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					The Good Life
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Matthew 5:1-11
April 6, 2008
Rev. Donna M. Claycomb
Mount Vernon Place UMC, Washington


         While I do not believe in astrology, I often read my horoscope. In fact, I get a kick out of
my horoscope because it has a tendency at times to line up so well with what is happening in my
life. On Tuesday, my horoscope in the Washington Post read, “It’s been proven repeatedly that
contentment is internally generated and has nothing to do with economics or social status. You
now raise your satisfaction level and life brings you even more of a good thing.” According to
the Washington Post horoscope, contentment has nothing to do with economics and social status,
at least for people who are Cancers. And yet, this horoscope completely contradicts the
preceding day’s paper.
         On Monday, a front-page article in the business section began with the sentence, “’In this
society, it’s important to look good,’ Kelly Vergot said as she sat in the busy waiting room of the
Dental Spa one recent Friday morning.” This statement opened an article about medical spas –
places where people can receive Botox treatments to minimize their wrinkles or puffy eyes and
bleach on their teeth to minimize the coffee stains. The article wanted Washingtonians to k now
that there are now 2,500 spas in the Washington area compared with just 35 spas six years ago. 1
Looking beautiful – or the quest to become beautiful – is big business in this area – an area filled
with happy hours, power lunches, climbs to the top, and numerous fundraisers. This life – a life
of beauty – is the good life.
         On the very same page, just above the fold was an article titled, “The Pink-Collar
Network.” This article is embellished with a color photograph of many middle-aged women
with perfect hair nibbling dainty morsels of food on top of small plates. The opening sentences
read, “The women call themselves divas and own matching baby-pink business card holders.
They’ve literally hosted breakfast at Tiffany’s. Once a month they bus up to New York City for
a day of retail therapy.” The club about which the reporter is writing is 145 women strong and
growing.
         My friends, we do not live in a city for the faint of heart. We live in a city in which
wisdom, power, brains and beauty are hot commodities. Wisdom, power, brains and beauty are
part of the ethos – a thread that runs through the DNA of this city. Nails need to be painted.
Shoes need to be shined. Handshakes need to be firm. Resumes need to be polished off and
ready to distribute in a moment’s notice. This is what it takes to live the good life.
         As we mentioned last week, the people of Corinth also know a thing or two about what it
takes to be successful. While the powerful in Corinth may not have walked around with business
cards in their pockets, they know that in order to be successful, one had to possess two important
things: wisdom and the ability to share it clearly. One’s rhetoric could get one far. The ability to
speak well could propel a person to the top. People yearned for knowledge and the ability to
share this knowledge persuasively. And, the more I study life in Corinth, the more I cannot help
but to think of how Barack Obama would have flourished in Corinth with his knowledge and


