Sunday, August 31st, 2014 – Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scripture: Matthew 5:3-12
Hymns: “10,000 Reasons”, “Blessed Assurance”, “Jesus Has Lifted Me”, “Come, Christians, Join to Sing”
A few weeks ago, we lost one of the greatest comedians of all time. A lifetime of battling addiction and suffering from depression was further compounded by a recent diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease, and in what must have been the desperate act of a man who felt backed into a corner, Robin Williams chose to end his life on earth.
In most circles, his death set off an outpouring of support for those who battle depression. People who had seen their own depression helped by the comedy and the generous spirit of Williams spoke out in the hopes that others who wrestle with the internal strife that Williams faced would seek help. By and large, preventing further people from committing suicide as a response to depression has been seen as one of the greatest possible ways to honor Robin Williams’ legacy.
However, there have been a few responses to Robin Williams’ death that were… shall we say… horrifying.
Let’s start with well-known blogger Matt Walsh. His response was that Robin Williams committed suicide due to a sickness not of his mind or body, but of his spirit. I can say with full faith that this is one of the most offensive things I’ve ever read. You want to know why? I have family members – several family members – who suffer from clinical depression, just as Robin Williams did. They have been in therapy, they have received medication. One was even hospitalized as an indirect result.
And yet, those people have some of the healthiest SPIRITS of anybody I know. They are some of the most faithful, most kind, most loving Christians in my personal circles. There is nothing wrong with them spiritually. They have an illness. That’s it.
But it gets worse. Yes, let’s move on to Pat Robertson. Pat Robertson, who said that Robin Williams committed suicide because he wasn’t a Christian.
First of all, I’d like to know how he knew that. I’d wager that Pat Robertson and Robin Williams weren’t exactly close buddies, certainly not to the point that Robertson would know Williams’ personal religious preferences. Secondly, even if Williams weren’t Christian, Robertson’s entire point hinges on the idea that to be Christian means you don’t commit suicide.
You can put the lie to that pretty easily. In the last two months of 2013, three pastors made national news – because they committed suicide. Four more have done so in 2014. They were leaders of the church of Christ, and they committed suicide. It’s awful to consider, but suicide doesn’t limit itself to non-Christians.
Perhaps the worst response that I saw, however, was one that I’m sure was meant to be inoffensive. A church in North Carolina – one that I’ve driven by probably hundreds of times – put up on its signboard shortly after Robin Williams’ suicide a five word message: “Too blessed to be depressed.”
First of all, this falls into the same logical fallacy of which Matt Walsh and Pat Robertson are guilty – the idea that as long as you are faithful, there’s no way you can be depressed. Secondly, it consigns blessings to a feel-good cure-all, robbing them of the true richness of their being.
In the first recorded public sermon that he gave, Jesus begins by speaking a litany of blessings which are well-known to us today as the Beatitudes. The problem is, the church has reduced them to a shadow of what they were – trite quips that uplift you for thirty seconds, without actually teaching you any true meaning. And that’s not what it’s all about.
Consider the word “blessed” for a moment, if you will. The word is often misconstrued to mean “happy” – for example, in the case of the church that said, “Too blessed to be depressed”. But “unhappy” isn’t the opposite of blessed. No, that would be “cursed”. When you are blessed, it doesn’t mean you have escaped UNHAPPINESS, it means you have escaped a curse that may have befallen you otherwise. In other words, to say that you are “too blessed to be depressed” means that you have escaped the “curse” of depression. Now, while many would view depression as a curse – and that not without merit – the reality is that those with depression have been cursed not by God, but by the fact that we are imperfect beings in an imperfect world, tainted by the sinfulness of human nature. It is indeed possible to both suffer the curses of a fallen world and to rejoice in the blessings of God.
But here’s the wonderful thing about the blessings. We might live in a fallen world, but we don’t have to actually DO anything in order to receive those blessings. As a matter of fact, the LESS you do, the more you receive – in a manner of speaking.
Consider the first one: blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
What does it mean to be poor in spirit? Simple: that’s when your purpose and identity are borne of God. It doesn’t mean that you can’t be confident and have a strong sense of self-worth, but to be poor in spirit, your confidence and self-worth must be because you are confident in the identity you have been given by God, your creator. One who is egotistical and proud of one’s own self is not poor in spirit. Ideally, to be a follower of Christ, one will find one’s identity and purpose in following the ways of Jesus Christ – himself an unassuming individual whose purpose came from God. In following Christ, you inherit Christ’s domain.
