“The Blesseds” Colchester Federated Church, February 2, 2020, (Matthew 5:1-12) Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

There’s a podcast called Dear Sugars hosted by Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond that offers radically empathetic advice to people who write them seeking help.  One episode dealt with women who had a reservation about the men that they’re dating.  One woman wrote in with the conundrum that she is an atheist and her boyfriend is a Christian and he’s having second thoughts about their relationship and is seeking for her to attend his church to learn more about Christianity.  She’s struggling with this request.  Now Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond aren’t Christians—Cheryl identifies as agnostic and Steve identifies as Jewish culturally but as an atheist religiously.  I listen to Dear Sugars enough that it was very interesting to hear this issue and how they would answer the woman’s question about what to do when you have a significant religious difference with your partner.

Cheryl and Steve offered wonderful, empathetic advice as they always do.  Though what surprised me is that they both said that even though neither of them is Christian, Jesus’ teachings in the Beatitudes are some of the best ethical teachings ever.  Cheryl and Steve both know the Beatitudes and do their best to follow these principles in their daily lives.  What’s amazing about this response is that many Christians may not know the ethical teachings Jesus presents in the Beatitudes all that well.  At the Super Bowl we may see someone holding a John 3:16 sign in the end zone.  But it’s doubtful that we’ll see someone holding a Matthew 5:5 sign, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”  Though this topic coming up on Dear Sugars is a reminder that the Beatitudes can transcend Christianity because they are amazing ethical teachings, period.  And if we know them and take them to heart, these teachings from the mind and heart of Jesus can absolutely transform our lives and the entire world.

The Beatitudes begin Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel according to Matthew which lasts from chapter 5 all the way through the end of chapter 7.  These are two full chapters of Jesus atop a mountain teaching people.  (Keep this in mind because we’ll hear sections of the Sermon on the Mount during the first 3 Sundays of February.)  Jesus ended up having quite a bit to say as the crowds grew and gathered around him.