1
 Alejandro Lazo, “Washingtonians Tuck Into Medical Spas” in the Washington Post, March 31,
2008, D1.


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ability to speak. He is the epitome of a good Corinthian, and I even think Hillary could agree
with this statement.
         But just as Hillary is trying to persuade the American voter that it takes more than
rhetoric to become President, so Paul wants all to know that wisdom has nothing to do with
faithfulness. It does not matter how wise, educated or intelligent someone might be. As Howard
Martin said to me when he left church last week, “I have known a lot of people with a whole lot
of education and no common sense.” Paul might say, “I have known a lot of people with a
whole lot of education and absolutely no faith – absolutely no understanding of what it means to
be blessed – really blessed.” One’s wisdom, education and intellect might get one far in life, but
these things mean very little in God’s kingdom.
         Our Gospel lesson that was read today is a portion of one of the most famous sermons
ever given. Jesus began his ministry not long ago but already he has taught in the synagogues,
proclaimed the good news of the kingdom, and cured every disease and every sickness among
the people. All kinds of people are being brought to him – the sick, demoniacs, epileptics,
paralytics and those afflicted with various diseases and pains. People are lining up to be in his
presence, and Jesus is ready to get away from it all.
         We are told that once he sees the crowds, he climbs a mountain and sits down. He goes a
little higher, and some people follow him to this place where Jesus begins to teach. Jesus teaches
those who are willing to go with him about what the good life is composed of. Those who are
blessed are not the rich but the poor in spirit, not those who live forever but those who mourn,
not the powerful but the meek, not those who are full but those who hunger for righteousness,
not the ones who rise to the top but the merciful, not those who have it all but the pure in heart,
not the country with the most machine guns but the peacemakers. This vision is the vision of
God’s empire. And, if one is going to be included in this empire – if one is going to be a disciple
of Jesus, then this is the lifestyle one must aspire to. The disciples of Jesus are to live in an
alternative community – one marked by “justice, transformed social relationships, practices of
piety and shared and accessible resources.” 2
         When we break down the Beatitudes, we see a set of behaviors that are anything but
conventional. Four of the behaviors – being poor in spirit, mourning, being meek and hungering
for righteousness – are characteristics found most often by the poor.
         When I was driving down New York Avenue on Friday afternoon, I was struck by the
image of a beggar standing on the side of the road. He appeared to be a little dirty. He was an
older gentleman. He did not carry a sign. He did not rattle a can hoping that people would drop
coins inside. Instead, he stuck out his arm – just a little. He extended his hand halfway, as if he
had little strength to extend it all the way but still hoped someone would see it and give him
something. He was poor. He was meek. He caused me to mourn and hunger for righteousness.
         The remaining five beatitudes are not inward characteristics but rather social actions of
the community God has created. It is a community where people are merciful. We are not told
who they are merciful towards – but we can assume it was the kind of people Jesus showed
mercy towards – the poor, the outcast, the sick, the lame, the people often forgotten by others –
those inflicted with HIV/AIDS, single mothers on welfare, immigrants too afraid to go home and
unable to work in this country, the homeless, the uneducated, the people too often cast aside.
         It is a community where people are pure in heart – where people long not to be satisfied
with the ways of this world but with the ways of God – where people long to see Jesus.


2
    New Interpreters Bible, 1754


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        It is a community where those who are blessed are not those who bomb others, amass
weapons of mass destruction, build up impressive militaries, or spend millions on tankers but
rather a community of peacemakers – a community of people who put away swords and long for
reconciliation – a community of people who do not believe that war is ever the answer.
        It is a community where people might be persecuted and even falsely accused because of
their foolishness – because of the wisdom they have chosen to follow – but they are to live the
life anyway.
        This life is anything but conventional. This empire of God’s looks so different from the
empire of these great 50 states. And still, we are invited to heed his call. We hear his message,
and we muster our strength to defy conventional wisdom and climb the mountain with him once
more.
        As many of you know, my fiancé, Craig’s, grandmother died this past Monday. We
celebrated Nana’s life in Bristol, Pennsylvania on Thursday morning with an incredible mass at
St. Ann’s Catholic Church – the church in which Nana was baptized, married, and the place
where she worshipped for over 90 years. Nana and her husband owned a store across from St.
Ann’s church, the Morici Market. It was a small, grocery store loaded with the finest of Italian
foods. It was the family business – a place where dozens of people gathered throughout the day.
The Morici family lived on top of the market, in an apartment where their three children were
raised and where the family continues to gather. It is the place where Nana lived and the place
where Nana died.
        I met Nana at Thanksgiving in 2006. When I met Nana, she was no longer able to go to
church because she could not get up and down the stairs. Still, Nana’s faith remained at the core
of her being. Nana would remain perched in a chair in the corner of the sun room throughout
most days. To her right was a lamp atop which three or four rosaries would always hang. Nana
would sit in this chair, looking straight into the doors of her beloved church. When the church
doors opened and the priests came out following the Sunday service, Nana would wave at them
and blow kisses with the priests returning the favor. Nana would watch for the priests to come
and give her communion at least once a month. And, Nana’s prayer beads always remained
within arm’s reach.
        Nana never had a lot in the eyes of the world. Her apartment is rather small with the
space somewhat chopped up. The market downstairs is no longer operated by her family but by
another Italian man in town. Her aging body did not allow her to do much of anything outside
the walls of her apartment. Her beloved husband of 62 years departed some 5 years ago. And
yet, when I met Nana, I knew she had it all. She was full of life – full of faith – full of God. She
had peace that I would be willing to bet could not be matched by anyone visiting a day spa today
in an effort to feel more beautiful or gathering at a networking event later this week in an effort
to feel more connected. Nana was connected to God.
        The Greek word translated “blessed” in this passage can also mean healthy and whole. If
we use this meaning, then what Matthew provides for us is a description of the whole life.
Nana’s life was whole – sitting on top of the little market, looking into the doors of her beloved
church – her life was as whole as I can imagine a life could be.
        The impetus for this sermon series came from a set of posters placed in the windows of
an apartment building on the corner of 20 th and N Streets in Dupont Circle. The posters are
rather large and speak of the life that is guaranteed for the residents of the apartment. One of the
posters reads, “Great Connections: Guaranteed” and has a bunch of computers pictured below.
Another poster reads, “Great Weekends: Guaranteed” and shows a group of young people going



