As we are now nine days into the new administration of United States government I think we can all agree - no matter what your political views - we are living in a new reality. A reality that many folks, both here and abroad, are still trying to figure out. Sure, there will always some level of uncertainty when a new regime of leadership comes on the scene; however, the rapid upheaval of the last week has been a bit unnerving for people all around the world. It has left a whole lot of Americans wondering what is life going to look like under this new leadership?
I wonder if the disciples felt a similar sense of concern when they answered the call to join Jesus in his mission? Not that Jesus was an elected official, but clearly, having given up everything to follow him meant that their lives were radically changed. They were uprooted from homes, their families, and their livelihood, in order to be a part of something that they could not even begin to imagine. We are told that right away the disciples found themselves as witness to miraculous healing of people throughout Syria - the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics -- all being healed by Jesus. It had to have been somewhat perplexing to see Jesus reaching out to, and interacting with, people who would have ordinarily been ignored, pushed aside, and denied entry to the temple.
Seems to me that they would have been a bit uncertain about it all. The things they were hearing and seeing were much different than what they had heard and witnessed in their own environment in the past. Now don't get me wrong...Jesus wasn't teaching anything that was contrary to the original Law and Prophets. He was, however, posing a challenge to how it was interpreted and being lived out. Jesus revealed the same God of the Torah...with the same promises...bringing about the same kingdom of God the prophets foretold...but not necessarily in the same way that the religious leaders had led folks to believe it would be.
This reading from Matthew occurs relatively early in Jesus' ministry, but the signs were already there that his was not going to be a kingdom of military might. His sights were not set on taking out the Roman Empire. Jesus declared that the kingdom of God was near but not as a way to establish boundaries and borders...nor was there an exclusive membership card to enter it. Jesus' words and his actions introduced...or maybe reintroduced and clarified...the blessed way of life that God intends for his people.
So, here in this Sermon on the Mount...which is considered to be foundational to his gospel...Jesus begins to lay the groundwork of his mission on earth. He offers these blessing statements, also known as the Beatitudes, as a word picture for the disciples...as well as the crowds who were listening...of what God's kingdom looks like. It was a way to say to all who would hear: in the Kingdom of God, this is who we are and this is how we operate.
Let's be clear though...this list of Beatitudes wasn't a check list of how to get into the Kingdom. Instead, I liken it to how we form a families and raise children. For example, when Rob and I raised our children, we didn't say to them, "Here are the rules you have to live by in order to be a Thorn." No, we said, "You, Julia and Mark, are part of the Thorn family...and this is how the Thorn family interacts with others."
I'm sure you've seen those wall hangings that begin with, "In this family we....and then there is a list of expectations for how the family members will love and treat each other. Well, these Beatitudes are sort of the same thing...it describes life in the family of God. In this sermon, Jesus tells us who is important to God (blessed are they)...and how God expects his family to see, hear, and treat each other.
So for a minute, let's put ourselves in the shoes of these disciples. What Jesus is saying is a whole new way of thinking about blessedness. In fact, it is a radically different understanding.
In the first century, one would consider themselves blessed if they were free from the domineering rulers, oppressive tax collectors, and capricious soldiers. Respect earned from savvy negotiating skills in the marketplace, the ability to provide for one's household, or having health and prosperity were all things that might constitute blessedness. (FOTG, Matthew, p74)
Really, it's not all that different from what the world today says is blessedness. Although we might also add the accumulation of wealth and property as well as influence and power as signs of the blessed. Certainly having individual freedoms is considered to be a blessing.
I'm sure there are many other things we would add, but it's pretty unlikely that we would say that being poor, or poor in spirit, or having others think we are meek, or to be in a state of grief and mourning or to be in the need of mercy...those are not states that our world would consider to be blessedness.
Likewise, neither would those who first heard these words. They might have seen themselves in these statements, but they would not have thought of themselves as blessed...and this would be especially true for those to whom Jesus was ministering. In fact, by both religious and worldly standards they were cursed. In own their minds, they were outside the scope of God's blessedness. It had been made clear to them that they weren't rich enough, powerful enough, smart enough, righteous enough...they did not belong.
So to hear Jesus say that this other way of life is the way that God prefers and blesses must have been, as the choir so beautifully reminded us in their anthem, a canticle of turning to their ears. By these blessing statements, Jesus spoke truth about God's kingdom and turned the prevailing worldview upside down.
Now we could go through each of the eight Beatitudes and dissect them to try to understand what it means to be poor in spirit, to mourn, to need mercy etc., but it seems to me that Jesus intended us to hear them as a whole, in the context of his sermon. In fact, they sort of build on one another. If we isolate each one we run the risk of proof texting, or creating an unintended ethical code, or heading down a path of trying to figure out how we can do or be each of these things in order to please God. To do that would be a bit like reverting to works and deeds righteousness - if I am this, then God will bless me - rather than seeing it for what it is: a statement that this way of life is one that tugs at God's heart.
