A sermon from the Rev. Linda Griggs for Epiphany 4
Go ahead and admit it: if you are of a certain age, when you hear the Beatitudes your mind automatically goes to one of two places. Perhaps you flash back to Sunday School; to memorizing the verses, or gazing at a picture of a blond-haired blue-eyed Jesus standing on a high hill above a huge crowd of people. Maybe, as your church school teacher read all the ‘blesseds’ to you and your classmates, you privately thought to yourself that being blessed might not be all it was cracked up to be.
Or. You remember the scene in Monty Python’s satire, Life of Brian, in which one of the crowd, straining to hear Jesus, says, “I think it was ‘blessed are the cheese makers.” To which his companion sagely responds, “Well, obviously it isn’t meant to be taken literally, it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.” An argument ensues, degenerating into a knock-down/drag-out fight, and our hero decides he’d rather skip the rest of Jesus’ sermon and attend a stoning instead. And there you have it. A deft skewering of humans’ tendency to completely miss the point due to our sometimes comedic tendency to overthink and under-listen. Oh, the time we spend in the weeds while the forest towers above us.
It’s easy to lose our sense of perspective, to get lost in the weeds—and this applies to a lot of things besides Scripture. I confess that there have been days recently when a sense of existential fear for the future of this troubled world makes it difficult for me to read the paper or turn on the news. This is especially problematic when a guiding principle of preaching is to hold the Bible in one hand and the New York Times in the other. It is important to be a good citizen in these times of uncertainty and division, and even more crucial to be a courageous person of faith living into the Gospel and our Baptismal Covenant. But I confess that the temptation to withdraw from the reality of bitter civic division and anxiety is real. And based on my conversations with a number of folks, clergy and lay alike, I suspect I’m not alone–here in the weeds. So today’s readings are well timed. Because they invite us out of the weeds and into the majestic forest of Christian hope.
The Beatitudes as we hear them today in Matthew are also seen in Luke’s Gospel. Each of the two evangelists probably made use of a common source to create a longer discourse by Jesus, of which the Beatitudes are only a part. In Luke the discourse is known as the Sermon on the Plain, and it is configured differently according to his Gospel vision of social justice. This is why he writes of literal poverty and hunger, not the poor in spirit or a hunger for righteousness. On the other hand Matthew’s perspective was to portray Jesus as the New Moses. Hence we see Jesus go up on the mountain just as Moses did at Sinai. Jesus speaks to the people, offering important guidance, just as Moses did in delivering the Ten Commandments. The Sermon on the Mount is a crucial moment in Matthew’s Gospel, offering a large chunk of his teachings, of which we only hear the beginning today.
And that’s what the Beatitudes are; a beginning. They are the first several verses of three entire chapters of teachings on everything from family and social relationships to correct religious behavior. So there is plenty of time in the Sermon on the Mount for Jesus to get into the details, but this initial passage is different. If you’re a Greek scholar (and I am not), and understand verb tense and mood, you will see from the Greek translation that these are statements of fact, not commands to be followed. And this is important because if we just read the English and don’t know this distinction it would be easy (and common—as it was in our childhood) to read the Beatitudes as The Nine Very Discouraging Commandments that require you to aspire to be poor in spirit, meek, pure and persecuted in order to get into heaven. As theologian Charles James Cook notes, if the Beatitudes are truly meant for everybody, then it doesn’t make sense that they are standards for behavior that can only be attained by the likes of Dorothy Day and Desmond Tutu. If the children of God (that’s us) are to live into the Beatitudes we need to see them, not as individual behavioral guidelines, but as a unit—as a preamble to the larger discourse. The body of the Sermon on the Mount will give us the detailed teachings, but first the groundwork must be laid.
The Beatitudes, then, are the foundation of Jesus’ teachings– a statement of facts. And what are those facts? First, God says, you need to know this one thing: You are part of the Dream of God. That is what it means to be Blessed. The Beatitudes are the definitive statement of God’s abiding presence in a world writhing in the birth pangs of the incoming Kingdom. This is a statement, not that our only way into heaven is to aspire to become poor in spirit, mourning, meek and persecuted, but that God knows that we ARE these things. These are all forms of woundedness, and whether we know it or not, we are all wounded. We are all vulnerable. And God knows it, sees it, and Is. Not- Going-Anywhere. We- Are- Blessed. Blessed by God’s abiding and unfailing presence.
Jesus’ words were spoken into a world in pain; a world of division, corruption, imperial occupation and political turmoil. It was a world desperately in need of hope; a world where the temptation may well have been to crawl under a rock and pray it would all just go away. It was a world hungering for peace, mercy, righteousness– for hearts of such pure courage and compassion that they would see God in every person. It was a world in need of new prophets willing to take the risk of speaking the truth, to the hopeless and the powerful alike, of God’s love and healing presence—the truth of the incoming Reign of God.
The temptation today, in the face of political anxiety, is to shut down; either to close our eyes to a tumultuous world or to cocoon ourselves in an echo chamber of like-minded outrage and fear. Or, somehow, both. Neither is constructive or healthy. It is a lack of perspective that has lost the vision of the Kingdom—a vision that is ultimately more powerful than any ideology humans can concoct. Instead, God says LOOK. Look within you to where your hunger, your grief, and your fear reside. Look to your neighbor in need of healing, wholeness, and compassion.
The Beatitudes call us to remember our foundation: Blessed. You are Part of the Kingdom. This isn’t just words. God’s unfailing ability to work with human frailty can be seen if we look around us. Each person will have his or her own example, but for me, it was in last weekend’s marches. The thing that most resonated with me is that to paraphrase one of the organizers, it was not seen as a protest as much as it was an affirmation of human dignity—and that is echoed in our Baptismal Covenant. I attended the one in Providence, a number of folks from St. Martin’s were in D.C., and many of us know people who marched elsewhere—New York, Boston, Nashville, Charlotte, and even tiny Chelan in the state of Washington (population 4000). These were people who felt, for themselves or on behalf of others, the hunger and thirst for righteousness, the weight of persecution, and the pain of being silenced into meek acceptance of injustice. I looked at the pictures of the crowds—city after city and town after town—even a ship off of Antarctica, for God’s sake– and was moved to tears. These people–all over the world—raised their eyes from the weeds. And when they did they found their voices and they found each other. That is kingdom light breaking in right there when you can look into the eye of a neighbor, connect his or her pain with your own, and know that neither of you is alone.
Some say a march isn’t enough to bring about change. Maybe that’s true if it remains just a march. But it’s enough to offer hope. And to say that that isn’t significant is like saying that a little round wafer and a sip of wine aren’t a sufficient meal. It’s a beginning, a preamble. An invitation to participate in the Dream of God and to let it equip us, as Micah says, to do as the Lord requires: Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with the One who calls each of us, Blessed.