Blessed are the… | 17 August 2014

Twelve Scriptures Project

Text #10: Matthew 5:1-17


Blessed are the wealthy, for they will have all they need.

Blessed are the mentally stable, for they will keep it all under control.

Blessed are the warmakers for they will pre-empt and destroy any threat that may come their way.

Blessed are the white.  For they will have the privilege of not thinking much about being white.

Blessed are those who drink Coke, for they will Open Happiness.

Blessed are those who eat at MacDonalds, who wear Nikes, who shop with Mastercard.  For they are lovin’ it.  They will Just Do It.  Their experience is “Priceless.”

Blessed are the self-sufficient.

Blessed are the well-adjusted.

Blessed are the athletic, the youthful, the beautiful.

Blessed are you when people say all kinds of wonderful things about you.  Rejoice and be glad, for your name is golden, and your reputation is your ticket up the ladder of success.

Blessed are the…

Who gets to decide who are the blessed ones?

In Matthew 5, Jesus rolls off a series of statements that have come to be called the Beatitudes – or, as the autocorrect on Robin W’s email to me this week preferred, Be at i-Tunes.  The Beatitudes are the opening lines of a long block of teaching from Jesus, the longest recorded block of teaching from Jesus, extending through the end of chapter seven of Matthew, collectively called The Sermon on the Mount.  For the first centuries of the church this passage served as something of a catechism for new believers.  It is Christianity 101, Jesus’ manifesto for the reality he referred to as The Kingdom of God. It was a passage that the Anabaptists of the 16th century, our spiritual ancestors, emphasized as containing the outlines of the basic Christian life.  Ironically, the person in the 20th century most responsible for reviving the Sermon on the Mount’s central emphasis on active nonviolence was not a Christian, but a Hindu, Gandhi, who read it frequently during his daily meditations and put its teachings into practice throughout British-occupied India.  Gandhi once said, “”Of all the things I have read what remained with me forever was that Jesus came almost to give a new law – not an eye for an eye but to receive two blows when only one was given, and to go two miles when they were asked to go one. I came to see that the Sermon on the Mount was the whole of Christianity for him who wanted to live a Christian life. It is that sermon that has endeared Jesus to me.”  Gandhi also said, “In my humble opinion, what passes as Christianity is a negation of the Sermon on the Mount.”   (Citation HERE)

That we recognize this passage as key to our own understanding of faith showed up when the Sermon on the Mount, and the Beatitudes in particular, received the most overall votes in the Twelve Scriptures survey back in the spring.  The Beatitudes would never be so boastful or proud as to declare themselves better than any of the other Scriptures, but in our little congregational exercise, they were the winners.

These days we don’t begin many sentences with the word “Blessed,” or “blest.”  It’s a word that mostly shows up in religious settings, but it was a much more general term and could just as easily be translated fortunate, or happy.  “You’re fortunate if you mourn, because you will be comforted.  You’re fortunate if you’re merciful, because you’ll be shown mercy.”  The Common English Bible says, “Happy are those people who have pure hearts, because they will see God.  Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children.”  One commentator believes they are best translated as pronouncements of congratulations.  “Congratulations to the poor in the spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven.”

No matter which word gets filled in for blessed, these statements come across as glaringly counter-cultural, and, especially in the first several, counter-intuitive.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” could refer to material poverty, as it does more clearly in Luke’s version, which simply says, “blessed are the poor,” or it could refer to a psychological reality – more like “blessed are the broken in spirit.”  You tell me, under what conditions are the poor, and the broken in spirit fortunate, happy, blessed?

It makes me wonder if Jesus meant some of these to be so out of sync with the way we see reality so as to be comical, a first century stand up routine, having the same kind of cadence as Jeff Foxworthy’s long running jokes about ‘You might be redneck if…’  You might be blessed if…  You might be blessed if you’ve got a broken spirit, if you’re overcome with grief, if you’re hungry and thirsty.  Were the masses of peasants who had come out to hear Jesus rolling on the ground when they heard these?  The meek shall inherit the earth?  That’s a good one Jesus.  Tell that one to the Romans.

The Beatitudes are not intended to reinforce our notions of blessing and goodness, but destabilize us into asking what the fortunate and blessed life might be.

I understand the need for consumer products to get their brand out in front of people through marketing.  These campaigns rarely use theological language, but it’s worth noticing how often they end up going way beyond the function of their product and appealing to our sense of what makes for the blessed, fortunate, happy life.  Shoes companies don’t say “Buy our shoe.  It’s well-made.  It’s comfortable.  It will be keep your foot warm in winter and protect you from the hot blacktop in the summer.”  Instead, the appeal is to a whole way of life, an image of self, an appeal to desire, and a not so subtle suggestion of fulfillment.  Salvation from your social ills contained within this box, or bottle, or behind the wheel.  They wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work.  So here’s some homework for you: Anytime you see an advertisement, listen for the Beatitude being communicated.  Blessed are those who _____.  For they shall _________     Then ask yourself how much you believe it.

