January 29, 2023

The Blessedness of the Beatitudes

Matthew 5:1-12

Let's set the scene for today's scripture passage. Jesus goes up a mountain, which most Biblical scholars believe was Mt. Eremos, with the four who have been called thus far- fishermen, Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John. A Franciscan chapel is now on the site where Jesus preached his first sermon. For the first time, we hear the word "Disciples" used to describe his four companions. Some crowds have gathered to listen to this rabbi speak. Perhaps they are impressed he has four fishermen now as his disciples, who have left everything to follow him.

Jesus' sermon begins with an eight-part structured sermon, with 8 "Beatitudes." The word Beatitude comes from the Latin beatitudo, meaning "blessedness." The phrase "blessed are" in each Beatitude implies a current state of happiness or well-being. This expression held a powerful meaning of divine joy and perfect happiness to the people of Christ's day. Jesus goes on then to explain how to be blessed and how to find this divine joy and perfect happiness.

This sermon is world-changing, life-altering stuff. Theologian Arthur P. Stanley wrote, "High above all earthly lower happiness, the blessedness of the eight Beatitudes towers into the heaven itself. They are white with the snows of eternity; they give a space, a meaning, a dignity to all the rest of the earth over which they brood." Let's take a closer look at these beatitudes and their blessedness.

First, Blessed are the poor in spirit. Who are they? The weight of poverty breaks those who lack and are without material goods. They are the ones society ignores, struggling for basic survival while poverty crushes their spirits. Jesus says the kindom of heaven belongs to them. It will not be a place where poverty crushes anyone. God will set things right in a time not yet experienced. Today, so many in poverty are not blessed.

We see the struggles of the poor in our community trying to make ends meet, finding food and shelter, and their need for basic transportation, stability, and income. One day they will experience a full blessing from God in the kindom of heaven. Yet Christ calls us to serve others and give them moments of blessedness now. Our actions of discipleship are meant to help justice roll down like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:2.) N.T. Wright says, "Blessings on the poor in spirit! The kingdom of heaven is yours" (Matt. 5:3) doesn't mean, "You will go only find blessedness when you die." It means you will be one of those through whom God's kingdom, heaven's rule, begins to appear on earth as in heaven. The Beatitudes are the agenda for kingdom people. They are not simply about how to behave so that God will do something nice to you. They are about the way in which Jesus wants to rule the world now."


For one example of how Jesus wants this world to be now, here is one guest's story from the organization whose board I have served on for four years, OHRA. Opportunities for Housing, Resources, and Assistance. A woman initially came to OHRA nearly two years ago and was working with an OHRA partner, St. Vincent de Paul, on finding stable housing. Then her car broke down, and she lost both transportation and a potential shelter. OHRA called partners, including our church, and raised money for car repairs. Yet she was still couch surfing and had no place to call home. Eventually, she moved into the OHRA Center and began working with the navigators there. They helped her find a HUD voucher and, in time, got a roof over her head. In partnership with the United Way and St. Vincent De Paul, poverty no longer crushes her. She said, "This has been a very long journey. But I wasn't alone on my path." She will be blessed in the world to come, but thanks to people led by faith and love, she experiences some of that blessing now, which reflects a glimpse of the coming kindom.

Next, Jesus states, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted." Grief is a very present reality for us. Yet it was even more constant in the ancient world in the first century A.D. Children surviving beyond infancy was far from a given reality, let alone growing into adulthood. War, famine, and disease were even more prevalent than today. All of these things could cut a life short. The average life span for a person in the 1st century was 35 years. That's it! Death was an even more present reality for those who heard Jesus' sermon than it is today.

How will those who mourn find comfort? This life we live here and now is not the end. Jesus says in John 16:22, "For you are sad now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and your joy will not be taken away." There will be a time of great reunion with those we have lost. That knowledge can bring some comfort now. One day, however, there will be such joy! Theologian Carlo Carreto wrote, "Jesus' resurrection makes it impossible for our story to end in chaos-it moves inexorably towards light, towards life, towards love!"

