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A Brave New World -- Matthew 5:1-12 (4th Sunday of Epiphany)



Looking back, I’ve noticed that my high-school and college English teachers assigned a goodly number of dystopian novels. Dystopian novels are books in which the author imagines a future world gone badly wrong. We read Kurt Vonnegut’s Fahrenheit 451, with its book-burning; we read Animal Farm; and of course we read George Orwell’s 1984, which was, well... positively Orwellian. Layered on that, there were plenty of dystopian movies all around – the mechanized world of Blade Runner and the climate wasteland of Mad Max.Even more recently, we have vivid glimpses of the totalitarian worlds of The Hunger Gamesand The Handmaid’s Tale and the desolation of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. Worlds gone badly wrong. Imagined, but maybe a bit too.. possible.

I’ve noticed that my teachers and professors didn’t assign any utopian novels – novels in which the author imagines a future world better than the one we know – I guess that wasn’t in the curriculum. Utopian novels actually came first – but as a writer in The New Yorkernotes: “Dystopias follow utopias like thunder follows lightning.” Utopias are “the flash of light;” dystopias, the rumble that wrecks the world. “A utopia is a paradise; a dystopia is paradise lost.”[1] But even utopias offer a far-off future, rather than one right at-hand. (Interestingly, “dystopia” comes from the Greek meaning “bad place” – I’ve always thought Utopia came from the Greek meaning “good place” – but utopia actually comes from the Greek meaning “no place.” The good place is no place. That’s ironic and sad.)

Both dystopias and utopias imagine these future worlds – good or bad – and, in doing so, they offer a critique of what’s wrong in the present world. And, each, in their own way, also hints at some kind of hope – something the world ought to be, could be, might be... if only.

We arrive this morning in chapter 5 of the Gospel of Matthew at Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, and hear the beautiful assurance and poetry of the Beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will receive comfort.” These assurances, many of us have heard from childhood; we hold them deeply in our hearts; we put them up on the walls of our homes; we sing them. For the downtrodden, they are timeless words of encouragement and hope: Blessed are the peacemakers, and the meek, and the merciful.


And, and.. in the beauty of this poetry, there is so much more going on. In these opening words of the Sermon of the Mount, Jesus begins to describe nothing less than a brave new world breaking forth even now in Christ – a brave new world breaking forth into the old, crumbling order that for too long has pushed people down and harmed and hurt. And it’s not an imagined world in some far-off future. This brave new world – is both a present and a forever reality – opening up right here, right now – in the experience of Christ – with the insistent invitation to live it now and transform the world.[2]


Now, I know it may be problematic to use the phrase “brave new world” to describe what Jesus is doing – because that is, after all, the title of a dystopian novel. But before it was that – it was a quote from Shakespeare – from The Tempest. In The Tempest, the characters are pulled out of a world gone wrong and shipwrecked on a desert island. Prospero and his young daughter Miranda – meet up with the men who exiled them. On the island – as often happens in Shakespeare – confusion ensues, and everything gets sorted out. By the end – hatred and enmity are replaced with forgiveness; love abounds; and the world is set right. The young Miranda stands in the midst of all this and says,


O, wonder!

How many goodly creatures there are here!

How beauteous [hu]mankind is! O brave new world

that has such people in’t![3]


In her experience of a healed humanity, she proclaims a brave new world.

In the 5th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, so too does Jesus. The world of the Gospel is a world gone badly wrong – the Roman Empire oppressing; Herod, the puppet king, in a genocidal rage; most folks living lives of bare subsistence; Matthew’s community reeling from the trauma of being cast out. In the midst of that, Jesus is born; the Magi come seeking one who may be the Messiah or more; Jesus begins to gather a community – begins to heal – and he proclaims: “The kingdom of heaven is near.” He proclaims a brave new world. And as Chapter 5 opens, Jesus goes up a mountain, sits down to teach, and says, “And let me tell you what this brave new world looks like:


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

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

Jesus flips the order of things. He riffs on this word “blessed” – in the Greek, makarioi.[4] Some translate it as “happy” – happy are those. I think of biblical blessing, though, as active, and operative – something that changes things: Just like a curse lets loose evil in the world, blessing lets loose good. A word of blessing is an operative word – it does something.[5] Those who are blessed participate in that – they receive blessing, and are transformed – and they emanate blessing, transforming the world around them.[6] In the world into which Jesus speaks, folks would have expected the rich to be blessed – the powerful – the ones who enjoy good things, the ones who control good things.


