7-30-17 “God’s Heroes Have Hope!” “Hero Central” Series
We are living in a "Golden Age" of Superheroes.
Dating back to 2008 when Robert Downey Jr. first debuted as the famous Marvel superhero Iron Man all the way to now, as Gal Gadot takes up the mantle of Wonder Woman, superheroes have invaded both our movie screens as well as our television screens.
Though superheroes have been with us through comic books for a very long time, and yes, we had a period with Christopher Reeve as Superman and various actors playing Batman in occasional films, for whatever reason, we’ve experienced a sort of rebirth of the superhero craze as some new hero, sometimes mostly little-known, debuts on the big screen with clocklike regularity. Many people seem to think that all things dealing with superheroes are meant for children and yet box office sales indicate the vast majority of tickets are being sold to adults. Adults and adolescents alike have all been affected by the massive popularity that both Marvel and DC have recreated. What is it about superheroes?
Well, it’s no stretch to say that the current state of the world is chaotic and for many, despairing. For many, the state of the world seems hopeless - often times feeling as if we have no one to really look up to. That is, I believe, where superheroes come in. They’re the role models that many look up to whenever they feel hopeless and powerless, simply because that is what they were created for. Did you know that Superman was created during the Great Depression in order to give hope to common people during those trying times? We shared that Captain America was created to give Americans a patriotic hope during World War II. The heroes we have grown to know and love through comics, movies, and television were created for a purpose - to give us a hope, and someone to look up to.
Or at least looking up to the idea the character represents. You see, superheroes seem to represent the best of who we are. They represent our selflessness, our kindness, our charity. We look up to them because they make us want to be better versions of ourselves, our own sort of superhero. As kids we’d mark a big red “S” or the outline of a bat on our t-shirt, safety pin a bath towel around our necks as a cape, and BE Superman or Batman.
The superhero is an aspirational figure as much as anything, representing the best things that we hope for or aspire to.
Hope is defined as “A feeling of expectation and desire for something to happen.” So, I invite you to consider for yourselves a couple of questions:
First, what are some things you hope for?
And second, what gives you hope?
Julie Neraas, an author, ordained minister, spiritual director, and college professor writes and speaks on the subject of hope on a regular basis, and she suggests there are many different “flavors” of hope.
“Not all hopes are alike. There are many different kinds like daily hopes — that rain won’t spoil the picnic, that the dentist will not find cavities. Or still larger hopes, for example that our children will be healthy and happy or that we will emerge from the recession and find adequate work. Or even more substantial hopes for a cure for cancer, for the well-being of our planet.” She then goes on in an article that was published in World of Psychology and republished on Beliefnet, to suggest seven other kinds of hope.
“1. Inborn Hope – Most children have hope, it’s their basic disposition unless adults do something to threaten it. Some people have to struggle for their hope while others seem to have it so easily. It depends on disposition.
2. Chosen Hope – This is the person with cancer who determinedly chooses to believe that treatment will be successful no matter the current outlook. It’s a parent’s right to hope for a child, even if things don’t look good at the moment. Chosen hope is a life stance.
3. Borrowed Hope – Sometimes another person sees causes for hope in your life more easily than you can. If the person is honest and trustworthy, you can borrow their confidence in you, and their hope for you.
4. Bargainer’s Hope – When a daunting challenge or crisis crashes into our life, we can take a bargainer’s position. This position says, “If I do this, then that will happen,” There’s nothing wrong with bargainer’s hope, it’s human nature and often a first response to something really hard.
5. Unrealistic Hope – This kind of hope belongs to teenagers who believe they could be the next Michael Jordan of basketball. Or the hope created by the promise that a certain cereal will help you lose weight and keep it off for years to come. You’re hoping for things that could happen, but that are not probable.
6. False Hope – There are silly versions of false hope, like chain letters promising money if you send them along, [or that that email from the African Prince is real.] Or more serious false hopes, like the ones created by nasty investment schemes that bilk money from people. And everyday examples of false hope, such as the hope that one person, whether friend or spouse, can meet all your needs and make you happy.
