I was done.
I was tired of all of the political fighting and the one-upsmanship. I was tired of all of the oversimplification and sensationalism. I was tired of the greed that lay at the heart of whose story got told.
I was tired of the news.
As I began my sabbatical this summer, I was tired of all of it. Enough so, that I decided I would take a break. No news on my phone. No newspaper on my front step (or barely on the edge of my driveway, to be more specific). No social media feed fighting over whose meme was cooler. I was tired of all of it. So I said no. I followed very little news all summer. More or less, if someone didn’t tell me about it, I didn’t know about it. It helped that I was on top of a mountain and outside of cell service for a lot of that time. But even when I could read the news, I didn’t. I wanted to reject the inherent helplessness that I felt when I read the news.
I was done.
I imagine that the people that the people that Jesus taught in today’s passage felt the same way, at some level. It is a little unclear who Jesus is teaching to. Matthew says he sees the crowds and then goes up the mountain and teaches his disciples. Of course, this could mean that he saw the multitudes and ran away and spent some time only with the Twelve that he had just called. Or, it could mean that he saw the crowds and went to a place where they could all hear him…on top of a high place where his voice would carry. We aren’t sure how many people heard Jesus speak these words.
But we can guess who they were: people who understood helplessness.
That same feeling that I felt, and perhaps you do, when you open the news app on your phone. Just like we do, the people on that mountain understood helplessness. Just like we do, they knew about wars and rumors of wars. Just like we do, they knew about the powerful and the prideful and the ways they hurt everyone beneath them. Just like we do, they knew the experience of death and pain and grief and mourning. Just like we do, they saw injustice in the world and felt helpless to do anything about it.
Matthew Myer Boulton puts it this way, in what he calls his “Business as Usual Beatitudes.” He says this is what the people on that mountain would have expected because it is the world that they knew:
Blessed are the rich, in things and self-assurance.
Blessed are those untouched by loss.
Blessed are the powerful.
Blessed are those who are “realistic” about righteousness, compromising at every turn.
Blessed are those who demand and exact an eye for an eye.
Blessed are the crafty and opportunistic.
Blessed are those bold enough to make war.
Blessed are those who, doing good things, receive many accolades.
Blessed are those who, following Jesus, are widely praised and adored.
Business as usual. This is what the world, and most human communities through time says Boulton, expects and believes. And what is the result of looking at a world where these people are the ones who are on top, who get ahead, and who get all the credit? Helplessness. And they don’t even need a news app on their phone to tell them that.
But these aren’t the Beatitudes of Jesus. These aren’t the values that he espouses, or the words that he shares with those who climbed that mountain with him. In fact, in the Beatitudes in Matthew, Jesus gives an alternative to these values and expectations. St. Ambrose in the Fourth Century called them the “paradoxes of Christ.” Ben Witherington calls them the “counter-order and counter-intuitive wisdom.” He suggests that in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is not a new Moses, or a new Adam, but a new Solomon: a wise sage to whom we should listen. In his Gospel, and especially in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus presents a new wisdom, in much the same way as Proverbs or Ecclesiastes or Job commented on the ways of a wise person. It is no wonder, then, that Matthew begins Jesus ministry with this scene of the seeking disciples, climbing to the top of the mountain, to find the wise sage, seated, dispensing wisdom.
But here is where the Sermon on the Mount is different than Proverbs or any other wise sage. The wisdom that Jesus preaches is not the wisdom of the way things are, but the way things ought to be. Jesus though, instead of wisdom that helps one get ahead in this world, presented this counter-order wisdom that turns the world upside down:
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.
Look at the difference. Instead of rich in things and spirit, Jesus calls us to poverty of spirit, to humility and gentleness. Instead of war-making, peace-making. Instead of arrogance, meekness.
Larry Bouchard sums up this difference beautifully: “Each beatitude expresses existential and communal tensions between will be and is. As each penetrates those who hear, there breaks into personal and social imagination the criterion of God’s steadfast love. Ordinary expectations…are reversed. The extraordinary expectation is that the poor…are God’s priority. This can seem impossible to grasp. To begin grasping it, Jesus insists, is itself a blessing.”
So back to the news. I spent all of this time this summer on the mountain. Didn’t read the news. Didn’t hear about the news unless someone else told me, or I saw it on at the gym! But then, I got back from my summer away, and rejoined you all for ministry, and one of the very first meetings I participated in was the Theme Team: the worship leadership gathered to talk about worship from the past year and prepare themes for the coming year. At that meeting, someone brought up the news, and how negative and angry it had become. And I rejoiced! Someone else got it! Let’s do a sermon series about how bad the news is!