But Jesus says, Blessed are the poor in spirit. I’ve wondered a good bit about that “poor in spirit.” The Gospel of Luke says it differently. Luke’s “blessed are the poor” feels much clearer to me. But this week, I read it explained like this: Think of “poor in spirit” as the opposite of “haughty in spirit.”[7] The poor in spirit are the humble – those who see the way the world works – “the gap between what we have and ought to have” – whether more or less – and who live aware.[8] Blessed are the meek – not the ones who recklessly wield power-over for their own benefit – no, the meek, they shall inherit the earth. Not just the land, but the earth. Jesus proclaims a brave new world animated – not by power-over – but by a mutality of power.


And, he proclaims a world enlivened by a mutuality of care. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy – a life – a world driven by mercy: You extend mercy to me – and I to you – and we to them – and all of us to the whole world. “Morning by morning, new mercies I see.”


Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness – those who are motivated and working, not to maintain systems of domination and self-interest – but centered and grounded in justice – in systems where those who have been held down low are lifted up.


In the Beatitudes, Jesus announces, describes, and embodies a brave new world characterized by a mutuality of power and a mutuality of care. And then notice that last little bit: Blessed are you when people revile you – when they say all sorts of evil against you – rejoice, be glad – you’re living the life prophets have lived. What?!? This brave new world isn’t some far off future – it’s not some wished-for fantasy. It is here. It is now. It is real. It is right here in the midst of things – breaking forth and challenging a crumbling world order – stirring things up – reshaping the world. How do you know? Just feel the resistance.


Into a world that chews people up, Jesus announces a brave new world that honors and dignifies and lifts up our humanity – a brave new world that, in Christ – introduces us all over again to a loving God – and that then, in love, reshapes our lives on the basis of loving relationship. Blessed are the poor in spirit, and the merciful, and the meek – all those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for justice, for the happiness and thriving of all living beings. A God-beloved, God-drenched humanity.


O, wonder!

How many goodly creatures there are here!

How beauteous [hu]mankind is! O brave new world

that has such people in’t!


I read somewhere this week, someone describe this list of Beatitudes as addressing (1) those who need help, (2) those who help, and (3) you – when you live it out.[9]


· Blessed are those who need help – blessed are those who mourn.


· Blessed are those who help – blessed are those who are merciful, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.


· Blessed are you - when people speak ill of you - for going against the order of things - for lifting up those who have been held low.

This week, maybe you might want to try to write your own Beatitude, using that simple pattern. Think of those who need help; those who give help; and what that might look like if you live it out. What might the blessing of this brave new world in Christ look like in you, in us:


Blessed are the hungry, for they will find food.

Blessed are those who stock a community fridge,

for with them, God will nourish the world.


OR


Blessed are the refugees, for they will find shelter.

Blessed are those who provide shelter, for together we will find a home.

I’ve been listening to this podcast series that features an extended conversation with the Dalai Lama.[10] The journalist, Dan Harris, got amazing access. He was invited to go to Dharamsala, India, the Dalai Lama’s residence in exile – and follow the Dalai Lama around for two full weeks. While they were there, the Dalai Lama received a conference of young activists from around the world – folks doing serious work – serving in war zones, in oppressive nations.


At one point, the young activists get an audience with the Dali Lama, where they get to ask him questions. So they ask, “How do we stand up to injustice and change the world?” And the Dali, Lama replies, “There are 7 or 8 billion people in the world. We are all the same. We must learn the oneness of all beings.” They ask again – “But, what can we do?” And he says the same thing. “7 to 8 billion people. All the same. Oneness of all beings.” And that happens again.


Finally, one young activist raises his hand, and says: “Your holiness, with all due respect. Your words feel overly simplistic and sentimental. It requires more than a shift to realize we are all one. It requires political action. It requires power.” Talk about uncomfortable. But you can sense that the young activists are all thinking that. Another chimes in: “I work with women in Afghanistan who are fighting for their rights while the Taliban is literally holding a gun to their heads. How do you talk oneness with the Taliban?” And the Dalai Lama says again: “There are 7 to 8 billion people on the planet. We are all the same.”

