“Sitting with Jesus”
Message preached on
September 9, 2018
“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain;
and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.”
So begins what we often call the “Sermon on the Mount” in the Gospel of Matthew. Filled with the essentials of what Jesus taught, pulled together in the first book of the New Testament, I find this a good place to turn when I need to connect with my Lord – especially now that my world has been altered by the dread “C” word. Through a port embedded in my skin, I receive toxic cocktails intended to kill cancerous cells in my body. Later, surgery will remove and replace certain bones, followed by more chemotherapy, as well as radiation. A year ago, this was unthinkable. Now, it is my present walk, and I need Jesus more than ever on this journey. And I need you as my brothers and sisters in Christ, as you need me. We walk together.
Chapter 5 of Matthew starts out with a lot of people attracted by whatever they heard about Jesus. From synagogue to synagogue he had proclaimed the good news of God’s kingdom, and along the way he healed people with all sorts of diseases. Folks from all over came to him, seeking relief from their illnesses. That is where this sermon begins, with Jesus surrounded by crowds of people needing to be made whole. There I am among them. You also?
A shift, however, takes place, as Jesus moves away from the crowds and heads uphill. One might think that he is going to use the height to be able to speak to everyone – a master orator to the masses. Like an evangelist preaching in a stadium or large auditorium, with equipment to amplify his voice for all to hear. But such is not the case here with this “sermon on the mount.” Instead, Jesus “went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.” The crowds fade. Front and center, gathered around him is his small band of disciples. I want to be there also with them, a disciple – not just a face in the crowd, a desperate need to be met, just someone attracted but not committed to follow. No, I want to sit at his feet as a disciple. Just sitting with Jesus. You also?
For the duration of my cancer treatment, as I have opportunity to share with you – whether it be by video from hospital or home, or face to face in our sanctuary – I will be dwelling here with you, sitting with Jesus through this sermon on the mount. I hope to speak more of Jesus and less of what I am going through, but perhaps my personal testimony along the way of our common journey with him can bless your walk. Please, share your own stories. May our joys and concerns include (as it says) “words of testimony and praise.”
Sitting with Jesus, he begins with what we call “beatitudes.” What a fancy word. Makes you think of something beautiful. Of course, as his list unfolds the questions rise: that is beautiful? How can it be? It almost sounds like a curse: poverty, grief, humility, hunger and thirst. Of course, we then hear mercy, purity, peace. And then comes conflict and persecution. There is beauty in all of this? we wonder as we sit with Jesus. Is he just messing with us?
The Greek word, “Makarioi,” can be translated as “Blessed” or “Happy.” I recall that one great orator of the last century, Robert Schuller, called these the “Be happy attitudes,” 1 which sort of implied that if only you could just get your mind wrapped around this way of positive thinking, all will be well. I have a hunch, however, that these blessings are less about us, and our ability to just think right, and more about God. Schuller did imply as much, but you know, his grand Crystal Cathedral is now a Catholic church. His voice has been stilled, as will be every voice – mine included. There is, however, a deeper voice that speaks in and through us all. This voice speaks from a hillside, with disciples gathered around.
I believe that we hear Jesus speak most effectively in small settings, sitting together. When gathered, I imagine him seated among us. An empty chair next to us, perhaps. Or speaking through someone who reads his words in scripture, whatever translation or paraphrase. I hear him speak also as persons gathered around try to put what he says into their own words, wrestling with it even. And those moments when the words open into different territory, and you wonder how this person traveled from point A to point T in their own journey, I hear Jesus speak also. There is blessing in this. Gathered together, sitting with Jesus, a small band of disciples, there is no judgement. Just listening souls. Seeking, as we sometimes say, the mind of Christ. Together.
Please join me just now in this first blessing on the hillside, as I seek with you what might unfold. I may be doing the talking, but wrestle with me, continue the pondering. Share with others what you hear. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus begins. Words that bring us up short. Being poor is not exactly a status we might consider a blessing, whether we speak in literal or figurative terms: actual poverty or poverty of spirit. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is quoted as saying, “Blessed are the poor” (6:20).
