Micah 6:1-8, Matthew 5:1-12 and An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor
As you are comfortable, I invite you pray these words from Psalm 19:14 with me: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
What does it mean to be blessed? The word is used often, in a variety of ways. Maybe you have heard or seen someone publicly express how blessed they are! Whether it is sharing about a new car, or an updated kitchen or an exotic vacation- it is common for people to share boldly without apology: I’m so blessed! Have you noticed that?
But let’s be clear- there is a difference between being blessed and being privileged. I guess it would probably be unacceptable or at least unpopular to share incredible photos on social media, saying, I’m so privileged! At least that would be more honest.
It turns out that I am not the only one annoyed by this misuse of blessing. Alanna Paris wrote, “What do you tell the impoverished of the world? That God continually blesses you while he ignores them? I mean kids dying for hunger are waiting for that blessing of an expensive three course meal that God supposedly blessed you with because you needed it so bad. Should they pray harder?”
It is also customary to regularly bless one another. We say “Bless you!” when someone sneezes. The most popular theory about why we do this is that when the Bubonic Plague devastated Europe sneezing was one of the main visible symptoms. It is believed that Pope Gregory I in Rome suggested that a brief prayer in the form of saying, “God bless you” after a sneeze would protect the person from death. Originally, these words were meant to save a life!
And for those of you who have spent any time in the Southern United States, you have likely heard the phrase, Bless his heart… It can be an expression of sympathy- My sweet little nephew skinned his knee, bless his heart. Or they tried so hard, bless their hearts. But more often, it is offered as a precursor to an insult. Bless her heart, she has no fashion sense!
What does it mean to bless and to be blessed?
The word beatitude literally means- God’s blessings. So, in the biblical sense, a blessing is a favor or gift bestowed by the Divine. We hear a list of blessings from Jesus in this part of the Gospel of Matthew, called the Beatitudes or the Sermon on the Mount.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kin-dom of heaven. 4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 5 Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. 6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled. 7 Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. 8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. 9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God. 10 Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kin-dom of heaven.
This sermon has inspired much commentary, writing, research and theological exploration.
Some expressions of Christianity, especially those associated with Lutheranism, contend that this sermon points to what is called “the theory of the impossible ideal,” which is grounded in the notion that because humans are sinful, it is impossible for anyone to fulfill these commands, so what this message is really talking about is grace.
But what is Jesus really intending with these words?
A friend of ours once argued that when Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth,” he meant that at some point, the super-rich would start a new colony on Mars or somewhere in space and leave the rest of us with what is left of planet earth.
In their First Century context, the Beatitudes, God’s blessings, are shared out loud with a people returned from exile and yet still suffering under the oppression of the Empire. This makes me wonder whether they are offered not as a lofty ideal, not as an impossible list to remind us of our unworthiness, not meant as a future prediction for the afterlife, but instead what if these blessings are meant as quite literal descriptions for how to be a community together right here and now?
As we bless the poor in spirit,
We will all taste the kin-dom of heaven. As we bless those who mourn, we shall all be comforted.
Charles James Cook writes, “Jesus meant for the Beatitudes to be for everyone… Living daily into the spirit of (them) involves looking at them as a collection of the whole, rather than looking at each one individually. Each is related to the others, and they build on one another. Those who are meek, meaning humble are more likely to hunger and thirst for righteousness because they remain open to the knowledge of God…they invite us into a way of being in the world that leads to particular practices.”
These blessings are invitations into practices and they are also commandments.
In his incredible book Prophetic Imagination, theologian Walter Brueggemann writes, “the blessings open a new possibility…the speech of Jesus, like the speech of the entire prophetic tradition, moves from woe to blessing, from judgment to hope, from criticism to energy. The alternative community to be shaped from the poor, hungry, and grieving is called to disengage from the woe pattern of life to end its fascination with that other ordering, and to embrace the blessing pattern.”
What Jesus is doing with these words writes Marcia Riggs is this, “imagining and commissioning an alternative community.”
He is laying out the blueprint for how we are called to live and love together; he is offering a way that we can remain grounded in our mission, if we do not want to conform to the world around us.
Jesus is showing how to disengage from the woe pattern of life to embrace the blessing pattern, which changes everything.
These are blessings that give hope and they are also actions in the service of uplifting others. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “In a world where faith is often construed as a way of thinking, bodily practices remind the willing that faith is a way of life.” “being fully human means learning to forget myself on a regular basis in order to attend to the other selves in my vicinity.”
These blessings, these Beatitudes, are indeed gifts from God, in part because they clarify the actions we are to take as people faith and conscience. They are a longer version of what we heard from the prophet Micah, “what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
And still the world feels like this:
Blessed are the wealthy and the well connected, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who have enough to rejoice, for no suffering can touch their hearts. Blessed are the bold, the loud, the brash for they will receive devotion.
Blessed are the lobbyists and legacies
for they change the rules of the game. Blessed are those who never hunger or thirst, for they have enough, yet still take more.
In a world that feels like that, what is our call? To be and become a community where blessings abound for each of us and all of us. The Beatitudes, the blessings are our blueprint. And what does it mean to bless, to be blessed and to be a blessing? It is to give dignity, hope and wholeness to one another with our words and deeds.
So let us give our prayers and presence to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Let us show mercy, even to those places and faces that we are told are undeserving. Let us listen to the young and the old and all who are vulnerable, the powerless and pure in heart. In our economy fueled by war, let us continue to be and become peacemakers. In a time of genocide and mass incarceration, let us hear and be moved by the cries of those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake right here and now!
Day by day, let us disengage from the woe pattern of life to embrace the blessing pattern. Blessed are…blessed are you whoever you are.
May it be so.