“Blessings for a Feuding Family”

First United Presbyterian Church
“Blessings for a Feuding Family”
Rev. Amy Morgan
November 5, 2017
Listen to sermon audio
Revelation 7:9-17
9 After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.
 10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying, "Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!"
 11 And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God,
 12 singing, "Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen."
 13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?"
 14 I said to him, "Sir, you are the one that knows." Then he said to me, "These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
 15 For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
 16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat;
 17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."

Matthew 5:1-12
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.
 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
 3 "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
 4 "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
 5 "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
 6 "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
 7 "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
 8 "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
 9 "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
 10 "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
 11 "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

My parents had to convert our dining room into my bedroom. That’s how bad the fighting had become between me and my sister. We’d tried everything. Drawn lines down the middle of the room. Moved my clothing into a separate closet so I wouldn’t be tempted to borrow her outfits without asking. Unstacked the bunk beds so we could sleep on separate sides of the room. Nothing worked. My sister and I fought and bickered and complained until my parents finally gave up and moved me into the dining room where, instead of a closet, I had a wet bar.

There is nothing more vicious than a family fight. From sibling squabbles to confrontations between parents and teenagers, family in-fighting is the most hurtful and scarring kind of conflict. It’s easy to villainize a stranger, and we can usually shrug off a slight from someone we don’t know well. But when someone we love turns against us, insult quickly escalates to war.

The family of first-century Judaism was defined by its factions. Pharisees, with their strict adherence to the law that stretched beyond the temple and into everyday life. Sadducees, borderline secularists who held to temple rituals as a means to exert power and prestige. Zealots, who were determined that God was on their side in their quest to violently overthrow their Roman oppressors. And a milieu of smaller groups with singular beliefs and practices that contributed to the cultural-religious mix.

Jesus is born into this household of faith and begins to pick fights from the time he is 12 years old. Today’s text, known as the Beatitudes, or blessings, represents the very beginning of Jesus’ teaching ministry. He’s disrupted the Galilean fishing industry by recruiting several of their most promising young people to follow him as he wanders around teaching and healing people. Now he’s attracted attention, drawn a large crowd, and he takes off up a mountain. The newly recruited disciples, not sure what else they’re supposed to do, follow him. And then Jesus begins talking, directly to his disciples, with the crowd listening in.

Now, the Beatitudes may sound like this lovely list of blessings for folks who don’t appear to be particularly blessed. They offer reassurance to those who aren’t so well off at the moment that God is looking out for them especially and has good things in store for them.

The Beatitudes might sound like they line up nicely with some messages on Twitter from mega-church pastor Joel Osteen. Osteen assures his followers, “Life may have weakened and discouraged you, but where you are is not where God wants you to stay.” And “God has already lined up the right breaks, the right people, the answers you need.” Or, my personal favorite, “God made you. He knows everything about you, and He still approves of you.”

Now, I mean no offense to brother-in-Christ Joel, but not all Christians agree with his interpretation of the faith. In a most comical post on social media, the late great father of the Reformation, Martin Luther, responded to Osteen’s tweets, calling him “butter in sunshine,” “a toad eater and a fawner,” and a “cousin of the Antichrist.”

While Martin Luther’s twitter account is fictional, the epithets are actual quotes from the writings and letters of Martin Luther. His target was, or course, not Joel Osteen, but his brothers-in-Christ in the Catholic church. Luther’s criticism of his church family was so hurtful, so disruptive, that it’s effects are still felt today, 500 years later. Once Luther cleared out his closet and moved his bed into another ecclesial room, it seems there was no turning back from schism and the divisiveness that has defined the Christian faith ever since.

Lamentable as this continuing family feud may be, like a child in the back seat of a station wagon, I have to say, “He started it!” And that “he” would be Jesus. Up on that hill in Galilee, these 9 Beatitudes are Jesus’ version of Martin Luther’s 95 theses. Instead of nailing them to the door of the temple, as Luther did at the Wittenberg church, he writes them in the hearts of his followers.

