By the Rev. Sarah Buteux
Epiphany 4, Year A,
Anyone feeling especially blessed after hearing the Beatitudes this morning? Anyone wanting a little more blessing in their lives after hearing the Beatitudes this morning?
Or are you feeling poor enough, thank you very much or that you’ve got all the suffering you can handle, thank you Jesus, or that meekness or mercy is precisely what got you into this mess…so a little more sure as heck isn’t going to help you find your way out?
When you hear that word “blessing,” it sounds like a good thing, doesn’t it? Who wouldn’t want to be blessed?
Personally, I make it a point to count my blessings. I don’t tend to think of the good things in my life as the result of dumb luck, simple coincidence, or even hard work, though I’m sure all those play a role.
I look around at my beautiful, healthy family in the evenings, reading around a toasty fire after a good meal in our snug little house, and I give thanks to God. I look at them and I feel blessed.
I look out at all of you this morning, a congregation full of incredibly thoughtful, kind, just, and generous people who I am privileged to serve as pastor and I give thanks to God. I look at you and I feel blessed.
I hear the stories – like the ones we heard this morning – of friends who marched in protest and in solidarity last Saturday, friends who exercised their right to assemble and speak freely – none of whom were were harmed or detained or imprisoned for speaking truth to power – and I give thanks to God. The United States isn’t perfect, but I am still thankful I get to live here. I feel blessed.
Because blessings, last I checked, were good things.…right?…be they earned or undeserved? We end our worship with a blessing, we bless our food before we eat it, we bless each other when we sneeze.
From the great parking space to the new job to the right meds to the perfect app -we consider all the little things that make life better to be blessings. It can be something as simple as the light ahead turning green or something as profound as the news that “it’s a girl,” but all of it – if it’s good – feels like a blessing.
And I don’t know anybody that doesn’t want more of that action, which is why “The Secret,” has sold like a jillion copies, and a pastor like Paula White – a prosperity gospel preacher – was invited to pray at the inauguration, and more people are probably sitting at home watching Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday than sitting in church right now trying to make sense of these words of Jesus. And I don’t blame them.
Most people want to feel like they have some control over their lives and I get that. Most people want to hear that they are destined for great things. I know I do. Most people want to live their best life now. I try everyday.
People want to know how to feel better, not worse, how to get ahead, not be left behind. We want to get the better of those who would hurt us and a step ahead of those who would exploit us.
So honestly, why would anyone want to follow Jesus into the world of hurt he lays out here in the beginning of his sermon on the mount? Where is the blessing in this: in poverty and persecution, in meekness and mercy? This does not look like a viable strategy for how to get ahead in the world. This looks like a recipe for disaster.
Where is the blessing in this?
I’ll tell you, honestly, that it’s hard to see. If you really want to take these words seriously, they are hard to understand. They are hard to let in, because deep down you know that if you do – if you really buy into this – you’ll never be the same. You’ll never fit in. You will put yourself at risk. Your life, your actions, your choices will start making about as much sense as Jesus’, and that my friends is a strange place to be.
Just ask Dorothy Day or the Rev. Dr. King or Father Oscar Romero. Or ask the very first person to be referred to as blessed in the gospels. Does anyone know who she is? Catholics you have the advantage here because you were taught a prayer about just how blessed she is. Who is the first person to be referred to as blessed in the gospels? Mary.
“Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.” That blessing was uttered first by Mary’s cousin Elizabeth who adds a 3rd blessing for good measure, “blessed are you who believed.”
Jan Richardson (at the Painted Prayerbook) points out that the Greek word for blessing – makarios – is often linked with hearing, seeing, and believing. It’s root, mak, means to become long or large.
The idea here is that when someone is blessed it is because God is extending God’s provisions, God’s favor, over you – much the way Mary was overshadowed by the most high when she conceived Jesus – because you see there is also this connotation in the word that in order for this blessing from above to have an effect here below it must take root, be taken in, received, integrated, lived into, lived out.
Mary was blessed because she allowed God to be born in her, and come through her, into the world.
Which makes her sound very special, very blessed, really holy, but in an abstract sense. And 2000 years of art and iconography have only helped to remove her from us. But think for a moment about Mary as a real flesh and blood human being.
Imagine her terror when she broke the news to Joseph that she was already with child. Imagine their trek to Bethlehem, the flight to Egypt, the trip to Jerusalem when Jesus went missing, the rumors that must have filtered home as he went about his ministry, all leading up to that that awful day when she watched them nail her son to a cross. Think how beautiful and how hard, how sweet and how painful, how faith filled and frightening her life must have been from the moment she received God’s blessing.
She was right when she sang that “all generations will call me blessed,” indeed no-one has ever come closer to God, but would you ever wish such blessing upon anyone you loved?
And yet if you asked her, “would you do it all again?,” something tells me she would.
I wouldn’t wish the fullness of her experience on anyone but something tells me that she wouldn’t give up the fullness of her experience for anything. And therein, I think, lies the key to unlocking the truth Jesus is trying to communicate to us.
