January 31, 1999
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Scripture Reading

Of all the words that Jesus spoke, of all the parables, exhortations, admonitions and sayings that bear the mark of his authority, perhaps there is none so familiar as the words of the Beatitudes:

Matthew 5:3-10 Blessed [are] the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 Blessed [are] they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. 5 Blessed [are] the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. 6 Blessed [are] they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. 7 Blessed [are] the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. 8 Blessed [are] the pure in heart: for they shall see God. 9 Blessed [are] the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. 10 Blessed [are] they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (KJV)

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I don’t think you can spend more than a few months going to Sunday School or church without hearing these verses from the Gospel of Matthew. I recall as a child of seven or eight that they were given to me on a beautiful bookmark for my Bible. We all learned them, we all knew them, they were both comfortable and familiar.

Well, imagine my surprise when I began to examine these verses in preparation for this Sunday and found, in various Biblical commentaries, that these are highly controversial. There are whole schools of thought about the meaning and purpose of what one commentator called "The Great Instruction."

I don’t want to lose your attention with the details, but let me at least give you a summary of three schools of thought:

1. These verses are concerned with the absolute demand of God upon all people. Jesus is expressing extreme demands, and even though he knows no one can completely respond to them, he hopes we will give it our best try.

2. Again, these verses present an ideal no one can live up to, but Jesus expresses them so that we would realize our inability to live up to God’s law; for our salvation we cannot depend upon our own goodness but must come to rely on grace alone.

3. These verses must be seen in the light that Jesus and his followers thought the end of time was drawing close and although nobody could live by the moral instruction of these verses for a long time, time was short and heroic efforts were required.

Well, after reading all this, I felt rather na´ve. I had never thought of the Beatitudes in this way, and I certainly don’t think my Sunday School teacher was thinking of them in this way when she gave them to me at age seven on a Bible book mark.

I had always thought that rather than being words that demand an impossible rule of life, these were words that brought comfort and hope. This is one case in the Bible where I’d like to see the live witnesses - I’d like to have seen the look on Jesus face when he spoke these words. Was it stern and foreboding? Was it angry and aggressive? Or was it bright and encouraging? Could there have been a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face as he spoke these words?

I have to admit that I sometimes find the tone of religion to be a bit heavy and dark. Even watching some of the church services that were broadcast at Christmas, I wondered if people were celebrating Good News or simply putting a Christian coating on a generally depressive outlook on life.

So I want to think of Christ saying these words with a look of compassion, encouragement, love and joy on his face. O Be Joyful in the Lord; sing before him all the earth! I want to think of Jesus as he appears on our bulletin cover today - bright eyes and big smile.

I don’t want to go against the scholars but I think I have grounds for my view on these verses. Thomas Merton wrote: The word of God will be recognized in actual experience because it does something to anyone who really "hears" it: it transforms their entire existence. The basis on which I judge these verses is that in actual experience I have seen the effect they have on people.

I use these verses almost every time I lead worship at the Nursing Homes.

You know, being in a nursing home can be a pretty rough experience. This is especially true for those who have the mental acuity to fully realize their situation. Both my parents spent their last years in a nursing home. By the time my mother arrived there she was not keenly aware of her immediate surroundings. But my father was, and it was a real challenge to his sense of life to end up that way.

My father was not shy about expressing this: "Who would have thought," he’d say to me, "that I’d end up like this!" Here was a guy who from a very early age was independent, supporting his mother and later his own family, years in professional sports and then an executive position at the Manhattan offices of a blue chip company. He had a life and it seemed to him that for no good reason at all it came down to being helpless and useless and broke. He did not like it one bit.

And he was not alone.

And so when I go to the nursing home and lead worship there I want to find those passages in the Bible that are full of comfort, encouragement, joy and hope. I have no interest in laying on these people an ethical demand impossible to fulfill so that they can experience their inadequacy and be convicted of their sin and turn to God’s grace alone. I do want them to turn to God’s grace, but at their point in life they don’t need to be beat over the head to do it.

