First in series: The Sermon on the Mount
The Beatitudes: being a community that feels safe
We're starting today a new series of talks on Jesus’ sermon on the mount from the Bible's book of Matthew, chapters 5 to 7.
I'm excited because the Sermon on the mount is, as much as any snapshot from the Bible, comprehensive. If you want to find yourself living a more purposeful, happy and less self-centered life you'd be hard-pressed to find a better starting point than Jesus' sermon on the mount. And if you're wanting to reach new depths in your spiritual life (to deepen in "discipleship" to use a Biblical phrase) the sermon on the mount will challenge you in the most life-giving ways on an extremely diverse set of factors - touching your whole life. We are going to be mining a rich well of resources in this series. Here's hoping you find there's something specifically for you in this!
The sermon on the mount opens with what is known as The Beatitudes - a bunch of statements in which Jesus declares "blessed are such and such people"
A quick note before we read. As I prepped this week for speaking this morning I couldn't help but keep thinking about the social media hashtag “blessed” going viral... you know like "I'm so thankful for my family #blessed"
I wonder though if you've seen how “hashtag-blessed” used ironically has gone viral too... so like "my family never listens to me #blessed" -- that’s what keeps coming to mind for me.
I bring this up because (and I want to own that I am part of the problem here) we are a cynical people we Americans... it can be tempting for people like me to read the beatitudes as though they are mushy sentimentality... Which would really cheapen them. They are definitely not that.
Alright let’s read from Matthew 5 (it’s in your program if you’d like to follow along)...
1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them.
He said: 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 be shown 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 because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Jesus' statements here are striking here for a simple reason: they are not what any people believe.
What people believe is, blessed are... The rich The in control The strong Those who don’t have problems What we all believe is: "Blessed are those who present well" The ancient Mediterranean world of Jesus believed that then, And we believe that today, just in a different way... This is a deeply human belief
People who study culture would call the culture Jesus is speaking to: An Honor based culture Where your most important asset was your "honor" whether ascribed or acquired - but it could not exist without a group of people to affirm it or take it away - it was your social standing, your clout, the goodness of your name or reputation
And all of the peoples whom Jesus declares "blessed" would not rank high on the honor scale in the ancient Mediterranean world... Being insulted or persecuted publicly is the definition of being stripped of one’s honor The meek, merciful, and pure rarely come out on top… it’s the powerful, cunning, and corrupt who tend to win The mourning, grieving, and recovering are some of the first to be forgotten in society’s rat race One essayist says this about “blessed are the poor in spirit”:
The truly poor were those who were destitute of all resources and were reduced to begging. Even more to the point, they were poor because in such condition they had lost their honor and had plummeted on the social scale. Thus, the word “poor” is connected with but is not primarily about economics. It is about honor. Christ’s beatitude “blessed are the poor” is an oxymoron. It says in essence, “How honorable are those who suffer a loss of honour.’”
Today, our culture is quite different. BUT Jesus' words STILL feel like a striking critique. We ALSO have a background belief that "blessed are those who present well", just in a less explicit way. For us it's not about honor in the eyes of others, it's about individuals living up to an internal sense of being put together. An internal sense of right, correct, appropriate
Here’s how this plays out: we spend a lot of energy trying to fix our problems alone...
Growing up, my family had a sort of unspoken motto, that we don't let others see the dirty laundry. My older brother had an extremely volatile teenage experience, which led to lots of police visits to the house, occasionally us kids staying at a family friend’s house for a night “just in case”, and confusing talks for my sisters and me with our parents. The general feeling was it's our responsibility to get our family crap together and then others can be let in - It wasn't that we were trying to keep up appearances - this wasn't about "what the neighbors would say" - it was just this internal sense that this is our responsibility
And I’ve taken that into my adult life. When someone asks if I need help with something -- from doing the dishes to doing my taxes -- I just knee-jerk-response say “no, no worries, I’ve got it”... I’m only finally learning to have the courage to double-back and say: “You know, actually, I do need some help.”
Or I think of a friend I had in college who always seemed to be excitedly reporting some amazing growth he'd just experienced and casually talking about how he'd actually been in a really dark place but now he's better... it always led me to think: so this sounds great but how come we didn't know you were in a dark place? - that sounds serious.