But then at the end, as his assistants are taking off his mic – the Dalai Lama adds this. “I want to share my practice. My daily practice is altruism. Focus on the well-being of others. The well-being of the world. This builds inner strength. This makes fearless.” He points to altruism – living for the well-being of others – this is, he says, is how we change ourselves and the world.

I heard a news story this week where an NPR reporter went back to Kentucky six months after the devastating floods of last summer.[11] They went back to interview Gwen Christan, whose family owns the IGA Grocery store in the small, rural town of Isom, Kentucky. It’s more than a grocery, it’s a center of their small community. They’d interviewed Gwen right after the flood, and Gwen had told them, “Now don’t leave here and forget about us.”


So they went back. Gwen described how the flood waters had wrecked their store to the point that it was condemned by health officials. Their insurance didn’t cover damage for flooding. But with support from the community, and a tough-to-get small business loan, and a generous gift from someone she calls “a missionary of mercy,” they’ve rebuilt and will re-open in April.


But, her employees’ Kentucky unemployment pay runs out on February 5th. So for February and March, Gwen will pay her employees out of her own pocket, before they return to work, without any revenue coming in, until they can all work again. She says this will leave her family with no savings, but then she adds, “But this is something we have to do.” And in early April, they’ll get there together, they’ll have what she calls “a soft open,” where they “just open the doors, and welcome people back in.”


O brave new world that has such people in’t.


I’ve noticed something that’s odd – maybe even ironic – about dystopian and utopian stories. I think dystopian writers actually think the world is pretty OK, but that at any minute, the world could go kerflooey. So they warn us of a dangerous future that is all too possible. I think utopian writers think the world is pretty messed up, so they write with a vision of a far-off future that could be so much better, and they try to encourage us into that future, someday.


The Gospel of Matthew doesn’t neatly fit into either of those paradigms. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus takes the world he finds seriously and honestly – all the oppression, all the suffering, all the love, all the humanity – the good, the bad, the indifferent. Jesus arrives, with healing in his touch, and he introduces us all over again to a loving God who, from the beginning of time, has desired nothing but our good. And Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” – a brave new world – here and now. Not in some far-off future. But in the midst of you – the midst of us right now.


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

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall receive comfort.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are all you who hunger and thirst for justice & righteousness.


And these Beatitudes... they’re just the start.




© 2023 Scott Clark


[1] See Jill Lepore, “A Golden Age for Dystopian Fiction,” May 29, 2017, at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/06/05/a-golden-age-for-dystopian-fiction [2] This reading of the text is informed by and draws from M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew, New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. viii (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995); Amy-Jill Levine, Sermon on the Mount: A Beginner’s Guide to the Kingdom of Heaven (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2020); Richard Rohr, Jesus’ Plan for a New World: The Sermon on the Mount (Cincinnati, OH: St Andrew Messenger Press, 1996); Herman C. Waetjen, The Origin and Destiny of Humanness (San Rafael, CA: Crystal Press, 1976); Eric Barreto, Commentary on Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-after-epiphany/commentary-on-matthew-51-12-8 ; and Martha E. Stortz, “First Words,” Commentary on Working Preacher, at https://www.workingpreacher.org/sermon-development/first-words-what-the-beatitudes-tell-us-about-jesus-as-a-preacher . [3] Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Act V, scene i. [4] See Levine, pp. 5-7. [5] See Stortz; Boring, p.177. [6] “When we hear that we are blessed, we should hear as well a sense of responsibility. A blessing given, a talent bestowed, if unappreciated and unused, is wasted.” Levine, p.7. [7] See Levine, p.8-10; Boring, p. 178. [8] Levine, pp. 8-10. [9] See Martha E. Stortz, “First Words,” Commentary on Working Preacher, at https://www.workingpreacher.org/sermon-development/first-words-what-the-beatitudes-tell-us-about-jesus-as-a-preacher [10] See Dan Harris, “The Dalai Lama’s Guide to Happiness,” Ten Percent Happier podcast and meditations,https://www.tenpercent.com/podcast-episode/dalai-lama-guide-538 [11] https://www.nprillinois.org/2022-08-11/dont-forget-about-us-kentucky-grocer-speaks-out-about-store-damage-caused-by-flooding



Photo credit: Stefan Lehner, used with permission via Unsplash

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