The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany ~ January 28-29, 2017
Washington Memorial Chapel, Valley Forge, PA + The Rev. Roy Almquist
With its fourteen buildings, Rockefeller Center in Manhattan was, at its time, the largest private construction project ever undertaken. The complex was conceived out of the great success of American capitalism in the early 20th Century, but then built in the midst of the Great Depression. On the first floor of One Rockefeller Center there is a memorable series of murals that captures mankind’s technological accomplishments. The murals of technology are filled with huge, muscular figures, swinging hammers, prying with crowbars, and turning the great wheels of commerce and industry.
Within this display of human accomplishments stands one mural that seems out of place. The final mural depicts Jesus Christ teaching on a mountainside … his arms outstretched in blessing, as he speaks to people of every race, class, and human condition.
Associated with the mural are words that make a profound and timeless observation:
Man’s ultimate destiny depends not on whether he can learn new lessons, or make new discoveries and conquests, but on his acceptance of the lesson taught to him close to two thousand years ago. (Plaque by Murals in One Rockefeller Center)
Our Gospel lesson for this Fourth Sunday in Epiphany places before us the opening salvo of Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount ~ most particularly the words known as The Beatitudes. These declarative statements by Jesus are united with one of the most powerful statements from the Prophet Micah, our First Lesson:
He has told you, O mortal, 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]
Taken together these strong Biblical statements speak volumes to us as Christian people and citizens of this great nation at a time of profound national challenge. Together they give us a strong definition of who we are called to be as followers of Jesus Christ. For regardless of how we voted this past November, we are called in our Baptism to be disciples of Jesus Christ. Therefore, we need to draw together through worship and faith formation, through acts of service and compassionate concern.
Whether we consider ourselves Republican or Democrat, Libertarian or Independent, whether we took the Amtrak to Washington for the Inauguration or the Paoli Local to Philadelphia for the Women’s March, such alignments are of secondary importance to what we are … we are faithful, committed followers of the Lord.
The timeless words of the Beatitudes are the prelude to what is the Greatest Sermon Ever Preached. The first thing we need to remember is that Jesus was not speaking to everyone … rather he was speaking to his disciples, that small band of individuals that Matthew tells us Jesus had recruited, called, and empowered:
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, sat down, and began to speak: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed. What a wonderful word. Sadly, many people confuse the concept of blessed with prosperity, good fortune, and wealth. There are churches, generally quite successful churches, that preach a Gospel of prosperity.
Prosperity theology or the Gospel of Success is a growing tradition among many Christians today, people who are convinced that that wealth and financial well-being are a clear expression that they have God’s favor. Such believers claim that wealth and the good things of life are given by God to certain elect individuals, favorites, if you will. The implication is that if people are faithful, God will reward them.
Sadly, Prosperity Theology can easily become old-fashioned selfishness and a smoke-screen for personal indulgence and aggrandizement. Not surprisingly many Biblical theologians criticize this approach as a modern form of idolatry that ignores the strong Biblical injunctions for compassion and concern for those in need. I would argue that one’s material well-being probably has more to do with family of origin and zip code than purity of heart and love of the Lord!
In the late nineteenth century, Andrew Carnegie articulated a sense of gratitude and generosity that was commonly identified as The Gospel of Wealth. Carnegie argued, in the words of Jesus, that … From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. (Luke 12:48).
Carnegie became the inspiration for American philanthropy. He proposed that the most equitable way of dealing with the phenomenon of new wealth was for those who had been successful to graciously redistribute their surplus resources by means of responsible gifting to institutions that enriched humankind. Carnegie was a capitalist, not a socialist, but he was a man of great compassion and generosity.
This approach challenged the common practice of his time, whereby the wealthy simply passed their resources on to their heirs. Carnegie believed that wealth could best be put to good use by the careful administration of the people who had acquired it. Throughout the latter part of his life he gave a brilliant example of the wisdom of his Gospel of Wealth. Today people like Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffett, and David Rubinstein are continuing Carnegie’s understanding of what it means to be blessed.
Jesus’ words about blessing that we hear today are not all focused on wealth or material well-being. Our Lord is very clear that God often calls blessed people whom the world might readily call losers! Jesus encourages us to see among the blessed of this world people who live in distressed circumstances … work for peace … reach out to the broken and the abandoned.
When I think of blessed people I think of those Doctors Without Borders who go into horrible places to save lives and elevated pain … the people who drive trucks into places of combat to bring humanitarian aid … the coast guard and often volunteers who go out into dangerous waters to rescue refugees who are fleeing for their lives and floundering at sea.
When I think of blessed people I think of courageous individuals who work on the streets of our major cities, caring for the homeless, helping the addicted, sheltering refugees, and speaking words of encouragement to gay-lesbian-transgender people, many of whom have been forced from their homes and face a fearful future.
In the sacred words of the Beatitudes … words that make no sense to a world driven to achieve wealth … Jesus encourages us to evaluate people not by their affluence or status, but by their character and goodness.
Today our Lord speaks to us about what it means to be blessed. Jesus wants us to know that the Kingdom of Heaven is not in the future, by and by, up in the sky … no, the Kingdom of Heaven is experienced right now, whenever we embrace each other as children of God … whenever we bear one another’s burdens and reach out to those most vulnerable in our midst, binding their wounds and protecting them from evil.
The Beatitudes need a new interpretation in our day when the cult of self-indulgence has displaced the Jesus’ message of compassion and concern. Jesus came into the world to save us, not to please us. His saving Gospel calls us to move from the Kingdom of self to the Kingdom of God. Where do we find people prepared to embrace that Gospel? On the mountainside, listening to the man with the outstretched arms! AMEN.