Then we have the second: blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t FEEL like I regularly mourn. It’s been a long time since I lost anybody close to me, and I’m not the kind of rabid sports fan whose life basically comes to an end when their team does poorly. I really can’t be – I grew up as an Arizona Cardinals fan, after all.
But if you stop and think about it for a moment, we actually ALL mourn in our daily lives. Who among us doesn’t mourn the seemingly unending state of war in the Middle East, or in eastern Europe? Who among us doesn’t mourn the rush to judgment and the mud-slinging, on both sides of the argument, every time turmoil erupts such as did in Ferguson? Who among us doesn’t mourn the fact that in Washington, we have a government that has decided it is more interested in inter-party squabbles and enriching the already obscenely rich, while the working class and the impoverished shoulder an ever-increasing burden?
Though we mourn, we shall be comforted. As the hymn says, “Kings and kingdoms shall all pass away, but there’s something about that name.” We may mourn the injustices of this earth, but someday, we shall see the perfection of God.
That is not to say that we should sit back and say, “Our mourning shall be made into dancing, therefore, since I am not of this world, its problems do not affect me.” Indeed not, for the next three blessings:
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
To begin with, there is nothing meek about refusing to confront the problems of the world, since your mourning will lead to God’s comfort. Indeed, it’s arrogant – declaring that since you are blessed, you are above the problems that others confront on a daily basis. No, meekness means recognizing that, while you will see God’s promised land, you exist here, today, among people who experience the worst of problems. And that meekness leads to a hungering, a thirst to see that the injustices that those people experience are corrected. Do you hunger for righteousness? Do you thirst for righteousness? Do you see the people of God in this world, beset by every curse a fallen world has to offer them? Do you wish to not only be blessed, but to extend God’s blessings to those people as well?
Show mercy. This is how those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled – they will show mercy, and they will receive mercy. This is a blessing that would be echoed again later in the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats. “Truly I tell you, whatever you have done unto the least of my children, you have also done unto me.” Your hunger and thirst for righteousness, your showing of mercy – these are things you are doing not for yourself, but for God. And so does this go back to your identity, your purpose, being of God.
This identity in God goes hand in hand with the next Beatitude: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” You are not expected to have a “pure” heart. That is impossible. We live in a fallen world. We have a human nature that leads us into sin. We will sin. To be pure in heart means to live your life in devotion to God. When your identity is fully formed in God, then too will your actions be for the greatness of God’s grace and mercy. Your heart will act for God, and be pure.
When you have pureness of heart, you will work for peace. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” This isn’t just peace between nations, an end to war. This is peace between all people. Nationality, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality – this is a call to be a maker of peace with all people, no matter how much you may agree or disagree with them. This, again, is a foreshadowing of Christ’s declaration that that which you have to done to the least of God’s children, you have also done unto God.
And because we do live in a fallen world, you will be cursed for seeking these blessings. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Now, we must be quite clear on persecution here. Persecution is not the removal of religion from schools. Persecution is not the enactment of laws that you disagree with religiously. Persecution is ACTUAL OPPRESSION for your beliefs. When your family, your community, even your church, actively oppresses you for speaking up in your beliefs – that is persecution. And when you take on the role of peacemaker, you will be persecuted. You need look no further than Billy Graham to see this – in 2006, when he said that he believed that love of God was absolute, and that the salvation found in the resurrection of Christ was powerful enough to ensure the eternal life of ALL persons, he was criticized, even ostracized, by those who disagreed with him. Because he sought to extend the love of God to ALL God’s children rather than just those who specifically believed the same thing he did, he was shunned.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” Billy Graham was reviled, he was persecuted, and all kinds of evil were uttered against him falsely. And the same can be said of Robin Williams.
Yes, I haven’t forgotten about him. Think about how blessed he truly must have been. Here we have a man who publicly mourned the wrongs he perceived to be committed around him. Here we have a man who was humble enough to spend literally years of his life giving of himself to the men and women of the United States Armed Forces. Here we have a man who hungered for justice to be done to many who were persecuted. Here we have a man who actively sought to make peace with those with whom he disagreed.
To be sure, in the depths of his despair, he made a choice that many of us disagree with. And as a result, he has, by some, been reviled, and evil has been uttered against him. But the beginning of the Sermon of the Mount didn’t begin with how we are cursed.
No, it begins with how we are blessed, just as Robin Williams was blessed, and in turn, many were blessed by him. Let us, therefore, be blessed.