A Call to Counter-Cultural Living in Divided Times

[Note: This is a sermon manuscript that I wrote for my homiletics course and I was able to preach to my staff.]

“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“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.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” 

Matthew 5:1-12 (NRSV)

I have always danced to my own rhythm and paved my own way throughout life. When I was in elementary school I used to wear skirts over my jeans. I started a trend but when it caught on, I abandoned it. I had pink hair in middle school and yes, you are right, I went through that punk rock phase. In high school, I wore a purity ring and would read my Bible at lunch. I wasn’t very popular but I didn’t care because #JesusIsMyBoyfriend. In seminary, I convinced my friend group to start wearing black to weddings, despite social normal etiquette rules, and then that somehow became “our thing” during school and we have all worn black to each other’s weddings for three years and counting. Throughout these seasons, there have been a lot of times where I felt like I did not quite fit in, and while sometimes I tried hard to fit the mold, most of the time I gave up and just decided to pave my own way. Skirts over jeans. Reading my Bible at lunch. Wearing black to weddings. It’s not what all the cool kids were doing, but it’s what I always felt comfortable doing. I was paving my own way and being counter-cultural.

How does pink hair and skirts over jeans relate to this passage, known as the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount, in the gospel of Matthew? In some ways, Jesus was the original hipster and paved a new way in a society that was questioned and unpopular. He went against the common understanding of society. This sermon is commonly known in Christian circles as the Beatitudes. One of the funny things to me about this passage, because there are many funny things and we’ll get to those in a moment, is that we call this the “Sermon on the Mount” and the “Beatitudes” almost as if Jesus submitted these words on a Friday before the Sunday he preached it for the sermon slides and bulletin handouts. No, Jesus did not say that this was a sermon, but we call this a sermon. Why? Well, as Christians, we believe that sermons include scripture from God’s holy word and involve some sort of transformation. In my line of work, we know that the Beatitudes transform lives. I work at an organization that has a mission centered around this passage because we have seen in our lives and in the lives of kids across this world that the universal, yet counter-cultural, truths of respect, integrity, self-control, courage, humility, excellence, compassion, and enthusiasm can change the life of an at-risk student. These principles can take a student who is going down a dark path and bring them into a path of light and restoration.

In this passage, Jesus climbs up to a mountain, much like Moses did in the Old Testament to receive the 10 Commandments, and Jesus took the societal posture of a teacher and sat, and he began to teach his disciples what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. Jesus began to spout off some things that really sounded crazy in this time and to this audience. Why? What is so crazy about his words? Because to us in 2019, this makes sense. Especially in our “Christian bubble.” Historically speaking, Jesus is teaching under the rule of the Roman empire. Rulers in the empire are called “caesars” and caesars are called Lords and Sons of God. Jesus proclaims himself to be the son of the one true God and has essentially put a target on his back. This title, Son of God, is a political statement in the face of the empire. Who doesn’t love a good political statement? If I were in his shoes, I would want to lay low. Not Jesus. He starts teaching things that are countercultural to the Romans: blessed are the poor in spirit (v. 3), blessed are those who mourn (v. 4), blessed are the meek (v. 5), blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (v. 6), blessed are the merciful (v. 7), blessed are the pure in heart (v. 8), blessed are the peacemakers (v. 9), blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake (v. 10), blessed are you when people revile you (v. 11). This is like the antiquated version of having pink hair or wearing skirts of your jeans. Again, Jesus was paving his own way and being a nonconformist. In the empire, those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek, and those who seek peace are not really “empire” people. These are the people that the empire doesn’t care about

Now, it would be more culturally accepted if he preached something like “blessed are the gladiators and conquerors” or “blessed are the housewives” or “blessed is caesar.” But this is not what Jesus proclaimed. Instead, he described the kingdom of God as a reversal of perspectives. “God’s kingdom upholds countercultural values of mercy, justice, peacemaking, and integrity.”[1] While Jesus did not change the social structure, he changed the point of reference of the social structure. The new point of reference is not political (a caesar as the ruler of Rome), or economic (financial), but eschatological the coming ruler of heaven and earth! Something people couldn’t even see. Weird! That point of reference will change a person’s life so that s/he may live and act counter-culturally and do so boldly. As a follower of Jesus, no longer do they care about being a conqueror, but rather they seek to make peace around them.

In this message on top of a mountain, away from the marketplace and synagogues (kind of like what we are doing here today – away from the office and emails and phones), Jesus breaks it down for what it means to be part of this movement. It is unlike anything they have ever been taught or heard. It is radical grace. Jesus not only tacts on blessings to all of these people, those who may never have considered themselves blessed, and he shares that theirs will be the kingdom (v. 3), they will be comforted (v. 4), they will inherit the earth (v. 5), they will be filled (v. 6), they will receive mercy (v. 7), they will be called children of God (v. 8), oh and in case we didn’t hear him the first time, he repeats that “theirs is the kingdom of heaven (v. 10). 