I want to as gently as possible acknowledge the good intentions behind these tendencies to fix our problems on our own and keep responsibility to ourselves but call them what they really are: hiding.
Just like the honor-based reality of the ancient Mediterranean world, our hiding reveals a belief opposite to the beatitudes.
And Jesus speaks into this. For one thing, to critique the socio-economic classism of his society (and ours). But also to say this: Living in accordance with the human tendency to believe "blessed are those who present well" is never going to make us happy, satisfied, at peace. For us today, hiding is never going to make us happy, satisfied, at peace.
Jesus' intent in teaching the beatitudes (and in all of his teaching) was to show ppl a truer way to life The truer way often feels counterintuitive, paradoxical - Jesus said things like to die is to live, to give up one's self is to find one's self - But they prove true when experienced
What if we believed the beatitudes instead of "those who present well" are blessed? How would that change our instincts and behavior?
A better question: what if a community demonstrated for us it was safe to believe the beatitudes?
Here's my message for us today: help us make this a space that is safe... where the beatitudes are our belief, and everyone feels that
Because that’s what it comes down to - what do people unthinkingly feel here? Not "what do we say to be true here?" - But what do people perceive to be true here?
And that's an important distinction. Because if I'm honest I don’t think this is true of us totally. I think we're reaching for it in some ways, but we need you to help us reach further.
If we feel truly safe here... none of us will ever have to calculate that the loneliness of staying in bed on Sunday morn wins over the required performance of going to church... because blessed are we even when we don’t present well none of us will ever fear showing up to this community when we're at a real low point or when we're fighting with our spouse because blessed are we even when we don’t present well when people gather in our community in groups or over meals, none of us will ever question in our minds whether to be honest or to "say what we're supposed to" because blessed are we even when we don’t present well
How you can help...
First: Make honest bids for connection (and model that for others)
This is an idea we learned from uber-popular speaker and researcher on shame & vulnerability Brene Brown… it can be a tricky balancing act…
On one end we're combatting hiding
For example, I have a friend who hates the word "frustrated" because he says we (himself included) so often hide behind that word rather than own more honest but potentially uncomfortable emotions like anger, disappointment…
It’s easier to say “I’m frustrated” than “I’m disappointed” or “I’m angry” but it’s also less honest
Other words we sometimes hide behind... when in a conversation about how you're really doing, we might respond with: "I’m tired" or a phrase like "things have been crazy"...
In my experience both of those are evasive and we say them because it’s more uncomfortable to say “I’m unhappy”
Sometimes, responses like this are appropriate - sometimes it's not evasive,
It’s boundary-setting because you can't (and shouldn't) go deep with everyone,
or it’s just all there’s time for because even with the people you can go deep with you can't every time you're with them...
BUT when it comes to conversations that are meant to go deep, that's when we can sometime hide behind buzz words or phrases because anger, disappointment, unhappiness are uncomfortable to express
On the opposite end of hiding, we're combatting dishonest bids for connection...
So say you have a crappy interaction with your boss…
An example of an honest bid for connection would be to call a friend and say “Hey, I got chewed out by boss today and I’m feeling defensive and like I’m 3ft tall right now, can we talk?”
An example of a dishonest bid for connection would be firing off a quick Facebook post about your rotten boss either trying to garner sympathy or cynically pretending to be unaffected… and then continually checking it for that bit of validation each like or comment gives...
Social media has a unique ability to encourage dishonest bids for connection
But Social Media isn’t the only thing we have to watch out for
Unfortunately churches (and other perceived authorities) can encourage dishonest bids for connection too...
A friend of mine told me about a challenging experience he had recently visiting a men's event run by a well respected church in his area.
He explained that the event felt more like a pop quiz than an honest engagement of potential life challenges.
Affirmation was given by the event's hosts when participants delivered what seemed to my friend like "the answers a man is supposed to in a religious setting"
The implicit message was: you will be praised for saying the (quote) “right things”, you will be celebrated the more put together you are.
It left my friend wondering: wouldn't it be more powerful and helpful for me and these other men to be affirmed for opening up about what's actually going on with them? To be celebrated and praised for honesty and vulnerability rather than for saying the “right thing”?
