We are a Counter-Cultural People

The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany January 30, 2011
We are a Counter-Cultural People The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess

I. Introduction: One Sunday morning recently, I passed by one of our ushers on my way to vest. He had a collection of bulletins in hand, ready to meet you as you entered the church. I was pleased to see him, and asked, “How are you this morning?” He replied, “I’m too blessed to be stressed.” He shared this with a broad smile. “Too blessed to be stressed.” Little did he know that today I would begin my sermon with his words. Today Jesus is also speaking about blessing in his widely known “Sermon on the Mount,” a part of which is “The Beatitudes.”

II. Christians are called to be counter-cultural: The Reverend John Stott, one of the most highly respected Anglican thinkers of the 20th century, made an extraordinary claim about the Sermon on the Mount. He wrote: “The Sermon on the Mount is the most clear delineation anywhere in the New Testament of the Christian counter-culture.” He defined what he meant: “The followers of Jesus are to be different – different from both the nominal church and the secular world, different from both the religious and the irreligious” (The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, 1978, p. 19). We are to be different. Jesus taught that when we are different, our lives, our thoughts, our values, our passions, and our actions will be, by definition, different as well. It will dramatically affect how we communicate or fail to communicate with God, how we live out our relationships, and how we use both our time and our wealth.

III. I’m going to focus upon three of the Beatitudes this morning by sharing with you a story about a series of events that occurred in Bolivia and here at Ascension. By way of introduction, we need to begin at the beginning and focus on the first Beatitude. This Beatitude forms the foundation for experiencing all the blessings described by Jesus in the eight beatitudes that follow. Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit because theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Poverty is not a state we aspire to in any form. So why does Jesus begin by instructing us to be poor in Spirit? Here is what I think. By being poor in spirit, we allow God’s Holy Spirit to fill us with a truth and wisdom that we are absolutely incapable of discerning by ourselves. If we are filled with our own conviction of self-knowledge, correctness, and importance, there is little to no room for the Holy Spirit to fill us. And know that the Kingdom of Heaven does not consist of persons who feel that their own spirits are perfected. Rather, Heaven is filled to overflowing with sinners saved by grace.

As many of you know, I taught on the university level before becoming a priest. I began teaching with an inflated view of how much I knew. In my very first class at the University of Alabama, a young student asked me, “Please tell me, who are you?” This was my golden opportunity to share my theoretical orientation and my professional history. On and on I went. The student sat patiently until I was finished, as Alabamians are wont to do, and said, “Thank you, but I only wanted to know your name to make sure I was in the right class.” Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs in the Kingdom of Heaven.”

We all are called by Jesus to be poor in spirit so that we may be filled with and guided by God’s Holy Spirit. The other two Beatitudes I would like to lift up this morning are these: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” and “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” These two beatitudes intersected recently here at Church of the Ascension. On Christmas Eve, Father Brett and I experimented with a dialogue sermon. In that sermon I shared a story about a young man in Bolivia who is like a brother to Fr. Brett’s wife Carla, and who had recently been savagely beaten on a street of La Paz in an act of random violence. Three young men had attacked Carlos with baseball bats, beating his head, resulting in the need for extensive surgery, including the insertion of metal plates into his head. Carlos had neither medical insurance nor money to pay for his surgery. Therefore, Carlos needed his mother, who had had no money to pay for his care, to sign a promissory note so that his care could be provided. Out of desperation and necessity, she agreed to pay back the bill owed to the physicians at $300 interest per month. Carlos’ mother was in deep mourning, not only because of the tragic effects of Carlos’ injuries on future, but also because of her inability to pay this debt. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Scripture often associates mourning with a loss of one kind or another.

When I first heard about Carlos’ tragic situation, his mother, whose name is Isabel Valdivia Gonzales, was about to sell one of her kidneys in order to pay the bill that was increasing exponentially due to the huge monthly interest. I was deeply moved by her dilemma and told her story in our dialogue sermon Christmas Eve. The intent of my sharing their story was not to raise funds, but rather to show how through this story, God was directing my mind and heart away from many other distractions to Christmas present, 2010.

In the days that followed, mercy unfolded many miles away from La Paz, here in Knoxville. Six Ascensionites felt compassion gave Isabel Gonzales a total of $1900 – the amount needed to completely pay off Carlos’ medical bill. I do not believe it was coincidence that the news of this need traveled from La Paz Bolivia to Knoxville, Tennessee, at just the time when the need was most urgent. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” This is how God responded to a mother’s mourning. I’d like to read a letter received from Senora Gonzales dated January 11, 2011. This is a letter addressed to me, but it was sent to all of us:

Fr. Hess,
With this correspondence I want to give you infinite thanks for the collaboration that you offered me in paying for the healing of my son. Thanks to you and [my daughter Carla] and “son-in-law” Brett and to your community I have finished paying for everything. People like you all, make it possible for one to really see the Divine goodness, and that you no only preach the Word of God, but that you also live in a way that demonstrated through your behavior, your goodness, and comprehension, about the pain of others.
I want to comment to you that I have never been a woman dedicated to the Church of God, but through you all I have been shown the greatest love and now I want to follow Him.
Really, I do not have the words to thank you all. I can only say that one reaps what one sows, and the Lord will repay you a thousand times for all the help that you all offered me. [emphasis added]
A thousand thanks,
blessings, Isabel Valdivia Gonzales”

God saw Senora Gonzales’ mourning and called you, the merciful here at the Church of the Ascension, to bless her in His name. One of those who was called Christmas Eve to help Senora Gonzales shared with me that she had never experienced such a call before. This parishioner had been drawn to show mercy just as were others, at least one of whom I believe gave from a place of substantial sacrifice. How in this series of events have the merciful been blessed? It is here in this letter: “I have never been a woman dedicated to the Church of God, but through you all I have been shown the great love and now I want to follow him.” As she said clearly in her letter of thanks, we reap what we sow. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” God’s mercy is unlimited, and I am thankful that God has allowed us to see his mercy in action.

IV. Conclusion: God is speaking to us today. In the counter-cultural words of Jesus, blessings are being offered through us and to us. But first, as John Stott wrote, “We must be different.” We must, as Deacon Amy said last week, lay down whatever is holding us back, and follow God’s call with passion; we must, as Fr. Brett said the week before, not allow our church to die, but keep it alive with our willingness to act on our faith. We are called to set our own fears, prejudices, judgments, and self-absorption aside. When it comes right down to it, we are called, above all, to follow Jesus. Thank you, Senora Isabel Valdivia Gonzales, for reminding us of that today. Amen.

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