This morning we continue with a new series we started last week. We're going to spend the rest of the summer studying Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Last week we looked at the salt and light passage, but this week we are going back to the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. Now let's put this in context. This is the very beginning of Jesus's teaching in the book of Matthew. Before this Jesus gets baptized, he is tempted in the desert, and after John the Baptist is arrested, Jesus continues to proclaim John's message: Repent for the Kingdom of the heavens is at hand. But we don't yet hear any of his preaching: Matthew just says that's what Jesus is saying. Next he calls the disciples and then the gospel tells us that he begins teaching in the Jewish synagogues, which means he would have been interpreting the Old Testament, also preaching the good news of the Kingdom, and healing people. And this begins to catch people's attention. A whole mishmash of people of different races and ethnicities from around Israel begin to follow Jesus so he sits down on a hillside to teach them. And THIS is what he says. The words we hear this morning are the first words of Jesus' teaching according to Matthew. Now first mentions in the Bible are always important. What Jesus says here is designed to set the tone for his entire teaching from here on out. This is THE announcement of what Jesus is up to, what he has come to reveal about God and God's love for creation. Have I succeeded in convincing you that what we are about to hear is important? Good. That's what I was going for! "Let us listen now in the reading of Scripture for the word and the wisdom of God." - Iona Community Worship Book
Scripture: Matthew 5:1-12
Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."
This is the Word of God for All People. Thanks be to God.
Let's think together for a moment about what it means to be blessed. It's a popular word right now. All over the place I see t-shirts and coffee mugs and tote bags with #blessed on them. The Greek word "blessed" doesn't translate cleanly into English, but if we combined happy, fortunate, and privileged, we'd get close. It's the basic description of the quality of life the philosophers were seeking. It's the life we all want. And we know that the original calling of our ancestors in the faith, beginning with Abraham is that we are blessed to be a blessing. Those who follow God experience blessedness, not in order to hoard it for ourselves, but in order to pass it along to the rest of the world. We don't bless others in order to get blessed by God. We recognize that we are already blessed and that inspires and compels us to share the blessing.
Which is what Jesus is announcing here. And it's very important for us to get that in the right order. For many years, I saw the Bible as one big book of obligations. It was heavy, filled with things I had to do in order to be right with God. Since I knew I would never, ever, ever live up to those standards, I spent a lot of time just feeling awful about myself, knowing I would never be enough. Friends, that is NOT good news. That is law and not grace. And if we turn these beatitudes into another disconnected list of things we have to do in order to be accepted by God, we have completely distorted the good news of Jesus and entirely missed the point of the gospel.
The system of the world already says that we get what we deserve, doesn't it? That we earn what we have. We already assume that God blesses the good people, the people who don't keep making the same mistakes. Religious systems are designed to modify our behavior. Everybody knows that. So if we turn these beatitudes into a list of things we have to do in order to earn God's favor, that is nothing new! It's not radical. It's not counter-cultural. It's not surprising. It's not good news. If we think that "blessed are the poor in spirit" means "blessed are the really humble," or "blessed are those who know how much they need God," well Jesus didn't need to proclaim that, because that's what we already think, isn't it? "God blesses those who are really humble about how humble they are?" Ugh. No thank you. I can't keep up with that.
So. If the beatitudes are not just another list of obligations, what are they? I am convinced that they are a counter-cultural announcement about God's love and about the way that things will finally turn out in the world. My thinking on this has been deeply influenced by a Christian pastor and teacher named Rob Bell. Our call to worship this morning was adapted from his interpretations and I think it's spot on. So let's get into it.
Jesus declares "blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of the heavens." He makes this declaration to a group of people who were rich and poor, sick and well, religious and seeking. It doesn't mean, "Blessed are those who know how much they need God." It means, "Blessed are those who have nothing going for them." God is on the side of those who are total failures, those who have been kicked while they were already down, those who feel like they have nothing to offer. Those folks are part of the Kingdom of God. God takes those folks exactly the way they are. They ARE blessed and the Kingdom of God belongs to them right now already. Not because they are good enough or because they earn it, but just because that's how God is.
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." God is on the side of those who have lost what was most important to them. The life everyone is looking for comes us in the midst of the worst times of our lives. God is present even when we haven't asked for God's presence. The promise is that that those who are grieving right now are also blessed right now, AND that they will be comforted. It's a guarantee. Sorrow may last for the night (or many nights) but no night lasts forever. Dawn is coming and with that daylight there will be joy. You can count on it.
"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth." This is definitely a radical announcement. In our system, it's the powerful who come out on top. Those whose business schemes always seem to pan out. Those who are willing to step on other people. In our system, the ruthless inherit the earth. But Jesus says, "No. The meek will inherit the earth." The shy ones, the ones who get stepped on, the clumsy ones, the quiet ones, the ones with runny noses and food on their shirts. With this beatitude Jesus is tapping into an ancient belief that we find in Psalm 37, which says that even though it looks like the powerful are doing well now, some kinds of power don't last.
