Matthew 5:1-12; Embody Beatitude Living
The Beatitudes. Among the most familiar of biblical passages, they capture the imagination in a rare and special way. They evoke both reverence and parody, and are fairly regularly requested by family members at memorial services honoring someone who has died.
On the parody side, in the long-ago Monty Python film “Life of Brian”—I’m dating myself here—Jesus is standing on a hillside—not accurate, as it turns out, because in the biblical story, he sits—and he’s uttering these Beatitudes. The crowd below has difficulty hearing him, though. “What was that,” asks one man after Jesus says something from the hillside. “I think it was ‘Blessed are cheesemakers,’” says another. “What’s so special about the cheesemakers?” asks a woman. “Well obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally,” says another man. “It refers to any manufacturer of dairy products.” That’s the satire!
Presbyterian minister and writer Frederick Buechner touched on the reverent side. He once wrote an essay on how to read the Bible. Among his wonderfully helpful pieces of advice, he said this: “If you have even as much as a nodding acquaintance with a foreign language, try reading the Bible in that. Then you stand a chance of hearing what the Bible is actually saying instead of what you assume it must be saying because it is the Bible. Some of it you may hear in such a new way that it is as if you had never heard it before. ‘Blessed are the meek’ is the way the English version goes, whereas in French it comes out, ‘Heureux sont les debonnaires’ (Happy are the debonair). The debonair of all things! Doors fly open. Bells ring out” (Wishful Thinking, p.11). Beautiful!
The Beatitudes begin Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Jesus goes up a mountain with some disciples, and for three chapters, in Matthew’s telling of it, he unfolds what it means to be his followers. The Sermon is not, by any means, an easy one to hear. It’s full of counterintuitive and extremely demanding counsel that upends what we think is right. He tells the people, for example, not to break a single law, or they will be separated from God. Not only should you not murder, but you shouldn’t even be angry with someone. Not only should you not commit adultery, but you shouldn’t even lust after one who’s not your spouse. “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (5:39). “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (5:44). And he doesn’t let up. It’s a bracingly rigorous set of guidelines about how to live. It may make us squirm, or resist his teaching, or just dismiss it all because it’s way too hard.
But before he gets to these eye-opening challenges, Jesus has something vital to say, something that shapes how we hear everything that’s to follow. ‘Yes, God and I have high standards,’ he seems to say, ‘but listen to this. No matter how difficult or challenging you may find it to live, or to follow me, this is what’s crucial for you to remember. This is the truth above all truths: You are blessed. The Message puts it this way: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and [God’s] rule. You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One [who really is] most dear to you. You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less” (5:3-5). And on Jesus goes with these blessings.
And what do we hear when those words wash over us? An English major might say, ‘Not a single sentence in the imperative voice. Jesus speaks only in the indicative voice.’ Jesus is not telling us what to do. He’s telling us what already is. He isn’t giving us marching orders. He’s giving a gift. It’s like a mother sending her kindergartener off to school with a hug, and with the assurance that, when the child returns at the end of the day, she will still be there. The child boards the school bus with the reminder that the mother’s love never fails. That is essentially what Jesus is doing as he begins his transformative Sermon: ‘Yes, life is hard,’ he seems to say, ‘and it will be filled with challenges. But I will never leave you. You will always know my blessing. Don’t you ever forget it.’
And part of what’s really striking about these blessings is that they’re offered, not to life’s big winners, but to those who struggle and live on the margins. Not “Blessed are the CEOs and the billionaires and the high-powered lawyers and doctors and bankers and the drop-dead gorgeous people.” In God’s eyes, they’re blessed, too, of course. No, the divine blessing is offered also and especially to those in whom it is much less obvious, those who may never have sensed it, or who have forgotten it. That blessing is conveyed to the ones who feel squashed, the ones who just get by, the ones who are bludgeoned by discrimination and poverty and loneliness and illness—Jesus makes sure they know that they, too, are embraced in the arms of God, that God has a special place for them and will never let them go. The rigorous expectations of the Sermon on the Mount are grounded in that embrace, that reassurance.
And because this blessing is central to how God is with us, the invitation comes to us to be part of that blessing in all the ordinary settings of our lives—to jump on the blessing train, as it were. And we jump on that train by doing the sometimes difficult work of blessing that God gives us to do. ‘If you’re ridiculed or shunned for doing the right thing, know that I hold you close. If you show your care to those whom others reject or dismiss, know that I adore you. If you continue to try to make peace, or to find a third way, when everyone else seems to have hardened their position, know that I lift you up and praise your efforts.’ This is where blessings bloom.