So up on this mountain, symbolic for the place of God's revelation, Jesus takes the teaching posture...sitting among his listeners...and offers a leadership training session for those first disciples (as well as the crowds who were listening, too). He reminds his inner circle that while they are uniquely called to journey with him, those all around -- the sick, the poor, the oppressed, the lonely, the outcasts...the meek, the hungry, the ones without power or voice...are also blessed in God's kingdom. They are the ones he and his disciples are called to serve.
You see, in God's kingdom, blessedness has nothing to do with the amount of power and might one can wield...nor does it hinge on what world defines as successful. In God's kingdom, blessedness is not unique to a specific nation on earth, nor is it about attending the right schools, having big retirement accounts, or living in fancy houses. In God's kingdom, the white-Anglo American does not get a greater blessing than the Latino immigrant or the dark-skinned refugee. The corporate executive is not more blessed by God than the struggling single mom or the recovering drug addict.
Thankfully though, the things that we tend to think of as blessings -- health, wealth, and freedom - are not bad things. They do not bar us from the kingdom of heaven; however contrary to the popular message of the prosperity gospel, they are not indications that we are more blessed by God either.
Only our living can reveal God's blessing. Only when our hearts and our minds and our life look like Christ's is the kingdom of heaven among us. Only when we are willing to live in the spirit of these beatitudes...to become one of those whom the world might say are neither blessed nor powerful...are we truly blessed.
So what does it mean to live in the spirit of the Beatitudes? Pastor Charles Cook suggests we can summarize it with three life principles: Blessed are they whose lives are lived with simplicity, hopefulness, and compassion.
Now by simplicity, Cook doesn't mean being a simpleton, or even living an uncluttered life. To him, simplicity is about how we hear Jesus' words..as if they were spoken directly to us. So when Jesus says, "You are blessed in this life when you demonstrate humility, bring a peaceful presence, open your heart to others, and show mercy on those who cry for it" he is talking to you and me. Blessedness, or living in the kingdom of heaven, means simply believing that Jesus is still speaking these words to us, right here..right now. That's empowering no matter what the world is telling us.
Blessed are they who simply live the gospel.
Likewise, blessed are they who live with hopefulness. Now, to be quite honest that's a little more difficult for some of us...especially as the world becomes more and more cynical, divided and angry. I will admit that it has been very difficult to speak hopefulness recently. And I know I'm not alone. There's a lot of scary stuff happening in the world around us. Yet when we refuse to allow fear to dampen our spirit of hope, we are able to stand firm in the promise that the day is coming when mercy, humility, peace and love will prevail...they will describe what it means to live blessed. And it strengthens us to continue to pursue these things despite any efforts of society to squelch our hope.
Finally, blessed are they whose lives are filled with compassion. Actually, personally, I believe this is the most important of all the principles for blessedness that Rev. Cook suggests. Compassion is the way of Christ. Compassion permeates the Kingdom of God. Offering compassion blesses and it creates blessedness.
The priest and writer Henri Nowen described a life of compassion like this: compassion grows with the inner recognition that your neighbor shares your humanity with you. This partnership cuts through all walls which might have kept you separate. Across all barriers of land and language, wealth and poverty, knowledge and ignorance, we are one, created from the same dust, subject to the same laws, destined to the same end. (With Open Hands (New York: Ballantine, 1972) p86)
Blessed are they who live out this kind of compassion.
Friends, right now, the truth of these Beatitudes...the call for simplicity, hopefulness and compassion...may resonate loud and clear within the safety of our sanctuary, but I assure you that it is not being well-received elsewhere. Many clergy, myself included, have taken a lot of heat lately for preaching this message of the gospel. We are being told it's too political. We're accused of attacking the President and not giving him a chance. We're pushing an agenda. We are sowing seeds of disunity rather than offering hope.
I want to assure you that is not my intent, today or any day. Still, I cannot deny that Jesus himself was political. In fact, it was his dissidence that eventually got him killed. He spoke truth to power and they killed him...but they did not end him or his message.
Friends, I believe these challenging words of the Beatitudes still stand. It is my call and desire to proclaim hope when the world screams fear. And, I believe with all my heart, that without compassion the world is lost. Compassion is what connects us to each other...it is what reminds us that we are all created in God's image...that we belong to one another as part of God's family. Compassion is an act of love...it is how the Christ in us is revealed to the world.
If it feels political...all I can say is that these "blessed are" statements are, quite simply, the words of Jesus Christ. Within the kingdom of God, these beatitudes are messages of hope to those who will hear. They are the foundation of the gospel of compassion, and as a minister of the gospel, I can do nothing less than proclaim them to you and to the world...and challenge you to proclaim them too.
So, how do we live the spirit of the Beatitudes? In the same way that Jesus taught his disciples to live them. We go back down the mountain and get to work living with faithful simplicity, incredulous hopefulness and radical compassion. All glory be to God. Amen.
Note: Children's sermon focus on this day was about starting something new (new teacher, new team, new club) and the challenge of learning the new environment, ways of thinking, etc to be included in that new setting. It was connected to the idea that the Kingdom of God being near meant that the disciples and followers were called to a new way. I asked the kids what that way might look like.