The More Things Change…..?
The US standard railroad gauge (the distance between two railroad rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That was the distance that was used by the English. And English immigrants built much of the US railroad system. So why did the English decide on 4 feet, 8.5 inches? Well, it seems that the people who built railways used the same jigs and tools that were used earlier for building wagons, which used 4 feet, 8.5 inches for wagon wheel spacing. O.K., we might ask, but why did wagon builders use this same length? It seems that the ancient ruts in Europe that were put in place by the Roman Empire because of Roman chariot’s wheels were - you guessed it 4 feet, 8.5 inches. So our modern railroad system’s railways are based on the old Roman chariot. ……… And why did the Romans use 4 feet, 8.5 inches as the standard between chariot wheels? Well, it seems that this length was just wide enough to accommodate the rear ends of two horses.
Now before the end of the federal NASA program our family had the opportunity several times to watch the Space Shuttle lifting off from its launch pad down in Florida as my wife’s family gathers every year in Cocoa Beach. If you ever watched, then you remember those two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These Solid Rocket Boosters were made in a factory in Utah. The engineers who designed them wanted to make them wider, but they had to be shipped by train from the factory in Utah to the launch site in Florida. The railroad line from the factory runs through several mountain tunnels just slightly wider than the railroad track. ….. So one of the most advanced transportation systems in the entire world was determined by the length of 4 feet, 8.5 inches that goes back over two thousand years ago and which as you know is about as wide as the tail ends of two horses. ……………..
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
I have to confess that I often find myself agreeing with that old saying. There’s another version that sounds like it that comes from the Bible. There is nothing new under the sun. You can open a newspaper or turn on the news and it doesn’t take long to see that it is true that, the more things change, the more they stay the same. But is that the end of the story? Is there any other good word that transcends the propensity for human beings to repeat themselves and their mistakes.
What we find in the Beatitudes and Jesus’ teaching in the fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel is the Good News that there is something enduringly better than the tired, ways of the world repeating itself. As Jesus taught the disciples, he utilized a conventional form of speech in the Sermon on the Mount, a form called the Beatitude. The beatitude form can be found in the Old Testament. People would have been accustomed to hearing it taught in the synagogue. There are a number of conventional beatitude or blessing forms from the Psalms and Proverbs like - Blessed is the one who walks not in the counsel of the wicked. A beatitude quite simply is a blessing. It is an announcement of God’s favor. The closest thing to compare it to is something that happens every Sunday. The benediction. The benediction which in Latin means good words is a pronouncement of God’s blessing. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. The love of God. And the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you now and always. Jesus was naming God’s blessing on people here in the Sermon on the Mount. ….. So the point to be made here is that these are not exhortations to Jesus’ disciples. It is not like Jesus was saying, “Go and be mournful. Let us be meek and hungry and thirsty.” Rather these very first words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount are a pronouncement about what is true about God’s blessing.
This is why the Sermon on the Mount is so surprising. It turns upside-down our assumptions of who we might think the blessed are. My guess is that if a Gallup Poll was taken asking the question about who is most blessed – a large percentage of answers would name the healthy, wealthy and happy. We might think of names of American figures who would be listed among the most blessed. But Jesus came announcing God’s favor and surprisingly he named among the blessed those who were poor in spirit, the mournful, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and the persecuted. …….. What a surprise! What a blessed surprise, …. truly.
Jesus was giving us a look into the nature of his compassion. He was giving us a look into the heart of God. This glimpse of the divine compassion shows us a God who cares for the poor, those in mourning and those harmed by injustice.
And in teaching this to his disciples of course, he was showing them that the way of Christian faithfulness necessitates care for the poor, the mournful and the injured. …….. Now the truth is that God also cares for those who are joyful, well-fed and rich as well. But the world rejoices with those who are rejoicing. ……..
Who announces blessing on those who are suffering? Jesus did. And this is Good News for everyone. Because the truth is that sometime in the life of every single human being we will be poor in spirit or we will be sitting on our mourning bench or we will be hungering for justice in a fallen world where sometimes the wrong prospers for a season. What Jesus’ beatitudes reveal to us is that there is Good News even then. Even when we most need it. Blessing still abides.
A decade ago, I was fortunate to visit the traditional site on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee in Israel called the Mount of Beatitudes. I was on a Lenten Pilgrimage through Galilee and Jerusalem with twenty other pastors from a wide variety of denominational backgrounds. And the rural, pristine Galilee was the highlight of two weeks in the Holy Lands. Now we don’t know exactly where Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount. Luke calls the sermon with the beatitudes, the Sermon on the Plain. But Christians have marked a spot at the northern portion of the Sea of Galilee and for centuries pilgrims have visited the place and remembered the words of Jesus’ teachings there. This portion of Matthew’s Gospel is one of my personal favorite sections of all of the Scriptures. So I was especially excited to visit the Mount of Beatitudes, to look out over the Sea of Galilee and to reflect upon Jesus’ words once again.
But I was disappointed to learn that the Mount of Beatitudes was closed in with wrought iron fences by a Christian order who owns and maintains the property. You couldn’t just walk up from the Sea of Galilee. Rather you had to enter through the gate and pay the money for a ticket. And then as I sat in the large Basalt stone church that marks the spot of the Sermon on the Mount, I discovered the patron builder of the church. On a bronze plated plaque I read who had made this church possible. Benito Mussolini, the fascist Italian dictator from WWII, had given the money and had the church built.
What a let down! As I looked over the lakeside setting it was then that I overheard an older American couple from Ohio talking with each other about this depressing bit of news. In fact I got my sermon title from the man’s comments about it. He turned to his wife, sadly shaking his head and said, The more things change. The more they stay the same. We’ve all been there and uttered the same kind of exasperated resignation. But it was there of all places that I saw Jesus’ teaching pushes us to see more than this.
Surprisingly this setting became one of the most moving of the entire trip. There in that Mussolini built church, surrounded by the imposing wrought iron fence amidst all the tourist trap trinkets and money-changing, the words of Jesus captured in the stained glass rang and sang out to me as something forever enduring, forever bearing light into the world. Hundreds of people just that very day had come to this spot to remember these words. This teaching has endured for two thousand years. Our group of twenty pastors and friends began singing the hymn, Fairest Lord Jesus, and the crowd joined in the singing. All the King Herods, the corrupt Emperors like Nero, vengeful dictators like Mussolini are long gone and dust. But this has remained.
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.
This teaching is not naïve or wishful thinking. It simply gives us perspective from the kingdom. It gives us a much longer, eternal perspective. Because we know how the world works most of the time. The meek are overlooked. The mournful are avoided. And the poor in spirit are criticized. The more things change, the more they stay the same. But this is not the end of the story. There is a reality that is greater than the weary, tiresome, self-seeking ways of the world. The Beatitudes give us reason for hope. But in order to see this hope a person has to look from a perspective of faith, a perspective of the kingdom of God. This perspective can seem upside-down from the tired, old ways of the world. But from the perspective of God’s Kingdom, the beatitudes are actually rightside-up. The Apostle Paul put it this way to the Christians in Corinth, God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. ……………………………….
Friends, may God give us the grace that as we hear Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we may live into his wonderfully surprising words. May God bless each one of us so that we may entrust ourselves and those we love to these unchanging beatitudes.
Then we will know that the more things change, the more the kingdom of God endures.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.