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out on the town. Another poster reads “Active. Urban. Exceptional” and shows people doing a
variety of things from yoga to shopping to having drinks at a bar, surrounded by people. The
pictures show the lifestyle that so many people in this city crave. We so often go searching for
that place where we can be surrounded by beautiful people in a beautiful apartment in a beautiful
part of the city. The posters are designed to appeal to people who are searching for the good life
– as described by the typical Washingtonian.
         I know the apartment complex where these posters hang well as I have visited one of the
apartment homes in this complex often. The building is a stunningly beautiful place with a
coffee machine inside the lobby where you can have a latte or hot chocolate or chai spice tea
anytime you want it. It is a place where several computers are set up just off the lobby so that
residents can check their email often throughout the day. It is a place where the person at the
front desk calls you by name as she sits behind the long silk curtains hanging from the ceiling
handing out complimentary copies of the Washington Post. It is a place where the residents
appear to have it all. And it is a place where a young woman who appeared to have it all – a law
degree, a job as a prosecutor for the city, a yoga-defined body, cute clothes, blonde hair, and
dozens of friends – did not feel whole on the inside but instead felt empty enough to take her
own life on a weekend – a weekend promised to be great by those who market the building.
         My friends, I have lived a life in this city when I went searching for the good life. I went
around doing whatever I could to get a job on Capitol Hill in a place where I could try to climb
to the top. I remember what it was like when I based my entire identity on my business card that
identified me as a staffer for Senator Tom Harkin or Congressman Eric Fingerhut. I recall how
much money I gave in order to be included in what was called The Saxophone Club, a group of
young Democrats who were invited to different functions attended by the President and various
political insiders. I remember how I thought I was living the good life – how my college had
included me in its magazine as a graduate who had really made it. And, I remember how
exhausted I was – trying to prove myself, trying to get more responsibility in the Congressional
office, more dates, more connections, more shades of lipstick.
         And, I remember how these memories – these portions of my past – played such a crucial
role three years ago when I was being called to pastor this church in the heart of Washington. I
remember thinking to myself how I wanted more than anything else to create a community
where all people would be included – where all people would have an identity – not based upon
their business card but upon their baptism – upon the day when they were called out as a
precious child of God, a child claimed by God. I remember thinking about how I would love to
be part of a community where all people are welcome regardless of what they do, how they
appear or what they wear. I remember how I wanted to create something that stood in stark
contrast to that life – my former life. I remember how I wanted to be part of a church filled with
people who were more concerned about others around them – including or especially the poor –
than they were themselves. I wanted to help create a place where people could come and share
their life with others – the good and the bad of life – and be loved and supported through it all. I
wanted to pastor a church where this wholeness was embodied – where we lived out the
Beatitudes and called it good.
         Our newspapers are full of conventional wisdom – wisdom that leads us to believe that he
whoever has the most toys is the happiest, she who has the fewest wrinkles is the prettiest, and
they who have the biggest house are the most successful. We can try as hard as we want to have
this life. But, I want to offer you a glimpse of a different life.




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       It is a life centered on a table where all are fed and no one goes away hungry. It is a life
where every single person is invited to come. It is a life centered on a table where every person
receives the exact same amount of food and drink. It is a life centered on a table where we
remember the foolishness of a Christ who was willing to give it all so that we might have life – a
whole life – the good life.
       Thanks be to God. Amen.




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