Friday, February 10, 2017
Who is Blessed?
This is the sermon I preached at St. Timothy and St. Mark Lutheran Churches on Sunday, 1/29. The scripture text is Matthew 5:1-12. So sorry I couldn't add an apropos picture to this post. The computer was not cooperating.
Today's gospel is the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, which is called the Beatitudes. Prior to this trip up the mountain, Jesus was healing and speaking while the disciples basically observed. They had a lot to process, so Jesus put some distance between himself and the crowd. Then his disciples joined him. Jesus' teaching was primarily for his disciples. Jesus is meeting on the mountain like a new Moses training his disciples in a new kind of righteousness.
What exactly are the Beatitudes? To better understand what they are, let's look at what they are not. Some of you may be familiar with this explanation where the beatitudes are understood as the Bee------attitudes. Simply put, we are to try and try and try as hard as we can to live according to the precepts of the Beatitudes. However, Jesus is not cracking the whip. In my pre-Lutheran days, Bee-attitudes was my understanding of Jesus' teaching.
However, the problem with this approach is that it dilutes the power of God and his word. It is making yet another law that has to be followed. It is seen in a contractual manner--if you do this, God will do that. We can never measure up and the wonderful thing is that we don't have to.
As beautiful as they are, the Beatitudes are not simply a table of magnificent ethics or ideals that God set up for governments to follow. It is beyond the power of nations and ourselves. The Beatitudes do not describe nine different types of good people who will get into heaven.
So then, just what are the Beatitudes? A beatitude is first and foremost a blessing promised by God to those who already are what the Beatitudes describe. They are written in unconditional, performative language. The Beatitudes bring into being the reality they declare. They are nine declarations about the blessedness, in spite of appearances of the community of faith, living in anticipation of the fullness of God's reign at the end of the age.
The first thing Jesus teaches his disciples is how to recognize blessedness. Jesus is not teaching them how to become blessed, or even to bless each other, but to recognize who is already blessed by God. It's not necessarily who you'd think.
"Blessed are those who..." The beatitudes promise blessing to those whom God cares for. Jesus gives his blessing and the language transforms--conferring God's blessing in the saying of it. In extending a blessing upon the victims in society, Jesus is not calling people to become victims. Victims hear Christ's beatitude and then are able to claim a life appropriate to that beatitude. A community that hears itself blessed by the Lord does not remain passive, but acts in accord with the coming kingdom.
The poor in spirit are those who have taken their condition to their very heart...not allowing themselves to be seduced by the attraction of wealth. "Theirs is the kingdom" because Jesus presents the nature of the life of the kingdom he proclaims and represents.
Those who mourn are connected to the repentant. It also applies to those who are broken, who suffer or have sustained personal grief and responded humbly. Additionally, true people of God lament the present condition of God's people and God's program in the world.
Meekness can have a positive sense such as humble or gentle, but can also have the negative sense such as the powerless. The meek have not been given their share of the earth and have been denied access to the world's resources, not having the opportunity to enjoy God's creation. Their inherited blessing is not a reward that is earned, but a gift for which one must wait.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. When my family and I lived in Bethlehem, we had taken a trip north to the Galilee for vacation. When it was time to go home we decided to take the shorter of two routes home. Of course, it was summer and was in the days when most cars did not have air conditioning and people didn't carry around water bottles like they do today. We went via the desert of the Jordan Valley. We had the windows open and had no water with us and we thought we'd die until we got something to drink. Have you ever been so hungry for food or thirsty for drink? Imagine yearning in such a way for God's righteousness.
The blessed merciful are healers, people who seek to right that which has gone wrong. They want everything eliminated that prevents life from being as God intends: poverty, ostracism, hunger, disease, demons and debt. Their blessing is that they will receive mercy and they will see mercy prevail.
The meek, mourning and merciful hear the text as a word of encouragement and reassurance. They are singled out by the blessing of God and are renewed in their hope for the future. They inherit their blessing. It is a gift for which one must wait.
The pure in heart recognize that God alone is their hope. Purity of heart refers to the single-minded devotion to God. Their blessing is that they will see God. As those who are truly pleasing to God, they have shown the world what it means to be godly.
Peacemakers are those who are agents of God who are actively establishing the wholeness and well-being that God wills for a broken world. Peacemaking is not a passive activity, but exerts positive actions for reconciliation.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake. Here it is our human activity to participate in what God is doing. Commitment, not persecution is the virtue being promoted.
Blessed are you when people revile you. Why would you be reviled and persecuted and lied about? It is because you are committed to righteousness. Because of this, you will end up with those being unjustly persecuted. However, you have already heard the blessings God has in store for such people
Jesus promises the kingdom to the powerless, the oppressed who embrace the poverty of their condition by trusting in God, not favors from the powerful for their deliverance. God will vindicate the oppressed. Such a promise gives us hope to work for justice and grace to endure the hard path of love.
Every community has its own definition of what it constitutes blessedness. The expression used to describe it may be "the good life" or "success." We all have definitions of what it means to have made it, and normally it's not those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek or pure in heart or thirst for righteousness and all the rest. In our world success is often measured by wealth, power, success or beauty. According to the standards of this world, is usually the material kind.
Jesus is teaching something very different. Jesus teaches us to see how God calls blessed those who are down and out, distressed by their circumstances, passionate about promoting righteousness and working for peace, or persecuting for doing the right thing.
The blessings Jesus promises come only by God's intervention. The future kingdom is in some sense present in Jesus who feeds the hungry, heals the sick and comforts the brokenhearted. We participate in the spiritual down payment of these blessings in Christ right now.
Jesus urges us to look at those around us in a different light. Rather than merely taking pity on their losses, we are invited to enter into them. Rather than judge their failings, we are invited to forgive and remind them that they are blessed by God and born for more than they've settled for. Rather than despise weakness, we are invited to see in it the the truest point of meeting between God's children. God reveals himself to us most clearly and completely at our places of deepest need.
All of these "blesseds' show that the Beatitudes are expressions of what is already true about the Christian community. God's kingdom is not some far away place, but is found whenever we honor each other as God's children, bear each other's burdens, tend to each other's wounds and meet each other's needs. Humanity is fragile and vulnerable. God's character is to gather all these things into a divine embrace.
Blessed are you! Amen.
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