I am blessed, as I face into this illness, by having good insurance through my wife. Otherwise we would be heading into debt to cover all the expenses. Many people are flying without insurance. Bankruptcy is not what I think of as a blessing. And yet, Jesus said, according to Luke, “Blessed are the poor,” adding, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Not “will be someday,” but “is now.” That’s hard to grasp. I don’t wish to romanticize poverty.
We have many stereotypes concerning those who are poor. From one angle we see the poor as lazy, that they are the cause of the condition in which they find themselves. If only they would pull themselves up by their bootstraps (whatever a bootstrap is today), they’d work themselves out of poverty… Of course, we know it’s much more complicated than that. Another stereotype from another angle is that those who are poor are more generous comparatively than those who are rich. To be honest, there is truth in many stereotypes, like that one. But every person is more than a stereotype. Likewise, every truism has its limits. Like “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” What’s not added is, “And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod.” 2
“Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” That’s according to Luke, who remembers Jesus claiming the mantle of the prophet Isaiah, who said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor” (4:18). Matthew’s beatitude adds “blessed are the poor in spirit.” Theirs is still the kingdom. Not one day will be, but now is. My entryway to this blessing is through this door, for while finances are still very much a part of my struggle at present, there is more a poverty of spirit that covers the ground upon which I presently journey.
Where am I when it comes to this cancer within? Am I in denial? Am I angry? Have I accepted it as part of who I am? I’m not sure. Where is my spirit in all this? My oldest sister calls me to claim my Swedish heritage on my mother’s side, reminding me that I am a Viking. Do I have that kind of fighting spirit within? I’d like to think so. Some days, however, I wonder. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus said… Thank you, Lord. If it all depends upon me, where would I be? I know I need that “strong as a bull” inner fortitude that helped my brother-in-law fight through 7 years of colon cancer, but that bull often runs away.
“Theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus says to those who feel poor in spirit. When the bull runs away, when you wonder where that inner Viking is, God is on the move. His reign is here and now, even when you can’t feel it. Eugene Peterson paraphrases it in The Message as, “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.” That’s a comfort to know – comfort meaning something that fortifies us for the journey, rather than covers us like a warm blanket. Though quilts are good, they remind of us a deeper design woven through the fabric of our experience.
Speaking of which, I received a gift before this recent hospitalization. I had called the Susquehanna Valley Ministry Center to let them know I had to pull out of teaching a class on worship for ministers-in-training in our district next January through March. We sort of knew this was a possibility when I said yes to doing it. My trip to the ER the other week clarified things. Donna Rhodes, who heads up the center, asked if anyone had given me a prayer shawl. “No,” I answered. And so she sent me one from her church. Folks there make them to share.
After it arrived, I was working on some online banking, and my brain was not cooperating – not an uncommon experience when in treatment for cancer. Some call it “chemo brain.” I became very frustrated, almost to tears, because I couldn’t remember important things. I covered my shoulders with this shawl, and found it helpful. Not only did the person who made it do so with prayer, she or he also remembered a pattern as they crocheted. So, prayer and memory were woven through this shawl. Everything does not depend upon my memory. Hallelujah! We remember together. The kingdom of God is ours, for we remember that God is on the move now, even when some of us forget. Those of you who struggle to remember important things, there is a deeper remembering going on, a blessing amid your poverty of spirit. God’s pattern is quilted through today.
If I might share another hospital story – the other day, as Melanie and I were talking about whether I had accepted this cancer, or where I was along the way, my nurse, Theresa, mentioned that she often asks her patients if they would appreciate her praying for them. Well, right there, as we said yes, she sat with us and prayed for us. What a blessing that was for this poor in spirit guy! It was like God’s kingdom was here, this young African-American nurse remembering me to God, weaving the kingdom around me and Melanie, the Holy Spirit on the move, fortifying body, mind, and inner spirit for the journey. What a gift!
Indeed, what a gift it is to be together, sitting with Jesus, even if we do so from a distance, by video from hospital room to meetinghouse, both places a sanctuary. I pray you have been blessed along the way of your own journey today. Let it be so. Amen.
1 Robert Schuller, The Be (Happy) Attitudes: 8 Positive Attitudes That Can Transform Your Life, ©1985, Thomas Nelson.
2 Trevor Noah, Born a Crime, ©2016, Spiegel and Grau, p. 190.