Scripture: Matthew 5:1-12
I’m a little embarrassed to admit that it was the daycare that taught my toddler how to pray over his meals, not his parents. You know, my son’s secular daycare taught the pastor’s kid the blessing. I guess this is true confessions of a pastor mom. I did teach Isaac to “cheers,” and so his dinnertime prayers often get interrupted with the declaration of – “Mom, we need to cheers, first.” One day Isaac’s teacher sent me a video of Isaac praying before lunch. He is surrounded by at least 15 other two year olds, and yet he is the only one you can hear because he is screaming the blessing to the top of his lungs. I can’t help but chuckle and feel a little proud as I listen to him yell, “God, we thank you. God, we thank you, for our food, for our food, and our many blessings, and our many blessings. We thank you. We thank you.” Upon further reflection – again, true confessions of a pastor mom – I wonder what this meal time prayer is already teaching my son about “blessings.” What will he grow up thinking is a blessing? Food? Parents? A house? Money? Will he ask me one day why God doesn’t bless all people with the food that they need? Isaac has only spent a meager two and a half years on the planet, and yet he’s already learning something about what we think it means to be blessed.
We use the word “blessing” so much that we often don’t stop and think about what it means. We often say we are blessed with resources, and thus we are called to share them with others. We think it’s okay that we are blessed and others are not so long as we share what we’ve been given. We think it’s God’s will that things are this way. God gave us the money and resources, and we are to decide when and how much we give to others. Of course God does call us to share what we have with others, but are our material blessings really from God? And is having money and things really what it means to be blessed? You’ve heard people use the phrase, “I’m too blessed to be stressed.” It’s become a popular saying in our culture to communicate the sentiment that we are too blessed with resources, family, friends to complain about anything. There’s even a coloring book entitled, “Too Blessed to be Stressed: Color your way to calm.” While I appreciate the recognition that many of us complain about trivial things, this phrase is also used to deny real pain and further isolate people as they chose to pretend that everything is okay. And again, what do we mean here when we say “blessing” and how can one be “too blessed”? I just can’t picture Jesus walking around saying: “I am too blessed to be stressed.” Can you? It’s time to move beyond bumper sticker Christianity, beyond trite meanings of the word “blessings,” and to explore the teachings of Jesus further so we can truly understand what it means to be blessed.
In our text for today, Jesus preaches his first sermon, and he spends the whole time talking about what it means to be blessed. His version of what it means to be blessed sounds nothing like ours. Jesus says that those who are blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those persecuted for righteousness’ sake, and those who are reviled on Jesus’ account. He does not say that the blessed are those who have food or money or resources or friends or family or even inner peace or calm. When we hear Jesus’ list of the blessed, we wonder if we are actually included in the list. We wonder if it’s even possible to live this way. Here Jesus goes again asking us to do the impossible! We are tempted to dismiss Jesus’ teaching, not taking it seriously, because we believe that we as individuals cannot live up to these standards. But this list of blessings, what we know as “the Beatitudes,” is not a list of character traits or virtues to which Jesus is urging us to aspire. The Beatitudes are a description of the new way of life made possible by Jesus the Messiah, who is making all things new. It’s the description of the blessed community of God’s people. It’s not about what you individually can do, how saintly you individually can be. Thank God, right? Because I’m having trouble with more than a few of those! Thank God, it’s not about any one of us. It’s about the kind of people who understand the way of Jesus and make up the people of God. It’s about the new reality that Jesus calls us to live into.
Hauerwas says that Jesus’ sermon “is not addressed to individuals but to the community that Jesus begins and portends through the calling of the disciples. It is not a heroic ethic. It is the constitution of the people. You cannot live by the demands of the sermon on your own, but that is the point. The demands of the sermon are designed to make us depend on God and one another.”[i] You hear that? Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, are the constitution of God’s people. It’s the description of what it looks like to be following after Jesus. We cannot do it alone; we must depend on one another. It is not something we can just read and then forget about because it sounds impossible; it is to continually shape and reshape how we live. The Beatitudes teach us what we should be about as God’s people. They show us what the world of God’s kingdom looks like and what it means for us to be apart of it. They value different standards than the world we live in and challenge us to value the standards of God’s kingdom instead of the kingdoms of our world. And if we can start to value what God values, then we as the community trying to live out the way of Jesus will be blessed.
