You Knew It Was A Snake When You Picked It Up

Matthew 5:1-12 (The Beatitudes)

There’s an old piece of southern wisdom that I picked up a couple of weeks ago that I feel I need to share with you this morning. And that piece of wisdom is: “You knew it was a snake when you picked it up.”

Now, there’s two ways to apply this statement.  The first example.  When you tell your son or daughter that the burner on the stove is hot and they touch it anyway and burn their finger.  Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m probably not overly inclined to extend a great amount of sympathy in such a case. “You knew it was a snake when you picked it up” What we’re really saying here is that you should have known better and now you’re suffering the consequences of your actions.  That application may be a little judgmental, but sometimes necessary. It’s kind of like the phrase, “you made your bed now you have to lie in it.”

There’s another way to take this statement, however, one that is less judgmental.            “You knew it was a snake when you picked it up” can refer to an action taken with full knowledge of the consequences, but the action is taken anyway because the individual understands that the action is necessary.

A good example of “picking up a snake” and understanding the possible consequences was exhibited in the civil rights movement. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew there would be repercussions when he began to lead others in a non-violent movement protesting segregation and the mistreatment of the African American community in our nation.  King understood the consequences; he understood that this movement could cost him is very life. But he did it anyway because he knew that the action was necessary. He once wrote: “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”1 And maybe even more pointedly, in his famous “I Have a Dream” sermon he said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”2

And this statement, in some form anyway, has always been present in the Church.  We can look at our religious beginnings and see how the inspiration of Christ moved so many to action. Men and women of faith across the history of the Church stood up for the core values and principles of the gospel. These Church fathers and mothers loved God and neighbor by challenging injustice, both within and outside the walls of their sanctuary. They championed causes that benefitted the least of God’s children and took positions that were, as Dr. King suggested, “neither safe, nor politic, nor popular.” And these positions often cost them their lives. Today, we call these champions of the faith Christian martyrs.

And this is where we encounter the beatitudes today. The historical Jesus, the living-breathing man who walked this earth, understood that there would be consequences and repercussions if he stood up against the religious system of his day.  A system that generated discrimination, kept the outsider, outside; the insider, rich; and the poor, poor. But he did it anyway. Jesus stood up for what was right. And there, on the mountainside, he began a movement that would reach across religious and social boundries; a movement that would ultimately cost him his life. Time and again in the gospels, Jesus said to his inner circle, the twelve disciples, “ya know guys, my days on this earth are numbered, so you’re going to need to carry on what I’ve started, even, if the cost is your life.”

And in preparation for the inevitable consequences of choosing to follow, Jesus sat down on the side of a mountain, that’s why we call this teaching the sermon on the mount, and began tell his followers about some realities they were going to face. He began with what’s called the Beatitudes, illuminated for us in Matthew 5:1-12

But before we get into the text, I wanted you to hear the Beatitudes today from a fresh perspective.  So today’s lesson comes to us from The Message by Eugene Peterson.  I chose this dynamic translation of the Bible because it re-imagines and re-frames the words of Jesus in such a way that it really clarifies the original meaning for us.

Anyway, in our passage for today, Jesus said to the gathered crowd, “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. “You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you. “You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.  “You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat. “You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.”

Now, first of all, these are wonderful words of hope, aren’t they? And that’s no accident. In verses 1-7, Jesus seeks to build a foundation of hope and encouragement upon which the rest of the Beatitudes will rest.  He’s kind of saying, “Even when you feel sad, when you’re struggling, desperate; you don’t walk alone. When you become a part of this movement, God is with you every step of the way.” These words are finally an assurance of God’s presence.

Now, if verses 1-7 set the stage, then verse 8 is the centerpiece. It’s the crux of the meaning of this text and it serves as a transition to the final section.  Verse 8 reads, “You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.” In other words, when we get it right on the inside, when we come to understand that God is God and we’re not God, it’s then that we can truly begin to participate in serving the outside world.  If it’s all about me and my little bubble, addressing the challenges and hardships of the outside world would seem impossible.  But God’s world is much larger and it’s more loving, more holistic; it’s more genuine. On my own it’s an impossible task, but “…with God all things are possible.”

And this is important to understand.  It’s important because we’re coming up to the “you knew it was a snake when you picked it up” part.  1-7 reassure us that God is always going to walk with us, verse 8 encourages us to depend on that fact over and above trusting in ourselves because we’re going to need God. Verses 9-12 spell out the actions and consequences of following Jesus.

 “You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight,” [Jesus says,] “That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family. “You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom. [And] “Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but on the surface this doesn’t sound like too much fun. But that’s the challenge that Jesus lays before us.  The challenge to love God and neighbor no matter what the consequence gets to the very core of the virtues and values that unite us as people of faith.  With one voice we can speak up for the outcast, for the poor, for the disenfranchised, for those on the margins. With open minds and hearts, we can choose to protect the beauty and wonder and the interconnectedness of God’s creation; the ecosystems and the watersheds, and all the creatures that surround us.  And when we seek to discover the very best of ourselves, when we open ourselves up and accept the consequences of loving God by tending to humanity and creation, rather than destroying or cutting down, we move a little closer to God.

That’s the bottom line of this text.  It’s finally not about celebrating being poor, rather it’s about being blessed with the experience of poverty so we can know the poverty of others.  It not about being empty, but rather experiencing emptiness so we can become filled with God.  Do you see what I’m getting at here? When there’s less of “us” our worries our presuppositions, our stuff, our self-righteousness- there’s more room for God. And when we’re filled with God – we can’t help but spill over with a desire to share the grace and love and fullness that we feel.  And it’s a fullness that no criticism or disapproval can drain.

Now, I wish I could tell you that the path will always be clear and flat and easy.  But I can’t do that.  There will be tough times, there will be moments when it would be easier to let that snake slitter away.  There’s division in our nation and in Christianity.  Rifts that seem impossible to repair.  And as a community, we will not agree on the best way forward, but that should not deter us from moving ahead anyway.  My friends, our diversity is our strength and we can find unity if we respect one another.  If we, like Jesus, see all people as equally valuable in the eyes of God.  Let me say that again because it’s not the loudest voice in our nation today.  All people are valuable in the heart of God. Period.

And I know, that’s a grand statement. But consider the radical positions Jesus took on the place of women and children and the disabled in society.  Think about the controversy he stirred up by healing and then affirming the faith of those from other religions. Consider the hardships he endured because he stood up to the systems of his day; the religious and secular systems that perpetuated and normalized poverty.  Jesus not only preached the beatitudes, but with snake in hand, he lived them.

“Count yourselves blessed,” he said, “when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight, that’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family. [And] “Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable.

And that’s our challenge for today.  To be a voice of reason, of conscience; of ethics and integrity, and yes, we can even be a voice of “discomfort” to those spewing hatred, and violence, and calling for division among God’s people. God is Still-Speaking in the world today.  God is speaking with a whisper of kindness and with shouts of justice. But most of all, God speaks of peace and unity, of grace and compassion, God finally speaks words of love

May it be so, Amen.

 

[1] A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches.                                                                                                      Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., James Washington ed., (HarperOne 1986)

 

[2] I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches That Changed the World.                                                                                         Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., James Washington. Ed., Foreword by Coretta Scott King (HarperOne 1987)

 

 

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