A New Identity

This is a version of the sermon preached on Sunday, March 10, 2019 at Broken Bow United Methodist Church. It continues our series exploring an alternate lectionary – a set of biblical texts for each week – developed by pastor Brian McLaren in his book We Make the Road by Walking.

This sermon begins the season of Lent. During this season, we’re exploring what it means to be “Alive in Jesus’ Global Uprising” using his teaching from the “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew’s gospel.

Today’s texts: Matthew 5:1-16.

“You is smart. You is kind. You is important.”

Although there are many amazing, thought-provoking, inspiring, and challenging things in the 2011 movie, The Help, this line stands out for me. It’s the mantra Viola Davis’ character, Aibileen Clark, teaches the young girl, Mae. Aibileen is an African-American woman hired to be “the help” for Mae’s white family in 1960s Mississippi. The first time we hear, “You is smart. You is kind. You is important,” Aibileen is almost praying the mantra over Mae at bedtime. Then, in one of the final scenes of the film, Aibileen instructs Mae, “Remember what I taught you,” to which Mae repeats the mantra.

Those scenes, and that mantra, inspired me. They’re one of the reasons I’ve developed my own that I speak over our kids. Sometimes I change the adjectives or the order, but kindness and intelligence are always there. And here’s the thing: Aibileen is doing more than describing the present; she’s shaping and naming Mae’s identity. She’s speaking Mae’s future into existence while simultaneously affirming that who she is, is exactly who she’s supposed to be.

The Sermon on the Mount - Matthew 5-7
The Sermon on the Mount – Matthew 5-7

As the people crowd around Jesus on the grassy hills banking the Sea of Galilee, we see Jesus doing something very similar as he begins his so-called “Sermon on the Mount” with what we know as the “Beatitudes.” If he were Aibileen, he might have said, “You are blessed. You are just right to God.” And in his day, like for Aibileen, Jesus was doing more than describing people. He was giving them their identity, precisely because he was also affirming who they were.

Jesus had already gained a following through his mobile teaching and healing events throughout the region. There were probably already murmurings of, “Is the one God sends to free us from Caesar?” Now, they were expecting the full lessons, the explanations, and the uprising organization rally. He begins with language they’re familiar with: “Blessed are those who…”  Pastor/author Brian McLaren explains it this way:

In Jesus’ day, to say, “Blessed are these people,” is to say, “Pay attention: these are the people you should aspire to be like. This is the group you want to belong to.” It’s the opposite of saying, “Woe to those people” or “Cursed are those people,” which means, “Take note: you definitely don’t want to be like those people or counted among their number.” (127)

However, if the language and intent is familiar, Jesus’ overall message is completely new: he flips the world order over completely. Here’s how we might expect the Beatitudes to sound, in Jesus’ day, and ours, using Brian McLaren’s language:

“Do everything you can to be rich and powerful. / Toughen up and harden yourself against all feelings of loss. / Measure your success by how much of the time you are thinking only of yourself and your own happiness. / Be independent and aggressive, hungry and thirsty for higher status in the social pecking order. / Strike back quickly when others strike you, and guard your image so you’ll always be popular. (127-8)

These are the world’s values for the people gathered at the mount. And, perhaps they’re not so far off from how we’ve experienced the world to work too. The people who act like this, in Jesus’ day and ours, seem to be the ones who are considered blessed or happy – another translation of the word. Such people are lifted up as examples to emulate. But Jesus doesn’t say the beatitudes this way. Instead Jesus declares the following people as blessed, as right with God, and as people to respect, emulate, and become (again, using McLaren’s paraphrase):

The poor and those in solidarity with them. / Those who mourn, who feel grief and loss. / The nonviolent and gentle. / Those who hunger and thirst for the common good and aren’t satisfied with the status quo. / The merciful and compassionate. / Those characterized by openness, sincerity, and unadulterated motives. / Those who work for peace and reconciliation. / Those who keep seeking justice even when they’re misunderstood and misjudged. / Those who stand for justice as the prophets did, who refuse to back down or quiet down when they are slandered, mocked, misrepresented, threatened, and harmed.” (128)

Now, let’s remember. These are Jesus’ introductory remarks. They’re like the parts of a speech when the speaker’s just getting started. People have been anticipating what he’ll say, how he’ll teach them about life in God’s kingdom. They’re expecting the make-Israel-great-again rallying cry. Instead, he totally flips the world upside-down. He lifts up the people who his society, and ours, would say are not examples of how to live well. He affirms the “every-person” present. He says, You who feel left out are blessed. You’re seen and loved by God, just as you are.