I think my friend has a point... churches can sometimes make it hard for people to make honest bids for connection because, even though they are meant to be where Jesus lives, they often give off vibes and messages opposite to his beatitudes…
Vibes and messages of "blessed are those who present well or say what they're supposed to"
One last note on avoiding dishonest bids for connection -
a really good question I've often been asked is “what is the line between appropriate and inappropriate venting?”
Like in our “bad interaction with your boss” example, you maximize your feeling of being understood if you go to your co-worker because they will understand about your boss, right?
My advice is: usually no. Partly because that would verge into the territory of gossip, which never leads to good things
But also because when someone is too close to the situation you are venting about, you often end up stuck in storytelling
(and of course you know what she said next… yes that is so her!... oh that reminds me of what she said to me, can you believe…?!)
Stuck in storytelling, rather than getting to the point of our emotional reality and what we need - “right now I feel small and defensive”.
Connecting with people often requires less details than we might think. Connecting with your friend from church or roommate or spouse after a hard day doesn't require you to fill them in on everything; it just requires you being able to express honestly your current state: right now I'm feeling small
So if we can pull off this balancing act - avoiding both these pitfalls (hiding and dishonest bids for connection) and many of us here in this community are regularly modeling honest bids for connection -
Our community will FEEL to people like the beatitudes are true here...
People will come into contact with Brown Line and experience the beatitudes...
Wouldn't that be something?
Second: Commit to never making big decisions alone
A community feels safe to new people who come into contact with it when people already in that community seem to trust each other with their lives.
I think of a couple who helped us start this church. Two years into BLV both of them got offered dream jobs in California. Now they were dear friends of Kyle and me and our wives.
And that put them in a challenging situation because they didn't want to disappoint us. Should we just wait and see? we don't want to hurt our friends!
But instead they committed to not making this big decision alone. They openly told us about the possibility even before it seemed likely and did so expressing huge love for and concern about leaving the church. Eventually they did move, but brown line (and we personally) were able to prepare months in advance for what their leaving would mean. And as a result, our community demonstrated that people here don't have to make big decisions alone for fear of disappointing others. This is a place of trust. So I want to speak to a lie that seems to be in everyone I know: You are not a bother to others. Don't take the responsibility of your life totally on your own shoulders. That is not how life is meant to be lived. And your life will be worse if you try to live that way. We all need input from others to live the lives we want to. Let others in on the biggest decisions of your life. And I don't mean inform others about your big decisions. I mean bounce things off of people you trust. Ask for their opinions. Do you think I should take this job? Could you see me living in this other state? What do you think about this person I'm interested in? This will benefit you, and it will benefit this community Finally: Spend personal time with the God behind the beatitudes Good experiences of community can teach us to believe the beatitudes to be true and feel the safety of that, but only to a point In my experience we also need God to teach us personally To have spiritual experiences of feeling loved, accepted, OK… and not just once for all, but daily even! That’s how we find ourselves believing “blessed am I, even when I don’t present well” In a moment that's what I want to coach us into as I lead us in some prayer
After we’re in that space of prayer, we have two ways for you to engage
First, today’s band is going to lead us in a time of song… Something spiritual communities have done for centuries to slow down from the pace of life and encounter God at an emotional level. Engage in whatever way feels best to you: Singing along or just sitting back letting the music hit you.
Second, we have a prayer team in the middle section of the theater If you’re feeling something going on internally, or you came in today with a physical or emotional or circumstantial need… We want to encourage you to ask for someone on our prayer team to pray with you Powerful things often happen in our prayer times on Sundays. Our prayer team are trained, safe folks; no one is going to make you feel uncomfortable or give you unasked for advice, and everything you share is confidential.
So my hope for us right now is that each of us can experience “blessed are we, even when we don’t present well” by experiencing the God behind this message We do not just have the teachings of Jesus as our aid here As we considered last week on Easter, we have the continued-aliveness of Jesus Resurrected This is Jesus’ Holy Spirit - we do not have God with us in person, but we have God with us in spirit And, as Jesus said himself, it is actually better for us that this is the case If we had Jesus in person with us this morning, we could only interact with him personally one at a time But with Jesus’ Holy Spirit with us this morning, every one of us can interact with him right now, all at once