Matthew 5:1-12; Micah 6:1-8
Adapted from “Blessed” Rev. Debra Given, the Presbyterian Church in Leonia, January 30, 2011
* credit to Brian Stoffregen, “Exegetical Notes,” CrossMarks Christian Resources, at http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/matt5x1.htm.
All month long our texts have led us to reflect on what discipleship means. Discipleship we have discovered, is a Journey to Jesus, a journey with Jesus. Discipleship teaches us to expect the unexpected. Discipleship reminds us we often find ourselves taking an unpopular stance, where we are alone, taking the narrow path. Discipleship calls us to leave behind the past, let go of the familiar and follow Jesus into the unknown. Discipleship is not for the faint of heart. Discipleship means picking up our cross, being willing to sacrifice, finding joy in the midst of the challenges and opportunities life brings us. Today we learn that discipleship is also about blessings.
In today’s gospel, we find Jesus on a mountain, laying the foundation of gospel living for his listeners. This reminds us of the time when Moses received the ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai. But instead of commandments, in Matthew we get three chapters of Jesus’ teaching, and we call it the Sermon on the Mount. It contains some of the most famous and challenging teachings of Jesus. We’ll be reading a parts of this sermon over the next few weeks, but I recommend you read through the whole thing at home, chapters 5 through 7, in the gospel of Matthew.
Today we read the beginning of the sermon on the mount, commonly called the Beatitudes, or blessings, in the first 12 verses. Now in American culture, we think of blessings as good things that happen to us, or that we have. To “count your blessings” means to list all the good things in your life. And we might say things like, “I’m blessed to have my own home and a nice car and good job.” Or “I’ve been blessed with good health.” We use the word “blessed” to mean lucky or fortunate.
But that’s not necessarily how Jesus used the word. Being blessed is not about having a bunch of cool stuff or being happy because things are going our way. In the Beatitudes, Jesus pronounced blessing on the poor and downtrodden. They are blessed because God’s favor is with them. They may feel miserable now, but they are not forgotten. God is paying attention and is with them. And in God’s kingdom, everything will be reversed. Humility, meekness, sorrow, inner poverty and purity are not usually things the world seeks after. But in the Kingdom of God, those who have these qualities will be honored and blessed.
The Beatitudes have eight blessings, and they are divided into two groups.* The first group is for those who don’t feel blessed in this world. The poor in spirit are not just poor financially but are also people who have lost reason to hope. Those who mourn or grieve find no reason for joy in life. The meek include not just the humble or gentle, but also those who have been walked on and denied their fair share on this earth. And those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are also those who are the victims of unrighteousness – those who are abused or trafficked, those who live under corrupt or oppressive governments, victims of prejudice, greed and war.
Rev. William Barber II, the minister considered most akin to Martin Luther King Jr. in our day, called a modern-day Moses in a recent NY Times article, is a blessed person according to kingdom values. If you don’t know who Rev. Barber is, I recommend you look him up. He’s an amazing man, a prophet for our times.
Rev. Barber is riddled with illness and physical pain. Suffering from a painful form of arthritis, it hurts him just to walk, as he does with an aide and a cane. He lives with constant, chronic physical pain every day. That has not stopped him from being an outspoken national leader, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, one of the nation’s most sustained and visible anti-poverty efforts. He has created a third mode of activism called “fusion politics.” It creates political coalitions that often transcend the conservative vs. progressive binary. Rev. Barber finds inspiration for his activism from Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech in 1968:
“I remind you that starving a child is violence,” “Suppressing a culture is violence. Neglecting school children is violence. Punishing a mother and her child is violence. Discrimination against a working man is violence. Ghetto housing is violence. Ignoring medical needs is violence. Contempt for poverty is violence. Even the lack of willpower to help humanity is a sick and sinister form of violence.” King ended the passage by saying that “the problems of racism, poverty and war can all be summarized with one word: violence.” Barber is about creating cross-racial, cross-religious, cross-generational coalitions as the only way to confront this violence. We have tragically seen this happen again in the recent and brutal death of Tyre Nichol in Memphis on January 10, due to a brutal beating he received while in police custody.
The protests of Tyre Nichols’ death speaks to our cries for God’s blessing of comfort and righteousness in the midst of tragedy. We also see Rev. Barber as such a man who hungers and thirsts for kingdom righteousness. I don’t know anyone who would call him blessed, in the sense that he was fortunate or happy or pain free. But he has found blessing in God’s kingdom, because he is faithful to Jesus’ cry that God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. People who have been denied justice and their share of blessing in this world will receive mercy and justice, peace and love, because when God rules, things are set right. That’s Rev. Barber’s message to us today. That’s our hope in light of Tyre Nichol’s death, in the deaths of all who are harmed or meet their end in tragic and oppressive circumstances. It’s our hope when whenever we feel poor in spirit, experience grief, feel low or humble, seek righteousness in our lives.
The second group of blessings are for those who help to set things right. Those who are merciful are those who care about others and help them. Those who are pure in heart are single-minded and sincere. They have integrity, and passion for God’s ways. Peacemakers actively work to make peace, by helping to create the conditions of a lasting peace: justice, reconciliation and understanding. Dr. King and Dr. Barber are peacemakers, even though they stir up a lot of trouble. And those who are persecuted for righteousness sake are those who stay committed to what is right, even through hardship, discrimination and opposition.
According to Matthew, the Beatitudes were Jesus’ first recorded teaching after calling the disciples. He was speaking to the crowds who followed him from Galilee, people who were beaten down and struggling, and looking for healing. But Jesus was also teaching his disciples the values of the Kingdom, and how to be in the world. It wasn’t about obeying rules or staying out of trouble. It wasn’t about gaining influence or power. It was about mercy and kindness, reaching out to the weak and downtrodden, those who have had a hard time in life. It’s about participating in the values of God’s kingdom, walking with integrity and standing up for what is right. And this can take persistence, because God’s ways are not always welcome in the world.
Turn on your TV or computer, or just walk down the street and look at the ads or things that are sold in the stores, and you will see and hear messages that tell you how to be attractive and popular, sexy and successful. And of course, if you are worth anything, you have to be all of those things. How do we recover from COVID? Go shopping! How do we boost our self-esteem? Buy a trendy new car. Or lose weight and buy a new outfit. If you’re not strong enough to make the team, take steroids. These are just some of the messages of popular culture our children grow up with. We hear them every day.
But Jesus gives a different message. Jesus calls us to live according to Kingdom values. It’s what it means to be a disciple: To live in blessing and be a blessing to others. It’s following the teaching of the prophet Micah when he declares how we are to live. Remember that powerful teaching we heard from Micah today:
The Lord has told you, human, what is good;
he has told you what he wants from you:
to do what is right to other people,
love being kind to others,
and live humbly, obeying your God.
This is what Jesus means by blessing. Doing what is right for others. Love being kind to others. Living humbly as we walk with God. It’s not the easiest path to take. It may earn us persecution and hardship. But it’s God’s way, and it brings us God’s blessing. Today let us say, “yes” to serve for God’s kingdom of righteousness, peace and justice. May we pray God’s blessings on all, as we walk together in God’s way in kindness and humility with our God. Amen.