Summary: The beatitudes can be understood sequentially .. as stairsteps to "perfection" (Matt. 5:48). The first four lift us to fellowship with God; the other four bring us back down to the reality of ministry with needy people. This sermon was delivered using a ladder as a "prop".
When Stanley Kubrick made the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey”, he guessed that by this time we would be flitting back and forth in outer space, visiting other planets and seeing things never before seen by human beings. The movie suggested that those who would be alive in the year 2001 would go on an odyssey of exploration more fantastic than ever imagined.
Kubrick was wrong, and yet he was right in another way. Here it is 2001, and though we’ve had equipment out there scouting around, looking for signs of life, though we’ve sent bits and pieces so far out that it will take years for them to arrive at their destinations, we have yet to put human beings on other planets. We and are a mighty long way from selling tickets for regular trips to Mars. There is no shuttle service to the solar system, although I understand the Russians want to sell tickets to the next space shuttle mission. Anybody here ready to pay thousands of dollars for a four-month stay in outer space? Be sure to send in your tithe before you go! No, we haven’t gone on the outer space odyssey that the movie “2001” imagined.
And yet we do these days go on another kind of journey. We do take trips of a different kind. Instead of a trek into outer space, we can go on an inner space odyssey. We can explore the inner reaches of the human heart. We can examine what makes us tick. I suggest to you that that is a venture worthy of anybody’s time, anybody’s investment. In 2001: An Inner Space Odyssey.
A thousand years ago the great achievement of that age was to build an immense cathedral. All over Europe they planted soaring churches whose towers seemed to pierce the skies. Magnificent structures with steeples like fingers pointing to the heavens. Those who in the year 1001 wanted to point people toward a fantastic voyage did so by pointing to heaven with their architecture.
But then the walls of these cathedrals they did something more. On the walls they put magnificent windows of stained glass. High on the upper tiers they would picture the great saints of the Christian faith. They would tell in glass the stories of those who had achieved great things spiritually. There’s a good example here in Washington that many of you have seen. The First Baptist Church of Washington at 16th and O Streets has a lower level of windows, with Biblical scenes and with pictures of Christian history. But if you climb the stairs and go to the balcony, up at the top of the steps, you will see the pictures of some of the great Christians of the past – of Martin Luther and John Wesley and Helen Montgomery (the first woman to translate the Bible). They have saints at the top of the stairway. They even have a window showing a nondescript fellow in a blue suit and a 1950’s hat, carrying a bureaucrat’s brief case, and he is labeled, “The Average Man”. Right up there at the end of the stairway to heaven, the average person, ordinary, everyday, nothing special. But among the saints.
When Jesus says, in the Sermon on the Mount, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”, He is talking about this sort of person. This average guy, this you-and-me, who is capable of an inner space odyssey that takes him or her up the stairway to heaven. Incredible? Not if you take it one step at a time. Every stairway has to be taken one step at a time. The stairway to heaven is no exception. Did you hear about the time Dave Yarborough got lost driving his cab around DC? His fare wanted to go to the Kennedy Center, but Dave couldn’t find it; so he pulled over to the curb and asked the first person he saw, “How do you get to the Kennedy Center?” The guy on the street answered, “Practice, man, practice.”
How do you get to be perfect? Practice. How do you climb the stairway to heaven? One step at a time. Jesus will show you the steps.
First, you start with a step called humility. You start by acknowledging that you are at the bottom of the stairs and haven’t gone anywhere at all. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Poverty in spirit, humility, that’s the first rung on the stairs. If you don’t start there, you’ll never get to the kingdom of heaven. If you go off on some other tack, you will never arrive. And so you start with humility. You start by acknowledging that out of our human capacities alone we can achieve nothing at all. The kingdom of heaven is not about attainments, it’s not about degrees, it’s not about accomplishments. It is instead all about humility, it is all about understanding that for us to get anywhere we need help. We need help. The very first issue we must confront if we expect to move toward wholeness is the illusion that we can pull ourselves up by our own spiritual bootstraps.