So I use the beatitudes, and I see how they effect the hearts and minds of those who hear them. I see eyes close, I see faces relax, I see heads nod in agreement. Yes, they seem to say, I have been there. I know what it means to be poor in spirit, I know what it means to mourn, I know what it means to hunger and thirst for what is right and to show mercy. My heart has been purified by the fires of misfortune and I await with the righteous the blessed vision of God.

They do not receive these verses as impossible demands but as hopeful promises. The people sitting in those chairs and wheelchairs want the same thing as everyone else - they want happiness, blessedness, joy. But as they hear these verses they are reminded, as we might be reminded, that sometimes happiness comes from sorrow, and blessedness comes from humility, and joy comes from simplicity of the heart.

When I was a child one of our family enjoyments was watching the Alfred Hitchcock show on Sunday nights. It was the one which always began with his shadow walking into the line drawing of his rather corpulent profile. Several of those shows were so good that we would talk about them years later.

One favorite was about the woman who bludgeoned her husband with a frozen leg of lamb and then cooked the lamb and served it to the detectives who came to investigate the crime.

Another was about a man on a train who had dreams of the conductor saying: Willoughby, next stop. He saw a beautiful station and beyond it a beautiful town, but he did not get off the train. Of course, the mystery was that there was no such stop on that line. The show ends with him getting off the train at Willoughby, and the conductor trying to wake him at his usual stop only to discover that the man has died.

For whatever reason, we talked about that show quite a bit. And then, one day, coming home to Queens from school in Manhattan, I heard the conductor say: Bliss Street, next stop. Now I wasn’t dreaming; my subway line went from Queensboro Plaza to Rawson Street to Lowery to Bliss. And I must have heard the conductor say "Bliss Street, next stop", a thousand times. But on that day it hit me funny, just like "Willoughby, next stop." Only I thought, Bliss Street sounds a lot happier than Willoughby.

And I think this is how people can receive, and do receive, the message of the verses we call the Beatitudes - That in spite of present tribulation, in spite of poverty, loss, degradation, even fear, these are words of hope. Maybe we will arrive at Bliss Street today, maybe not. Perhaps that time will come only fully in the hour of our death; but know this- this gospel train stops at Bliss Street - it enters that land of happiness and peace where Jesus smiles and greets us with joy.

We hear it echo down the ages:

Blessed [are] the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed [are] they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed [are] the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed [are] they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. Blessed [are] the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed [are] the pure in heart: for they shall see God. Blessed [are] the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

Accept this encouragement; trust in these promises, and you will not be disappointed.

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Let us pray:

Psalm 103

Bless the LORD, O my soul,

and all that is within me,

bless God’s holy name.

Bless the LORD, O my soul,

and do not forget all God’s benefits --

who forgives all your iniquity,

who heals all your diseases,

who redeems your life from destruction,

who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,

who satisfies you with good as long as you live

Before you, O God, the source of our life, we join our hearts in prayer. We have gathered here today from many different homes, from many different walks of life, from many different experiences of faith. You know what is in our hearts, you understand the concerns that occupy our minds. You look upon us with kindness and compassion, and the power of your spirit is always ready to lift us up and give us strength.

We pray, O Lord, for the peace that is from above, for the loving kindness of God, for the salvation of the world.

We pray, O Lord, For the unity of the church of Jesus Christ and for an end to the prejudice and hatred that exists between religious communities,

We pray, O Lord, For the town of New Milford, for the greater Danbury area, for our country, our President, and all who exercise authority among us, r

We pray, O Lord, For all places of work and labor, for those who manage our commerce and industry, for those who direct our economy,

We pray, O Lord, For those who are unemployed, for those who work in unsafe and unsure conditions, for those who are exploited and who do not receive a just reward for their labor,

We pray, O Lord, For people who live with injustice and fear as their constant companions, for refugees, the homeless and the destitute,

We pray, O Lord, For all who are struggling with illness and disability, with the loss of a loved one, with broken relationships,

Especially we pray for:, the family and friends of Alice DuBois, for Georgina and Ross, for Michael Maffeian, for the blessed memory of Lucky Lermond

and those we name in the silence of our hearts.

We ask your blessing to be with David Clark and Joy Terrell who were married here yesterday.

Lord, mercifully assist us in our prayers. In all things teach us to seek your will. Direct our lives as we walk in the Way of Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.

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