1When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
20Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 24“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. 26“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
A Baptist preacher visited a poor man who said that he would like to come to church on Easter Sunday, but he just didn’t have any decent Easter Sunday clothes. The preacher generously arranged for the man to be given a brand new navy blue suit, white cotton shirt, wing-tipped shoes, and a colorful silk tie. Easter Sunday arrived, and when the Baptist preacher looked out at his congregation, he was disappointed to see the poor man didn’t show up. Later that week, he called the man to make sure he had received the new suit. “Oh yes,” said the man. “It’s the nicest suit I ever saw. In fact, when I put on that new suit on Easter Sunday, I decided that I looked so nice I could go to the Presbyterian Church!”
It is customary on Easter Sunday for the pastor to preach a sermon about the resurrection of Jesus. I’ve done that for the past two years, and will almost certainly do it again in future years. But this Easter, and for the next seven Sundays, I’d like to try something slightly different: I’d like to resurrect–to raise from the dead, if you will–one of the central teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Before the empty tomb, before the cross, before the last supper, before the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and long before anyone ever called Jesus “Son of God” or “Messiah” his followers called him “Rabbi” which means “teacher.” He gathered them together one day on a mountain (in Matthew’s version) or on a plain (in Luke’s version) and he preached a sermon. It began like this: Blessed are the poor…blessed are those who mourn…blessed are the meek…blessed are the merciful… We call this list of blessings “The Beatitudes” from the Latin word “beati,” which we translate as “blessed.”
Most of us who have grown up in the church are pretty familiar with this list. The beatitudes appear on everything from Hallmark greeting cards, to office posters and wall hangings to embroidered throw pillows. When given this treatment, the beatitudes are cute…quaint…and utterly devoid of the raw, revolutionary power they held when Jesus spoke them to a desperate crowd of 1st century Galilean peasants. It is my hope that through this sermon series, we can begin hear them in their original context once more, and reclaim some of that lost power and life-changing meaning.
PLaying around with the word somewhat, the Beatitudes have also been called “beautiful attitudes,” and this is the title that I’ve chosen for our sermon series. The conventional wisdom that Jesus is describing beautiful attitudes that we should have in regard to each other, in order for us to be blessed in the way the Beatitudes describe (blessed are you who do this, or believe this, for you will receive this as your reward).
Here again, I’m going to argue something different: The Beatitudes are not beautiful attitudes we must take on in order to be blessed by God… rather they are the beautiful attitudes God already has toward all his children, especially the ones described by Jesus, those we tend to see as un-blessed, or un-blessable. The beatitudes are not a magic forumla that we can apply in order to somehow make our lives better by the standards of the world. Instead, they turn the world’s standards upside down, and invite us to re-align our hearts and our priorities with God’s heart and God’s priorities, which are never quite what we expect or think we know.
In order for us to raise the beatitudes from their 21st century grave of hallmark cards, wall-posters and embroidered throw pillows, I’m going to try to take us 2,000 years back in time, to the world of first-century, Roman-occupied Palestine. It shouldn’t be too difficult–there are some real similarities between that time and our own.
It is a time of transition and upheaval. New technologies, like the Roman road, the aquaduct, and Roman engineering are rendering entire industries and traditional ways of life obsolete.
The new Roman economy, through rapid acquisition and development of real estate, an intricate system of investments, loans and mortgages, high interest rates, and through heavy taxation to fund its military and building projects, are creating a small, privileged class with nearly unlimited wealth and resources. Meanwhile, the vast majority struggles to make ends meet in the face of decreasing wages, rising debt, and the potential sudden loss of health or livelihood.
New belief systems, like the Roman Imperial Cult “preach about opportunity, self-reliance, and personal achievement while simultaneously denying all three to the majority of men, women, and children.” (Horsley, Message & Kingdom).
So now you find yourself among that first-century crowd, listening to this traveling preacher from Nazareth, a shanty-town that makes the colonias of Juarez seem luxurious by comparison. Chances are, if you are in this crowd, you are a skeptic. This Jesus of Nazareth, after all, is just the latest of dozens of wandering preachers peddling an ideology that tries to make sense of all that’s gone wrong with the world.
And chances are, you already have your own ideology. There are several. If you are gainfully employed in some way by the Roman government or one of its puppet regional kings–as a solider, a bureaucrat, a construction worker–perhaps you’ve already bought into the Roman ideology: Pay your taxes, obey the laws, and work harder for longer hours, and eventually you’ll be independently wealthy. Except you can’t help noticing that your obedience, your taxes, your hard work and long hours seem to be making other people independently wealthy more than you.
Or, maybe you’re a revolutionary, part of the underground opposition. You believe in fighting power with power. Our problem is that we’re too weak, too soft. We should refuse to pay oppressive taxes. We should head for the hills, live “off-grid” and stockpile food and weapons, getting ready for the inevitable show-down between the government and the people of the land.
Or, you might be a traditionalist–part of the first century “religious right.” You resent all these new Roman innovations, but you know that to oppose them is suicide. Instead, you believe the solution is personal piety, a return to traditional values. If we just pray harder, if we just obey the scriptures down to the last letter, if we refuse to tolerate any sin among us (or any sinful people among us), maybe God will finally intervene in our world, punishing the wicked and vindicating the righteous (that’s us, of course!).
All of these factions were part of 1st century Palestine, and were likely represented in the crowd that came to hear Jesus preach. I suspect those same factions (or their 21st century equivalents) are represented here today as well.
One thing they all had in common was their exclusivity and mutual rejection of each other. Those who bought into Roman ideology rejected the revolutionaries and the traditionalists as backwards and old-fashioned, part of the problem and a hinderance to progress. The revolutionaries rejected Roman sympathizers and traditionalists as traitors who had bowed down to the enemy. The traditionalists rejected the revolutionaries as impractical and dangerous rabble-rousers, and they rejected the Roman sympathizers as sinners, part of the reason God had turned away from his people.
