From January 29, 2017 sermon by Pastor Alexx Wood.
MATTHEW 5:1-12 (NRSV)
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.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."
MICAH 6:8 (NRSV)
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
I was talking with my friend and colleague Marion Grant, whom many of you have met, and it turns out that we have many of the same thoughts about the beatitudes, those “blessed are those who…” statements at the beginning of the sermon on the mount. This is one of those parts of scripture, like others I have preached on before, that are so familiar to us that we sometimes just take them at face value. We can lose their depth of meaning; miss the radical nature of the message that Jesus is delivering; or they can simply take on the qualities of platitudes, instead of be-attitudes. “BE” attitudes – something we are called to do, or to be. In this, the beatitudes are complex, and challenging. They are radical, and yes, they are “political.”
And so Marion and I discovered that we both see these kinds of familiar scriptures in the same way. Instead of just glossing over them, we need to explore them deeply, and both hear the words with ancient ears, as well as see them with fresh eyes. She agrees that we are so used to hearing this part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that we don’t realize how counter-cultural Jesus’ words are – both then and now. For these beatitudes pose a radically different set of values from those that bombard us most of our lives. We think of blessings in terms like “our children are a blessing to us” or “I’ve been blessed with good health” or “we’re blessed to have been born in this nation,” as if somehow, those who don’t have these things are not deserving or receiving God’s blessing.
In one of the commentaries on today’s scripture that I read, they highlighted the prevalence of the term #blessed as a Twitter hashtag, demonstrating just how mundane and ridiculous our understanding of being “blessed” has become. For example, there are a plethora of sports references with the hashtag “blessed”:
Let’s be honest…even I have used the term: it is on the back of our bulletin, in the prayer section, where I mention what a blessing the children of the church are to this community. And I’m not wrong, and recognizing these kinds of blessings can lead us to gratitude and hopefully to a greater level of awareness of God’s presence in our midst. But, as the commentator states, “one thing is clear : this is not what Jesus meant when he used the word “Blessed” as the opening word of his teaching ministry.”
But then, what does he mean? This meaning can still be confusing and elusive. Because the conditions that Jesus calls “blessed” leaves us feeling that "blessed" might be the opposite of what we think it means. Marion asked, “Who in their right mind thinks being poor (either in spirit or body), or mournful, or meek, or who hunger and thirst (whether for righteousness or food), can be thought of as being “blessed”? These are conditions that we have been taught to consider as being…less than good, if not downright bad, just as they were in Jesus’ day…In nearly every case, Jesus’ blessings are on those who are looked down upon in our culture. Because it is those who are strong, self-reliant, wealthy, assertive – these seem to be the blessed ones in our world, don’t they? And it was no different in Jesus’ time."
Scholars tell us that in the ancient world, just like today, many people believed strongly in cause and effect. In Jesus’ day, “it was believed that if [people] were good people who followed God’s commandments, worked hard, and tried to do their best in all circumstances, God would reward them with good health, food to eat, stable jobs, happy families, and prosperity. Likewise, they believed that God punished the sinful with illness, poverty, imprisonment, blindness, divorce, and other personal tragedy. Many believed that God even punished entire sinful populations through war, famine, droughts, and other disasters.”
“If a man was sick, or mourning, or poor in spirit, or starving, or persecuted, it was his own fault for sinning. A woman who suffered did so as the consequence of her own bad behavior, because suffering was understood as punishment for sin.” Sadly, this way of thinking is all too prevalent even in today’s world, in religion, in political rhetoric, and in social and public policies.
Yesterday, my son Calvin was rushed to the ER with severe abdominal pain. He ended up having emergency surgery to remove his gall bladder. Thanks to wonderful doctors and modern medicine, he is going to be fine. But frankly, in ancient times, he most likely would have died. What terrible sin must he have committed to be stricken so suddenly and severely with such a condition? Or, should we look at it this way…thank God for the medical team and the promise of a full recovery. … #blessed.
How can we still see misfortune and need as curses, as judgment and punishment by God, and lives of ease and freedom as being bestowed by God only upon the deserving? Is this really how we view ourselves and our fellow humans? Is this how we view God?
Well, the beatitudes turn these ideas upside down for me. Through the beatitudes, Jesus is saying it doesn’t work like that in the kingdom of God. Rev. Dawn Chesser says that “God’s kingdom is a whole different playing field.”
