Sermon on Matthew 5:1-10 for January 19, 2014
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Who Knows What? – The Beatitudes
We lived outside the USA for a dozen years, in Eastern and Central Europe. As we got to know people we discovered that there are things Americans “know” – all of us – in our guts that most of the rest of the world does not know in their guts. And yet we discovered too that most of the rest of the world “knows” things at a gut level that we Americans cannot really grasp. Both have to do with living as part of an ethnic community.
We Americans “know” at a gut level that American Serbs and American Coats can get along just fine. And American Hungarians and Romanians can too. And so can Americans from Germany and Japan, Italy France and England all get along without animosity. We “know” that ethnicity does not have to divide people.
But we do not “know” (most of us) what they know: the powerful deep bonded-ness that an ethnic community shares. We do not have national folk costumes that we dress up in on special holidays. We do not have in common folk dances, or an ancient national cuisine that unites us all. We have in common popular culture, but McDonald’s and Hollywood do not bind us into an ethnic community. Most of us do not really know what that’s like.
There are many ways you can “know” something, but I want us to consider today the kind of knowing that insiders to an experience of life have that outsiders to that experience do not have.
8 Groups of Knowers
This is how I want us to explore together the Beatitudes of Jesus. All 8 beatitudes are addressed to groups of people, like the poor in spirit, the meek, those who mourn now. What do people who have had the experience of belonging to those groups know, that outsiders to the experience do not know?
When we stop to consider what they know, we will understand why Jesus called them “blessed”. Actually the word “blessed” really means something more like “congratulations!”
Why congratulations? Because these are the people who are seeing the world like Kingdom people. These people have the right perspective on life. They get it.
So, the beatitudes are a set of congratulations given to 8 groups of people; each congratulation has an outcome attached to it as the reason for the congratulations. They begin and end with the same one: Congratulations to the poor in spirit and to those who are persecuted for righteousness, for to both of these groups belongs the kingdom of heaven – or of God (means the same thing). The Kingdom is the outcome.
The kingdom of God is what this is all about. The way Matthew tells the story of Jesus, we are supposed to understand that Jesus comes to us like a new Moses, standing on a new Mountain, giving us a new Torah in a new covenant-making ceremony.
Who has gathered to hear this? Who is this instruction for? For people who have responded to the one single message they have heard, so far, from Jesus:
Changed Thinking and knowing
“Repent” means to change your mind; change how you think about things. The people who are ready to hear the beatitudes are people who have changed their thinking in one dramatic way: they have come to know that the Kingdom of God is at hand; that Jesus is announcing that God is present in powerful, transformative ways.
This is a God-world; the world of the creator God who made and loves every person on the planet. Knowing that in Jesus, the kingdom of God has come, is the kind of insider-experience-knowledge that changes everything.
So what can we learn from these 8 insider groups that we need to know to understand what it means that the Kingdom of God has come?
Poor in Spirit
The first group to be congratulated are the poor in spirit. Who are they? They were indeed literally poor – the word actually means more than cash-strapped; it means utterly destitute – like homeless people.
They are not to be congratulated because poverty is anybody’s friend. Rather their poverty has driven them to understand the human fact that they are dependent. The poor are poor in spirit. They know they need each other, they need a decent planet, and they need God.
What do the poor in spirit know that the rich do not understand? That being rich does not equal being righteous. That nobody takes any of it with them when they die.
Congratulations to the poor in spirit because they know that detachment from material possessions is the path to happiness, and that attachment is a never-satisfied, always hungry beast. They know that a life spent trying to be rich is a wasted life.
The poor in spirit look at people in poverty with compassion. They know how it feels. If they have any bread to share, they share it with the other poor, and open their doors of hospitality, because they have been the ones outside the door, hoping someone will respond when they knock.
Congratulations to the poor in spirit: theirs is the kingdom of God. They see through the glitz and the sham and see that this is a God-world – and it changes everything.
Those who mourn
Congratulations to those who mourn. Why? What do those who mourn know? They know that grief is real, that loss is real, and that human life is precious.
They know that there are no human beings that can be called “collateral damage.” They know that every human has a name, a family, and that every loss is painful.
And knowing this, those who mourn don’t look past the suffering all around them and all around the world. They see the TV news and they grieve at what they see – the poverty, the injustice, the greed and arrogance of the powerful and the harm it does. They suffer with those who suffer out of empathy, compassion and humanity.
