February 10, 2019
The Beatitudes from the Gospel of Matthew is a scripture lesson often read in churches on or around All Saints Sunday. And there’s good, sound reasoning for that timing. When you hear them, the Beatitudes sound like a list conditions you have to meet in order to be considered worthy of sainthood.
Case in point on a personal level, listening to the Beatitudes conjures up images of Mother Theresa for me. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers. I can picture Mother Theresa on the streets of Calcutta, India, welcoming the poor and the marginalized, feeding the hungry, caring for those with leprosy and other diseases, showing compassion for the least of her sisters and brothers. In my mind, after Jesus himself, Mother Theresa is the gold standard when it comes to the Beatitudes.
By the same token, it feels like the Beatitudes is one of those Bible lessons that comes with strings attached. If you want to be like Mother Theresa, or whoever you think of, you need to be more like the kind of person Jesus described. You have to be a little meeker to inherit the earth. You have to be a little poorer to reach the kingdom of heaven. You have to mourn a little more or a little harder to be comforted. Do all of those things, and Jesus might reward you, even when you least expect it.
Ultimately, however, reading the Beatitudes is a double edged sword. In the best case scenario, we can hear the Beatitudes as goals to try to shoot for in our lives. On the other hand, the Beatitudes set the bar for human behavior just high enough that reaching the bar seems unrealistic and unattainable. When that happens, the Beatitudes are less likely to inspire us and more likely to make us feel inadequate…
But as I was thinking about the sermon for this morning, I was struck by a new possibility. What if the Beatitudes spoken by Jesus were not actually prescriptive? How many times have I read the Beatitudes and assumed it was simply about cause and effect. The same way prescription medicines help me feel better, the Beatitudes are instructions that help me live better. If I do such and such a thing, then something good will happen. Likewise, if I don’t do such and such a thing, then something not so good will happen.
Is it conceivable, however, that the Beatitudes spoken by Jesus were not prescriptive at all? Maybe, they were actually descriptive. What if Jesus looked out over the hillside that day and saw people in the crowd and recognized who they were and what they were going through? For example, off to the right Jesus looked out and saw a group of people he knew were mourning. And he spoke words of blessing and comfort specifically to them. Over on the left, Jesus noticed someone who was meek. And Jesus told him specifically that he would inherit the earth.
Right in front of him was a group of people Jesus knew to be kind and gentle and he looked right at them and offered a blessing. “Blessed are the merciful, for you will receive mercy.” And further back in the distance was someone with a pure heart. And Jesus raised his hand and said to her, “you, my sister, will see God.”
What if there was nothing abstract about the Beatitudes? Instead, Jesus took time that day to extravagantly bless actual people for particular reasons he was able to identify on the spot. Would it surprise you to think of Jesus Christ reaching out and blessing a whole crowd of people? Tossing around one God inspired blessing after another, as if those blessings grew on trees. And to top it off, blessing especially the kinds of people who never imagined they would be on the receiving end of one of Jesus’ promises…people who weren’t usually singled out for a blessing by anyone.
I thought, then, that I would try something different in the sermon this morning. I invite you to picture Jesus standing right here in this sanctuary throwing out blessings indiscriminately. And I invite you to hear the Beatitudes reimagined. Not as a prescription but rather as a description. Some of them are new Beatitudes for a new 2019 time and a new place. And some of them are original. Either way the truth is that Jesus never stops blessing those who follow him, from age to age, from the first century to the year 2019.
Feel free to close your eyes, if it helps. Or keep them open if it’s more comfortable. The most important thing is to open your ears and open your heart to hear a blessing from Jesus that might be just for you or for someone you love this morning.
“Blessed are you who doubt…you who wonder and you who question and you who long to have more control and more solid ground to stand on. And blessed are those who remain willing to be surprised.
Blessed are those who feel like they don’t have much to offer, for your voice and your story and your insight matters.
Blessed are the preschoolers who fidget in their pews on Sunday mornings and sometimes cut in line when communion is served in front of the sanctuary.
And blessed are the poor in spirit, for you are of heaven and Jesus blesses you…
Blessed are the ones among us and in our prayers for whom death is not a distant abstraction.
Blessed are those who have buried loved ones…the ones who have cried themselves to sleep at night or cried over a cup of coffee in the morning. Blessed are those who have loved deeply enough to know how loss aches. And blessed are those who have felt the persistent sadness of burying their own children.
Blessed are the mothers of the miscarried and the stillborn. And blessed are the ones who struggle with fertility.
Blessed are those who have learned from life and experience that they no longer have the luxury to take things for granted.
Blessed are the caregivers who cannot afford to fall apart because others depend on them to keep it together. Blessed are those who try to find a way to put one foot in front of the other each day in spite of chronic pain and discomfort and depression. Blessed are the motherless and the fatherless. Blessed are the lonely and the ones who have endured too much and the ones who still “aren’t over it yet.”
And blessed are those who mourn, for you are of heaven and Jesus blesses you…
Blessed are the ones no one seems to notice. The youth who sits alone at a table in the middle school lunch cafeteria. The ones who work the night shift mopping the floors and washing the endless piles of laundry at the hospital.
Blessed are the losers and the ones who struggle to make eye contact in a world that tends to only praise the winners.
Blessed are the ones we have forgotten. And the ones we barely remembered in the first place.
Blessed are the closeted. Blessed are those who are shamed and stigmatized for who they are.
Blessed are the ones who work hard every day to maintain their own sobriety. And blessed are those who relapse.
Blessed are those who are unemployed and unimpressive and underrepresented.
Blessed are teens who wear long sleeve shirts and sweatshirts to hide the cuts on their arms.
And blessed are the meek. For you are of heaven and Jesus blesses you...
Blessed are the ones who are wrongly accused and wrongly imprisoned. Blessed are those who can’t seem to catch a break and blessed are all those for whom life is simply “hard.”
Blessed are those who don’t have the right documentation. Blessed are those trying to escape persecution and violence. Blessed are those separated from their own families. And blessed are those who can’t go home or have no home to go home to.
Blessed are the ones who have no one to advocate for them and no one to lobby on their behalf. Blessed are foster kids and trophy kids and special needs kids and bullied kids and every child who wants to feel safe and loved.
And blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled…
Blessed are those who trust and have faith and believe there has to be more than what we see around us.
Blessed are business owners who make decisions with their employees in mind, regardless of how it affects their bottom line.
Blessed are the nurses who run from to room trying to keep up with the demands of patient care. Blessed are the social workers who juggle too many caseloads. Blessed are the teachers who yearn to help students learn rather than watch them take tests.
Blessed are the ones who stand up for those unable to stand up for themselves. Blessed are the ones who inspire us and lift us up rather than tearing us down.
Blessed are those who know the life-giving grace of forgiveness because they have offered it and received it.
Blessed are those who love us even when we are most unlovable. Blessed are the merciful, who somehow always seem to get it. And blessed are those who reach out with compassion and hospitality again and again and again.
Finally, blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.”
Can you hear Jesus speaking to you this morning? Or to someone you know and love? I can imagine Jesus standing here in this sanctuary blessing each one of us because that’s what Jesus did. He blessed people.
You and me and each one of us here in this crowd. Even when we are weak and vulnerable and at our most human, Jesus blesses us still. Amen.