So exactly what kind of people does Jesus call blessed? Jesus says blessed are the poor in spirit. This category can include the literal poor, but it is a broader group of people in the gospel of Matthew. It means those who are crushed in spirit, those who are distressed by their life circumstances or the life circumstances of others. Theirs is not the kingdom of the world, but theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Those who are crushed in spirit are not caught up by the good things the world has to offer. Those who are crushed in spirit are not enamored by the kingdoms of this world, and thus they have more clarity about what it means to follow Jesus. Jesus says blessed are those who mourn. Those who mourn know that things aren’t as they should be; they are not content. Those who mourn includes those who mourn the death of their loved ones, but also those who mourn because of the suffering in the world. They will be comforted because Jesus is in their midst and is turning the world upside down. Jesus says blessed are the meek. Too often we like to think of this as a character trait, but Jesus invites us to think about being meek more broadly. Jesus was meek as he chose not to respond to violence with violence. Those who follow in the way of Jesus do not bring about the kingdom of God with violence but with meekness, humility, and gentleness. Being meek does not mean staying silent and not resisting; it means resisting creatively, not with violence.
Jesus says blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Again, this can include the literal hungry and thirsty people in the world, but it is a broader group of people – people who have a deep hunger for righteousness. A better translation of the Greek here is “justice.” Those who have a deep desire for justice are God’s blessed community. Jesus says blessed are the merciful. Those people who follow in the way of Jesus participate in concrete acts of mercy. They don’t just talk about mercy as a concept; they act mercifully towards their neighbors. They know that they have received God’s mercy, and they want to share that mercy with others. Jesus says blessed are the pure in heart. Jesus is not talking about impure thoughts or some measure of piety; Jesus is talking about having a undivided heart, a heart that is not split by serving two masters, a heart that is loyal to God alone. Jesus says blessed are the peacemakers. Those who are about concrete acts of peace, those who take action toward reconciliation and forgiveness – they are the true children of God. Jesus says blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake and blessed are you when people direct acts of evil toward you because you are following after me. Jesus makes it clear that to be a part of the blessed community living in the way of Jesus will mean being persecuted because the world around you will resist this way of life.
After digging a little deeper into the meaning of each pronouncement, it is clear that the beatitudes are not simply a list of virtues we can try to attain. The beatitudes ultimately describe the community that Jesus is making possible in the church. The Beatitudes are not to be read as an imperative to be something you aren’t; they are an invitation to join God’s people and be formed into someone who exhibits these values. The Beatitudes are a description of the whole community that is following after God’s kingdom The true community of God’s people is discontented and mourning over the injustices of the kingdoms of the world; the true community of God’s people desire justice and work towards it with persistence and gentleness; the true community of God’s people is about reconciliation; the true community of God’s people is loyal to God alone. And because of their undivided loyalties, they will be persecuted and hated by the world because the world has a different way of living.
Our text for today that describes Jesus’ new way of life that’s oriented towards love of God and neighbor got co-opted by the American empire last week. As Baptists who believe in separation of church and state, we should have all been cringing at the reading of the Beatitudes at the inauguration ceremony of our highest government leader. There is great dissonance between the way of life Jesus describes in the Beatitudes and the way of life exhorted by the American empire. This American way of life is similar no matter what political party is in power. If we were to rewrite the Beatitudes to describe what Americans value in our way of life, it would sound like this: “Blessed are the middle-class, for they are the true hard-working Americans. Blessed are the content, for they don’t complain about the way things are. Blessed are the assertive, for they can take what they want. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for success, for they embody the American dream. Blessed are the strong, for they don’t allow people to walk all over them. Blessed are those who aren’t too zealous about their faith, for they can be reasoned with! Blessed are the warriors and the hawks, for they will protect us from our enemies and quell our fears. Blessed are those who are first, for they will get what they want.”
