by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Feb. 2, 2014
These twelve verses that we call “The Beatitudes” form one of the most often read and best known passages from the New Testament. They are the first words of what has come to be called “The Sermon on the Mount” found in chapters 5-8 of Matthew’s gospel. Matthew says that Jesus had been teaching and preaching throughout Galilee, “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” And great crowds were following him everywhere he went.
So he takes time to go aside, as he often does when the crowds are around him. He goes up the mountain – and when Jesus goes up the mountain – important things tend to happen! In this instance, it is time to have a talk with his disciples to explain what they signed up for when they left their nets, or their counting house, or other endeavors to follow him. The crowds may have come along too; they may be listening at a distance, but this is a talk for the disciples. And the first thing out of Jesus’s mouth is blessing for those who are poor in spirit, who mourn, who are meek, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who are merciful and pure in heart, who are peacemakers, and who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Do those words remind you of anyone? Can you think of anyone who embodies those characteristics, who is pure in heart, merciful, seeking righteousness and peace, persecuted for it? It makes me think of Jesus.
I have come to understand that the Sermon on the Mount is not simply a lecture to others on how to live in harmony with God and one another; it is Jesus’ self-description, because throughout his life there was never a difference between what he said and what he did or who he was. His sermon, then, isn’t a list of requirements for others so much as the portrayal of his life and consequently the lives of those who gather around and follow him,[i] the lives of those who have heard him say “The kingdom of heaven is near,” and who want to live in and be a part of that kingdom. “Follow me” means do as I do; be as I am.
Sometimes we think of the Beatitudes, these initial blessings, as a statement of the terms and conditions under which we might be blessed. So that when we hear “Blessed are the pure in spirit,” we immediately ask ourselves, “Am I pure enough in spirit?” or think regretfully, “I should try to be more pure in spirit.” Or when we hear “blessed are the meek,” maybe we think “I can be pushy; I shouldn’t always try to have my own way,” and when we hear “blessed are the peacemakers,” perhaps we realize we should be more committed to peaceful ways and do something about our anger.
But Jesus isn’t trying to tell us that we have to go out and try to be poor in spirit, or meek, or mournful, or any of those things, so much as he is indicating that within the reality of God’s kingdom, we should expect to find such people among his followers.[ii]
In everyday life, our assumption is that those who are meek, mournful, or persecuted, are anything but blessed. In our culture we assume we are blessed when we succeed, are powerful, popular, and in control. We are blessed when we have enough money, recognition, safety, or satisfaction. We assume that being blessed is the result of our own striving, of our perseverance, our hard work. “Blessed” is when everything is going our way.
I was brought up on the old hymn, “count your blessings, name them one by one; count your many blessings, see what God has done.” And invariably in singing that hymn or in sharing our blessings, I assumed we were referring to the fortunate, happy, good things that we have experienced in our lives, despite the hardships, as if blessing and hardship are two different things, and the former makes the latter bearable.
Maybe I am not the only one who’s missed out on the deeper meaning of the word “blessed” because It is used almost exclusively to describe feeling special, empowered in some way, favored, unique. [iii] And we are quick to say easily and joyfully, in regard to the favorable things in our lives, “I am so blessed,” or “we are so blessed.” But a quick glance through the Bible at some of the people who were called blessed, gives a more complex image. Take two – one from the Old Testament and one from the New. God called Abraham blessed to be a blessing. What does that mean? For starts, leaving home at the age of 75, trekking to literally only God knew where, encountering hardships and difficulties, family tensions, having your faith tested by being commanded to sacrifice your only child, for whom you’d waited it seemed like forever, and finally buying a piece of property, not to live with your family happily ever after, but to have a place to bury your wife. Blessed to be a blessing!
Or think about Mary, minding her own business, when an angel of the Lord says “Greetings, favored one!” And whose cousin exclaims “Blessed are you among women!” For Mary, “blessed” means unexpected pregnancy under unexplainable conditions, giving birth away from home, exile for a time in Egypt, watching her son grow up and not understanding what in the world he’s doing and fearing constantly for his life, and finally getting to stand at the foot of a cross and watch him die. Oh yes, blessed indeed.
So maybe a better question for us this morning instead of what does it mean to be blessed, is “what does it feel like when you know are blessed?”[iv] If we ask it that way, and then remember the lives of Jesus, his disciples, Abraham, Mary, Jesus and others who were similarly “blessed” by God, perhaps we can get a better idea of what’s involved.
To be blessed in the Jesus sense of the word is both assurance and challenge. It is to know that you are loved; to know that you are not alone, regardless of the circumstance, which at any given time might be quite difficult. It means knowing that you have worth, not because of something you did or might do, but simply because of who you are. It is to know that God is with you wherever you go and whatever you experience, no matter how risky or trying. It is to know that that you are participating in something much greater than yourself with purposes much higher than your own, that you are a part of a community which does not retaliate, or hate, or act out of anger or pride or fear, because it is not in the nature of Jesus to do those things, and you are called to be like him.
Being blessed is to feel that you are actually capable of being more than you currently are, that you are more than the sum of your parts or past experiences. David Lose, author of a book on preaching that I’m currently reading, recalls that when he was in graduate school, one of his teachers would address him as Dr. Lose. When he protested that he shouldn’t be called “Dr” yet because he had not earned his degree, his teacher responded, “in the African-American church we are not content to call you what you are, but instead call you what we believe you will be.” [v]
The people Jesus names as blessed are certainly not the ones our culture would consider blessed. But in the kingdom of God, we are told the last is first and the first is last, and everything as we know it and evaluate it and esteem it, is turned upside down. In the Beatitudes Jesus is not offering us a recipe for success or the keys to happiness. But instead is witnessing that blessing is found in any circumstance when God shows up just when and where we might least expect God to be.[vi] In those unexpected places of brokenness, hardship, disappointment, grief, or despair we are ready then to receive the presence of God which is the real blessing, and to realize just how shallow and inadequate the cultural blessings of happiness, wealth, fame, or power actually are. When we find ourselves in poverty of spirit, or mourning or forsaking the way of violence for peace, we then are open to experience the power and presence of God – God’s blessing – often mediated to us through community, through one another. As our anthem proclaimed earlier, “Where love is, there is God.”
Perhaps true blessing is found in coming together as followers of Christ, as disciples, as a community of faith and as the family of God, seeing each other as made in God’s image and as God’s child, caring for each other in our most difficult moments, and sharing the healing of our own presence and the promise of God’s presence and love, and reminding one another that it is God who has created us and who calls us blessed. Then with that assurance of blessing, we can follow Jesus to go forth to become agents of God’s blessing for others. Thanks be to God. Amen.