Sunday, January 29, 2017

Finding Blessing in the Beatitudes

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany (Year A)
Micah 6.1-8; Matthew 5.1-12
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

When we hear the nine statements we just heard in the Gospel reading, collectively known as the Beatitudes, do we somehow feel a little inadequate? Do we feel that we might not be as blessed as we would like to think? After all, who of us are, or consider ourselves poor in spirit? Certainly we all mourn at one time or another, but who wants to mourn all the time? Why would any of us want to be considered meek? Who of us truly hungers or thirsts, particularly in the wealthiest nation in the world? Can any of us claim to be merciful all the time? If we are brutally honest with ourselves, who of us can claim to be pure in heart? While we may be peace-lovers, how many times are we called upon to be peacemakers? And in these modern times in this land founded on religious freedom, who of us are truly persecuted for our faith? How often are we reviled and unjustly condemned because we follow Christ? When you really take a critical look at these qualities, how can they even be considered blessings? Who would want to be blessed at such costs?

Jesus begins his Sermon on the Mount, a lengthy discourse incorporating numerous teachings, with these Beatitudes. This section gets its name from the constant refrain of “blessed are,” which in the original Greek is makarios. In Latin, this term is beātitūdō, from which we get the name Beatitudes. But this term, both in the original Greek and in the Latin translation, while meaning “blessed,” actually is more accurately translated as “happiness.” Therefore, the really correct translation would be “Happy are the poor in spirit . . .” “Happy are those who mourn . . .” And so on. This is perhaps even more puzzling, more enigmatic, than “blessed are.”

In opening the Sermon on the Mount in this way, Jesus attempts to name those who are blessed in the reign of God. Those who receive happiness in the reign of God. They do not derive happiness from being poor in spirit, or mourning, or hungering for righteousness. But by exhibiting these qualities, they are open to the joy that comes from being beloved of God. By being in touch with the realities of the human condition. And how that brings us closer to the God who created us, who loves us, and who sustains us, no matter what we may face. That is where the blessing lies.

Jesus, in his teaching, preaching, life, death, and resurrection, reveals to us the way God’s kingdom works so differently from the way this world works. It is not about deriving happiness from one’s condition, but rather about deriving happiness from being beloved children of God. From being able to see beyond immediate circumstances, about being able to see that there is more to our existence and our character than that which troubles us or results in our brokenness. That even in our brokenness, we are beloved of God. In this we have cause for joy. In this we are blessed. So let’s take a look at these Beatitudes and see just how they apply to us. How we are blessed in them.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This is slightly different from Luke’s version in the comparable Sermon on the Plain. There, Luke reports Jesus saying “Blessed are the poor,” referring more to economic deprivation. Matthew’s version, on the other hand, focuses on the spiritual. It teaches a deeper acknowledgment of spiritual dependency before God and recognition of the gifts of God’s kingdom that are available to us. Gifts that only God can provide in order to bless us in our quest for spiritual development. In our quest for deeper relationship with God.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” We all know what it feels like to mourn. We have all mourned the loss of a loved one. Or some other significant loss in terms of relationship, well-being, possessions. Or a significant change in life circumstances, such as loss or change of job, leaving a beloved place. But mourning goes beyond lamentation due to loss. Those who know God and the ways of God’s kingdom also mourn, experience a wider grief, over the wrongs and sufferings of the world. Our recognition that this is not what God desires for us.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” We really get hung up on this one. We often associate meekness with weakness. But in reality, meekness implies a state of humility, not mere passivity. It is the humble recognition that it is not all about us. That we are not the savior of the world, or at least our little piece of it. The humble recognition that there is someone else who is in charge, who take on the burdens that we just are not able to. The humble recognition that God, through Christ, willingly takes on our burdens for us, if we but turn them over to him. If we allow him to bless us with the freedom that that action provides.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” This is one of the most straightforward, easy to understand of the Beatitudes. Luke renders this merely as “Blessed are those who hunger.” But Matthew takes it out of the merely physical into the existential. In his reporting, Jesus is referring to the fervent desire to see God’s will and justice on earth. A condition that, once realized, will be a blessing to all humanity.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” Ours is an all-merciful God. Mercy is a gift from God that is freely given to all, even though unmerited. We see this particularly in the actions on the cross, whereby God’s son died for us so that sin and death no longer have hold on us. This is the ultimate mercy. What God asks is that just as we have been blessed by receiving mercy and forgiveness, we seek to do likewise.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” This concept of pure in heart reflects the Jewish ethical tradition characterized by integrity, moral uprightness, and wholehearted devotion to God. It is the recognition that through these attributes, we are recognizing the primacy of God in our lives and seek to live as he commands. Even when we fail, we are at least making the attempt. Again, a recognition that we are so blessed by God that out of gratitude we strive to live as he desires us to.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” A specific application of striving to be pure in heart is the work of being a peacemaker. This is not just about opposing or protesting wars and armed conflicts. Peacemakers are those who seek to bring about reconciliation in all relationships, especially with respect to the commandment to love one’s neighbor.

