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