The Beatitudes

The Beatitudes

A sermon by Rachel Twigg Boyce for January 29/17, on Matthew 5:1-12

 

The Beatitudes

 

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely [b] on my account.

12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

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“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:”

Blessed are the sick, including your preacher.

OK, Jesus didn’t actually say that, but he could have right? Regardless, I want to apologize in advance – especially to anyone listening on the podcast – for any excessive sniffling or coughing during this sermon.

Today, in part because I have been sick all week and have been struggling to think clearly, and also because I admire their work, I will be relying heavily on insights from Paul Fromberg, Herb Kopp, and Mark Scandrette.

The lectionary has us hanging out in the book of Matthew for the next little while. In the earlier chapters of the gospel, Matthew carefully introduces us to Jesus – giving us Jesus’ genealogy and telling us the stories of Christ’s birth, baptism, temptation and early ministry.  

Now, in chapter 5 he shifts from telling us stories about Jesus, to recording Jesus’ words, with very little commentary. In this section of the gospel, Jesus will lay out his message, his mission, and his call to all of us as his disciples.

What was the world like at this time?  It was a world that was anchored in politics and people’s lives were controlled by a political reality over which they had little or no control. Sound familiar?

It was a world where politics, economics, and religion were all intertwined into a single system. It was a world dominated by the Roman Empire, an empire that viewed human beings as commodities.

This was a time marked by bad news.  Poverty was rampant and people were starving for food, and for good news.

It is in this context that Jesus boldly proclaims the gospel, the good news, that there is a kingdom that is more powerful than Caesar’s.  Jesus proclaims that the Kingdom of God is here.

In Jesus’ time, as in ours, there are stories that dominate the way we think.  Jesus came to say that the way we have always looked at the world and the way we have always done things is not the only way. In fact, there is a much better way. Jesus challenges the dominant narratives both of his day and of ours.

So one of the reasons we need to keep telling, and re-telling these gospel stories, is because we need to be reminded that we are a people who are part of a better and more beautiful story than the one the world is telling.

We need to tell the sacred stories again and again because they reinforce this better story and inspire us to dream bigger dreams and to think creatively about our lives and our choices. These sacred stories help us to remember that we are not subjects in Caesar’s empire, we are members of God’s Kingdom, a kingdom that is based on love, on justice, on mercy, and on grace.

I don’t know about you, but I get tripped up by the word kingdom – kingdoms seem like something out of a fairy story or an ancient patriarchal system of government.  Last week I heard Martin Luther King Jr’s famous “I have a dream speech” multiple times and I have found some resonance this week in thinking of God’s Kingdom as God’s dream coming true.  

Our hope is not found in the political structures and systems of this world, our hope is found in God’s dream. Jesus is here to proclaim the good news that God’s dream isn’t just something we hope for in the future, it has already come true.  

But in order for us to fully live into that dream, we’re going to have to make some changes. We’re going to have to repent – which literally means to turn away from our old narratives, our old habits, and our old ways of doing things. We are going to have to turn from those old stories and old habits in order to embrace something new.

We are going to be hearing a lot of Matthew in the coming months and we should all pay careful attention because Mathew has a lot to teach us about God. The message of the gospel is as simple as it is complex:  God is love. God is good. God brings life into darkness, God brings life to the dead, God fulfills God’s promises, God keeps God’s word, God is the source of love, healing, compassion, mercy and forgiveness.  

And God loves each one of us.

God’s dream is rooted and grounded in love. And not love as some wishy washy or sentimental feeling either.  God’s dream is rooted and grounded in a love that has the power to change the world.  

God’s dream for our world looks very different than our earthly political systems. It looks different than our empires.  The point is not to make our earthly political systems look more like God’s dream by declaring we live in a Christian nation or insisting that politicians say “Merry Christmas,” AND the point is not to simple withdraw from all of the systems of the world and live separately waiting for Jesus to come again, the point is to recognize the signs of God’s dream and to work to help them flourish whenever we do.