7. Mature Hope – A person with this kind of hope can wait. His or her hope is not based on particular outcomes or on a belief that everything will turn out well. Mature hope is based on meaning. In other words, things are worthwhile regardless of how they turn out.
Martin Luther King Jr., took the long view when he said, “The long arm of history bends toward justice.” Mature hope is a hope that jumps in to participate in the desired outcome. It doesn’t give up easily and it can be the most fulfilling.”
And sometimes when we’re trying to inspire hope in someone else, like a coach trying to inspire hope in his or her team, we seek to motivate them in some way in order to nurture hope of a preferred future. Here’s a quick video sure to inspire hope in you.
“40 MOTIVATIONAL SPEECHES IN TWO MINUTES” VIDEO
In the Bible, there’s another kind of hope that we talk about, and that is eschatological hope. I know, another big word. Eschatology in and of itself is the study of what is called the “end times,” and there are all kinds of ideas about what that will or will not involve. Eschatological hope, then, is the hopeful expectation and anticipation that the kingdom of God, as described by Jesus in scripture, will come to fruition.
Our passage today from Matthew’s gospel is a passage overflowing with eschatological hope; it’s a picture of God’s preferred future. The larger section of scripture from which today’s reading is the introduction is known as The Sermon on the Mount. This is a large collection of Jesus’ teachings that Matthew presents as a one-time event, but that realistically, Jesus probably taught many times over - it is, after all, the gist of everything he taught. And this opening section of the Sermon on the Mount is called the Beatitudes.
The Beatitudes are one of, if not the most profound bit of teaching to be found anywhere in Scripture. And part of the profundity of them is in how counterintuitive, how countercultural they are. Theologican Larry Bouchard points out that, “these words of Jesus reflect eschatology in the process of realization or in its advent; the kingdom to come already is appearing.”
Each of the beatitudes expresses the tension between what is and what will be. So, for example, our ordinary expectation is that “ultimate value lies in political, economic, or personal power to ‘make things happen.’ This, Bouchard suggests, is reversed or turned upside down in Jesus teaching. The extraordinary or eschatological expectation or hope is that the poor - those who are unable to make things happen - are God’s priority.”
And he points out that “while this concept can seem impossible to grasp, Jesus says that beginning to grasp it is itself a blessing.” There is both “oddness and wisdom” to be found in these blessings, he offers.
So, let’s take a moment here and consider the many different translations of the word used by Jesus to begin each of these phrases. The word “beatitude” itself means “blessing.” Sometimes, like in our reading today, each phrase begins with “happy.” Other translations might say “blessed,” while still others translate the word as “honored,” or even “favored.” The word being translated here is the Greek makarios, and it can, in fact, be translated in all of these different ways, and more, depending on the context. In fact, as a noun makarios means “the elite,” “the well-off,” or even “gods.” So, when we understand how this word was used and understood in Jesus’ time, we understand that Jesus is making more than a theological statement here, he’s making a challenging political statement as well.
Theologian Matthew Boulton writes,
“these opening words are meant to directly contradict conventional wisdom. The world seems to favor those who look out for themselves, the miserly and the prideful, those who rely on strength and swords and cunning. In truth, Jesus contends, divine blessing attends the gentle and the merciful, those who do the right thing, even and especially when the odds seem stacked against them.”
So, in effect, when the world or conventional wisdom says that it’s the rich and the powerful who are blessed, or favored, or considered the “elite” of society, Jesus is saying that that is not the case, that it’s those at the lower rungs of the ladder who are in the favor of God.