There are two tenses in this message of Jesus: here and now, and already but not yet. The “here and now” can be seen when Jesus says “theirs is the kingdom.” The kingdom is within our reach, or perhaps it is already in our reach and there is no striving. Perhaps we have the capacity to create kingdom living amongst ourselves right this very moment. The “already but not yet” applies to the subsequent in between verses that talk about what is to come with the words of “they will.” This gives us hope for the future and what is beyond this life. Jesus gives us a tangible hope, an eschatological view of the ruler of heaven and earth and what they can bring. A hope that there are life and purpose beyond the empire.

The kingdom of God is here and now. It is here when we are poor in spirit. It is here when we mourn. It is here when we are meek. It is here when we hunger and thirst for righteousness. It is here for the merciful. It is here for the pure in heart. It is here for the peacemakers. It is here for the persecuted. Every day, there are kids who wake up around the world and mourn. They seek peace. They are persecuted. They are meek. The kingdom of God is for them, whether they know it or believe it yet, and we are called to bring hope through our example. With these words, we are taught that when the kingdom of God is at play, the roles are reversed. Jesus is breaking down the status quo set up by the Roman Empire and leveling the playing field. Jesus is teaching that the kingdom of God is about equality and inclusion.

So, my friends, what does it mean to usher in the kingdom of God? What does that look like in your life? For starters, I serve at an organization that lives out and teaches these principles to at-risk kids to lead them into a life of purpose and potential. But these principles taught by Jesus have also given me a lens to view the world around me. The poor in spirit (that may look like the homeless or the immigrant)? Theirs is the kingdom. The peacemakers (the advocate and the social worker)? Theirs is the kingdom. I now see that the kingdom is for everyone, but it is especially for those who I may least expect it to be for. Kinda like the at-risk youth.

It starts with me, and I think you may see it like this, too. I wasn’t sure the kingdom of God had a place for me and all my quirks, pink hair and skirts over jeans and my black dress code to weddings, but it does have a place for me and it has a place for you. I felt like there wasn’t a place for me until I personally met Jesus, then I understood that the kingdom of God had a place for me at the table because I came to learn about the endless grace and love of the gospel message. This is why I love the Gospel message because I’m the girl who would still have pink hair if I could rock it past my teenage years. The Gospel message is for the misfits. I think we’re all misfits in our own way.

One of my favorite preachers shares a message that reminds me so much of the Beatitudes. In his message[2], he talks about how “We live in a world that shouts the law at us all day long.” I think that the audience of this message would agree that they too lived in a world that shouted the law at them all day long and probably felt like they couldn’t live up to the standard. I know there are many days where I feel like that too in my modern context. The preacher goes on to share that, “You’ve been at the party the whole time. You’ve been a son/daughter of the divine the whole time. You’ve been in the whole time.” We do not have to seek or work to earn our identity; it is right here for the taking. 

This is how they describe the Gospel, and I see these words ring true in the Beatitudes. You mourn and you seek comfort? It will be given to you. You exemplify mercy, and mercy shall be returned to you. You seek to make peace amongst the world, and you shall be called a child of God. The identity is already given to you. It’s like having money in the bank. It’s there, just go access it. “The love you have been after the whole time, you have had the whole time.” The kingdom of God is here and now, but also not yet—it is within our grasp. The gospel message is not about you having it all together. If you waited until you had it all together, you would be waiting until Jesus came back and left and you still wouldn’t be ready. No, the gospel is about grace and meeting you right where you are. This includes you and me and every at-risk kid waking up this morning feeling hopeless and looking to drugs or the knife for comfort. Theirs is the kingdom, and we are called to remind them of that hope.

Today, I am not asking you to dye your hair pink or start a new fashion trend, but I am calling us, myself included, to start living according to the truth/reality that the kingdom of God is already ours—within your grasp—and there is an eternity’s worth more to come. Do not let your life be defined by who holds the social power or the financial dominance in your life if that requires diminishing your identity with Jesus who is the true Lord of life, already now and most obviously then when he returns. You might at times feel like your hair is pink by the way people look at you because you are following kingdom teachings.

But I assure you that your hair is not pink; you are an heir of the kingdom of God. You have been an heir to the kingdom the whole time. So today, I challenge us to live into that. To reclaim and remember that so we may bring this counter-cultural message to our kids who deeply need to hear that they are invited into something so much bigger than what they see crumbling around them. Jesus creates space and gives the invitation for all people to enter into the Kingdom of God. Now it’s our job to bring this good news, good news for all, to them.

 

[1] Jeannine K. Brown, Matthew (Teach the Text Commentary Series), (Baker Books, 2015), 53.

[2] The RobCast Episode 146: Alternative Wisdom | Part 1 – Good News About Nothing,” Rob Bell, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t2KUwhPhDaY&feature=youtu.be.

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