Sound good? Should I just lay out all the signs of God’s dream for you all and then we can roll up our sleeves and get to work?

Well, to do that is to miss an essential step.

Because before we can get to work we need to know who we are and why we are doing this work.  We need to start by remembering that we are God’s beloved, we need to remember that we have worth, and value, and dignity not because we think we do, not because other people think we do, but because the God who created the universe and each one of us declares that we do.

Remember that you are beloved.

Remember that you are beloved.

Remember that you are beloved and then we can start looking for signs of God’s kingdom.

Remember that you are beloved and then we can begin to know what is means to be called “blessed.”

Our text today is part of a larger passage commonly referred to as “The Sermon on the Mount” because Matthew begins this section by telling us that Jesus went up onto the mountainside and ends it with Jesus coming back down off the mountain.

Today’s gospel reading is commonly referred to as the “Beatitudes” It is a collection of eight poetic statements following a set literary form. A beatitude begins with the declaration of blessing, followed by the naming of a virtue, followed by an appropriate reward.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Beatitudes are found throughout the Old and New Testament and in all types of Biblical writings.  There are beatitudes in Deuteronomy, in Psalms, and in Revelation.

It is significant that the Sermon on the Mount opens with beatitudes. These blessings are grounded in God’s dream for the world which runs counter to the ways of this world. These blessings set the stage for Jesus’ message that he has come to bring about a new way of being in the world. One that is both here, and not yet here. Jesus, by speaking these words of blessing is setting the stage for a new way of seeing things, for a new way of being in the world.

The beatitudes name our aches and longings and let us know that God meets us in the struggles of our lives.  Remember the original context in which Jesus was speaking – Israel was occupied by Rome and it was a very difficult time filled with political upheaval, with conflict, and with economic uncertainly. People were uncertain of how to respond to an occupying government that did not seem to have their best interests at heart, many of them were afraid, many of them were discouraged, and many of them were angry.  Sound familiar?

And it is into that context that Jesus speaks these blessings. Jesus is saying – no one is left out of God’s blessing, no matter who you are or what you have done.

The beatitudes name the illusions and distortions that multiply pain in our lives – the broken systems and structures that are built on these deceptions. We do not live in a world that is characterized by peace and agape love, rather we live in a world that tends to be characterized by greed, selfishness, arrogance and individualism.

Or do we?

Jesus speaks into our reality saying “You think you live in a world of scarcity where you have to be greedy and miserly with your possessions but you don’t, you live in a world of abundance.

You think you live in a world where pain is too hard to face and so you have to run away from it and Jesus is saying no, I will meet you in the pain and if you sit with it you’ll find the care and comfort that you need.”

Jesus challenges the reigning assumptions most of us hold. Jesus is saying, there is a different way of seeing things, and if you learn to see the world the way I see it, you will learn to respond to those situations in a different way.  You will learn to live into my dream for the world. A dream that has already and is continuing to come true each day.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Poverty means not having enough – not having the things you need to survive.  Throughout scripture, we see that God has a soft spot for people who are materially poor, people who lack the basics things required for survival.  In this verse, however, Jesus also tells us that, in addition to care for those who experience material poverty, God also cares for those who experience poverty of spirit.

Where in your life do you feel like you don’t have enough or you are not enough?  Is it in your bank balance? Do you fear you don’t have enough money to both survive and share generously with others?  Is it in your relationships? Do you fear that if people knew who you really are you’d face rejection? Is it in your sense of political advocacy? Are you feeling discouraged by current events while also feeling powerless to do anything about them?

When we don’t feel like we have enough, our tendency is to shut down and close ourselves off from other people. To hoard what we have. Our sense of not having enough can lead us to be fearful, greedy, and anxious.

But with this beatitude Jesus is asking us to embrace the truth that we are cared for by an abundant provider.  To unclench our hands, to take the bars off our hearts, and to lean into a new way of thinking that says, “I am beloved. I have enough and I am enough.”