So, as that sinks in with us, let’s imagine the setting. Jesus and his disciples are together and Jesus is looking for a time and a place to teach them. There are others following as well, and while Jesus’ intent is to teach the Twelve, he knows that others will hear as well. So, he goes part way up a mountain, think Moses on Mt. Sinai here, (remember, Matthew is always portraying Jesus as the new Moses) he finds a place to sit, the position of both honor and power for a teaching rabbi, and the Twelve circle around him, a little below him on the mountain. Further down, at the base of the mountain, are the other people who are following and gathered as well.
And as Boulton says,
“Insofar as Jesus directly addresses the disciples with these words, the force of his message amounts to this: ‘You are the so-called inner circle of my followers,
but the true “insiders” are in fact down around the foot of this mountain, the empty-handed and empty-hearted. The least of these - they are the truly blessed, the ones whom God favors.’”
Even the Twelve have to be flabbergasted by what they’ve just heard. Their conventional wisdom was the same as I shared a bit ago as today’s.
But, in fact, Jesus is saying to them and to us,
“No. That is not how the world actually works, no matter how things may seem. On the contrary, as God has ordained the deep, emerging order of creation, the truly blessed are ultimately and actually the gentle, the merciful, the peacemakers, the poor. It appears to be otherwise, I understand - and that is precisely why I am beginning this way, the better to dispel the commonplace illusions, to clarify reality, to declare the dawning reign of God, and so to help us find our bearings as we live into God’s future.” - Boulton
Jesus is declaring the advent, the beginning, the presence of a kingdom unlike anything they’ve ever experienced or even imagined. A kingdom that turns everything upside down. The beatitudes are a sneak preview of what Jesus later states very clearly when he says several times, “You have heard it said…but I say unto you” (Matt. 5:21-22).
The message here, as outlandish as it seems to us and seemed to them, is for us at least, also shaped by how Matthew uses it in creating his gospel. The gospel writer Luke uses much of this same material in what, in his gospel, is called the Sermon on the Plain. Both Matthew and Luke pair these “makarisms,” these statements of favor, blessing, etc., with reproaches, warnings, or “woes” that reflect the “honor and shame” dynamic found in ancient middle eastern culture at this time. However, the two do this in very different ways. Luke uses different versions of the blessings and pairs them with woes in the same section. So it looks something like “blessed are these,” but “woe to those.”
Matthew, on the other hand, handles them much differently. And again, Jesus surely taught these lessons many times over the course of his ministry and it’s entirely likely that the gospel writers either heard them or had them reported to them differently.
Matthew begins his telling of Jesus’ ministry - the Sermon on the Mount being the opening of Jesus ministry in Matthew - with the Beatitudes. Later, at the end of Jesus’ ministry, then, before his trial and crucifixion, Matthew concludes Jesus’ ministry with the reproaches or woes. And in shaping it this way he maintains a symmetry or parallel structure, so it looks like this:
(Matt 5:3-12) (Matt 23:13-31)
third person formulations second person formulations
(“blessed are they”) (“woe to you”)
addressed to disciples addressed to opponents
opens public ministry closes public ministry
"theirs is the Kingdom of the Heavens" (3; 10)
"you shut the Kingdom of the Heavens" (13)
"hunger and thirst for righteousness" (6) "outwardly appear righteous" (28)
"merciful . . . receive mercy" (7) "neglected mercy" (23)
"pure in heart" (8a) "impure" (27)
"see God" (8b) "swear by God’s throne" (22)
"sons of God" (9) "son of Gehenna" (15)
"so they persecuted the prophets" (12) "sons of those who killed the prophets" (31)
By structuring his story in this way, the statements of honor, blessing, or favor at the beginning encourage that eschatological hope about the positive ideals of the kingdom— God’s preferred future — which will unfold throughout the story of Jesus' ministry.
The reproaches or woes, then, at the end, reflect back upon the opposition to Jesus by the Pharisees and scribes and the powers that be who had a vested interest in the conventional wisdom, the traditional understandings of honor, blessing, and power.
