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Micah 6:1-8 & Matthew 5:1-12
This morning we are presented with a small section of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, one of my favorite parts of this gospel, and scripture as a whole, which we call “The Beatitudes. These “beatitudes” are not unique to Matthew’s gospel, nor the New Testament, nor even the Bible. They are a widely used literary form in the Greco-Roman world and within Jewish wisdom literature and apocalyptic writings. We often think this word, “blessed,” is a word that is equivalent to happy. “Have a happy day”, we might hear from the cashier when they say “blessed,” adding only that we probably assume they are Christian, maybe even that they attend an evangelical church, for this is found often in the lingo of such strands of Christianity. But “blessed” does not equal happy. The word being used, in Greek, is makarios, and it’s meaning is a little more nuanced than just happy. It’s not a feeling, it is a declaration – God announcing newness into the world, a hopeful promise connected first to certain people and then to certain actions.
Blessing is a mark, a way of indicating who counts…which is a sobering reality in a prosperity gospel where the shiny new Mercedes has a license plate that reads “blessed,” only with a vowel or two missing. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” “blessed are those who mourn,” “blessed are the meek” are not things that make sense as praiseworthy in our culture, nor did they in Jesus’ time. They run (and ran) counter to the cultural norms, as direct confrontations of the systems in which people live. Blessed are the poor “in spirit” is not a sentimentalized “poor,” (there is no “in spirit” in Luke’s version of this, by the way) not a declaration of blessing on those who are voluntarily poor or those who express deep humility. This is a claim that mirrors beatitudes from Isaiah that address those who have been made poor, those living in social and economic hardship. And the same is true of the mourners and the meek…this is a vision, an announcement of an era to come that will turn this oppressive time on it’s head. In Luke’s gospel he makes this point more sharply, having Jesus quote Isaiah in his first sermon ever, just before the Beatitudes, preaching Isaiah 61:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
Jesus isn’t assembling a strange list of prescriptions to us, like you should be really docile and submissive, or get super good at grieving. He is not even talking about what heaven will look like, or what could happen if we were all “good enough” to earn God’s blessing. He is evoking a counter-cultural turn, a new kin-dom brought to reality by the power of God, lived in the here-and-now…a God whose love for us is so full and complete that it is justice itself…justice that will be visited upon the world, a vision which probably ought to induce equal parts anticipation and terror in humankind.
It can be easy to look at the last 900 years of human history and think the only thing that we’ve gained is a date on the calendar that is a palindrome – that’s today, 02/02/2020, read the same backwards and forwards. Cool, but not exactly high on the moral achievements list. Yet, what we might really need to lament is our vision. Scant few folks have developed the kinds of eyes that Jesus asks us to see with as he imparts the beatitudes…we are often too trapped in our cultural webs to break free enough to see the
kin-dom all around us.
In the New Testament world, the esteem you commanded was in large part a function of how important your connections were — your family members, your patrons, and your clients. If you were part of a very important family, whether by birth, adoption, or being a slave or freed-person you were important. If your family was less important, you were less important. If you weren’t connected to others with status, that didn’t make you “a self-made man”; it made you nobody. As you might imagine, this structure created all kinds of inequalities and an absolute iron curtain of haves and have-nots, with virtually no way to bridge that gap, no bootstraps, no boots, no “self-made” nothing. You were born into your lot in life, and that was about it…a system heavily favored and enforced by those at it’s top. Why would they want it to change? Religion and culture often supported these inequities, dictating social and tribal and gender boxes for people and enforcing the oppression with theology and ritual and tradition.
This is part of what made the Jesus movement so controversial. His followers, following his lead, began to step over those lines, eating with the unclean, refusing to participate in the economic systems of the time and lifting up the status of women in ways that really bucked the status quo. It was shameful, SHAMEFUL — like taking a knee during the national anthem or blocking heavy equipment at a pipeline construction site, or electing a gay bishop. Jesus’ followers did all of the things that weren’t supposed to render blessing at all, so you might understand how strange it was to hear him saying what made for blessing…declaring who exactly God was saying mattered.
What is really at work in the Beatitudes can be lost on us, or rather it can be too hard to see…like so challenging we don’t want to see it. And it was then, too. So we have a double issue – the beatitudes are like parables, hard to understand, AND they weren’t written for us…they were spoken to his disciples, who were right next to Jesus, learning directly from him and it still took them years to understand even in part.
Our biggest issue may be that we limit the Beatitudes, trying to force them into the framework of a personal message, something about our own piety, or how we live our life, when Jesus is actually subverting the entire structure. He grants people who are completely shamed in his culture with honor…and not only honor, but honor from God. In front of all the crowds, Jesus grants honor to them, declaring that these are the people whom the God of Israel blesses. Their own families may have disowned them, their culture may cast them out, but they are children of the God who created the universe, to whom all honor belongs. It is a magnificent and amazing declaration that turned the world upside down at Jesus’ time…and still does.
Just a few years ago, the Right Reverend Dr. Jeffrey John was nominated by the Anglican Church to be a Bishop, the first man openly in a same-sex relationship to be thus nominated by the Church of England. As you might imagine, he faced lots of scrutiny, many calls akin to his unworthiness, his uncleanliness, his shame. He still serves in the Church, though not as a bishop, despite numerous nominations, and is married to his partner of 30+ years, even though the church only allows clergy to be in a same-sex marriage if they are celibate.
In 2005, he wrote this prayer…
Lord, do something about your Church.
It is so awful, it is hard not to feel ashamed of belonging to it.
Most of the time it seems to be all the things you condemned:
hierarchical, conventional, judgmental, hypocritical,
respectable, comfortable, moralising, compromising,
clinging to its privileges and worldly securities,
and when not positively objectionable, merely absurd.
Lord, we need your whip of cords.
Judge us and cleanse us,
challenge and change us,
break and remake us.
Help us to be what you called us to be.
Help us to embody you on earth.
Help us to make you real down here,
and to feed your people bread instead of stones.
And start with me.
At a moment in which the church is making these same assertions about “purity” and the supposed claims of scripture…when it is reading the red letters of Jesus’ words in one moment and supporting the bloody actions of power, corruption and greed in another, it is perhaps time to ask ourselves again — what does God require of us? For the answer is the same as it was to Micah, I think – not sacrifices of blood, not impressive buildings, not achievement or so-called “respectability.” Not power or wealth nor a seat at the highest table: just justice, and mercy, and humility…and a seat at this table, the table where all are welcome, where food and drink are offered without a means assessment, and in a small bite of bread and sip of juice, a table where we’re not just saying “let’s all get along,” we’re subverting the system. Maybe that sounds naively simple, but let me assure you…if we were to take seriously the implications of the Beatitudes…if we were to trust in communion’s claim on inclusion…if we were to simply seek justice, love kindness and take our steps with humility in the presence of our God….it would turn the world upside-down. Blessed are the marginalized, for they are extravagantly welcome in the culture of God…Blessed are the empathetic, for they heal the brokenness of the world…Blessed are those who organize, struggle and sacrifice for freedom and equality, for they bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice.
We know now that time of the great turning-of-the-world, the arrival of the kin-dom of God wasn’t then…
maybe it’s not now…
but, in faith, we believe…amen, amen, it shall be so.