To believe this requires that we let go of control, it requires us to trust. It is not an easy thing to do.  For most of us it’s not something we can do instantly either. Our old patterns and ways of seeing things are deeply entrenched. Many of us have good reasons to be fearful, to believe in scarcity, and to resist the idea of letting go of control in order to trust in God.   And that’s OK, we need to be gentle with ourselves and with others and we need to be honest about our reasons and our fears because it we don’t, any change we make won’t be authentic.

You may not be ready to make a complete 180 degree turn right now, but perhaps you can lean slightly in this new direction.

Jesus declares, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Lord, help us lean into postures of trust and abundance.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

When we face the brokenness in our world and inside of ourselves it is painful, it is scary, and many of us invest a great deal of time and energy making sure we never have to go there.  We look for things, anything really, to distract us from our pain and to numb ourselves into forgetting – even if only for a moment – that all that pain is there. We live in a world that gives us an impressive array of resources to employ in pain avoidance.

When you look out in the world what breaks your heart? When you look inside yourself, where to you feel pain?

Jesus doesn’t promise us that we can avoid pain, rather Jesus is inviting us to stop running from the pain and to face life with all its beauty and all its horror trusting that if we have the courage to sit with the pain, comfort will also come.  

Let’s face our pain, let’s sit and weep and wait for comfort.

Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn.” Lord, lead us in the way of lament.

Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.

Meek is not a synonym for weak. The Greek philosopher Aristotle defined meekness as the middle ground between the extremes of excessive aggressiveness and excessive passivity.

The world teaches us that life is a competition.  It’s me against the world, it’s kill or be killed. Some of us fight our way to the top, and some of us have learned to live with a sense that we deserve our place at the bottom.  Jesus challenges both ways of thinking.

Jesus declares that we are all God’s beloved, we are all equals, we all deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.  And when we live into this new reality, it just makes sense for us to see not only our own worth, but the worth of ever other human being. It makes sense for us to live with humility, to listen to each other, and to love each other.

How have you been caught in the trap of competition, feeling greater than or less than the people around you?

Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek.” Lead us in the way of humility.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled.

Lord, I am so hungry for righteousness.  When I look out at our world I see a system that is so broken. I want it to be different, I’m afraid it never will be.

Where do you hunger and thirst right now for a different and better world? Where do you feel that ache?

When we think about all that is broken it is easy to fall into either blame or despair.  Blame says – this must be someone’s fault and it certainly can’t be mine, so it must be yours!  Despair says – it doesn’t matter whose fault this is, nothing is ever going to change, might as well just stay home and watch Netflix.

But Jesus says you are the light of the world and you have agency and power to choose to do good, to help bring about my dream on earth and to make the world a better place.  So today let’s hunger and thirst for righteousness, let’s ache for change, embrace our power, and step into action.

I’ve been sick all week. Sick physically and sick emotionally. I have a cold and I am so hungry and so thirsty for righteousness.  

So, I got my Kleenex, and my tea, and a blanket and I watched Netflix.  As I watched, I knit a hat, and tomorrow I’m putting that hat and a note of encouragement into the mail for a friend in the United States. A friend who is also hungry and thirsty for righteousness but when she looks at the state of her country she feels helpless and paralyzed. I want to remind her that she is God’s beloved. I want to remind her that she is not alone. I want to remind her that she is not powerless.

Will that change the world? Probably not. Was it worth doing? I think so.

Jesus declares “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Lead us in ways of justice.

Jesus says, blessed are the merciful for they will shown mercy.

When someone hurts me, my first wish is that they will pay for what they have done and when I fail others, I think I deserve to be punished.  I much prefer the eye for an eye approach to justice than the turn the other check method Jesus endorses.  When others fail me, I am tempted to sit in judgment and resentment, and when I fail others I am tempted to sit in shame and punish myself.