Jesus is addressing a conflicted, contentious culture. There are abuses and misuses and misunderstandings in every part of the Jewish family of faith. The Beatitudes are no Joel Osteen tweet, no promise of prosperity. They are blessings on a divided people, on a family at war with itself. These are not words of comfort and assurance. These are words of reformation.

Those people you think are spiritually malnourished, led astray, on the outs with the religious authorities? They are the ones who can see and experience the realm of God.

Those folks who long for community, love, connection, who have hearts tender enough to be broken? They are the ones who can experience the love of God wrapping around them.

Those people you take advantage of and walk all over? They own this place.

Those people who’ve been truly oppressed, victims of injustice? They will be nourished for the revolution.  

Those people who know how to forgive, who can walk in someone else’s shoes? They are forgiven and free, and God is walking with them.

Those people with motives unclouded by selfishness and greed? They can stand face to face with God without fear.

Those people who refuse to engage with your petty infighting and will put themselves in the middle of your disputes to help heal your divisions? They are God’s people.

Those folks who are put down and kicked around because they speak truth to power? They’re stakeholders in God’s estate.

And you all, my followers. You will be spat on and called names and run out of town. And that is awesome. Because you are prophets, revolutionaries, reformers.

Jesus isn’t speaking in generalities. He’s talking about defined groups of people in his current context. The Beatitudes are not just promises of blessing, they are observations of the reality of God’s realm in heaven and on earth. These are fighting words.

Maybe Jesus, like Martin Luther, never intended to break with his faith, start yet another new Jewish faction called Christianity. But that’s what he got. These Beatitudes, these revolutionary blessings, kick off a reformation that ultimately takes Jesus to the cross.

His followers keep preaching these words, they keep sharing about the Jesus reformation. And eventually, they get to where they can no longer share a room with their Jewish brothers and sisters. The Christian faith moves out of the synagogue, shifts its Sabbath day, and claims its own space in the global religious landscape.

And people of faith have been picking up our stuff and moving out on each other ever since. There are more than 30,000 Christian denominations across the globe today, and new ones continue to be created by ongoing conflict within church bodies. While no one is crucified or burned at the stake, as in previous reformations, the church, in its ongoing reformation, continues to hurl insults and slander the opposition.

The last time my sister and I shared a room, we were in a hotel in Austin for a family funeral. We didn’t fight. Or bicker. Or steal each other’s clothes. In fact, we talked, and laughed, and shared lots of good memories. We haven’t said a cross word to each other in over 20 years.

“What brought about this miraculous transformation?” you might ask. Growing up, I suppose. Which is its own kind of reformation. Those words of Jesus that sought to reform his contentious Jewish family continue to reform each of us today. Encouraging us to give up childish categories of who’s “in” and who’s “out.” Developing the courage to love. Becoming old enough to know how little you know. Getting knocked around by the world enough to see that not everything is as clear-cut, black-and-white, right-and-wrong as we thought. Learning to forgive, and put others before ourselves. Discovering when to speak up and when to let things go. This was the reformation that drew my family together. And I can only pray that someday it will do the same for the family of Christ.

The Beatitudes are, in a way, the very definition of growing up. They illustrate a way of living that leads away from the infighting and factiousness of first-century Judaism, and the 16th-century Reformation and the 21st-century EVERYTHING. And they lead us toward that vision laid out in John’s Revelation of “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” No more picking up our things and moving out. All of us, together, without any fighting or tears.

That’s the vision we await, the vision we strive for, and the vision we live into – just a little bit, at least – each time we come to the table of our Lord Jesus Christ. Here, we are called to be one body. Here, we experience a mystical union with Christ and with all people. This is the spiritual food that nourishes us so that we might grow up, reform, and live together peacefully as one family. May it one day be so. Amen. 


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