The Good Life
Beginning with the Benediction
First Sunday in Lent
February 21, 2021
Our series this Lent is call The Good Life. What do you picture when you hear those words “the good life”? Lying on a beach? A luxury hotel with room service? Family and friends around you? Maybe you see yourself doing certain things, hobbies you love, playing golf perhaps? Maybe you see yourself doing good things, helping people or maybe being able to write big checks for good causes? I invite you to open the chat feature and type in your definition of the good life. What does that look like for you?
This Lent we’re considering what constitutes the good life. We are not without help. Jesus offers teachings that when put into action, he says will lead to a good life. The teachings we will consider are from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5-7. Jesus had just begun his ministry performing miracles that drew large crowds to him, and he stated inviting people to be his disciples. Our reading this morning describes this backdrop to the sermon. When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Notice two things about that sentence. First Jesus sat. That was a rabbi’s position for teaching. It says this is someone in authority. Today we don’t think of a teacher as sitting but we do retain that language in our universities. We talk about a Professor’s chair, or being the chair of a department. This goes back to the day when a teacher in authority sat to teach.
The other thing to notice is the way it seems the crowd were left behind. Just the disciples came to Jesus. Bit if you skip to the end of the sermon in chapter 7 it says, When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teachings…” so the crowds never left. Now, this may seem nitpicky, but its important. The crowds were listening but Jesus was talking to the disciples, to the ones who had committed to earn from him, to the ones who were willing to make his way of life their way of life. Everyone, anyone was invited to listen, but what they were hearing was an invitation to those committed to following.
So I want to come clean with you about my intentions for this series. I will be like the magician who rolls up his sleeves to say, “no tricks”. Because while these sermons are for anyone, they are directed to those who really want to go deeper in their relationship with Jesus. They’re not just drifting by, they want to stick around. They are hungry for more in life. Maybe they pursued things they thought would lead to a good life but it didn’t turn out that way. Maybe nothing has gone wrong, but they’re yearning for something a little more. They want to know that in this Gospel, in the faith, if God really offers the Good Life.
So with a listening, and Jesus sitting with his disciples in front of him it says, And Jesus opened his mouth and taught them. That’s the old King James translation. It’s a funny phrase. He opened his mouth. Usually when we say that about someone it’s not positive. “So and so opened his mouth and look what happened.” It means someone couldn’t keep something inside. William Barclay says that this phrase is speaking of someone who is “opening (one’s) heart and fully pouring out (one’s) mind. It is used of intimate teaching with no barriers between them.” When someone opens their mouth they are speaking unfiltered. They are sharing what is in their heart without qualifiers. What Jesus is about to say is what he really believes about the way life is meant to be lived. He’s not going to hold back. He’s not going to begin with statements like, “Now how should I say this.” He’s going to tell us what he came to say, what he believes we most urgently need to hear.
But let’s be clear, while Jesus is talking about what leads to the good life, he’s not talking about the easy life. Listen to some of the demands in this sermon: unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees you’ll never enter the kingdom of heaven; if you’re angry with your brother or sister you’ll be liable to judgment; if you’re right eye causes you to sin, tear it out; do not swear; love your enemy, pray for those who hurt you, return good for evil, if someone strikes you on the cheek, turn the other also, if someone sues you for your coat, give them your shirt as well, if you don’t forgive others neither will God forgive you; do not judge others. Nothing easy here, but good? Absolutely.
And that’s probably why Jesus started the sermon on the mount with good words. The Bible calls them Beatitudes. That’s not a word we use a lot, but we do recognize two other words that mean the same. One is Benediction. It comes from two words, Bene used for words like benefit, which means good. And Dictio like in our word diction, or dictionary, when means word. Benediction means good word. Most of us at St. Luke’s love the word benediction because it means the service is over and we can go get donuts.
The word Beatitude comes from the Greek word Makarios which literally translates happiness, but happiness meant something different then than it does today. Happiness today often describes a feeling, feeling happy. But then it described a condition of life, a state of being that was not based on outward circumstances that change. So the better word is blessing. That’s the other word that is often used for beatitude, blessing. That’s why most English translations begin each beatitude, “blessed are you…” But just what all goes into that word?
Last year our daughter and her boyfriend sat down with Susan and me to let us know they wanted to get married and they said, “We would like your blessing.” Now what did they mean? That they wanted our permission? Well, maybe, but they didn’t need our blessing. They’re grown adults. Did they mean they we want your approval? Perhaps, but what does it mean to say I approve of someone? Its kind of a judgement to speak that way. It seems they are saying something more? Permission. Approval. Support. Favor. Love. It’s a big word isn’t it? It’s important to hear, You have my blessing.
My old preaching professor in seminary said that’s really the best way to interpret Jesus’ words. Rather than saying “blessed are you,” He is saying, “You have my blessing.” You who are poor in spirit, mourning, meek, merciful, pure in heart, hungering for righteousness, peacemakers, persecuted. You have my blessing. Its one of the most powerful words in the Bible and its behind so many of the ups and downs of the story of the Bible.
