"Blessed are"-A Sermon for Epiphany 4, Matthew 5:1-12
Our lesson today from Matthew’s Gospel inaugurates Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. And this sermon or extended teaching contains perhaps some of Jesus’ most well know, most beloved, most often quoted sayings: turn the other cheek, blessed are the peacemakers, love your enemies, you are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world, let you word be, “Yes, Yes or No, No”, give to everyone who begs from you…and of course I could go on and on. And though we find many discourses, teachings, and parables throughout all four gospels that are of great import and value, even eternal and everlasting value, in coming to know more intimately the mind of Christ and to discover more intimately who it is that Jesus is calling us very personally to be…there still remains, at least for me, something special and unique about the Sermon on the Mount. In my mind, it contains within it the heart of Jesus’ ethical and moral teaching. It describes in words, thoughts, and ideas the life that Jesus actually lived…a wholehearted, other oriented, death defying, sin defeating…life. Further, the teaching contains within it the definition of a love life that all disciples of Jesus, even you, even me, are called to live and, even more so, to really be. The Sermon on the Mount, as it has been incarnated and actionized and lived out in many of Jesus’ followers’ lives to this day has literally changed the world…from India to South Africa to our own nation…and so many places in between…the Sermon on the Mount has been a theological anchor for movements that have actually made our world more just…more like the world God dreams of…more equitable, inclusive, kind and peaceful. In two words…more loving.
Thus, we do well to spend much time in it and with it…finding ourselves within the teaching itself as it touches on our own choices…touches and defines the life we actually live among all those who cross our own paths. Moreover, we do well do spend much time in it and with it…because it has the power to continue to shape us…for it leads us to perfection, as Jesus says in the sermon itself…be perfect…just as your heavenly father and mother, God, is perfect. Remembering always that perfection is a pursuit and journey…a lifelong pursuit and journey…more than a task we accomplish today and then move on from tomorrow. And to this end, my goal is to preach on the Sermon on the Mount for the next four weeks, just as it comes to us in our Sunday lectionary every three years in this season of Epiphany. But one caveat…though the sermons over the next four weeks, including today, will collectively cover only but 48 verses from Matthew’s Gospel and only actually a small portion of the Sermon on the Mount…I will only be able to just begin to revel in the beauty and wonder, the depth and breadth, of this glorious and world altering teaching at the heart of Jesus’ own life and ministry. Partly this is because of, again, the breadth and depth of material…but even more so because of my own limitations as a preacher and person…for I claim to know very little when it comes to extent of God’s loving purposes…and can only hope my preaching, on this or any text, is a word…not the word…on God’s revelation to us found in scripture and inspired by the Spirit. So, as we consider Jesus’ teaching together over these weeks, I encourage you to spend some time with it on your own…or better yet with your own friends and families…to do some old school bible study. So, for your reference the Sermon on the Mount is found in Matthew 4:32-7:29…and I have made copies of those verses, and they are on than altar if you would like to take a copy home with you.
So today’s lesson begins with what might be the most well know section of the entire teaching, which is commonly known as the Beatitudes…nine statements of a particular condition or characteristic of a Godly person…beginning with the words “blessed are”. In particular, Jesus says: blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who are merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, and the last one, perhaps similarly to the pervious one, says blessed are those who are reviled, persecuted and spoken evil of on Jesus’ account. And each of these conditions or characteristics, all of which Jesus, again, calls blessed are followed by a promise. And actually the promise perhaps feels more like the blessing than the condition or characteristic. These promises include, experiencing the kingdom of God, being comforted, inheriting the earth, being filled, receiving mercy, seeing God, being called the child of God, and receiving rewards in heaven. I really like the promises…for I want to know, experience and live each of them…and have to say, if I give it any depth of thought, I and we, in so many ways, already do. Perhaps not fully and certainly not all the time…but I do believe with all of my heart that the kingdom of God is always so very near…and thus in holy and sacred moments that look like fervent prayer that seeks the face and presence of Jesus…on pilgrimages to intentionally find God in people and places that are unfamiliar and new…in moments of great compassion shared with me and when I have done so for others…in gatherings of people, both large and small, that seek to make the world more just and fair and kingdom of God like…in acts of service on behalf of those suffering or in need…I do believe, with all my heart, that I have experienced, caught a glimpse, of the very promises Jesus shares in these very Beatitudes. Thus, these beatitudes are not simply a personal philosophy for a fulfilling and healthy life…they are ways of living deeply rooted in the heart of God that lead to really experiencing, in the fullness of time and even now, God’s eternal love life…life in God’s eternal kingdom.