It’s easier for us to notice the contrasts of the way of the American life with the way of Jesus when it’s not our favored political candidate in power. Some of us can see the conflict when we hear our current president say, “America first! Build a wall!” Others of us can see the conflict when we look at the actions of our former president, who expanded the drone program and deported more immigrants than any other president. We may love and admire certain presidents, but they are all presidents, leaders of a nation who believe in the American way, who adhere to the American Beatitudes. All presidents place their hand on our holy scriptures and pledge their allegiance, not to God, but to America, a country, a nation whose way of living does not hold the same standards as God’s way of living. The words that all presidents speak over us again and again are “God bless America.” But they don’t really want God to bless America. What they really want is for God to sanction the American way of life, not for America to conform to way of Jesus. God does not bless America or any other country for that matter. God calls the people who walk in the way of Jesus blessed, and those people who walk in the way of Jesus are not the first or the greatest or the wealthiest or the safest or the content or the assertive or the successful or the strong or the warriors. Those people who walk in the way of Jesus are discontent and mourning over the ways of the world; they are hungering and thirsting for justice; they are loyal only to God. God calls us not to pledge our allegiance to a donkey or an elephant or even an eagle but to the lamb, to Jesus, to the Messiah who has brought and is still bringing a new way of life, the kingdom of God, into our midst.
Do we really want to be blessed? Do we really want to take on the way of life that guarantees we will be persecuted by the world? Do we really want to give up the blessings of our culture and nation so that we can be blessed by God? If we really want to be the blessed community of God, we have to commit ourselves to being the church. We have to stop thinking that our country – no matter who is in charge – is going to be about the way of Jesus. I’m not saying we shouldn’t get involved in the world in political ways. We should. God’s people are hurt by polices put in place by our governments. But the answer does not lie in partisanship. The answer to figuring out how Jesus wants us to live lies in a group of strange people who resist the world to seek justice and to make peace. We’ve got to give up shallow versions of Christianity and remember again what it means to truly be followers of Jesus.
Pastor Lillian Daniel tells a story, from when she was pastoring a church in New Haven back in 2002, about what it looks like to be a strange group of people resisting the world in order to follow in the way of Jesus. She says,
“The city of New Haven is poor. We have the poor American city’s high infant mortality rates, the high AIDS rates, the high crime rates. The manufacturing base that once made Connecticut rich has mostly moved south or out of the country. My beloved city is a service economy that begs chain stores to move to town, and bends over backwards to please businesses with tax abatements. We compete with other struggling cities for the crumbs around the economic table. We have been meek, and we are not inheriting the earth. A few years ago, I [became a part of a] congregation-based community organizing group here in town, Elm City Congregations Organized (ECCO). As I have watched church members cross denominational and theological boundaries to form relationships with one another, it feels as though the meek are inheriting the earth. We are not inheriting the earthly power or the worldly wealth, but when Pentecostal and Catholic show up at city hall to make a plan to build affordable houses for the poor, we catch a glimpse of another, better kingdom.”[ii]
In Jesus’ first sermon he makes a few things clear: To be the blessed community of God is to be working towards another, better kingdom – God’s kingdom. To be the blessed community of God is to be walking in the way of Jesus, who taught us himself, by the way he walked among us, how to live the alternative reality of God’s kingdom in the face of other kingdoms and empires that oppress the poor, crush the meek, persecute the righteous, and promote violence and injustice. After we come down off the mountain and wrestle with Jesus’ first sermon, are we still willing to come and follow him? Are we willing to be a part of the strange group of people who are known for mourning the way things are, resisting the world to work for justice and peace, and being loyal to God alone? If we are, let’s pledge our total allegiance to God and walk in the way of Jesus so we will know what it means to truly be blessed.