Next, Jesus says, "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth." Meekness refers to those abused by the bold, those who seize power and money, who are into accumulation, not distribution. They haven't inherited much in the current world. Yet Jesus says in the coming kindom, the meek shall inherit it all. They will receive land currently claimed and exploited.

Meekness is a quality of faith. We seek meekness here and now, not just in the coming kindom. Those who live their lives following the Prophet Micah's words are meek people, those who do justice, love mercy, and who walk humbly. I see that meekness in the many neighbors who come by to stock the little free pantry, as we saw in the picture this morning. They don't draw attention to themselves or come into the office after doing so, letting Susan and I know what they dropped off. They drive or walk away.

Next, Jesus says, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." Who are these folks?   They are the ones who can see the injustice the world heaps upon others and feel called to do something about it. When they act, they are filled with purpose and fulfillment. The people working for some of the organizations I have already mentioned are such people. What is righteousness? The Greek word dikaiosune means equity, justice, and right living in God's eyes. It is the quality of being just, impartial and fair and seeking that for others.

Next, Jesus tells his audience, "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy." Who are the merciful? Those who give of their resources and care for the outcast. In Jesus' day, the idea of mercy stood in stark opposition to Rome, which practiced mercilessness. Rome Expanded its rule through war, heavily taxed its population to the point of food insecurity, and mercilessly crucified enemies of the status quo.

We live in a merciless world now, and we may not receive mercy until the coming kindom. Yet Jesus wants us to live in mercy just the same-to show glimpses of how the world is supposed to treat one another. Oswald Chambers wrote," We are going to meet unmerciful bad people, unmerciful institutions, unmerciful organizations, and we shall have to go through the disciple of being merciful to the merciless."

Next, Jesus says, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" Those who follow the will of God in their thinking and doing, whose hearts are not led by anything else, are such people. Those who commit to God so fully, without any hypocrisy, will experience face-to-face encounters with God. I think of folks like Bishop Desmond Tutu and Mother Teresa, who lived their lives pure in heart.

Then Jesus says, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be children of God." In the first century, these people lived in opposition to Rome, who proclaimed the Pax Romana, peace through strength- and submission and dominance over another nation. Theologian Warren Carter wrote, "Peacemakers do not enact the empire's will but God's merciful reign, living towards this wholeness and well-being, against any power that hinders it." An example today of such a person would be Scott Bandoroff, our friend from the Havurah Shir Hadash synagogue, who, through his work at Poland's border, has brought eight families from war-torn Ukraine to the Rogue Valley.

Finally, Jesus says, "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of diokasune, for their reward is great in heaven." The life of a disciple of Jesus runs counterculture. A life following Jesus turns from power and prestige from the accumulation of wealth and status and toward compassion and resource distribution. Theologian Jillian Engelhardt says, "When we live a life of justice for the oppressed and marginalized when we extend mercy to the outcast, when we live the values outlined in the Beatitudes, the rulers of this world will resist us. But we must persevere if we are to be blessed."

Many faithful people over the centuries were persecuted for their right living, their work to bring about God's justice, and glimpses of the kindom. One of my heroes who fit this so well was Bishop Oscar Romero, who was a constant voice for the poor and marginalized in Central America. Romero spoke out against social injustice and violence amid the escalating conflict between the military government and left-wing insurgents that led to the Salvadoran Civil War. In 1980, Romero was shot by an assassin while celebrating Mass.

Romero once wrote, "Even when they call us mad, when they call us subversives and communists and all the epithets they put on us, we know we only preach the subversive witness of the Beatitudes, which have turned everything upside down."

Jesus spoke these words almost 2,000 years ago, and they still have such power today. But they may seem overwhelming to us. How can a person live such a life, following all eight of these beatitudes every day? It seems impossible. I suggest that a good way to approach these blessed sayings would be to focus on just one for a week or two. Read the first Beatitude daily, and focus on how to live in such a way. Then, move on to the second one and do the same until you have worked your way through all eight. Doing so will bring glimpses of the coming kindom through you. Your words and actions will reflect the way of Christ, and bit by bit, you will make this world a better place. God be with us as we seek to make our attitudes more and more like the Beatitudes and turn some things upside down! Alleluia. Amen.