When God makes all things new, there are some things that won't survive. Violence won't survive. Taking what you want by force won't survive. Corruption and greed will have no place in God's new world. But weakness will. Powerlessness will survive. In God's Kingdom, God is turning our ideas upside down. God is not simply on the side of people who are trying to cultivate meekness as a spiritual discipline; God is also on the side of people who are meek because they can't help it. Why? Why would God bless people who have no power to accomplish things in the world? Because that's just how God is.
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, [which is also the word for justice,] for they will be filled." Not, "Blessed are those who are actually accomplishing justice." But blessed are you even if you only ache to see it happen. Blessed are those who are deeply frustrated by climate change, who are enraged by racism, even when you can't figure out what to do about it. God blesses us before we have a solution. God is with us and on our side when we are paralyzed by confusion and yet long to see the world healed. And the promise is that the world will be healed. That hunger and thirst for justice, that ache for wholeness, that WILL be filled. God will do it. And we will find ways to participate in it. But we are not blessed because we find ways to do good works. We are blessed already, even in the hungering and thirsting. Because that's just how God does things.
Those first four descriptions—poor in spirit, mourning, meek, hungry and thirsty for righteousness—those are things we simply are. They are states of being, not things we are striving to be; they things we already are. Some of us recognize ourselves more in one description or another. The next three beatitudes are descriptions of how we interact with one another. We've already seen that God blesses us when there's no good reason for us to be blessed, when we haven't done anything to earn it, when we're not setting an example for anyone. The next three beatitudes describe God's blessing resting with those who are managing to follow some of the examples of Jesus.
"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy." Now if we have recognized that God is on the side of the poor in spirit, those who are mourning, the meek, and those aching for justice, once we have seen that God is with us when we are those people, how could we not be compassionate with others who are in that state? If we have experienced God meeting us in our greatest weakness, how could we not also be willing to meet others in their moments of greatest weakness? The only other place in the New Testament where we find this word "merciful" is in the book of Hebrews. It says that Jesus has become like us in every way so that he might be a high priest who is merciful and faithful.
When we have shared a common experience, we will be compassionate. If we are not compassionate when someone else is struggling, it is because we did not allow ourselves to experience God's compassion when we were struggling. If you are harsh with other people who are where you used to be, I expect that at some point during your experience someone told you that God wanted you to get over it, to get better, or to move on. And that was a lie. What God wanted was to meet you and bless you right in the middle of that struggle. Once we have experienced God's love and grace, we cannot help but extend it to others. Receiving mercy and being merciful is a natural cycle that feeds itself. It just keeps happening.
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God." This is probably the easiest one to turn into some kind of command. But let me remind that this is a description, not a prescription. There is no "if" in this statement. There is no "should" in this statement. It does not say that if you are pure in heart, then you will earn the privilege of seeing God. It doesn't say that you should strive to be pure in heart so that you can be good enough to see God. It simply describes reality. Those who are unmixed, clean and clear in their intentions, motives, and desires, they will perceive, recognize and experience God. Not as a reward, but simply as a reality. This follows in line after being merciful. The more we are compassionate, the more we will realize what's really happening in the world. We will not be fooled by the world's tricks and systems and lies. We can see past the fake stuff and recognize what's really important. And as that happens more and more, we recognize God all around us and in other people.
"Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God." Once we have experienced God's wholehearted acceptance of us in the midst of our worst moments, as we become compassionate towards others and we see more clearly, we find it harder and harder to demonize one side or the other. Listen carefully: this does not mean that we find it harder to be clear about what is just and what it unjust. It means that we find it harder to lose sight of the people who hold the opinions and are doing the actions. We recognize that no one is entirely good or entirely bad, and we look for ways to draw people together. As the apostle Paul says, "We recognize that our battle is not against flesh and blood," but against what he calls "the powers and principalities." We try to keep the lines of communication open. We LISTEN to the people we disagree with, because we love them. And in doing that, we reflect our Heavenly Parent. People see in us the grace and compassion and patience and righteousness that they see in God.
And in the final beatitudes, we come full circle. "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you." The good news is that God is on our side. The not-so-good news is that the world will not thank us for it. Peacemakers who refuse to demonize one side or the other and keep working for justice, those people are not embraced by a system that thrives on keeping people divided. We should not expect that life to be easy. But we can count on it being meaningful. Look what the result is: the kingdom of the heavens is theirs. The Kingdom of God is for those people.
The Kingdom of God is for the poor in spirit who couldn't possibly deserve it, AND the Kingdom of God is for those who are working so hard for justice that they get persecuted by the world. The Kingdom of God is for both. The Kingdom of God is for all. The beatitudes are Jesus' radical revolutionary message of good news for all people. God is with all of us. God is blessing all of us. Not because we deserve it, but because that's just how God is. Amen.