She notes that in this opening of the Sermon on the Mount, “Jesus blesses everyone who has gathered, no matter who they are, and no matter what they have done, no matter where they are from. God’s blessing is not just for the righteous ones. God’s blessing is not just for certain religious groups, or certain genders, or certain sexual orientations, or certain cultural or racial groups. God’s blessing is not just for those who are pure, who go to church and give to charities and treat people with kindness. And God’s blessing is not evidenced by a big bank account or a fancy title or a luxury home.”
Chesser says “in this new kingdom that Jesus is showing us, God blesses the saints and sinners alike. Jesus offers a blessing on the poor in wallet and the poor in spirit. He blesses the blind, the lame, the imprisoned, the outcast. He blesses the leper and the prostitute. He blesses the murderer and the thief and the adulterer. He blesses the Jews and the Christians, the Muslims and the Hindus, the Buddhists and the Ba’hai. God blesses the Democrats and the Republicans and the Independents alike… God’s blessing does not discriminate. God’s blessing is for all.”
And the beatitudes remind me that God’s blessing comes in all circumstances. Can we be blessed by our hunger? By our mourning? I gained a new perspective on this, after my father died. I remember feeling that in my pain was a deep and profound sacredness. It was not, for me, the promise of comfort to come. I appreciated that this would be an eventuality, but unrelated to that, in the midst of the pain and sadness, the pain and sadness themselves were holy. Because these things – pain and sadness – were evidence of the force that infuses all of life. Love. We find ourselves in the depth of mourning only because we have been able to love deeply. So the mourning is just another form of love. Hunger for righteousness is an expression of…love. Mercy is love. Peace, is love.
And so it all comes down to this. The beatitudes might just be another way for Jesus to say that love is the way. No matter what anyone tells you, no matter who you are or where you are from or what you have done, no matter what your circumstances, you are blessed and you are welcomed into God’s family, and there is nothing you can do, ever, to lose God’s love, affirmation, and blessing.
Blessed are you, and a blessing you are, when you are poor in spirit, when you mourn, when you are meek, when you hunger and thirst for righteousness, when you are merciful, when your heart is pure, when you make peace, when you are persecuted for your faith and loyalty to God’s way. It is not really about what you will get out of these things, it isn’t about the comfort, or the inheritance, or the quenching of thirst.
But the beatitudes…they are calling us to do, and to be, in ways that are radically different than the world teaches, or operates. This week in our nation is evidence of just how much we need reminding of this radical way. We have strayed far, far from the way of the gospel. And so we, as people of faith, must redouble our efforts to live the gospel; to seek justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God. These are what the beatitudes are trying to teach us to do, and to be. All of these things…they are blessings; they are ways that you bless others. They are love.
And love, my friends, is what it is all about.
 Commentary and sermon illustrations, umcdiscipleship.org
 Rev. Dawn Chesser, commentary on Matthew 5:1-12, umcdiscipleship.org
This post is excerpted from a sermon from July 2016. However, the subject is one I could preach every week.
– Pastor Alexx Wood, 2016
“To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:
“‘We played the pipe for you,
and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
and you did not mourn.’
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”
Jesus’ words in this passage paint a picture of a generation of impetuous, selfish children who want things their own way and who don’t play well with others. He accuses them of being self-centered, hard-hearted and closed-minded. They are independent and arrogant. They are too smart for their own good, thinking they knew what was best, insisting on going it alone, and shunning all other ways and messages, and people.
And it is important to note these examples aren’t just directed to individuals, but to cities – whole communities, yes, a whole generation the passage says – who have become like spoiled children who want things just their own way; a way filled with injustice and far from God. This is a tough message, but it strikes a chord with me.
Because sometimes in our love for freedom and self-determination, we might have a tendency to become like this. I think sometimes we confuse independence with individualism. In seeking to lift up our ideals of freedom, we can lose sight of the fact that we were made to share our lives with one another – and with God. When our pursuit of freedom is centered around having our own way, we can lose our sense of community, of cooperation, of grace. As individuals, this kind of freedom and individualism carried to an extreme can be isolating and heavy, as if the world were on our shoulders. We forget, or worse – refuse, to trust or rely on others, or on God. And when a community becomes oriented in this way, it can – as Jesus rebukes the communities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum – make us insulated, resentful, condescending, and far from that which God desires for us. But Jesus shows us another way. The way of recognizing and living into our interdependence.