But back to the conditions and characteristics with which Jesus begins each Beatitude. These intentional and Godly ways of living are often thought of as the marks, the identifying charisms, of the saints of God…all the saints of God…saints with a lower-case s…all those who love and follow Jesus, again, even you, even me. Thus, it is probably not surprising to note that we hear the Beatitudes read as our Gospel lesson on All Saints’ Day, November 1st. And this makes good sense…for as the saints of God…we indeed want to imbue our own lives with these conditions and characteristics. St. Augustine writes, “If anyone will piously and soberly consider the sermon which our Lord Jesus Christ spoke on the mount, as we read it in the Gospel according to Matthew, I think that he [or she] will find in it…a perfect standard of the Christian life.” Thus, we do well to strive toward this standard of the Christian life by embodying, incarnating, living these marks of a Christian…these very Beatitudes. Indeed, I hope we will each individually recognize the blessing of being poor in spirit…for it leads to knowing that a rich spirit is entirely dependent on the good and hard work of falling more and more in love with God…in intentionally giving what we do have, even our impoverished spirits, entirely away to God…to God’s people…for in doing so we find ourselves more intimately connected to Jesus and to each other, which is life in the kingdom of God. Our poverty of spirit is indeed a tremendous blessing for it makes us ever more dependent on God’s love…and ever more willing to give everything away to that very same love. And I hope we will indeed mourn…mourn every evil we encounter in this sin sick world…every injustice and dehumanizing activity that we so often, even if unintentionally, participate in. For mourning means we care…mourning is a public expression of personal grief…and so we mourn together and in doing so we find comfort and hope and bravery to suffer alongside others and strive for a fuller life for all of God’s people. I hope we will each be meek…which is not a doormat…it is an authentic humility which recognizes that we are all made from the same atoms and dust and dirt…all created by God equally and love by God entirely. I hope we will each strive for righteousness which is to be authentic, honestly who we are, before God and one another in our brokenness and beauty. I hope we will each be pure in heart…that is motivated by all that is good, noble, truthful and kind…rather than self-interest or greed. I hope we will be peacemakers who reject violence in any form it takes…even as we struggle against violence and hate in our own work to build the kingdom of God on earth…be willing to admit guilt, amend our lives, and seek reconciliation…becoming our very selves peace filled reconcilers wherever conflict emerges. And, again, I could go on to describe each Beatitude. Because of course…of course, each Beatitude deserves its own sermon.
But before we become entirely overwhelmed at what the Beatitudes are or might be calling us each to be…and all the work and challenging changes that very well might be required of us…I want to focus on the verb Jesus begins with in each of these most blessed Beatitudes and that verb is: are…the plural of the “to be” verb. Jesus says in each case…blessed are…not blessed is. We are, all together, called to encompass all together the Beatitudes. You see as worthy as I think it might be to seek to incarnate in our own individual lives each of the nine conditions or characteristics that Jesus lists. He actually says blessed are…not blessed is Miles the peacemaker…blessed is, put your name here, the pure of heart. Jesus says blessed are…we are together called to incarnate and be the beatitudes. No single person in this blessed community is to be all things for all people. There is no Christian community in which every single person is meek or merciful or a peacemaker…but we are all three. I will refrain from calling anyone out by name…so breath…put there are peacemakers among us…I know you and love you and have seen you at work. There are ministers of mercy among us. There are those who are gifted to mourn alongside those who are suffering among us. There are those whose have pure hearts full of kindness and who urge us all toward authenticity among us. There are those whose hunger and thirst to stand rightly before God and others in a way that is entirely infectious among us. Again, I know you and love you and have seen you all at work…it is lovely.
Thus, our collective work is to name these gifts and characteristics in one another…to lift them up…to honor and use them well…that together we and all those who cross our paths…all those entrusted to our care…might come closer to knowing, realizing, experiencing the very promises with which Jesus concludes each of his blessed Beatitudes. Though indeed always a work in progress and remembering what I said about perfection being a pursuit and journey…together we are…and only together…we…are the blessed of whom Jesus speaks. Amen.