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President Ted Wardlaw
November 10, 2014
A reading from the Gospel of Matthew:
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.
A number of years ago, while I was still serving a church in Atlanta, and on a suspiciously routine morning, my secretary buzzed me on the intercom with the news that I was about to have an interesting visitor. A moment later, I opened my study door to a well-scrubbed looking man who, all the same, seemed a bit unaccustomed to his three-piece suit and leather briefcase. With all the grace of someone fresh from a two-hour seminar on “Principles of High-pressure Salesmanship,” he bounded into the room, flashed a toothy grin, thrust out his hand, and confidently introduced himself as the Senior Vice-President of a burgeoning new firm called “Bible Games, Incorporated.” Before I could say, “That’s nice,” he hand me a small Velcro ball, stepped to the opposite side of my study, and unfurled a Velcro sheet about the size of a queen-sized bed. On the sheet was a brightly-colored grid of some eighty squares with a number in each square.
Almost invisible behind the sheet, the man said, “O.K., now pretend you’re David and I’m Goliath and throw the ball at me as hard as you can.”
I stood there for a moment, behind my desk, holding this Velcro ball in my hand, contemplating how serene my life had seemed just two minutes earlier, and how ridiculous I felt now. “Go ahead, throw the ball!” he said. And so, pretending like I was David and he was Goliath, I did.
The man jumped from behind the sheet to see which square the ball had hit. “Number 55!” he said excitedly. And as he pulled out a large notebook, he explained to me that the Bible game we were now playing could be played at one of three levels—beginner, intermediate, and advanced.
He thumbed through the notebook until he found Question Number 55 for beginners. “Who led the Israelites out of Egypt?” he asked. “Moses,” I said.
“Congratulations!” he said as he searched for Question Number 55 for intermediates. “What Old Testament woman had weak eyes?” “Leah,” I responded, after a moment of tense thought.
“You’re doing just great!” he said as he headed for Question Number 55 in the advanced category. I didn’t get the answer to that one, so I’ve suppressed the question; but it was something along the lines of “Outline the book of Hezekiah.”
By this time, the man had made himself comfortable in the chair next to my desk, and had shifted his sales pitch into high gear. “This little game was an icebreaker,” he said, “to get you in the mood to hear about our top-of-the-line game, “Dollars and Sense (S-E-N-S-E). It was a board game, he explained, similar to Monopoly, that demonstrated to children the principles of what the man called “Christian Economics.” If players landed on a space marked “Blue Collar Worker,” they were paid $4,000 in play money. If they landed on the space marked “College Graduate,” they were paid $7,000. If they landed on “Middle-level Executive,” they were paid $10,000; and if they landed on “Company President,” they were paid $20,000. Whatever their earnings, if they agreed at the beginning of the game to tithe—to give ten percent of their earnings to the church—then they won big whenever they landed on the space marked “Showers of Blessings.” I’m not making this up. According to the rules of the game, the person lucky enough to be showered with blessings got all of the earnings in the jackpot, he said.
Showers of blessings!
I had listened to him politely up to this point, but suddenly I was livid! “How can you be so crass and simplistic,” I said, “as to teach children to so easily associate the word ‘blessedness’ with the word ‘jackpot’?” Without a moment’s hesitation, the man looked me straight in the eye and said, “Isn’t that the way the world works?”
It’s an important question, and I think we should give it some thought this morning. “Isn’t that the way the world works?” Is it not so that our culture finds it easy and natural to associate the word “blessedness” with the upbeat moments in life—the jackpots of financial success, or academic achievement, or prominence in the community, or a clean bill of health?
Isn’t that the way the world works?
When the new mother and father are standing at the window of the maternity ward, beaming proudly as they look for what seems like hours at their first child, is it not natural that they be thinking of how blessed they are that mother is fine and baby is beautiful?
When you survey the house with its conveniences, the car with its extras, the job with its perks, the kids with their talents, the things which surround you—the yard, the boat, the neighborhood, the status; is it not natural to think of these things as the best evidence of the ways in which you’ve been blessed?
When a church finishes the year in the black with fifty thousand dollars to carry over into the next year’s budget, or when it deals, as we have, with the enviable position of being able to raise extra money in capital campaigns and to fix the problems of not having the right space to contain the whirlwind of activity and the throngs of children here; is it not understandable that we interpret it all as a sign of God’s blessing upon us?
Showers of blessings, since we’ve hit the jackpot!
Of course! This is the way we have learned to approach such things! The pleasant things we have are signs of God’s blessing!
It has been suggested with authority that we Presbyterians have played a major role in teaching that lesson in more recent centuries. Max Weber, the seminal sociologist from the twentieth century, did a now-famous study of the relationship between Calvinism and Capitalism; and concluded that our tradition supplied theological support for that economic system by nurturing the assumption that earthly wealth was a sign of heavenly approval. No wonder that people like Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon and John D. Rockefeller and Cyrus McCormick were Presbyterians. Many of our ancestors, from the Reformation on down, have looked at that relationship between our faithfulness and our income and have drawn a simple correlation: “Yes, that’s the way the world works!” In fact, it is now statistically true, according to a friend of mine who is on the leadership team from the Presbyterian Foundation, that in this decade, Presbyterians—in terms of per capita wealth—are now the wealthiest denomination in America. We have now surpassed our only rival, the Episcopalians. “Isn’t that the way the world works?”