Sure, he’ll have some things to say about how they and we act very soon, but today, he is Aibileen. He is simultaneously affirming that, in God’s eyes, we are each of sacred worth, and he’s speaking his listeners of every age into our truest identities. He’s shaping who we are, what we value. He’s molding us with the heart of God. After all, that’s also what Jesus is all about: Jesus, in all his life and actions, reveals who God is, so that we can find ourselves in God. And today, he reveals that God is inclusive, boundary-breaking love.

Jesus is clear: the people society has said are outside of God’s blessings, those whom the religious in-crowd have called “incompatible,” and those who have always felt like they weren’t ever good enough, are people God loves and people God calls us to be like. Jesus inspires them and us, because, like Aibileen, he isn’t telling us to be something impossible. He’s not telling his followers to be spiritual gurus. He’s inviting his followers of every age to see God’s character working inside them, inside us. Presence, kindness, non-violence, peace-making, purity, forgiveness, and zeal for justice: this is the image of God in us that Jesus calls blessed.

Salt-and-light-1080x675.jpgIn these blessings, Jesus is also making clear what it means to be his followers: we are, as a community and as individuals, salt and light. By blessing and including like Jesus did, we flavor the world toward completion, toward wholeness. By living in ways that embody Jesus’ blessings, we shine light on the beauty, grace, and love of God. By our compassion for those whose lives are different than ours, by our generosity with those who are struggling to make ends meet, by our willingness to sit silently with the grieving, we shine God’s presence into a broken and hurting world. By listening first before explaining, arguing, or dismissing, we shine God’s light in a world of imprisoning walls. By our commitment to personal, public, and political peace-making and non-violence, we shine God’s presence into a violent and abusive world. Jesus invites and empowers us to, as McLaren says, “overcome the blandness and darkness of evil with the salt and light of good works” (129). Jesus proclaims, You’re blessed, regardless of what anyone else says. Be a blessing. Be salt. Be light.

But – and this is the part Jesus only alludes to – salt can lose its saltiness and light can be hidden. Living like Jesus and his beatitudes, proclaiming the blessedness of others, living for the inclusion, respect, and dignity of others, is about daily choices.

bible-2461826_1920.jpgJesus flips the world’s values on their head, and proclaims God’s blessings. In doing so, he gives the lowest, hopeless, and cast-out inclusion, meaning, and identity. If we cannot identity with the people Jesus calls “blessed,” have we lost our saltiness and light? If we can’t stand the presence of those in grief, poverty, or oppression, have we lost our saltiness? If we hear stories of abuse, racism, or privilege without compassion, or worse, with name-calling, have we hidden our light? If our answer to every act of aggression and violence is bigger violence, are have we abdicated our calling to be salt and light?

Jesus flips the world, proclaiming God’s blessing and affirming our identity in God, and declares God’s mission: be salt, be light. As the blessed, as salt and light, Jesus calls us to share God’s inclusive blessing to all. May we be salt. May we be light. May we proclaim with Aibilene-Jesus, “You are a blessed child of God.”

Reflection Questions

(Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking. Jericho Books, 2014, 130)

  1. What one thought or idea from today’s passages especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenge, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped, or surprised you?
  2. Think about someone who has impressed you as being the kind of salt and light Jesus spoke of.
  3. Jesus calls a unique group of people “blessed” in the opening of the Sermon on the Mount. How does that make you feel, and what does it make you think about Jesus, the world, and yourself?
  4. For Children: Lots of people ask kids what they want to be when they grow up. But what kind of kid do you want to be right now?
  5. Activate: This week, look for ways to be a nonconformist – resisting the pressures of your environment and conforming your life to the alternative values of the beatitudes.
  6. Meditate: In silence, imagine darkness, and into that darkness, imagine light coming from a candle, a sunrise, a fire, or a flashlight. Hold these questions open before God: Which is more fragile and which is more powerful, light or darkness? How can my life become like light?

Be the Nice Kid



2 thoughts on “A New Identity”

  1. Appreciated these words, scripture and story today! God loves and accepts us as we are, we are important to him and yet we still must choose to live each day to glorify God. Live our days loving, showing compassion, being the light for others that God is for us!

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