Sermons

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, January 29, 2017 Mass By the Reverend Stephen Gerth

Year A: Micah 6:1–8; Psalm 37:1–6; 1 Corinthians 1:26–31*; Matthew 5:1–12

Today’s gospel lesson is familiar, well-known for a lot of reasons. It’s the beginning of Jesus’ longest and most famous sermon, the one we call the Sermon on the Mount. It’s a passage countless Christians have memorized since Matthew’s gospel first circulated. The opening words of this sermon captured the experience of Matthew’s community of faith in a time of great persecution and great suffering.

Today’s gospel has also been the appointed gospel for All Saints’ Day since before and after the Protestant Reformation,[1] and we will hear it again this year on November 1—but with a different epistle, one with the question, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and whence have they come?” But today my focus is on Jesus’ sermon, not on the saints.

Beginning this Sunday and continuing for three more Sundays, we will hear all of the fifth chapter of Matthew. The Sermon on the Mount is actually spread over three chapters. Some years we also hear one passage from the sixth chapter—about being anxious—Solomon and the lilies of the field,[2] and some years one passage from the seventh chapter—about the houses built on rock and sand.[3] Quite honestly, I have not had time this week to look at what we never hear at Sunday Masses.

Recently I’ve started checking the gospel translations of the latest edition of the Roman Catholic Church’s New American Bible, Revised Edition.[4] It’s sometimes better than the Revised or the New Revised Standard Version. But the only translation of the Bible that I could find that translates the Greek word makários by its ordinary meaning, which is “happy,” is something called Young’s Literal Translation by Robert Young, a Scottish publisher, in 1862.[5] Makários is rendered as “blessed” in all the rest.

The Latin word from which English gets “blessed”—beatus—means happy. The second go around for our new Prayer Book psalter made the leap from “Blessed is the man” to “Happy are they.”[6]

For some unknown reason, even the text of the new hymn at the beginning of Evening Prayer, “O Gracious Light,” a third-century Greek text that is also identified in the Prayer Book by its first words in Greek, Phos—light—hilaron—happy, hilarious—avoids the word “happy.” Now a couple of hymn versions we sing manage to make the light “glad”[7] or “gladsome,”[8] but I don’t know of a version that has the courage to call the light “happy.”

In his commentary on Matthew, New Testament scholar Ulrich Luz addresses the issue as well as anyone. He points out that, although in Classical Greek makários was how the gods were fortunate, happy, fulfilled, because they were gods, in New Testament Greek the word means, “ ‘happy’ in the fullest sense of the word.”[9]

Matthew and Luke were both working from what scholars now call, “The Sayings Source.” It used to be called simply “Q” from the first letter of the German word for “source,” “quelle.”[10]

Luke probably quotes the Sayings Source directly when his Jesus says to his disciples, “Happy the poor, for yours is the empire of God”—remember in New Testament Greek, the word translated as kingdom is not a place, but “sovereign power.”[11] Matthew’s Jesus famously says, “Happy the poor in the spirit, the reign of heaven—the empire of heaven—is theirs.”[12]

“Poor” in Luke refers to poverty. Professor Luz writes that in Matthew, “Social poverty moves to the background; psychic need moves to the foreground.” By psychic need, Luz means the totality of what a person feels and experiences in life.[13]

In Matthew, when Jesus is asleep in a boat, his disciples wake him crying, “Save, Lord; we are perishing.”[14] John Wesley called this, “the first step we take in running the race that is set before us.”[15] The poor in spirit are those who turn to the Lord; they are perishing without Jesus Christ.[16]

In Matthew, some of the beatitudes are about what we do or should do. Some look forward to the life of the world to come. Some are frank about the suffering that may come to Christians in this life. In the last three verses of the passage, Matthew’s Jesus uses the word “persecute” three times:

Happy are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake . . . Happy are you when they insult you and persecute you . . . rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven. Just so did they persecute the prophets before you.[17]

I think Syrian and Iraqi Christians today, Armenian Christians since the genocide in the Ottoman Empire, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Nazi Germany, and Christians in communist countries hear an unconditional assurance of salvation in the beatitudes.

Finally, because of the announcement yesterday of a moratorium that “prohibits people from seven countries—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen—from entering the U.S. for 90 days and pauses the admission into the U.S. of people granted refugee status for 120 days while the [new] administration revises immigration screening procedures,”[18] I wish I had heardsomeone in authority call to our attention Jesus teaching, “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”

We Episcopalians used to pray often for the president of the United States, though not by name. The prayer most used included these words, “Grant to The President of the United States, and to all in authority, wisdom and strength to know and to do thy will. Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness; and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in thy fear.”[19] With respect, I think it would not be inappropriate for us to pray those words again.

✠ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

 

[1] Massey H. Shepherd, Jr., The Oxford American Prayer Book Commentary (New York: Oxford University Press, 1950), 255–56.

[2] Matthew 6:24–34.

[3] Matthew 7:24–27.

[4] New American Bible, Revised Edition (2010).

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Young's_Literal_Translation, (Accessed 29 January 2017).

[6] Psalm 1:1.

[7] “Glad light of worship,” Sing to the Lord: Music for the Liturgy, Nashotah House, Nashotah, WI (n.d.).

[8] “O gladsome Light,” The Hymnal 1982, hymn 36.

[9] Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1–7: A Commentary, trans. James E. Crouch, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2007), 190.

[10] Ibid., 19.

[11] Luke 6:20. My translation after suggestions of Mark Davis in his blog, http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2014/01/honoring-dishonored.html, (Accessed 29 January 2017).

[12] Matthew 5:3. My translation after Davis (Ibid.) and Luz, 185.

[13] Luz, 192. See also n. 69, 192.

[14] Matthew 8:25.

[15] Luz, n. 70, 192.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Matthew 5:10–12. Luz, 185.

[18] http://www.wsj.com/articles/what-does-president-trumps-travel-ban-do-1485717429, (Accessed 29 January 2017).

[19] The Book of Common Prayer (1928), 19.

 

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