The Beatitudes of Jesus are not intended to reinforce our notions of blessing and goodness, but destabilize us into asking what the fortunate and blessed life might be.

In the very process of writing this sermon, I experienced an overturning of a personal beatitude that had worked quite well for me for more than a decade.  I like to do sermon work at the Global Gallery just across the street, and often walk there, but rode my bike this time.  I know a number of people who have had nice bikes stolen, but my personal philosophy has been “Blessed are those with old ugly bikes, for they shall not be stolen.”  With this Beatitude subconsciously lodged in my mind, and since the bike stand was just right outside the building, I decided not to chain it up.  But when I stepped out mid afternoon to take a phone call, I noticed that the bike was gone.  What do you do when you’re writing a sermon on the Sermon on the Mount and your bike is stolen?  If someone takes from you your bike, give them your helmet as well so they can be safe?  I had my helmet inside with me and somehow I doubt that if I would have seen the person taking the bike I would have run out with my helmet and insisted they take that also.  Maybe I could have offered to buy them a cup of coffee and talk about their transportation needs.  “Blessed are those who ponder what they might have done had they had the chance, so they’ll be better prepared next time.”

Eliza shared two weeks ago how difficult it would have been for Mary, an unmarried pregnant teenager, to be perceived as someone who was bringing good news to the world.  According to the strictest interpretation of the Torah, she could have been stoned to death.  Mary boldly declares her Magnificat, but only after she runs to visit her relative Elizabeth, who was also pregnant.  After hearing of her situation, Elizabeth could have easily declared, “cursed are you among women, for your life is in danger, and you will always bear the stigma of having a child out of wedlock.”  Instead, Elizabeth, full of the Holy Spirit, declares, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”  Very few would have accepted this as a situation of blessing, maybe even Mary herself hadn’t accepted it up to that point, but Elizabeth declared a beatitude of her own, and just as soon as the words come out of Elizabeth’s mouth, they well up inside Mary who overflows with a poem about not only all generations calling her blessed, but about blessing spilling out to those so far removed from anything resembling good fortune or blessedness: “The Lord has scattered the proud, and lifted up the lowly, the Lord has filled the hungry with good things.”  That last line sounds oddly familiar.  Perhaps Mary sung this song as a lullaby to the young Jesus who started to get these wild ideas about who the fortunate of this world really are.  “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice and righteousness,” Jesus would declare later in life.  “For they will be filled.”

Keith Graber Miller is a professor of religion at Goshen College and he tells a story about the adoption of their daughter from China after he and his wife experienced secondary infertility after the birth of their son (I have changed the details slightly here from the spoken version of the sermon after checking in with Keith about the story).  When they were on the plane ride back to the US he got into a conversation with a Caucasian (American) woman on the plane who soon found out that this was their newly adopted daughter.  A Chinese woman sitting nearby was listening as well.  At one point in the conversation, both women spoke at exactly the same time.  The white woman said to Keith “you’re so lucky.”  The Chinese woman said of the girl, “She’s so lucky.”  Lucky, in this case, could be another work for blessed or fortunate.

We might not normally consider blessed or fortunate couples who struggle with infertility, or children whose biological parents, for whatever complex reasons, are unable to raise them, but there it is.  Blessed are they.

There an important shift in language that happens at the end of the Beatitudes, and carries forward into the rest of the Sermon on the Mount.  The first eight Beatitudes are stated in the third person.  “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God: The peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”  There is a nice bookened with the first and the last of these which both end the same way.  “Blessed are the poor in the spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven….Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of justice, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

But then there’s a shift to the second person.  “Blessed are you when people revile you and say all kinds of false things about you.”

You are the salt of the earth.”  At one place in John’s gospel, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.”  Here, in Matthew’s gospel, he says, “You are the light of the world.”

In what kind of world do the meek inherit the land or are the merciful shown mercy.

What Jesus seems to be calling into being throughout the Sermon on the Mount, is a community of people, which makes these Beatitudes come true.  This counter-community that establishes new norms, ways of relating such that the broken in spirit are surrounded by the kingdom of heaven and the peacemakers are celebrated as children of God.

We have just come through a week that included a number of tragic reversals.  A man who made all of us laugh died by suicide.  An unarmed black boy was shot to death by a man whose job description is to keep him safe.  And an area of the world in which our nation has invested billions, perhaps trillions of dollars in security spins further into violence.  We get a taste for how indefinite and conditional are the so called blessings we sometimes believe in.

Blessed are the famous and the celebrities – except that they struggle with mental health and addictions just like the rest.

Blessed are the young and youthful who have their whole life ahead of them – except if you’re a black male in this country where there is a higher chance that the life ahead of you will include prison rather than college, if you don’t get shot first. (Citation HERE)

Blessed are the lands overflowing with natural resources, unless you’re in a strategic geographical location and there are others who want those resources.

The Beatitudes of Jesus are not intended to reinforce our notions of blessing and goodness, but destabilize us into asking what the fortunate and blessed life might be.  We are a part of that community that Jesus has called into being, which tries out these Beatitudes and learns new ones as we go.