It’s not at all that we have to do these things or else. This is not in any way a kind of conditional blessing. It’s that when we commit ourselves to the enormous challenge of caring for each other even when it’s difficult, when we engage in the hard work of doing justice and loving kindness and walking humbly (Micah 6:8), we will have the deep satisfaction of knowing we’re doing God’s work.
This blessing work happens in countless different ways. As the folks at Monty Python surely knew, for example, it’s not just cheesemakers but also and especially peacemakers who know the fullness of Jesus’ embrace. When we can look beyond our own particular positions and opinions and seek the good of the whole, when we can practice the fine art of forgiveness and reconciliation and compromise, we are participating in God’s blessing of the world. The Franciscan monk Richard Rohr says, “You can tell a lot about someone by what they do with their pain. Do they transform it, or do they transmit it?” Peacemaking is a kind of transforming blessing.
Where else do we see blessing taking shape and flowering? During this Black History Month, we remember that yesterday was the sixtieth anniversary of the Greensboro sit-in. Ezell Blair, Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain, and Joseph McNeil sat at a whites-only lunch counter at a Woolworth’s in Greensboro, and helped catalyze the Civil Rights movement. Justice-making is a kind of blessing: do justice, as Micah says.
Lutheran minister Nadia Bolz-Weber says “Someone just sent me a [Direct Message] mocking my looks followed by ‘get cancer.’ My first thought: [to hell with] you. My second thought: dang; that’s so much pain.” To see beyond our own hurt and enter someone else’s is to make a kind of peace. It’s to transform our own pain and to bless these others.
We visited our son Alex, his spouse Cynthia, and their daughter Allie last weekend for our granddaughter Allie’s second birthday party. Allie was almost constantly fussy the whole weekend, crying and clinging and never seeming at peace. And all during this time, her mother never showed an ounce of impatience. When Allie cried, Cynthia would just pick her up and say, “Big feelings. We have big feelings today.” It was Cynthia’s way of conveying to Allie that she loved her no matter what. It was her way of blessing Allie.
Blessings come in so many ways. A woman named “Martha had an undeniably difficult childhood,” says Lutheran minister Peter Marty. “‘Mom regularly beat me with a strap. She was mean even when I did nothing wrong,’ she [said]. ‘My dad was cruel for reasons I don’t understand. He’d pack my lunch for school and often put a rock in it instead of a sandwich. As hungry as I was after school, I dreaded coming home.’ . . .
And Peter Marty says, “When I asked Martha how it was that she and her husband managed to raise a beautiful child of their own after the hellish childhood she had endured, she said, ‘I was determined to do the complete opposite of what my parents did for me’” (Christian Century, Jan. 29, 2020, p. 3). Martha knows what it means to bless.
Or this. During the Bosnian war in the early 1990s, the capital city of Sarajevo was under siege for most of four years. In a bomb attack one day, Serbian forces killed twenty-two Bosnians in Sarajevo. In response, “Vedran Smailovic, principal cello of the Sarajevo Opera Orchestra, donned his concert dress, set up his chair in front of the bakery where twenty-two people had been killed by Serbian mortar fire, and played Albinoni’s Adagio each morning for twenty-two days, one day in memory of each of those killed, each of those days being a day when more members of the Sarajevo Opera Orchestra joined Vedran Smailovic” to bless the city (https://vimeo.com/345791876).
Or this. ESPN sports commentator Rachel Nichols remembers a conversation she had had years ago with the basketball player Kobe Bryant, who just died in a helicopter crash. It was in Bryant’s rookie year, when Nichols herself had also just begun as a sportscaster. “I was still starting out as a reporter, a young woman at a time when locker rooms were still not friendly places for young women. Sometimes it was hard just to get players to agree to an interview. But when I went to do a story on a rookie named Kobe Bryant, not only did he sit with me on a bench for forty-five minutes, he [also] told me he could relate to how discouraging it could be sometimes, how some of the vets on his team did not like this kid getting all the attention, how they were hazing him. As we stood up, he said to me, ‘You and me? We’re going to be just fine’” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8y4jupHGd0c). That’s Kobe Bryant blessing Rachel Nichols.
And we see blessing after blessing here in this place, manifestations of God’s blessing of us. This desire to join God in blessing is why people from Federated go so regularly to St. Paul’s Church to feed people and repair the building and take clothes. It’s why people show up at Chagrin Falls Park week after week to tutor students. It’s why people knit blankets and prayer shawls for others who are going through hard times. It’s why people sing and play in our choirs and our band. It’s why people will take communion this afternoon to church members and friends who are homebound. Blessings, all of them. It’s how God feeds us, and it’s how we extend that manna from God to each other. Gifts from God for the people of God. We are blessed. And we are blessed to be a blessing. That’s who we are: the blessed blessers. What could be better!