Unfortunately, for too many in the world today including in the church, the Beatitudes are just so many nice thoughts, or something for the “sweet by and by” - something embroidered on a pillow rather than tattooed on the heart — but certainly not realistic in a modern, 21st century, capitalistic society like ours. The world, and the church, often prefer a tamer, softer Jesus than the one revealed in teachings like these.
In our culture today, both modern culture and popular culture, the messages we receive are drastically different, even diametrically opposed to what we hear from Jesus.
Reality television runs on the premise that everyone wants their “15 minutes of fame.” Men’s magazines promote virility and ambition; women’s magazines promote so-called perfect beauty and ideal relationships; trade magazines promote financial success; sports magazines promote strategies to win.
This is why Jesus’ list is so jarring. Contrast his words with the goals our culture says we ought to pursue:
Our culture says, Happy are those with great prospects for marriage and work, because they will be successful.
Jesus says, Blessed are the destitute, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
Our culture says, Happy are those whose loved ones enjoy health, because they will not worry.
Jesus says, Favored are people who grieve, because they will be made glad.
Our culture says, Happy are those who enjoy power, because they will be in charge.
Jesus says, Honored are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth.
Our culture says, Happy are people who can buy any pleasure, because they can do whatever makes them feel good.
Jesus says, Blessed are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full.
Our culture says, Happy are people who have power to sit in judgment over others, because they can boss people around.
Jesus says, Honored are people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy.
Our culture says, Happy are people who can run down their opponent by any means necessary, because they will see victory.
Jesus says, Favored are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God.
Our culture says, Happy are people who can beat their opponents, because they are winners.
Jesus says, Blessed are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children.
Our culture says, Happy are people whose lives are lived in total freedom to do whatever they want, because they do not have constraints.
Jesus says, Honored are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
Our culture says, Happy are people who are popular, because you will be rewarded with a great reputation.
Jesus says, Favored are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me. Be full of joy and be glad, because you have a great reward in heaven. In the same way, people harassed the prophets who came before you.
We don’t really know how “happy, blessed, favored, or honored” the common people felt about Jesus’ teaching, but I think we can imagine that it brought them some hope. On the other hand, how those in power felt about it would eventually be made abundantly clear.
There’s been some research lately though, showing that what many in our postmodern world hope for is actually in alignment with what Jesus taught here. Unfortunately, the hands and feet of Jesus that is the church, doesn’t always get it right. Theologian Rebekah Simon-Peter (yes, that’s her name) suggests three ways the church does get it right and two ways it misses the mark.
The church gets it right, she suggests, when we put others first. According to recent research, what makes for meaning, and therefore happiness, isn’t so much about pursuing your own passion — at least if it is self-focused — as much as helping others make meaning in their lives. To the extent that our ministries focus on bettering the lives of our fellow human beings and the planet we share, this is an area the church gets happiness [and hopefulness] right. It aligns with Jesus’ teaching on self-sacrifice now for greater good later. And it aligns with what makes for healthy congregations.
Secondly, she says, be generous. Giving to others significantly increases happiness. “Simply thinking about contributing to a charity of choice activates a part of the brain called the mesolimbic pathway, the brain’s reward center, which is associated with feelings of joy,” according to research. To the extent that your congregation excels at being a charity of choice, this is another way the church gets happiness right. Generosity towards God and others is an underlying assumption of the Beatitudes.
And the third way the church gets it right, she says, is to give of yourself. In addition to giving money, which is very important, being face to face with the people you are giving to radically increases happiness. If you need a shot of endorphins, go beyond writing a check to engaging in interpersonal interactions that make a difference in the lives of others. Face-to-face interactions multiply the neurobiology of joy. These feelings not only bathe a person in well-being, they support a church in living out its mission and deliver on the kind of joy Jesus taught about.
She also talks about how the church gets it wrong. And one of those ways is when the church plays it safe. Security has long been associated with happiness. But paradoxically, the ways individuals in churches prefer to play it safe — for instance caring more about “us” than about “them,” or not embracing new or risky ministry out of fear that people might leave — actually endangers congregational security. Playing it safe may keep some people happy in the short run, but in the long run these churches die out. And they die hard, not happy.
