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Sermon: Reality Therapy

January 27, 2011

Matthew 5:1-12

Before scientists had given a name to the disease we now call Alzheimer’s, some professionals were taught to help adults experiencing dementia and the symptoms of Alzheimer’s using reality therapy.  When applied to such a group of older adults, the technique was to attempt to keep the patients grounded in reality.  Staff members were taught to ask the same simple questions every time they met with patients.  “Hello, Mr. Smith, how many children do you have?  Who is the governor?  What is your room number?”

This seemed to work well with some patients, but others became frustrated.  One woman said, “I’m 92 years old.  I feel that, well, the location of this building, the name of this state, and even the day of the week are completely irrelevant to me.”  That raises an interesting question.  Whose reality is more real, the hospital staff member who punches a time clock Monday through Friday, or the 92-year-old who doesn’t care one whit about the governor?  Who defines reality?  Are facts necessarily reality if they are completely irrelevant?  (William Willimon, “The Real World”.  Pulpit Resource, Jan-Mar 2011, 21-24.)

Each year, TIME magazine does its best to define reality with its lists of the top 100 most influential people in the world.  The individuals on these lists are people who have had the greatest impact on our world.  The 2010 list divided the group into four different categories: leaders, heroes, artists and thinkers.  The people on this list clearly have great influence in our world, and many millions look up to them.  In the reality we know, these are the people who embody the characteristics that make them winners, leaders and celebrities.

I am going to read a few names from TIME’s 2010 list of the 100 World’s Most Influential People, and I am going to discuss them with respect to an alternate measure of reality, one which Gary read for us this morning.  This alternate version of reality came from the lips of Jesus, and it describes those who are blessed, not in TIME’s reality, but in the reality of the kingdom of heaven.

Sarah Palin From the Leaders category comes Sarah Palin.  Whether you agree or disagree with her politics, it is clear that she has had a major influence on American politics in the last several years.  How does she match up against Jesus’ list of qualities in the Beatitudes?  How about “blessed are the poor in spirit”?  Ted Nugent, rock ‘n’ roll legend and conservative activist, wrote this about Sarah, “If Sarah Palin played a loud, grinding instrument, she would be in my band.”  She has her own reality show on television, Sarah Palin’s Alaska, and more face time on television cable news than seems humanly possible.  I think it is safe to say that no one ever accused Sarah Palin of being poor in spirit.

Bill Clinton Lest you think I am picking on Republicans, another person on the list is former President Bill Clinton.  Clinton is listed in the Heroes section, presumably because he no longer holds an elected office.  We all know about his checkered past, but he remains nearly as visible as Sarah Palin.  Rock star and liberal activist Bono wrote about Clinton, “Rock stars can’t be President…but we’ve all got reason to be thankful that Presidents can be rock stars.”  There is no doubt about it.  Clinton has cultivated a rock star attitude and a rock star following.  But how does he match up to the Beatitudes, particularly “blessed are the meek”?  I think it is safe to say that “meek” and “Bill Clinton” don’t belong in the same sentence.

Simon Cowell If you have ever watched American Idol before this season, you know the most vocal of the talent show’s judges, Simon Cowell.  Simon is known to “tell it like it is.”  If he thinks you are a terrible singer, he will tell you without trying to soften the blow.  It almost appears as if he takes pleasure in being cold and cruel to amateur performers who are singing their hearts out.  Cowell frequently bickered and argued with his fellow judges on the show.  Nevertheless, he helped American Idol draw in up to 37 million viewers a week.  But where does Simon fit in with the Beatitudes?  Does his style work well with “blessed are the merciful”?  He has been successful, but Simon Cowell has also left a lot of hurt feelings in his wake.

Jet Li Actor Jet Li also comes from the Heroes section.  His hard-hitting martial arts style has made him a box office sensation.  His movies include Contract Killer, Twin Warriors, Romeo Must Die and Fist of Legend.  He is clearly a hero to his many fans around the world.  But in an alternate reality, how does he match up to “blessed are the peacemakers”?

These are the people we look up to.  TIME magazine has recognized that these are the people who are most influential in our world.  They are successful and powerful.  They are wealthy and admired.  They are the winners.

They are not evil people; I am not trying to abuse any of them.  Most of the people on the top 100 list are there because they are intensively involved in charity work.  They are described as compassionate, humble, generous and genuine.  Yet when Jesus describes those who are blessed, those whose lives are lived within the context of the kingdom of heaven, the personal characteristics that make our most influential people so admired and influential are unrecognizable in the Beatitudes.

In the alternative view of reality that Jesus describes—the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness sake—these are all the ones who are blessed.  Jesus has a very revolutionary attitude about what qualities are desirable in this life.  And not many of us would seek these kingdom values.  I mean really, meek?  Who wants that?  And I’d much rather roll on the floor with laughter than mourn.

Jesus was not saying, “This is what you ought to do if you want to gain blessing.”  Jesus was bestowing a blessing on the meek, those who mourn, the peacemakers.  Jesus was sharing God’s favor with those who are poor in spirit and merciful and hungering for righteousness.  Jesus is sharing a blessing with you, if this is who you are.  One commentary puts it this way, “The [Beatitudes] are thus not statements about general human virtues—most appear exactly the opposite to common wisdom—but pronounce blessing on authentic disciples in the Christian community.”  There is a blessedness in living in such a way that anticipates the full reign of the kingdom of heaven, even though to every outward appearance and in contrast to the real world as seen through TIME’s 100 most influential people it seems as if this life is an utter failure (Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004], p. 26.).  Those who live out the values of the kingdom of God now, even before it is fully realized, trust in the One who makes the promise to share true life with us in all its fullness.

There are a number of visions of reality, a number of ideas about what is relevant, what is true, what is authentic.  Every year, TIME magazine puts forth its vision of what is real.  Without thinking, we eat it up.  Yes, these are the people we admire, and surely, there are aspects of their lives worthy of emulation.  But 2,000 years ago, a man spoke about a different kind of reality, and it doesn’t always make sense to us.  Yes, he said, the meek are blessed.  The poor in spirit are blessed.  Those who are mourning are blessed.  It’s contrary to the reality that we know.

But really, who defines reality?

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