“Jesus Celebrates Some Character Traits”
a sermon based upon Matthew 5:1-16 & 7:24-29
When I was away on Sabbatical in the Fall of 2018, the Rev. Gene Bacon filled in for me and he preached nine sermons on the text from this morning… “the Beatitudes” from Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount”. So I know many of our church members have already delved deeply into Jesus’ words. However, because today is Scout Sunday, there are a few families with us this morning who were not here back then to hear those nine sermons. (In fact, I suspect there may be some of those people who were here back then who might not remember everything Gene Bacon told them. So let’s do it again.)
Furthermore, in March of last year (during Lent), I tackled the same topic using Brian McLaren’s treatment of these verses (from his book “We Make the Road by Walking”). That sermon – which is entitled: “Jesus Proposes a New Kind of Identity” -- was not only recorded on YouTube (and can be viewed on our website), but it was the topic of one of the ten “Feedback Forums” which were also recorded and uploaded to our web-site. It’s available… verbatim!
So, let me just summarize (for the folks who are new here this morning, and for those of you who may have forgotten) what I said back then about the Beatitudes -- which are the opening words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount -- and then (after that) I’ll add a few comments about “the foolish man who built his house on sand” which served as the conclusion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus is going to pass on to his followers the “heart” of his message. This inaugural sermon will state his “agenda” somewhat like a political party platform does in an election year.
Jesus begins his sermon by using the term “blessed” several times to point to people with certain characteristics. In Jesus’ day, to say “blessed are these people” would be like saying “Pay attention: these are the people you should aspire to be like. This is the group you want to belong to.” And then he names them… just as our Scouts did this morning using those seven building blocks: (1) people who are poor in spirit, (2) people who mourn, (3) people who hunger and thirst for righteousness, (4) people who are merciful, who are (5) pure in heart, who are (6) peacemakers, and (7) those who are persecuted -- picked on, bullied -- because of being that way.
Jesus’ words would have surprised everyone! You see, that’s because (as Brian McLaren says) we normally play by [different rules. For many people in our society] these [are the] rules of the game:
(Rule #1) Do everything you can to be rich and powerful. [Then you can get things your way! Then you’ll be successful: rich and powerful. To be “poor in spirit” is to be a Loser!]
(Rule #2) Toughen up, and harden yourself against all feelings of loss. [Losses are for losers! Grief is for wimps! Big boys don’t cry!]
(Rule #3) Measure your success by how much of the time you think only of yourself and your own happiness. [People 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? After all, if your name isn’t held in high regard… what do you have to show for all your effort? Get a clue: you gotta look out for #1.]
(Rule # 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. Who is “hungry for righteousness” anyway? I mean: get a cheeseburger!]
(Rule #5) Strike back quickly when others strike you… [mercy is for wimps and losers, weaklings!]… 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 “blessedness” in a profoundly different way. [It was subversive – it was a radical reversal -- of the conventional way of thinking.]
According to Jesus, who are “blessed”? What kinds of people should we seek to be identified with?
(1) The poor, and those in solidarity with them.
(2) Those who mourn… who are able to feel grief and loss.
(3) The non-violent and the gentle … [that is, meek & humble].
(4) Those who hunger and thirst for “the common good” [which is Brian McLaren’s word for “righteousness”], and those who are not satisfied with the Status Quo.
(5) The merciful and compassionate [people].
(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,
[Wow! That’s quite a list, don’t you think, Scouts?] Jesus had been speaking for only a matter of minutes, and he had already turned our normal “status ladders” and “social pyramids” upside down! (!) He advocates an identity that is characterized by solidarity, sensitivity, and non-violence.
Jesus [lifts up as role models] those who long for justice, who embody compassion, and who manifest integrity [in their character]. … 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 [being a part] 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 [alive], 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].
Those words from Brian McLaren help us to see how surprising the character traits are which Jesus outlined at the start of his Sermon on the Mount.
I can’t help but make a comparison between this list of character traits in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and the kinds of things Scouting encourages from its members. At the start of every Troop meeting and Cub Pack meeting, and maybe even in den meetings, you say: “A Scout is Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, and Reverent.” Those 12 character traits help to define what it means to be a Scout – how you are going to think, how you are going to behave! And when you meet someone who is not trustworthy – watch out! When a person is not friendly, not courteous, not kind – you know that joker is not a Scout, not in the least… not no way!
Now, nobody gets all 12 of those character traits perfectly all of the time – any more than any of us who follow Jesus live up to the seven Beatitudes and the other teachings of Jesus’ Gospel. But at least knowing them gives us markers along the way to see how we’re doing. They give us something like a bulls-eye target to aim for.
I think it’s great that you have memorized that list of character traits. You know them by heart. You can say them with your mouth. But the real question is: do you do them? Do you actually behave the way the Scout Oath asks you to do? You know:
On my honor, I will do my best… to do my duty to God and my Country, and to obey the Scout Law: to help other people at all times; (&) keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, & morally straight.
Look, I don’t want anybody to feel guilty, because I’m not picking on our Scouts. (!) The fact is that many of us here in this room quite often fail to do anything about what we say we believe! (Right?) We may know something to be true, but that knowledge in itself doesn’t necessarily motivate us to action. (!) We hear something we believe is true -- we may pass it along to others, because we know it’s true – but hearing it, & knowing it, & even saying it, isn’t enough! In fact, it’s not much at all -- it’s hardly any different from “gossip” unless you do something with it.
Y’know, they say “talk is cheap”! Lots of folks use “empty” words. They use words in making deals, but then they don’t follow through. Too many people “don’t mean what they say”. (In an election year, I think we’re going to get a lot of that -- fake facts and boldface lies! It’s a plague in today’s politics…)
Last April (when I preached on the second of today’s texts – the one about the foolish man who built his house on sand), I passed out a magnet with the UCC slogan: “To believe is to care; to care is to do.” Saying that we believe, is good – yes! -- but it’s not enough. Even caring deeply about something is not enough. We care about climate change. We care about race relations, and Native Americans, and animal shelters. Caring is good! But we have to move what we believe from our mouth to our muscles! From knowing with our brains to “doing” with our behavior!
That list of character traits that a Scout promises to be, like the list of Christian Beatitudes, needs to be something we actually do. (!)
I think Jesus had that concern in mind when he ended his Sermon on the Mount. Friends, it is precisely this failing to take action which constitutes a “weak foundation”, says Jesus in the parable of the “foolish man who built his house on sand”. Our “structure of reality” won’t survive the coming storm if we take no action consequent to what we say we believe. If what we have heard, and what we say we believe, what we know to be true, does not have any effect on our consequent behavior, it does no one no good no how.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount shook the religious foundations like a hurricane! But when the storm settled, there were plenty of houses still standing... precisely those places where just deeds (God’s “Way”) had followed the path set by Jesus’ words. May our houses be found standing among them on that day.
We hear God’s call and we listen to Jesus’ words.
We believe him and know that he is telling the truth.
We might even say it to others… but it doesn’t make much of a difference until we act on it. As the Nike ad says: “Just do it”. Do God’s Will, God’s Way… in Jesus’ name, for Christ’s sake. (!)
And in so doing, may we begin to change the world for the good.
 McLaren, Brian D., New York: Jericho Books, Hachette Book Group, © 2014, Chapter 27, pages 127-129