Most of us instinctively think a blessed life is an easy life, a successful life, a life full of good things and so this is what we strive after. We accrue and amass, we clamber and climb, we do all in our power to put as must distance and padding as we can between ourselves and suffering, between ourselves and death, between ourselves and the feelings of emptiness and powerlessness that threaten to overwhelm us all.
And then Jesus comes and pulls back the curtain on day one. He let’s us know that no one is getting out of here without suffering. “Anyone who says differently is selling something.” No one is ever satisfied. No one ever attains full control. And – spoiler alert – no one is getting out of here alive.
I know this is like the darkest sermon I’ve ever preached, but listen because I believe somewhere in all this there is still some good news.
Friends, I don’t believe Jesus came, like so many before and so many after, to offer us a way out or around the suffering in this life. No. I believe Jesus comes to show us the way through. He’s not here to make it all better, distract us, or offer us ways to numb ourselves to the pain of existence. Instead he joins us – in the midst of it all – and says, come, follow me. I will show you a better way.
You’ve all bought into this social contract, this way of behaving in the world, but can’t you see it doesn’t work? You chase after wealth and power and prestige but are never satisfied. You turn away from the suffering your pursuits produce, as if that will make it go away, but they haunt you all the same.
You hit back at those who hurt you, persisting in the belief that you can somehow achieve peace through violence, but that never works. And then you watch, as a handful of lucky souls claw their way to the top at the expense of countless people below, and you call that “blessed.”
Well, I come with something better, says Jesus. I come with news that is truly good news for all. You want to know true blessing? I’ll tell you who is blessed. I’m here to offer you a new contract, a new way to look at the world, a new covenant for all people. I say:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
And I have got to tell you, this is such an extraordinary way to start because you see the poor in spirit are the losers…the morally compromised, the spiritually bankrupt, those who have nothing to show for themselves and no reason to expect God’s blessing upon them at all.
“Blessed are you,” Jesus says, “because God loves you anyway.” Why? Because that’s just how God works. So you can stop squabbling, judging and keeping score, because whether you’re righteous or unrighteous, a saint or a sinner, a believer, a questioner, or a questioning believer, the kingdom of heaven is never any farther away from you than anyone else.
It’s true, for all of us, no matter what. “The kingdom of heaven has drawn near,” says Jesus. It’s always right there, for the taking, waiting to overshadow us the moment we, like Mary, receive it – allow it to come into us and flow through us to impact the world around us.
You want to know who else it’s for – this kingdom of heaven – who else let’s it in? Those who mourn – those who “like Rachel refuse to be comforted.”
Blessed are the people -says Jesus – who exercise compassion, who enter into the pain of the world rather than trying to avoid it. Not the ones who click past the stories of refugees, or worse – turn them away – but the ones who keep showing up at the meetings, and sending supplies across the ocean, and calling congress to figure out how we can help them no matter what.
“Compassion,” says Frederick Buechner, “is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It’s the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.” Compassion is risky business my friends, but those who mourn…they know there way to the kingdom of God.
Jesus continues, “blessed are the meek.” But do not confuse meekness with weakness. The word we translate as meekness, it means “power under control.” Jesus is talking about people, like Dr. King, who can practice “spirited non-reactive self-restraint and powerful non-violent self control even in the face of the (most vicious) provocation.”
The meek are those who get angry but never aggressive, those able to raise their voices without lifting their fists. I think of the Standing Rock Sioux out in Dakota. It seems a crazy thing to say that they will inherit the earth – especially right now – but they will, because they understand that no one but God owns it in the first place.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness – not personal piety – this word means justice – those who refuse to be satisfied while others go hungry, who will not be content while others suffer, who recognize that no one is free while others are oppressed.
Their hunger is an emptiness that gives them purpose. It is a holy thing they have made peace with – perhaps the holiest of all – a throne room within their hearts they know only God can fill.
Blessed are the pure of heart and the peace makers, people who manage to maintain a consistent ethic of life in an inconsistent world. I am so uncomfortable with that idea. I don’t know how to do that. And yet I think it’s true.
The pure of heart and the peacemakers are people who will do no harm in their quest to do good. The ones who manage somehow to love their enemies, bless those who persecute them, and value the lives of all regardless of where they come from or what they believe. The ones who understand that “there is no way to peace for peace is the way.”
Blessed are all of these for even when they suffer – and chances are they will suffer – their work will bear witness to the reality of God’s kingdom among us… already. Blessed are they, for they bear the love of God into the world as surely as Mary bore Jesus.
Friends the way of Jesus is anything but easy. I confess that I walk near his path more often than I walk upon it. And I understand if the same is true for you. Brian McLaren say that, “if we want to be Jesus’ disciples, we won’t be able to simply coast along and conform to the norms of our society. We must choose a different definition of well being, a different model of success, a new identity with a new set of values.”
N.T. Wright is even more blunt. He says, “this is the gospel: good news, not good advice.”
Poverty of spirit and compassion, meekness and mercy, a life of vulnerability and a hunger only God can satisfy. It may not be the blessing we want. It may well cost everything we have.
But 2000 years later, it is still the blessing the world needs. And so I pray we would find the courage to accept these blessings Jesus offers that God’s will might be done here on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.