How many of you know the story about Sir Isaac Newton and the apple? Around 1665 Newton (who was then a university student) was sitting in an apple orchard near his home and he watched an apple fall from a tree and hit the ground. This observation started a whole chain of thinking that led to Newton formulating his ideas about the nature of gravity and motion and providing a mathematical formula for them. Newton neither invented gravity, nor discovered it, but he described gravity and the way it works so clearly and so well that for centuries afterward we have relied on his theories about gravity as fact – and we have called some of this classic work by his name: Newtonian physics, or Newtonian mechanics. Almost anyone who has taken a science class in school has heard this story in one form or another, and it makes sense to what we can see and touch in our world.
But 250 years later, around 1905, some scientists began to notice that physical matter can behave very differently when you look at it on a very small level, a microscopic level – and that the dependable, sensible laws of physics that were described by Newton and his colleagues didn’t apply on the sub-atomic level. This newer science became what we know as quantum physics or quantum mechanics. In the realm of quantum physics, for example, light can be both a particle and a wave at the same time – not something that Newton’s calculations could ever have made room for. The work done by such scientists as Max Planck and Niels Bohr which led to quantum physics discoveries moved our understanding of science and the physical world to a whole new level – but it didn’t mean Newton’s theories of gravity were wrong, or that they ceased to exist. Each in their own way, quantum physics and Newtonian physics continue to be true at the same time, even though they might seem to contradict each other.
OK, you’re probably saying, what in the world does all this have to do with the Gospel? I did not come to Church today for a science lesson! That’s right – and there are people in this congregation who could give you a much better science class than I could ever give. So here is how this connects: The Gospel reading we have this morning is what we usually call “The Beatitudes” – the Blessings.
In Matthew’s version of the Gospel this is the first public teaching that Jesus does, and Matthew wants to portray him as a teacher and rabbi and spiritual leader superior to Moses. Traditionally Moses was credited with writing the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy), and he received the Ten Commandments from God on Mount Sinai. So now in Matthew’s Gospel we have Jesus going up on a mountain to teach the people in a new and different way that will surpass anything Moses did.
The people who were listening to Jesus would have had some basic religious and spiritual assumptions: if you do what is right in God’s eyes and according to God’s laws you will be blessed. They had a very mechanical, cause-and-effect view of the nature of God and how God interacted with human beings. In fact, there are many places in the Old Testament where it is assumed that if a person is sick or handicapped or poor it is because they have somehow not measured up to God’s law, they have offended or transgressed in some way, and their unhappy state is the result of God’s displeasure with them. That idea was taken as dependable fact – you could count on it as much as you could count on gravity.
So when Jesus sat down to teach on that mountainside, he was saying something about God that was brand new; his revelation of God and the way God acts was completely different from what most people thought they knew. Jesus began to describe a God who is beyond cause-and-effect, who is outside of cause-and-effect.
The Beatitudes tell us what God is like – God gives the kingdom of heaven to the poor in spirit; God comforts and blesses people who mourn; God gives the earth as a blessing to the meek – to those who are lowly; God blesses those who make peace, and they are called by God’s name: children of God. Jesus is telling us that God is speaking blessing to all, that there is no one who is outside of God’s reach and the circle of his love. If we had to depend upon our behavior or our action to receive God’s blessing, then we would be depending upon ourselves; we’d be in that place of cause-and-effect – and cause-and-effect is neither blessing nor grace. Grace is God’s gift freely given in Jesus that we neither earn nor deserve.
This is Good News! God’s dealing with us does not depend upon our own efforts, but flow out of God’s own nature of forgiveness and blessing. What Jesus was teaching the people of his day was as different from their expectations and understanding of who God is and how God acts as quantum mechanics is different from Newtonian physics. But just like in physics, the Law given to Moses continued to be true on one level – it just didn’t give you the whole picture. The Ten Commandments are still in effect; God continues to ask us to act in ways that are fair and equitable for the whole community and bring justice to those who need it most. As we heard in the reading from Micah: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
But that’s keeping the lens focused on us and our behavior – true as far as it goes. Instead, Jesus wants us to change our perspective and focus on God and what God is like and how God works with us. Jesus leaps over behavior-and-reward, cause-and-effect, to land us squarely in the presence of God who chooses to bless and be gracious to all people, starting with those who know their poverty (both spiritual and physical), those who grieve and mourn, and the lowly – those without power or stature.
The Good News for Jesus’ first-century audience was that if God could bless even a poor person, or even someone without standing in the community, then there was hope for everyone – no one would be left out of God’s goodness or grace or blessing.
The same is true for us; God’s blessings are abundant and available for everyone - no matter the size of our bank account, or our level of education, or our race; no matter what we have done or left undone – God’s grace is ample and sufficient for each one of us; a freely given blessing. Let us receive it with joy and thanksgiving. And let us discover and learn how to share those blessings with others, as widely as we can.
Victoria Geer McGrath
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
January 30, 2011