The second way the church gets it wrong, she offers, is when they lack compassion. Inclusivity is the name of the game in the Beatitudes: You can be poor, hurting, wounded, persecuted, meek, on the outs — and you are still in with God. That’s the gospel according to Jesus. But the gospel according to many churches is not that broad-reaching. Or if it is, they’re not going public with it. By going public, she means more than simply saying “everyone is welcome.” That’s so easy to do as to be meaningless.
She means actively identifying your congregation with the poor, the persecuted and those on the outs of society. In our day and age that likely means closely identifying with people living below the poverty line, the working poor, the hungry, the undocumented, brown and black-skinned immigrants, the imprisoned, gays, lesbians, and transgender folks — among others. It also means standing up for the well-being of Planet Earth itself.
This of course is not easy — for all kinds of reasons —not least of which is overcoming what she calls “congregational laryngitis” and embracing risk. On the other hand, it lines up beautifully with the Beatitudes Jesus gave voice to.
Rebekah Simon-Peter doesn’t leave it there though, she makes a suggestion as to what a congregation can do to increase the happiness and hopefulness quotient on the planet. “Lead with a vision,” she says. “Craft a vision that focuses on reaching out to others, helping others and working with them side by side. Share this vision frequently, passionately, and follow through on it. Happiness and hopefulness go up when people are giving [both their time and their money] to a project that helps people, that puts a face on the church’s place in the world and that makes a real difference. Your vision can be the deciding factor. Want to increase your happiness quotient, spiritual growth, and the effectiveness of the church,” she asks? “A powerful, bold and life-giving vision is key.”
Jesus’ life-giving vision defines happiness and blessedness in ways that are otherworldly compared to how we are used to hearing. And in doing so he isn’t suggesting that these ideals are something that will come to fruition in some distant afterlife. No, the kingdom of heaven, as Matthew calls it, the kingdom of God as Luke and Mark refer to it, is both here and now and still to come. It’s the “on earth as it is in heaven,” that Jesus speaks of and about which Matthew writes.
So, how do we square these vastly different road maps, one created by our culture, the world, and the powers that be, and the other drawn by the Son of God? Christine Chakoian suggests that the problem may be that we’re trying to overlay Jesus’ road map on top of our culture’s. Instead of trying to synchronize them, the better option may well be seeing where the paths lead.
And as a metaphor for the choice facing us, she offers Robert Frost’s famous poem, “The Road Not Taken,” where he writes of the choice that lay before him, and indeed before us all:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth…
“For many of us,” Chakoian writes, “who follow the road our culture sets out for us, the initial way may look very appealing. Who would not want to have a healthy family or provide for their household? Although we recognize the “undergrowth,” that is, the tangled roots that might trip us ip, the trouble appears to be worth it.
Then somewhere down the way, the culture’s promises turn out to be erratic, and there are traps and dead ends that we did not expect. We hurl ourselves at work, yet we find ourselves spending more and more time there at the expense of our relationships, with no guarantee of success. We pursue every medical test available, yet sooner or later our bodies fail us. We chase after power, but then find out that we always have to defend it.
We aspire to popularity, but then can never say anything controversial, lest someone dislike us.
The path that Jesus offers may not initially look as appealing, but the farther down the road of faith we travel, the more truth we find. We discover that humility, unlike power, needs no defense. We realize that righteousness - doing the right thing - is its own reward. We find that a pure heart is much easier to live with than one filled with jealousy, resentment, anger, or cynicism. Step by step, we learn that following Jesus - even if we are persecuted for it - leads to a joy that nothing can take away. And as we choose the path of truth, justice, and the Jesus way, we find ourselves transformed into God’s heroes of hope.
ROBERT FROST "The Road Not Taken" VIDEO