But when I lean into God’s dream instead of the world’s systems I get to experience grace. I am invited to let go of the judgment, to release the need to punish or be punished.  I get to look at myself and others through the eyes of tenderness and compassion.  I start to see that I have been given so much more than I deserve, and I begin to wish the same for those around me, even the people who have hurt me.

Jesus declares, “Blessed are the merciful.”  Lead us in the way of compassion.

Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God.

One of the things I really love about watching little kids open presents is that they haven’t learned to hide their true feelings.  When they open a gift you know exactly how they feel about it. It’s only later that they’ll learn to mask their disappointment and pretend they like the socks and underwear or to temper their joy at the perfect gift so that people won’t know they have a favourite.

Their reactions are pure, it is only as we grow that we learn to hide parts of ourselves from others and live a divided life.

What are the thoughts and feelings, needs and longings that are inside of you right now.  Are you hiding them? Afraid that they aren’t worthy of expression? Our Creator sees them and holds them with great tenderness.  Our God sees those parts of you that you hide from the world and still calls you beloved.

Jesus declares, “Blessed are the pure in heart.” Lead us to integrity and wholeness.

Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God

It is so easy to feel insecure about who we are and to try and build up our own sense of self by identifying with a particular group of people – people who look like us, think like us, or live near us.  

If our identification with a particular group is rooted in our insecurities, then it is easy to also develop as posture of “us and them” and to begin to both fear and alienate anyone who is different.

Who have you tended to put on the other side of “us and them?” People of a different race? People who express their sexuality in a way that differs from yours? People who vote differently, spend their money differently or dress differently than you do?

We all do it, no matter how virtuous we want to be and the challenge when we discover that we’ve once again fallen into “us and them” thinking is to acknowledge it, to repent – which remember means to turn from – and to try to live differently going forward.  


Jesus boldly declares that there are no sides, that we are all beloved sons and daughters of the God who created each one of us. Jesus invites us to see beyond our own fears and insecurities and to learn to see the beauty in a life lived with others. Jesus invites us to see the beauty in our diversity and to work to live together in peace.

Jesus declares, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”  Lead us in the way of peace.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

We hope doing good will bring happiness and blessing but it doesn’t always. Doing good can also lead to persecution. It can lead to suffering.

Where are you experiencing suffering and difficulty in your life right now because you made a right choice?  Where are the places where you are afraid to do the right thing because it will result in pain?

Jesus doesn’t promise us that we will be able to avoid the pain that comes from making the right choices, but Jesus does promise that God can meet us in every difficulty we face for choosing to do what is right and good.  God doesn’t promise a pain free life, but we do see that there will not only be pain, there will also be blessing.

Jesus knew that suffering was inevitable but not final and he knew and lived the mystery of the paradox that life comes through death so we don’t need to be afraid of suffering and death – God is with us in every experience of our lives and we can have hope in life after this life.

Jesus declares, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake.” Lead us in the way of sacrifice.

The beatitudes are meant to challenge us and encourage us, to comfort us and convict us.  They show us the paradox of living in two worlds at the same time and they show us that whenever we pray – as we do here each week in the Lord’s Prayer, “your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven,” just what that should look like.  

Malcolm Guite describes the beatitudes as a lifting of the veil between this world and the world Christ came to bring.  So let’s close by listening to the words of his poem Beatitudes:

 

We bless you, who have spelt your blessings out,

And set this lovely lantern on a hill

Lightening darkness and dispelling doubt

By lifting for a little while the veil.

For longing is the veil of satisfaction

And grief the veil of future happiness

We glimpse beneath the veil of persecution

The coming kingdom’s overflowing bliss

 

Oh make us pure of heart and help us see

Amongst the shadows and amidst the mourning

The promised Comforter, alive and free,

The kingdom coming and the Son returning,

That even in this pre-dawn dark we might

At once reveal and revel in your light.

 

Amen.

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