The debate continues about whether Jesus’ teachings are ideals that we can never attain or if he meant for us to work for and ultimately realize these ethics in our daily lives.  The Beatitudes can seem impractical.  As Seminary Professor Charles James Cook relates, “To be poor in spirit, peaceful, merciful, and meek will get you nowhere in a culture grounded in competition and fear.  Perhaps this is why most references to the Beatitudes imply that in giving his instruction, Jesus was literally turning the values of the world upside down.”[1]  We don’t have to look at “the blesseds” as impractical teachings that no one but a saint could actually live out.  We can use the Beatitudes to ground lived expressions of our Christian faith.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”[2]  Do we have moments where we are spiritually adrift, wandering in the wilderness, where our spirits are not where we’d like them to be?  When we go to a doctor, the doctor checks up on us physically.  We may be asked how’s the pain in your knee?  Any side effects from the medication we should discuss?  When we go to see an eye doctor, they will ask about changes in our vision.  Or the dentist will ask about any changes or pain with our teeth and gums.  If we discuss a subject with a teacher or professor, they may ask if we understand the lesson.  Does it make sense on an intellectual level?  In some ways, clergy are prone to ask people—how is it with your spirit?  Because there are physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects to health.  There’s a reason why people sometimes burst into tears upon hearing the question “how is it with your spirit?”  Because sometimes it is poor with our spirits.  Jesus says that the poor in spirit are blessed for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”[3]  Who will comfort those who mourn?  Jesus doesn’t say who provides the comfort.  We can make the logical leap that God does.  God is always with those who suffer.  Though it ends up that the practical ethical teaching inherent in this verse is that it’s our job as Christians to comfort those who mourn.  Losses in our lives aren’t just deaths either.  What about the loss of a relationship?  The loss of innocence?  Yes, even losing the big game on a national stage that teams have been working to win all season.  Or those losses on smaller stages where we didn’t get the part in the play or the interview or the job or things didn’t work out the way we wanted them to.  Jesus says that those who mourn are blessed and they will be comforted.  And maybe we’re the ones who can provide that comfort.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”[4]  This may be one of the hardest ethical teachings because right here and now, the meek can’t seem to get ahead.  If we are meek, people will take advantage of us and underestimate us or ignore us or belittle us.  Though we can define meekness as being humble, teachable, gentle, and patient.  Those are amazing attributes to possess.  If we gain the whole world but step all over other people in the process, what are we really inheriting?  What pain does that cause to other people and ultimately to ourselves?  Because life is going to feel pretty empty if we conquer and achieve at the cost of relationships.  Jesus tells us that the meek—those who are humble and teachable and gentle and patient—will ultimately inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”[5]  Sometimes (as the old saying goes) what’s right isn’t always popular and what’s popular isn’t always right.  We can spend our lives doing our best to be moral.  To help the lost and the lonely as Jesus himself did.  To see people on the outside and on the margins as Jesus himself did.  To understand that every person has inherent worth and dignity as children of God, and allowing that understanding to affect our actions.  There are times when we can’t help but stand up for what’s right.  Even if there are consequences and other people don’t understand.  The time just becomes right to do what’s right.  Jesus tells us that people who are hungering and thirsting for righteousness will be filled, and they are blessed.  Let that give us courage when we find ourselves fighting the good fight.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”[6]  Mercy is about showing compassion or even forgiving someone when it’s within our power to punish or harm.  Bryan Stevenson wrote a book called Just Mercy that’s been made into a movie.  Bryan Stevenson often says that “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”[7]  That doesn’t mean that we aren’t broken or even that we’ve never caused harm to others.  Mercy is about acknowledging that I am broken and you are broken and maybe that causes us to be just a little merciful when it comes to one another.  Jesus says that the merciful are blessed and they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”[8]  In ancient psychology the heart was a person’s core—the location of one’s thoughts, feelings, and decisions.  This would have been Jesus’ understanding and world view.  So a pure heart would be found within a person who is sincere and has integrity, a person who would be welcomed to stand in the sanctuary of the mountain of God according to the Psalmist.  It wasn’t possible to fully see God in Jewish belief.  Even Moses could only see God’s back as God passed by and he hid in a gap in the rock according to Exodus 33.  Though a person who has a pure heart can draw especially close to God and God can draw especially close to them according to Jesus in the Beatitudes.  It’s not about being perfect, but being sincere and having integrity.  Jesus says that the pure in heart are blessed and somehow will see God.[9]

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”[10]  It’s easy to strike back when wounded.  To have that mindset of an eye for an eye.  Peacemakers see the world a little differently.  Peacemakers get involved in practices that nurture well-being and realize that peace is about wholeness.  And isn’t that what God wants for all of God’s children—to be at peace with one another?  To not harm, but to lift one another up instead?  Jesus says that the peacemakers are blessed, and 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.”[11]  Sometimes we will suffer.  People will say things about us that just aren’t true.  People won’t understand who we are or what we’re about.  And when people hear that we’re Christians and go to church, there will be all kinds of assumptions about our beliefs that may or may not be true.  It’s not always easy to be a person of faith.  Though Jesus says that we are blessed even when people persecute us and ours will be the kingdom of heaven.

In the end, the Beatitudes—the blesseds—can transform our lives and the world. Jesus’ ethical teachings show that he was envisioning an entirely different way to live.  And just because this all seems difficult, doesn’t mean that we can’t try and take these ethics to heart.  Blessed are you, for you are a child of God.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Charles James Cook, Pastoral Perspective of Matthew 5:1-12 in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 1, 308.
[2] Matthew 5:3, NRSV.
[3] Matthew 5:4.
[4] Matthew 5:5.
[5] Matthew 5:6.
[6] Matthew 5:7.
[7] Bryan Stevenson, Quote on goodreads, https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/4310504-each-of-us-is-more-than-the-worst-thing-we-ve
[8] Matthew 5:8.
[9] The CEB Study Bible, Footnote Matthew 5:8, 12 NT.
[10] Matthew 5:9.
[11] Matthew 5:10-12.