God's Spell on the World

Matthew 5:1-12
Ordinary Time -- Godspell
Elizabeth M. Deibert

Let us pray the prayer written in the 13th Century by Richard of Chichester, a prayer from which the song Day by Day was taken. “Thanks be to you, Lord Jesus Christ, for all the benefits which you have won for us, for all the pains and insults which you have borne for us. O most merciful Redeemer, Friend, and Brother, may we know you more clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly, day by day.”

We are looking forward to the Players of Peace performing their own version of Godspell a musical by Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak, which opened off Broadway on May 17, 1971, and has been performed in many places by many groups since. So why did Schwartz and Tebelak call it Godspell. The word gospel derives from the Old English, god-spell, meaning "good tidings" or "glad tidings". The first part of the word means both God and good, words that are synonymous because God is good and all good comes derives from God. The second part of the word gospel is “spell,” an Anglo-Saxon word originally meaning “saying” or “story.” But now “spell” has come to mean something that transforms you, which actually could be said of this narrative.

In the four accounts of Jesus’ life and death, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John there are many teachings of Jesus, but arguably one of the most important and most subversive of his teachings is recorded in three chapters of Matthew, a section called the Sermon on the Mount. It could be the most studied and the most ignored pieces of Christian literature. There are entire books on the twelve verses we are getting ready to read. Yet I am not sure Christians have really embraced the message.

We still think that to be blessed is to have worldly success, to be happy, wealthy, cheerful, powerful, secure, protected from harm and immune from sadness. But God’s spell on the world is that the exact opposite is true. God turned the tables upside down. We are blessed, we are fortunate, we are receiving God’s divine favor when we are poor and humble, sad and meek, merciful and forgiving, when we are mistreated by others for doing what is right.

Hear now the word of the Lord from Matthew 5:1-12

Jesus is speaking to his disciples. Whether or not others listened in, we do not know, but we assume he was speaking to those who had already decided to follow him, though like many of us, they did not always fully appreciate what that meant. We would do well to recite these at the beginning of every service to remind ourselves of the spell God has cast on the world. We need to know that things are just not what they seem.

The following people are recipients of God’s divine favor: the poor in spirit, the mourning, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for what is right, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those persecuted for God’s sake. They are blessed, who can hold up their heads because the Lord has named them favored, given them preference, restored their dignity. The word “Blessed” in its original context has an active, not passive sense, almost calling those who are favored to stand up, arise.

So let’s take a stroll through this upside down world, in which God’s spell is changing everything. Luke says, “poor” but Matthew says the “poor in spirit.” The poor in spirit, depressed, down and out, those who have lost hope. The opposite of poor in spirit is pompous and proud. How does one become truly humble? By hardship. It always irritates me when folks receiving an honor say “I am humbled by this award.” Rubbish. You are trying to sound humble, but really you are proud. To be humbled is to not receive the award, to lose. To be the kid not chosen on the team, the youth not invited to the party, the adult who has trouble getting a job. To be humbled is to be the first candidate out in a race, the person making the lowest grade, the one who loses their house or all their money.

The poor in spirit acknowledge their weaknesses, are aware of their emptiness, are not caught up in any accolades for themselves. They are potentially more aware of the kingdom of heaven because they have been losers in the kingdom of earth. "You're blessed when you're at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God.” (Eugene Petersen, The Message)

Blessed, favored, content are the ones who mourn. They will be comforted. "You're blessed when you feel you've lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.” (The Message) Jesus is not charging us to create loss in our lives, to victimize ourselves, but the truth is, we all do experience losses, and if we are living in his steps we mourn with others who experience loss. We mourn our losses and our failures – two different kinds of hurt. When we fail to be the kind of people we should be, and admit our failure, then we are promised the forgiveness of God, our supreme comfort. Karl Barth, a famous theologian of the 20th Century said, “A generation with no great anguish in its heart will have no great music on its lips.” When we lose family members by death or divorce, and when friends die or move away, we are sad, but in time we learn to feel the comfort of God’s Spirit in the darkness. Sometimes the darkness is truly dark and the emptiness refuses to be filled. But as we are acquainted with emptiness, then we better appreciate Jesus Christ, who gave up his life, emptied himself for us, and there is comfort in that. Then we are able to pray with Christ, “Take this cup from me. Though not my will but yours.”

