity Jesus invites us to seek [with him].

That new kind of identity will make each of us become “difference makers” in the world -- change agents for the good, “aliveness activists”, catalysts for change (says Brian McLaren).

Jesus then uses two “metaphors” to express the function his followers will have if they live this new kind of identity: Salt and Light. To live with the values of the Beatitudes (in contrast to the normal ways of the world), we will serve as salt and light within our society.

Now, everybody can figure out how life relies on light. I mean, it’s so visible! Constant darkness and shadow, gloom & chill, starts to give a person “cabin fever.”

I think we human animals have a sort of photosynthesis in our blood, too; or at least we’re partly solar-powered! Maybe that’s why so many Alpena church folks go South to Florida or out to Arizona for the winter (leaving us with some empty pews)! I think a lot of us are sun-worshippers who like to be warm & tan.

The point is: we all know what’s right with light! It’s an illuminating image for the in-dwelling spirit of God. Radiant.

But what’s up with salt? While light is in your face, visible, beaming bright... salt is, perhaps, the most hidden, invisible, trace material on earth.