The final two are really part of a whole. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” And “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account." We are blessed to live in a time and a society where we are not readily subject to persecution for our religious beliefs. But that does not mean that we may not, at times be criticized, even persecuted, for doing what we know to be the right thing. Particularly when it may be against prevailing secular ideas of rightness. This Beatitude means truly and faithfully living the Gospel, even when others may not agree with or understand why we do what we do. It is the ultimate expression of our devotion to God.

When taken all together, the Beatitudes point to a way of living that is about being able to feel blessed even in our humanness, even in our troubles, even in our brokenness. Even when things might feel like they are turned upside down or not going our way, we express our faithfulness to God because we know that God is always faithful to us.

The Beatitudes are often viewed as the “entrance requirements” for getting into good graces with God, for getting into the kingdom of heaven. The Christian scriptures consistently declare God’s preferential care for the poor and marginalized. Luke’s version of the beatitudes bear this out. Blessed are the poor, blessed are you who hunger, etc. Some argue that Matthew’s version waters down the message. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who hunger for righteousness. That the concerns of the world get spiritualized, even trivialized. But we need Matthew’s interpretation. Those who are poor in spirit, those who hunger for righteousness, and so on, are hallmarks of blessed citizens of God’s kingdom. They are affirmations of who we are, of who we are trying to be as followers of Jesus. Not demands of what we must do. The Beatitudes recognize that it is those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who desire peace, who ultimately are moved to do something about it.

Beatitude values for right living reflect the very heart of God and are grounded in the Old Testament tradition, as expressed in today’s words of the Prophet Micah. The values of the Beatitudes are put into action through what is expressed by Micah. “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?” (Micah 6.8)

Micah provides marching orders for those of us who are blessed by God, so that these blessings might be extended to and realized by all. The familiar words in Micah 6.8 call for a reordering of life: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. To do justice means to work to correct the inequalities and oppression that exist in the world. To love kindness means to strive for the ways of goodness that are expressed by God’s very being, in the sense of steadfast loyalty to God and his commandments, particularly to love God and to love others. And to walk humbly with God is to acknowledge that all life is dependent on the grace of the Lord.

Micah tells us that God does not want or expect lavish sacrifices to attempt to earn divine favor. Rather God empowers the people to do justice, to love loyalty to God, and to live devoted to God’s service. Or put in New Testament terms, what does the Lord require? As disciples we are called to put aside human assumptions and trust in Jesus Christ as the source of our life and blessings.

Epiphany is in part about seeing the world as it is, including the brokenness we all know and yet seek to avoid. Epiphany is about having our ways of seeing ourselves and the world changed.

These readings are appropriate for today, as we prepare to have our annual parish meeting. A time when we take a critical look at who we are as the people of God in this place. As we take a look at how we seek to live out the Gospel not only within these walls, but out in the world. As we seek to foster the attributes of the Beatitudes. As we seek to live the injunction in Micah: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.

I close with the words of William Sloane Coffin, who so eloquently expresses how we are called to accomplish this in our lives as individuals and in our common life as the Body of Christ: “O God, take our minds and think through them, take our lips and speak through them. Take our hearts and set them on fire.” Only then can we truly live into the life of blessing that God desires for us and calls us into.

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