So when that salesman asked me that question, he knew that he was standing on a strong and well-designed foundation of accepted standards.
But, however accepted they are, these are the standards that Jesus takes issue with in today’s New Testament Lesson. For the crowds that he saw when he preached what we now know as “The Sermon on the Mount” were made up, not of those who had bested life, but who had been bested by life. Jesus saw in that crowd mothers who for no good reason had lost their babies, wives whose husbands had been flown home in a box from places like Iraq and Afghanistan, people suffering from anxiety and loneliness and fear, nations victimized by hunger and poverty, men and women paying a high cost for their discipleship and enjoying no fringe benefits in return. These were the one he said were also blessed!
And why? Because, regardless of their lot, they were taking part now in the new order that was coming in, that is still coming in. They knew that citizenship in that new order is determined not by what you have, but by who you are as you rely upon God—whatever you have.
Blessedness in the light of the Kingdom of God is a matter of being rather than having—a matter of knowing that whatever you are and have comes not from yourself but from what God has done in you. So that, for example, when it comes to stewardship; it’s not a question of “how much of what is profoundly ours will we give to God?” but rather a question of “how much of what is already God’s will we joyfully give back?”
Of course, this is a difficult thing to understand; and perhaps it is better demonstrated than explained.
If I could only have another session with that traveling “Bible Games” salesman, I would want to tell him about some of the people I know who have been beaten up by life and have yet remained thankful for it. Don’t you know people like that?
When I think of people like that my mind runs straight to a man named Bob Walkup; who died sometime in this last decade, and was a Presbyterian minister and, for my money at least, one of the saints of the Church whose name leaps into my mind on any All Saints Sunday. Walkup was famous for his gravelly voice and Southern accent, his love of the classics, his patrician manner and his common touch, his colorful way with words, his warmth and love for all people, his sense of humor, his gifted intellect, and, most of all, his prophetic courage. In the fifties and sixties, while serving a courthouse-square Presbyterian church in Starkville, Mississippi, Walkup took lonely and faithful stands against the entrenched racism of that part of the world in those days. He suffered greatly for saying and doing the things he did; he suffered more than most of his contemporaries, who quietly applauded his stands but never in public. The Presbyterian manse was threatened with visits from midnight vigilante committees and obscene phone calls and the burning of a cross in his yard; and, on one occasion, Walkup and his family had to leave town in the middle of the night after a death threat had been phoned in. In the midst of all this turbulence, he never once backed down, but his health broke. He suffered a heart attack, and then another, and then later a stroke. Many contend that his broken health prevented him from ever realizing the prominence which he deserved, at least in the external sense of that word. Nonetheless, he continued to preach and to write as his health permitted.
Once, maybe fifteen years ago, while working in his yard, he had his third and most serious heart attack, and he lingered for days on the brink of death. A friend of mine, who was a protégé of Walkup’s, flew to see him within hours of his heart attack. He told me later of stepping into Bob Walkup’s hospital room and of being shocked beyond expectation at the sight of how sick he was. Tubes and heart monitors and nurses standing by, on what seemed to be a deathbed vigil.
My friend said that, when Walkup recognized him, he reached up from his bed and grabbed him by the arm, and in his trademark, gravelly voice, said, “I want to confess my faith.” He said:
“I believe in God the Father Almighty,
maker of Heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead and buried.
He descended into Hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead;
He ascended into Heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Holy Catholic Church,
the Communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins,
the Resurrection of the Body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.”
And then he fell back into his bed. My friend stood there by his bed, weeping. Walkup caught his breath for a moment, and then went on to say, “Tom, if this is it, I want you to know that I ain’t had no bad deal.”
On the face of it, it would seem that he had. Bitter ethical and emotional conflicts during a terrible time in our history. Strife with those to whom he had tried to minister. Threats upon his life. Battle-scars that affected his health and career. On the face of it, he would have been justified in walking away from all the talk about love, and the Kingdom of God, and community and witness.
But none of that. Rather, a testimony about his blessings. A testimony about the way God works, which flies in the face of the way “the world works.” A testimony which judges blessedness not according to what you have, but according to who you are and where you are headed by the grace of God; which enables you to say, by the light of that grace, whatever life serves up to you, “I ain’t had no bad deal.”
It’s a funny thing, this blessedness. Thicker by far than our capacity to calculate it all by adding up the measurables.
C.S. Lewis once suggested that when God comes into our lives like a tenant into an empty house, God doesn’t act at all like the nice, quiet tenant you bargained for. “At first, perhaps,” says Lewis, “you can understand what God is doing. God is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks on the roof and so on; you knew that these jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently God—this new tenant inside of you—starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and which doesn’t seem to make sense. Actually God is building quite a different house from the one you thought of—throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage. But God is building inside of you a palace.”
In fact, God acts as if God owns the place, and before long you can hardly call your life your own. And, as a matter of fact, it is not—not anymore. Because God intends to come there and live forever. It’s no longer your house. It’s God’s. That’s not the way the world works, but it is the way God works.
And if that’s not real blessedness, I don’t know what is.
 From an account shared with me years ago by the Reverend Thomas G. Walker.
 C.S. Lewis, BEYOND PERSONALITY, p. 49.