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. A few weeks ago we talked about meekness, as one of the pieces of clothing we wear, along with compassion, kindness, humility, patience, forgiveness, and love. Remember that meekness is quiet strength, not weakness. One might ask how meekness is different from being poor in spirit. A meek person is one who feels confident enough to have nothing to prove. The meek person waits to be heard, listens intently to others, serves others graciously from a position of strength, not subservience. The meek person does not lust for power, and that’s why God says they will inherit the earth, because all who want to rule the earth, want to assert their power will do only harm because they serve themselves, not others. Can we not see the absence of meekness among the powerful of our day? I wish it would be possible to elect a meek person to political office. The system turns every one of them away from meekness I am sorry to say.

I heard Paul Eckel preach on this text in an afternoon service to install John Foulkrod at Palmetto Presbyterian. Paul Eckel talked about these beattitudes and particularly this one about hungering and thirsting for righteousness. He told us that the Greek words there are intensified. We’re not talking about a little hunger and thirst here. No, Jesus is talking about an insatiable hunger and undying thirst. He’s talking about the kind of hunger one feels when the last meal was many hours prior and the kind of thirst produced by Florida heat in August with no water bottle in hand. If you have that kind of hunger and thirst for God and for God’s way in the world, then you can be sure you will be filled. On the flip side, if you are hungry and thirsty for other things, which will not ultimately satisfy – food, drink, drugs, sex, money -- you will never be satisfied. You will never have enough unless you are hungry and thirsty for the One, the One, the One Lord who will satisfy your every need.

The merciful are blessed because mercy is always a boomerang. You toss out forgiveness and the blessing of that forgiveness will return upon you. Being merciful always liberates both the offended and the forgiver. You know how a dog who wants to play fetch will sometimes be so happy to retrieve the ball that he runs off with it, only to discover that the fun game ends if he doesn’t give the gift back. So it is with us when we run off with God’s forgiveness, like taking a rich piece of chocolate cake off to a corner to keep it all for ourselves. We get sick from having too much and not sharing. Mercy must be shared. It must be passed along, paid forward. Those who are truly thankful to be forgiven will find ways to forgive others. “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us.” There is no other way. Mercy must be shared.

To be pure in heart is to have singleness of heart. But most of us have hearts filled with all kinds of additives. We have hearts with divided interests. Yes, God but…. I want to serve you but let me do this first….I know you called me to give up this sin, but….I know you expect more generosity from me but I have these other financial commitments and these promises I have made to myself and others. If we want to see God, then we must be turned toward God with no ifs, ands, or buts.

Blessed are the Peacemakers. They are the true children of God. I call you peacemakers because you are helping shape this church, but I also call you peacemakers because I believe you are the children of God and I want to call you to a life of being who you really are. It is always God’s nature to make peace with us, so if we belong to God, then we are making peace with God and all the people God created – not just those who make us comfortable, who look like us, who talk like us, who understand our way of life, who justify our way of life. No, peacemaking is the hard work of reaching out to understand and to care for those different from us, those whom we could easily call enemy or stranger, but God calls friend, so we call friend, because we are children of God.

And if you are poor in spirit, sorrowful for yourself and others, meek, hungry and thirsty for God, merciful, pure in heart, and a true peacemaker, there is a very good chance you will not receive accolades from the world. Instead you might be persecuted for doing what is right. The first Christians experienced enormous physical persecutions initially from their families, friends, synagogue leaders and from the Roman government and its representatives. If we are bold to follow Christ, people might not understand. They might say bad things about us because they don’t understand this spell God has cast on the world. They may seek to undermine us, just as they did Jesus because this kind of truth-bearing love is a challenge to the values of the world.

But if you are rejected, you can rejoice and be glad, Jesus says, and he knows, because your reward will be great like his. "You're blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God's” reign on earth. “Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit” the Lord. “What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don't like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.” says God in the flesh, God incarnate. (The Message, adapted by Elizabeth)

The Peacemaking Italian, Saint Francis of Assisi was a 12th century contemporary of Saint Richard, Bishop of Chichester, the Englishman who wrote the Day- by- Day prayer. St Francis wrote this peace prayer, which we will now sing. Saint Francis like Saint Richard was overtaken by the God spell, was transformed by it such that he wrote a prayer to become a channel of God’s peace, a comforter, giver of mercy, one with a pure heart for service to God.

Let us hear this music all the way through as a prayer, then I will invite you to join me in singing these words as your prayer.