Congratulations: those who mourn will be comforted. This is the onset of the Kingdom of God. God, not evil, will have the last word.
Congratulations to the meek. Why? What do the meek know? They know what it means to be overlooked, discounted, and ignored. They know what it means to not be part of the conversation; to have no voice. To not count by the decision makers – and they know it’s about power and control and about protecting vested interests, and they know it’s wrong.
They know that might does not make right. They have suffered at the hands of the bullies, and yet they have concluded that the ends never justify the means. They refuse to retaliate. They take the path of non-violence.
Congratulations to the meek: they will inherit the earth – the kingdom of God that has no geographical boundaries.
Those who Hunger and Thirst for Justice
Congratulations to those who hunger and thirst for justice. Why? What do those who hunger and thirst for justice know? They know that justice is not the default position. They know that it doesn’t come by itself. They know that justice takes struggle and sacrifice. They know that injustice is intolerable and apathy in the face of injustice is unthinkable.
Those who hunger and thirst for justice know about feeling hungry and thirsty; about having unfulfilled longings. They know that there are all kinds of cheap substitutes, but at root, we are all hungry for God, and nothing else satisfies. And God, when found, always leads us to work for justice, for fairness, for equality, for a level playing field for the strong and for compassionate care for the weak.
Congratulations to the merciful. Why? What do the merciful know? They know they know that the law is not always the last word. They know about second chances. They believe in the power of redemption; Transformation; Newness. The merciful do to others as they would want done to themselves. They know that mercy triumphs over judgment.
They know that forgiveness is possible and that it is, in fact, the only possible path to inner peace and freedom. They know that vengeance is poison, perpetual, and pathetic. They know that mercy reverses the cycle.
Congratulations to the merciful. They know that in the end, the merciful receive mercy.
The Pure in Heart
Congratulations to the pure in heart. Why? They have figured it out that God is not ultimately concerned about purity rules or rituals – like eating Kosher and not touching dead bodies or blood. Rather, God cares about what is going on in your head: the things that you believe is important – where your heart is. He would rather you break the Sabbath than to ignore human need.
Congratulations to the pure in heart. They know that seeing God is not a reward for good behavior but a capacity to see God in everything. So they do, see God.
Congratulations to the peace makers. Why? What do peacemakers know? They know that the cycle of violence will be endless, unless it is stopped. They know that conflict and violence only become the basis for more conflict and violence. They know that they have inner capacity to absorb and to transform pain, instead of transmitting it.
Congratulations to the peacemakers. They know that they are children of God, as are all other humans. So they will be called the children of God.
Those who are persecuted for righteousness
Congratulations to those who are persecuted “for righteousness,” or, it could be translated, “for doing the right thing.” Why? What do those who are persecuted for doing the right thing know? They know that there is often a cost to be born, the price to be paid for doing the right thing. But they know that doing the right thing is worth the cost of doing the right thing.
They are the ones who know that the fact that the powerful or the mob is able to inflict persecution, it does not make them right. So they are willing to take on the minority view, and be the voice of the ones out of power, the ones discriminated against, the ones who are being harmed by the system and put their own necks on the block on their behalf. They are advocates.
They will stand up to money interests, to corporations, to politicians, even to angry mobs and be willing to suffer rather than let harm continue to be done.
Congratulations to those who are persecuted for doing the right thing. They have true kingdom values. They have kingdom ethics. Theirs is the kingdom of God.
They Get it! Congratulations
Know – plus 2 Words
Congratulations goes to these groups of people. These are the heroes we celebrate. They may not be sports stars, great musicians or Hollywood actors, but these are the kind of people we hold up as examples.
These are people like Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa. Like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the multitude of people who risked reputations, jobs, social acceptance, and some even their lives to work for kingdom values during the civil rights movement.
These are the ones whose values have lasting value.
Clearly this is not the path to a life of continual comfort and ease. This may not be the path to power and control or the path to wealth and fame. But neither is it the path to a trivial, meaningless, self-absorbed, wasted life.
This is how Jesus began his ministry. This is the opening preamble of the the new Torah from the new Moses on the new mountain. This is the new covenant.
After the sermon Jesus is going to say the same two words, five times in Matthew’s gospel (8:22; 9:9; 10:38; 16:24; 19:21). Let them be the two words we hear last; let them be his challenge to us.
Because the Kingdom of God is at hand, Jesus says: “Follow me.”