But then the conversation continued. What about theologian Karl Barth’s statement that we wake up every morning with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other? What about good things that are happening in the world and those who are reporting on them? What about Gospel truth that appears in the world today and who is talking about it? In short, they asked, “where is the Good News in the News?” They had convinced me that I could not shut my eyes to the world around me. I could not simply ignore the news around my community and the world. The same Jesus who refused the way of isolation, of escapism, also called us to engage in our world. Slowly, I began to re-engage with the news. But I laid some ground rules for myself. There were some things that I wanted to do in this process of reengaging. Three steps that I took.
One, a critical perspective. And I don’t mean critical like criticizing others…there is plenty of that to go around. Instead, I mean critical as in thoughtful. That meant I wasn’t going to buy into an oversimplified view of media. Remember, there is no such thing as THE media. There are a bunch of types of media, with a lot of different perspectives. Politicians especially will try to demean “the media” to accomplish their own purposes. But there are thousands of incredibly diverse sources of news, many with a political bias, most with a bottom line of making money or at least surviving financially, and plenty representing themselves as one thing when they are really something else. I had to be thoughtful about what a source’s true motives were. And, I had to remember that having one source of the news, whether it was one cable channel or one’s singular, cultivated social media feed, was not likely to give me a true sense of what was really happening out there. So, I carefully started adding news apps to my phone that were generally trusted, and represented multiple viewpoints. Conservative and liberal. U.S. and international. A critical perspective.
Two, a Biblical perspective. I realized that I couldn’t forget the oft-ignored part of Barth’s quote: don’t forget to wake up each morning with the Bible in one of those hands. I continued to read Scripture every morning. That was the perspective that grounded me, which made me feel less helpless. Less likely to be drug around by the motives that one media outlet or another suggested. Looking through the lens of the Bible helped me to feel less helpless with what I saw around me…”there is nothing new under the sun.”
Finally, the third point that I understood was this. Instead of getting stuck in a cycle of helplessness, I had a choice. I could be helpless, or I could be helpful. I could stop wringing my hands about how the world out there is falling apart, how we live in “business as usual,” and start living like Jesus’ Beatitudes. I could make a difference in my part of the world. Spend less time thinking about this side of the world – Business as Usual—which is usually what we read in the news. And instead focus on this side of the page. The poor. The meek. The peace-makers. I asked you all to help me find good news in the news and you have come through! Several of you have sent me news stories that remind you of the Beatitudes: the good news in the news…
Teenager Dutch Bishton and his mother Debbie were taking a long road trip from Colorado to Texas. They had stopped for lunch and were getting back on the road when they happened upon a horrific traffic accident. A semi had collided with an SUV, and the victims in the SUV were in critical condition. Dutch was a Boy Scout and was trained in an emergency, so, he called 911 while his mother talked with the couple in the SUV, keeping them awake and alert. Over the next hour or so, mother and son took turns helping a couple of off duty paramedics who happened upon the scene, and encouraging the victims, helped keep them immobilized and calm. Forty minutes later, the ambulance had made it to the remote location, and the victims were treated for their injuries and taken to the hospital. A year later, the victims had a lot to celebrate. Not only were they celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary, but they were celebrating the fact that they were still alive. So, on that special day, they invited two people that made that possible: Dutch and Debbie. Once strangers, now these people shared a special connection and so over cake and punch, they rejoiced in the gift of marriage…and of life.
Or closer to home, you might have been reading about a local problem that has caused a great deal of consternation: the lack of bus benches in Lawrence. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t seem like a huge deal, but for those who often have to ride the bus, standing out in the rain or the cold or the heat is no fun, and potentially dangerous. Imagine a senior citizen without a car, who has just done her weekly grocery shopping and is waiting for the bus to come. Out in the cold and the wind, trying to keep her grocery bags from flapping in the wind. The church members at Velocity Church saw this problem and thought they could do something about it. And so, as you may have read a few weeks ago, they have chosen to give a sizable gift to the city in order for bus benches to be built around the city. A simple thing, but a solvable thing. So the generosity of Velocity will make a difference in our community.
What connects these two news stories? I think it is a move from helplessness—that feeling that most of us feel when we open the news—to helpfulness. These are people who have chosen to help others, and it has made all the difference. Instead of wallowing in the fear and the anger and the selfishness and the bias, they have chosen to help other people. Those who are hurting. Those who are poor. Those who are in need…even a need as simple as a place to sit down.
Today, may we open our eyes to the helpers, and chose to join them in the world order that Christ has brought. May we chose to live with hope, serve with love, and practice Gospel in our world today!