They had another thing in common, too. Their solution to life’s problems boiled down to this: “You’re doing it wrong. Try harder.” If you want the Romans to like you, if you want your countrymen to respect you, if you want God to love you…try harder. If you want to be happy, rich, safe, free…just try harder. And in their own unique and diverse ways, they were all trying pretty hard. And they were all pretty exhausted. And their problems were only getting worse.
If you had been in that first century crowd as Jesus opened his mouth to speak, you would have been listening intently to figure out which faction he would side with, and which people he would reject. You might have been listening to hear what things Jesus thought you had to try harder in order to englarge your life in a world where, regardless of faction, chances are you were still poor, powerless, and pretty insignificant in the Roman Empire. And so the first word out of his mouth would have caught you completely by surprise.
The word “blessed” is one that, like so many other religious jargon words, has taken on its own meaning through the years, quite apart from its original use. In this case, precisely because Jesus uses it repeatedly in the beatitudes, we usually understand “blessed” as something that has been made holy, through the act of blessing it. We bless our food at dinner time. If you live in the south, we’ll “bless your little heart” if there’s something wrong with you.
Sometimes we’ll use the word “blessed” in the sense of lucky or fortunate, with the idea that God is somehow behind our good fortune–although usually this has more to do with the world’s idea of fortune than God’s: “I’m so blessed to have a nice house, a good job, two cars and 3.5 children.”
But in the Greek of the New Testament, the word Jesus uses (that we translate “blessed”) is μακάριοι. It’s where we get our English prefix “macro-” (the opposite of “micro-“). In other words, it means big, Large, HUGE! Jesus looks out on a crowd of poor, small, and insignificant people desperate to enlarge their wealth, their power, their influence, and he says, eight times in all, “You–all of you, regardless of faction, regardless of circumstance or means–you are HUGE! You are significant! You MATTER in the Kingdom of God. You may see yourselves as poor, as weak, as brokenhearted and rejected…but God sees you as whole, complete. And the best part? You don’t have to DO anything to earn or deserve that. You matter, unconditionally, because God made you.”
By using the word μακάριοι–large, big–Jesus is also speaking to their narrow and exclusive factions. The revolutionaries want to see the kingdom of Israel restored, but Jesus says “think bigger than that!” To the Roman sympathizers, nothing could be larger or more powerful than the Roman Empire, but Jesus has the audacity to say “There is a kingdom bigger than that.” The traditionalists long for God’s Kingdom, but their view of it is narrow–it cannot possibly include sinners and heathens! But Jesus says, “The Kingdom of God is bigger than you can imagine–everyone is welcome, everyone matters in God’s Kingdom.” This is God’s beautiful attitude.
Later in his ministry, Jesus tells the story of a man who threw a dinner party, and sent out invitations to all his friends. But when the RSVP’s started to come in, many sent their excuses–I’m sorry I can’t make it; I’m too busy. I have this other thing I have to attend to.” So the man told his servant to go out into the streets and invite “all the misfits, and homeless, and wretched you can lay your hands on, and bring them here.” When the servant did that, there was still room at the party. So the man said, “Go out into the countryside and invite anyone you can find. I want my house to be full. I want my party to be HUGE.”
Look around you, people of First Presbyterian Church. There is still room in here for more people. We’ve sent out our invitations. Some have sent back their excuses, and that’s okay. Jesus’ message always appeals most to those who need it most. But I believe there are still people in our community who need to hear about God’s acceptance and unconditional love; people who are stuck and spinning their wheels trying to play by the impossible rules of some other kingdom; people who are not here because we have not invited them, or worse because we, the church, have rejected them or excluded them because they don’t fit our small and narrow conception of who belongs in God’s kingdom.
It’s time to throw the doors open wide.
There was a time, a few decades ago, when First Presbyterian Church had a reputation as an elite, exclusive church–a big church where wealthy, powerful, and well-connected people–the movers and the shakers in our community–would come to worship; where things and people looked a certain way, and behaved a certain way. We are clearly not that church anymore…and maybe that’s a good thing. Today we are more likely to thing of ourselves as small and insignificant…but in God’s kingdom we are μακάριοι. We are HUGE. And we matter.
And it’s time to throw the doors open wide… to those who look different, think different, behave different. Not just to those strong in faith, but also to those who doubt and question, or to those who struggle with the whole idea of faith. Not just to picture perfect families, but to split families and step-families, straight families and gay families, multi-cultural families, and people with no other familiy but the church.
It’s time to throw the doors open wide. Not just to people who have their act together (if those people even exist) but to people whose lives are messy, heartbroken, lonely, vulnerable, unpredictable, and socially unacceptable.
Some of you know I’ve been on a Bruce Springsteen kick lately. Forgive me for throwing “the Boss” at you two weeks in a row, but Springsteen’s song “Land of Hope and Dreams” is about as close an image of the Kingdom of God as any song I know. He puts it this way:
This train carries saints and sinners
This train carries losers and winners
This train carries whores and gamblers
This train carries lost souls
This train carries broken-hearted
This train, thieves and sweet souls departed
This train carries fools and kings
This train–all aboard!
On this train, dreams will not be thwarted
On this train, faith will be rewarded
This train, steel wheels singing
This train, bells of freedom ringing
Jesus began his message with a shout-out, a powerful word of hope, love, and affirmation for those who needed it most.
If we, who are gathered here on Easter Sunday some 2,000 years later, can throw open the doors of our heart…
And if we can welcome a new generation of people with the same message, the same hope, the same love…
Then (and only then!) I believe we can say with absolute conviction and passsion: Jesus is risen…and he is alive in us today.