September 9, 2007

"Wonderful News"
Scripture: Matthew 5:1-12
Sermon by Rev. Kathleen Groff
Dundee United Methodist Church

  How many times have we looked up at the moon and noted its beauty, especially on a clear night? One of the things that radically changed our perception of our planet earth is the voyage to the moon. I remember the lump in my throat as I heard those first words and watched the first steps taken on the surface of the moon. No longer did earth seem to confine us, but the entire universe sat waiting to be explored. And for the first time we could look back on the earth and see it from a different perspective. When I look at pictures of the earth taken from beyond earth’s atmosphere, I have a greater sense of our relatedness to one another. It seems that we must begin to work together to preserve this multi colored orb completing its trajectory around the sun, year after year with its precious cargo of life in the seeming barrenness of outer space. But when my mind returns to earth, I look around and hear the news and I see much turmoil and chaos as we struggle with each other to live. Sometimes the struggles we endure seem overwhelming, a never ending battle for peace and justice.

  Jesus came to offer a different perspective! His whole purpose in life was to offer a perspective of hope. And nowhere in the Bible is that perspective more eloquently given than in the Sermon on the Mount. Many people read the Beatitudes as if they were a list of ways to live life and if we obeyed those ways, the world would be a much better place. Perhaps that’s true, but if we think of them as Jesus’ way of telling people how to behave we miss the bigger point. I would like to present a little bit different perspective in looking at those precious beatitudes. In truth Jesus is saying that people who already are like what he is describing are in good shape. They should be happy. Jesus doesn’t mean that the world is already that way. We know that those who mourn often are not comforted, the meek certainly don’t run things, and justice and peace do not abound. But Jesus does announce that that way of life is coming, it’s starting to be true. And this is indeed good news. Jesus is telling his new disciples and the people around him that God is at work in a new, fresh way. Jesus is offering good news to the poor, the mourners, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted. Things will be different! These are the promises of new life on earth. The world and the way of doing life will be turned upside down. In other words, God is making a new covenant, a covenant that changes and transforms hearts and attunes them to God’s way of living. Jesus is here to make that beautiful ball we see from outer space work right and be a blessing as it was intended to be. These are the promises of new life on earth.

  So often we look at the world around us and think that these promises are for a future time and place we call heaven. But to think that way is to miss the wonderful news Jesus brings. Heaven is not just a place somewhere beyond our earth in the future. Heaven is a here and now way of existing in God’s space. Heaven is as close as the air we breathe, a reality that interlocks with our earthly reality. Someday, Jesus is saying, they will be joined together and the blessings Jesus talks about will be known by all people. It’s not just a promise for the afterlife. Heaven is experienced here and now, not in its fullness, but we catch glimpses of it as we live our lives in Christ.

  I had a professor in seminary who I believe caught glimpses of heaven more frequently than most of us do. He revered the scriptures so much that when he read them he wrapped a prayer shawl around him, opened the pages of his Bible reverently, and breathed a deep breath before he began reading. When he spoke about the Word he spoke passionately and frequently paused as if to drink in its meaning. There were times when I was convinced that he was catching one of those glimpses of heaven as he spoke because his words seemed to reflect a profound sense of God. Those people are very rare it seems, but they do exist. Most of us take a much more cavalier attitude about God, about Jesus and about the Word of God. But we still catch glimpses of heaven when we see the work of Christ in those around us.

  Heaven is present in the interchange between someone in need and the one who gives. Heaven is present in the beauty of a song that lifts our hearts to God. Heaven is present in those “aha” moments of beauty and wonder when we are drawn to intimacy with God. Heaven is present in the simple statement from a child proclaiming that Jesus is in her heart. Heaven is present in the interaction and presence of a comforter when one is mourning. That’s what Jesus is telling the crowd! Heaven is present in the ones who truly understand the ways of peace and practice them. Heaven is present in one who stands up for their faith in spite of opposition. Heaven is present when the meek receive Jesus, or the proud become meek in the presence of Jesus. Blessed are you because heaven is present in Jesus!

  I read the story of Thomas Bruce, 60 years old, when 4 soldiers entered Bruce’s restaurant in Accra, Ghana shortly after the apartheid system was dismantled. The soldiers ate and enjoyed themselves until it was time to pay the bill which was about 3 American dollars. They refused to pay and instead took him to a prison facility where he was brutally tortured many different ways. After the abuse they drove him battered and bleeding back to his home. A few weeks later the soldiers returned and ransacked his restaurant, carrying off all his liquor. Several weeks later they came back and when they found he had not replenished his liquor supply, they beat and tortured him again. After hearing Bruce’s story, a Catholic bishop asked, “If one of those soldiers came back today and offered you a drink, would you accept it?” Bruce replied, “Yes, I would embrace him and tell him I have forgiven everything.” When he was asked to explain why his initial bitterness and hatred toward the soldiers had disappeared, Bruce explained that while at first the lingering pain from the tortures caused him to hold on to his anger, now that he had finally begun to heal physically, he was able to let go of the resentment and move on. His suffering no longer defined his life. The kingdom of heaven had shone through!

  God is acting in and through Jesus to create such a world that we will have blessings lavished upon us and we will be living in God’s space and in right relationship with our Creator. When we follow Jesus we are the recipients of those blessings he spoke about and we catch glimpses of the way this world was meant to be. We lost the garden of Eden through sin, but God, through Jesus is showing us how to get it back. Right at the beginning of his ministry Jesus lays it out for us, that which we can expect when we follow in his footsteps. The very kingdom of heaven is just five letters away, J-E-S-U-S. And if we look hard enough we will see that the kingdom of God has begun to show its reality as we love one another and work together to do God’s will. When and where are we experiencing those blessings here and now? No life is so dark and empty that Jesus cannot lighten and fill it.

  Heaven is among us this morning! Where and how are we being blessed by it, especially in the midst of our troubles and our joys? Knowing that heaven is here changes our perspective and helps us see a bigger picture, a more hopeful picture.