Remember Jacob and Esau. Jacob tricks his father Isaac into thinking he is his older bother Esau so he can get what? His blessing. He steals the blessing and Esau doesn’t get his father’s blessing. And he’s mad enough to kill his brother and that starts the narrative that leads to the story of Israel. It can be traced back to a desperate longing to be blessed.
Maybe Jesus understood that many of us can tell the same story. Deep inside of us is a longing to be blessed, but what doesn’t make sense is why Jesus begins the sermon with the benediction? With the blessing?
Remember whose listening, the crowds. The ones who are interested but haven’t made a commitment. And then, down front, he has the disciples. The ones who really want to live the good life. You would think Jesus would do what we do, hold the benediction until the end. Let the crowd know what’s expected of them first. You want to live the good life? You want to sit down front next to Peter and Andrew and James and John, well then, let me be clear, there’s going to be a lot expected of you. You’ll have a lot to live up to. I’m going to explain it all, but then, if you do these things that I say, you’ll receive my blessing.
Aren’t we all taught that is the way life works? The child brings the report card home, 4 A’s and a C. She shows her parents. They say, that’s great but what do we need to do to get that C up there? By the time she makes it to high school is has been driven into her, everything rises and falls on your performance. It starts now. Your grades will determine what king of college you can go to. The competition is great. The better the school, the better the life that follows. She takes her first job. She hates it. But she’s told oh, just get through these first two year, then you can get promoted, that’s when it becomes fun. But you look at the folks who’ve been there ten years or more who are supposed to be having all the fun and they don’t look much happier. When does the blessing come?
Ever known anybody who has a hard time receiving a compliment? I kind of understand this myself. Someone says, Rob that was a really good sermon, and I say, I don’t know. I didn’t tell that story quite right. I forgot this one part. Andy they usually say, Will, it spoke to me. Why is it so hard to just say think you? Because somewhere inside of a lot of us is this idea that blessing has to be earned.
Fred Craddock says, It is more difficult to hear and receive a blessing than to attempt to achieve more.
Maybe Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount with the benediction because he knew that what people really needed was a good word. That before he laid on them the high standards of the good life, he wanted them to understand these demands are not a test.
If you pass then God will accept you. Then you will be worthy of a blessing. No! He wants people to know that all are invited. People who want the good life but just can’t seem to find it. People who have had things happen to them that make them wonder “is God out to get me?” People who just can’t seem to get there on their own. People who quietly go about doing good but wonder if it matters. To everyone who really desires it, Jesus says, “You have my blessing.” It has nothing to do with your earning it.
Perhaps Jesus understood that everyone listening to him that day had a little boy or little girl inside them just yearning to know that.
Did you see the movie The Sixth Sense with Bruce Willis? Its really kind of a crazy story. Will is a child psychologist helping a kid who sees dead people. They talk to him. The psychologist becomes convinced that what is happening to the boy is real and he helps him. The boy’s mother is a single mom who works hard to keep a home and raise her son. She’s lived with a missing blessing in her life that goes back to her own relationship with her mother. She knows something is wrong with her don but he’s afraid to tell her. Finally at the end of the movie is a scene where he is in the car with his mother and decides it’s time to tell his secret. He does and then she shares something more. Watch this…
That scene gets me every time I see that movie. As fictional as the plot is, that scene strikes me as something that is very real, the desire to receive a blessing.
Jesus invites everyone into this journey of the good life, but its not easy. The demands are high, but it starts with a blessing. Knowing that a good life is not something we have to earn. Its offered by Jesus. And when we’ve experienced His blessing it makes us want to live for goodness sake.
As Wednesday we offered imposition of ashes in the parking lot for people. We had two different times midday and early evening. It took the later time. It was about twenty below zero. With the wind chill, I don’t know, it was maybe minus 100 or so. But we were out there! Over the course of the 2 ½ hours we had just over 100 cars. Interestingly many, and maybe most, were not from St. Luke’s. It was people looking for a place where they could receive ashes, so they came. Different people, all kinds of people.
And I’ll admit, I was thinking to myself, “Why are we doing this? It’s as cold as a penguin’s little toe. Why are we out here?” And then this car drove up. It was an older model. Had some dings and dents in it. It was driven by an older woman who was alone. She rolled the window down. I said the words I had been saying that day as I marked the sign of the cross on her head, “From ashes you came and to ashes you shall return, BUT, you are so much more than ashes.” When she looked up there were tears starting to form in her eyes. I asked if she had any special request for prayer? She said she had a health concern. So I prayed for her. I ended the prayer asking that as she goes through this season she would know everyday that she is your beloved heavenly father. And she drove off.
About 15 minutes later, she returned. I though the car looked familiar but wasn’t sure. Then she rolled her window down and I saw the cross on her forehead and I said, “Well, we don’t have rules against second blessings.” She said, I want you to know I’m not looking for a church. I don’t want to be recruited. I am an Episcopalian. I came back to say thank you. I was very blessed by your words. And I want to give something to your church and she handed me a ten dollar bill. She said that’s all I have on me, but I wanted to give you something, I was blessed.
You could take this to Starbucks and it would barely get you two lattes, but in spiritual currency, this is priceless.