God's Open House

Sunday, February 2, 2020

The Commandments

Next year it’s going to be different. My teachers used to say this to me. When you get into first grade, the teacher isn’t going to be nice like me. They won’t let you off with a warning just because you told the truth.

I used to hear this every year. Next year is going to be different. They won’t be as nice as I’m being. They won’t let you finish up your homework during class time. Middle school will be different. They won’t let you turn it in in pencil when it’s supposed to be in pen. They’ll make you redo the whole thing. High school will be different. They’ll just give you a 0. College will be different. The real world will be different. This is something I heard over and over. The next phase of your life will not be forgiving, kind, or helpful. You’ll be on your own.

The thing is, none of those places were ever as harsh and unforgiving as they were promised to be. Sure, the expectations for a first grader were different from the expectations for a college student, but people continued to be kind, forgiving, and gracious. I don’t think I ever encountered a world in which there is no grace. Perhaps this is a result of my privileged upbringing, but I spent my whole life expecting to run into the cold dark Blade Runner dystopia that I’d been warned about, and it turns out there are nice people everywhere.

Even in the real world, sometimes people are kind and forgiving when we don’t deserve it. Sometimes people let you off with just a warning “because you told the truth.” Sometimes someone else covers for your mistake. This isn’t always the case. The world isn’t sunshine and roses, and there are mistakes you can make that you can never undo. But sometimes the bank will waive a fee because you didn’t know about the fee and you were nice about it, or a doctor will fill out the form a little bit differently to save you a thousand dollars on the insurance bill, or work will extend the deadline because you wanted to see your kid’s performance, even though it’s against policy.

And I think the reason is that these lessons get ingrained in us from an early age. Teachers often warn us that life won’t be as nice as they are, but in the end, teachers often shape us so that life is. They teach us one thing, but they act differently. If you grew up with teachers extending you mercy because you were nice and respectful, then you’ll continue to do the same thing, even if you work at the DMV. The real world is still made of people. People who were told that life is cruel but taught that life doesn’t have to be.

In spite of all the warnings, the Sunday School values that people said would never last are still here. Even though the world doesn’t have to be nice or give out second chances, people still give out second chances, because we want to life in a nicer world. Everyone had someone who was kind to them. We were once forgiven for telling the truth, so forgive people for honesty and repentance. We were once offered grace, so we offer grace.

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, sort of. The values that we teach and act out become the values of our world, whether we want them to be or not. So when we forgive someone, they go into the world knowing that they can forgive. Grace begets grace. Love begets love. Kindness begets kindness. The world we have is the one we choose to create and believe in.

I think about this when I read the Beatitudes. They are one of the most famous and important passages in Christian Scripture. You could write a book about how these few simple blessings upend the world and invite us into the radical love that God has for us. What I wouldn’t give for some town or county somewhere to decide to put the Beatitudes on their courthouse steps instead of the Ten Commandments. In the Book of Matthew these are basically Jesus’ first teachings, a lecture he gave to his disciples while standing on a mountain. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

When we read them, we notice the beautifully simple way they turn the world upside down. All these categories of the downtrodden, desperate and forsaken, and Jesus says they are blessed. It’s a beautiful vision of a world in which there is justice for all. The hungry, the thirsty, and the poor are blessed. The peacemaker, the meek, the persecuted are blessed. What a world, right? Can you imagine?

But I guess the sad thing is that we have to imagine to see it that way. The blessings don’t line up with what we see in the real world. They run against the grain of everything we know about how the world really works. Blessed are the merciful? Yeah, right. Nice guys finish last. Blessed are the meek? Only the strong survive. Blessed are the poor in spirit – whatever happened to personal responsibility, am I right? Hasn’t Jesus ever heard of survival of the fittest?

The world doesn’t naturally bless the meek, the poor, the mourning, or the persecuted. These aren’t statements of how the world is except when we make them so. The world does not naturally tend to peacefulness, but violence. The hungry and the thirsty are hungry and thirsty because they inherit nothing. It’s heartbreaking to think about how little our world reflects what Jesus says.

I grew up reading these as a description. I read them in the gospel, but I’m not blind. I know what happens to the meek. Peacemakers get thrown in jail or murdered by weapons makers. The meek get told they didn’t work hard enough to get ahead. The merciful are told they are enablers—mercy is a pipe dream. So I just assumed that these must be talking about the future, somehow. Someday, I added to the verses in my head – the poor will be blessed. Someday, the meek will inherit the earth. Someday righteousness will be rewarded. Someday, the people who choose the difficult, dangerous path that Jesus gave to us will be rewarded, instead of punished.

But the thing is, Jesus doesn’t say “someday.” Jesus doesn’t say “will be blessed” He says blessed are. Which means that I think we can’t let ourselves off the hook by putting them off to the future, and only imagining these blessings. The blessings aren’t what happens when we kick back and wait. They are what happens when you choose to shape the world differently from the way they tell you. We choose who we bless. We choose what behavior we’ll reward, celebrate, and look up to.

So it might be better to think of them not as a description or an expression of hopefulness, but as a command. It’s not a promise, or a hope, or a prediction. It is a word to be acted on. The Beatitudes must be something that we absorb and adopt into our daily lives and make them true. It begins here, in church. The church is a community where we try to act out or practice how the world should be so that we can make it so out there.

In God’s community, the poor in spirit are blessed. So bless the poor in spirit. In God’s vision those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed. So bless those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

The blessings are true only insofar as we make them true. It’s up to us. We can have a world in which the poor are blessed. The mourners are blessed. The meek are blessed. When hunger and thirst for justice will be satisfied.

The world that we have is the world that we have been shaped to create. It is merciful insofar as people have made it merciful. It is cruel insofar as people have made it cruel. When you go out into the world, you have the choice as to what you’re going to put into it, and what you’re going to believe in it. So choose to be kind.

I told you before I began the scripture that Matthew is setting up Jesus as the new Moses. Moses went up the mountain and he came back down with the Ten Commandments. Jesus went up the mountain and gave us the Beatitudes. These are the new commandments. They aren’t a rejection of the Ten Commandments, they are a fulfillment. They shape how we treat our neighbor and what we expect from our world.

So these are our new commandments. Love them. Live them. Bless the poor, the hungry and thirsty. Comfort the mourning. Let the meek have their due. Put your life on the line with the peacemakers. Reward righteousness instead of punishing it. In so many words, choose to be kind, so that the world we leave behind is not so harsh as the one we grew up in.