2/2/14, Blessed are Those Who Turn, and Turn, and Turn Again

Isaiah 58:7-10, I Corinthians 2:1-5, Matthew 5:1-12

The gospel reading today is one of the more familiar ones.  It’s part of a much longer passage- chapters 5,6,7 of Matthew- that has been called “The Sermon  on the Mount.”  The word that Jesus repeats over and over is “blessed.” 

Biblically speaking, to be blessed is to be happy or content, to have a certain joy in life even when outward circumstances may not be favorable.  Human instinct seeks happiness and contentment for ourselves and for those we love. So, we pray for blessing.

However, you can’t help but notice that the attitudes and actions that Jesus claims will lead to being blessed are not ones that we usually associate with happiness and contentment.  According to Jesus, we are praying for poverty of spirit, humility, grief, hunger and thirst for justice.  We are asking for persecution!  This brings happiness to people? 

We can better understand this teaching of Jesus if we put it into the context of last week’s reading from Matthew 4.  Remember that Jesus began his preaching ministry by saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”  Repentance means “Change your heart and your mind!  Turn and go in a new direction!” 

When we hear about the need to repent, two other words usually come to mind: sin and forgiveness.  These three- sin, repentance, and forgiveness- are bound together in a behavior pattern that we repeat over and over on our journey to spiritual wholeness. 

Sin.  What is sin?  As children we most likely thought of sin as breaking the rules.  God had rules, our parents had rules, society has rules, we developed rules for ourselves.  Life has a way of teaching most of us self-control and wisdom, so that as we grow older we aren’t quite so anxious about rule-breaking.  But maturity also calls us to question the value system that drives us.  We sense that something is not quite right in our relationship to the Holy One.  Eventually we see that the root of our problem is pride and self-centeredness. Personal sin not only hurts other people; it also damages us. We see how sin infects social or political or religious systems in which we participate.  Sin now feels more like a separation from the Divine either because we have wronged others or because we have been unfaithful to what our conscience tells us we ought to be in relationship to the cosmos,  the wholeness of God.

The sense of separation (sin) is painful.  We want and need to be restored to right relationship, whether that is with another human being, a community, or God.  This reconciliation is what we call forgiveness.  And in order to get to the experience of forgiveness, the action of repentance is called for. The “sinner” has to make a decision to change his mind, turn and go a new direction. 

The problem is that when we recognize our need for forgiveness, we also imagine that God has to mete out some punishment before we can be forgiven.  But the Christian image of God does not emphasize the Old Testament character of God as harsh and punishing.  The Christ-story teaches us the gracious character of God.  Like Jesus, God is loving and forgiving, compassionate and eager to see us find healing and wholeness so that we are set free to transform the world. 

The Biblical meaning of forgiveness and grace is that we are already forgiven.  Despite our imperfections, we are accepted and loved by God.  The sense of separation is what we call sin. Sin is simply the state of imperfection within which all humanity struggles to live. 

To repent is to change my mind, to accept God’s forgiveness as real and be free to choose a new direction. Does this mean there will be no natural consequences for any of the damage I have done?  No--- but it does mean that I am not forever condemned to broken relationship with God.  I don’t have to worry about earning future security by measuring up to God’s expectations.

Forgiveness also involves our relationship to people and events in our past.  We can become free of the bondage of those wounds without denying that they have deeply impacted us.   Forgiveness is about making peace with the past.  Forgiveness is about changing the mind and heart, deciding to let go, so that one can move into a new way of life.

The Christian path liberates us from the concern of perfecting ourselves so we can participate in perfecting the fullness of God’s kin-dom.  That is why we can seek blessing in doing the things to which Jesus calls us in today’s reading from Matthew 5, which has come to be known as the Beatitudes. Beatitude is a reference to Psalm 32:1-2  where King David is said to pronounce the "beatitude" of one whose transgressions are forgiven.  “Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.  Blessed is the one whose sin the LORD does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit.” “Happiness comes from having your rebellion taken away, from having your failure completely covered. Happiness comes from Yahweh not counting your mistakes, from having nothing to hide.” 

A beatitude is a blessing of forgiveness that is experienced when one recognizes one’s separation from God, confronts the self-centered reason for that separation, and then turns and goes in a new direction.  This is the path of sin-repentance-reconciliation that we walk in life all the time. The ritual that we do at the beginning of each Mass is a snapshot of this path.  We confess our sins and then hear the word of freedom. The absolution of sin is a beatitude proclaiming that we are forgiven and accepted by God.  Now we are free to celebrate Eucharist, our communal experience of thanksgiving for being held in God’s love.

Before you today is a tangible image of this sin-repentance-reconcilation path.  How many of you have walked a labyrinth?  In McMinnville, there are labyrinths to walk on the plaza of First Pres. Church, in the woods off the St. Barnabas parking lot, and at Parkview on the corner of Barnett and Westside Roads.

The intention of walking a labyrinth is to offer one a reflective experience of life’s journey.  A person has to change one’s mind and turn to go a new direction many times in seeking to find the center, one’s home in God.  The path often seems much longer and more frustrating than one thought it would be.  Many a-ha moments may come forth as a person walks a labyrinth.

The invitation to you this week is to either find a physical labyrinth to walk, or to utilize the image below as a means of finger or pencil-walking the journey.  Take your time to make the experience slow and contemplative as you ask Spirit to show you something new about sin-repentance- reconciliation. 

“Blessed are those who move with deliberation and grace on the path, for they shall discover the Holy along the way.”

By Sandi DeMaster