But when we are called out to this new way, it can also cause us to react with fear, confusion, anger, resistance, and all kinds of objections. Objections like those that Jesus sparked in his encounters with the authorities. If we truly accept that we are all God’s children—not just other people we like, that we agree with, that look the same as us, that act in ways we are comfortable with, but we are ALL God’s children, of all shapes, sizes, colors, orientations, beliefs, traditions, annoying habits and all—if we accept this truth, well…we might have to lament. We might have to repent. We might have to work for justice, and we, ourselves, might have to change. Not just individually, but communally.
But this is what Jesus calls us to do. And we need to hear this and we need to respond. Now. Right now. Because the burdens of oppressive white supremacy and racism that pervades our nation’s soul are destroying us – all of us. Can we see it? Can we get to the heart of it? Can we begin by saying that “Black Lives Matter?” How simple is this statement. How can it be controversial, even (or especially) among Christians?
In an article in the Huffington Post, writer Derek Flood addresses the counter-statement “all lives matter” that some make in response to the idea that Black Lives Matter. He states that the issue “is not that anyone is proposing that other people’s lives do not matter. Of course everyone’s lives matter — including the lives of police officers. The Black Lives Matter slogan draws attention to the fact that, in our country, people of color — and in particular black males — are systematically treated as if their lives do not matter.” (emphasis mine).
Flood reminds us that “Jesus did not say ‘blessed is everyone,’ but ‘blessed are the poor’ (Luke 6:20). He did not say ‘as you do it unto everyone, you do it unto me,’ but ‘as you do it unto the least’ (Matthew 25:40). Jesus did not say ‘love everyone,’ but “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44). Continually, Jesus drew our attention not to loving people ‘in general’ but to specifically caring for those we would tend to discount or condemn. Black lives matter is exactly the kind of thing Jesus would say…It is at the very heart of Jesus’ mission.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/derek-flood/why-jesus-would-say-black-lives-matter_b_7507098.html)
Our Christian faith then, calls us in such a time as this to stand up and stand together, to proclaim that black lives matter, to say “enough!” It calls us to action, to work so that not one more ounce of blood is spilled by violence borne of racially motivated fear and hatred. Not one more Trayvon Martin. Not one more Freddie Gray. Not one more Michael Brown. Not one more Eric Garner. Not one more Sandra Bland. Not one more Tamir Rice. Not one more Alton Sterling. Not one more Philando Castile. And not one more Officer Lorne Ahrens, Officer Michael Krol, Officer Michael J. Smith, Officer Brent Thompson or Officer Patrick Zamarripa. Not. One. More. (Since this was originally written in July, of course, there have tragically been more names to add to this list.)
These names are important, but it can be easier for us not to say them. These are harsh realities, but it can be easier not to face them. To recognize that we have these options to not confront these realities is to recognize our own privilege. But we cannot ignore these devastating losses. We cannot ignore the fact that we are a deeply dysfunctional human family, and that the soul of the world is in deep distress. It is obvious in the destruction of individuals, and families, and communities; in these dear lives lost. Because these are not just someone else’s family or someone else’s problems, but they are our very own brothers and sisters, our sons and our daughters, our mothers and fathers. They are lives that mattered, gifts to the human family that God gave to the world, gifts that we needed. God’s precious children executed, extinguished, by longstanding systemic issues of white supremacy and racism, and a growing political and social climate of fear, exploitation, hatred and ignorance.
It may be painful to open our eyes to this reality and to our roles in it, just as it can be painful to accept how much we need each other, when these beautiful children of God are now gone, and the world continues to be starved of justice. It can move us to despair. But…as people of faith, we are not powerless and we are not starved of hope.
In one of the many stories and comments on these tragic events over these past few days, I read a prayer written by a Roman Catholic layperson, Matty Zaradich. In the Catholic tradition, many prayers are addressed to Mary, the mother of Jesus, as an intercessory, and this one is as well. But this powerful prayer says, so simply, so many of the things that I know are on our hearts in these days. I want to share it with you now. Perhaps it is something you will pray each day:
Mary, our blessed Mother, whose own blessed Son was murdered by state violence, pray for us all;
Be with your beautiful black children as they make their way in America; Keep them safe, keep them strong;
Give us the strength to proclaim daily that their bodies, that their lives, matter. Heal the divisions that choke us.
In the name of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ.
This is my prayer, for us here at First Church, and for this broken world. Let us keep praying together, and let us continue to think about how to be in dialogue with one another about the deep and disturbing struggles we are experiencing in our nation and communities; what part we play in these struggles, and what part we can play in the healing of relationships, communities and the world.