About this sermon series

Matthew 5:1-12

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 righteousness, 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 the sake of righteousness, 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.

Let us pray: Gracious God, startle us again with your truth that cuts through any falsehood in our lives and in our world. And with your curious and precious blessings, change us. Amen.

            Balderdash is a bluffing game. You probably know it. Someone reads a rare word from the English lexicon, like collywobbles or proggers or glossanthrax, and others secretly write down a definition that sounds right enough to fool the others. The person who is “it” then reads the fake definitions along with the real one, and whoever guesses the right one advances on the board, along with the one that the “it” person deems funniest. That last part may just be a rule our family invented. This game taught me new words for which I would have little use, but it taught me something more: How good some of my family members were at making up stuff that sounds true. And, how hard it is to tell what is true and what is not. I was both impressed and a little terrified.

And in today’s text, along comes Jesus, the one we call the word… made flesh. He sits down on the side of a mountain with his disciples and he starts to define one word for them. Blessed.

Blessed…are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed…are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.

Blessed…are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

These are some of the most quoted words in human history. They are called the Beatitudes, from the word beautus Latin for beautiful and blessed. They are Jesus setting out the definition of what it means to be blessed by God. The Greek word is makarios, which also means happy. But his definitions, while they may be familiar enough to us to be embroidered on pillows, might have sounded like balderdash to them. He was effectively crumpling the map of how they understood blessing. He was doing spiritual origami on their view of the world and their understanding of how gods doled out goodies. You see, their culture valued power, honor, health, and status in the Roman empire, not mourning or hunger, and certainly not persecution.

In our culture, the word blessed has been used so often it has become a trending word on Twitter, #blessed. The #blessed images of ourselves are the ones we curate publicly on Facebook or on our Christmas cards. And though we know those aren’t the full stories of our lives, they tend to lift up our culture’s version of the beatitudes.:

            #Blessed are the thin and beautiful… for they will be popular.

            #Blessed are the wealthy… for they will have nice things and less stress.

            #Blessed are the healthy…for they will run road races and travel to Scotland and rarely think about their bodies or worry about IEPs.

            #Blessed are those with peaceful families and no legal troubles… for they will have a smiling Thanksgiving table.

            #Blessed are you when the way you follow Jesus does not upset people. Rejoice and be glad! For your reward is great in social settings.

            Those definitions would be much easier, Jesus. We already know how those work. We already understand the map of the world that rewards strength and shames meekness. We already understand the map of the world that favors consequences over mercy and instant gratification over hungering for righteousness. We already understand the map of the world where people like us wage war against people who disagree with us and we don’t want to be eaten alive for trying to love everyone.  Don’t redraw the map so that we have to find blessing in grief and rejection and lack of control. Don’t redraw the map so that we have to work for peace in the middle of angry people. Don’t call our bluff, Jesus.

            God knows these definitions are counter-cultural, and maybe that’s why Jesus had to hike up a mountain a bit to explain this. In the geography of God, mountains are often the place where we receive God’s vocabulary lessons. God knows we need some perspective to see over the dense forest of the present moment. So, God called Moses up Mount Sinai to receive the 10 commandments, and Jesus called the disciples out of the anxious crowd to the side of a mountain to receive 9 definitions of blessedness.  Those of you who have studied Matthew know the length he goes to to remind his largely Jewish audience of the connection between Moses and Jesus. The only two Biblical figures who are described as meek are, you guessed it, Moses and Jesus.

Now, after reading that, I had to look up the definition of meek again, because it has such a mousy image in my mind. Biblically speaking, meekness is patient trust that God will act in due time. And that certainly doesn’t mean Moses and Jesus felt fine about their assignment. They might have felt the collywobbles, the definition of the word is a queasy stomach. If you remember, Moses tried to get someone else to free the Israelites. And in the garden, Jesus prayed that the cup of crucifixion would be taken away from him, but eventually, they set down all the maps of what was comfortable and set their course by the God who made the stars. They reshaped the world. I have said to this you before: Meekness ain’t weakness.

Preacher Tom Long summarized the beatitudes, saying, “Seeking the right does not win universal approval; it stirs up the snakes, and these beatitudes are realistic enough to admit it. After all, you’ve crumpled up the mental map. But here comes good news: when the map has been redrawn, there is a road of grace that wasn’t there before. Think about it: No one planned on a road appearing in the Red Sea before Moses. All people could see was Pharaoh and water. And no one planned on the way of everlasting life in Jesus appearing after the awful cross and the tomb. All people saw was an emboldened Herod and an immovable rock. If I had to define blessing based on their stories, I would say blessing is what happens when the reality of God barges in on us when we are busy making other plans.

            Several years ago, I had the privilege of spending time with local author Anne Whiston Donaldson. She shared the story of her son, Jack. He loved Legos, he loved the beach, and he loved playing in the rain with his friends. One day one day in 2011 Anna’s 10-year-old boy left to play in the rain, and she would never get to play with him again. The tiny creek in their backyard that they barely knew existed became a flood, and it extinguished her sweet Jack in its torrents. Her life and faith were turned upside down in that flood. She wrote about that journey in a lovely book called Rare Bird, and I met her at a church gathering a few weeks before she gave birth to another son, a surprise baby.

            She described the road of grief this way: “It’s about surprises. The strange and creative ways God comforts us through signs and nature in ways I formerly would have considered either coincidences or desperate grasping. It’s about mystery, such as why God would choose to comfort us so personally in our pain, but not choose to do the one thing we wanted God to do, which was to save us from the pain in the first place. It’s about how God and my son showed me – a buttoned-up, rule following Christian – that I needed a bigger God. I needed the God of the universe who somehow held a plan in hand – a plan for the ages, a plan that I hated – that went far beyond my meager understanding. Because my God of rules and committee meetings and sermon notes and praise music wasn’t going to be enough for pain this big.”

Someone asked Anna how she went on. And she gave this wry smile. “So,” pushing some hair behind her ear, “Jesus said, Blessed are those who mourn… for they” … she gestured with her hand to get us to finish the sentence, which we muttered… “for they will be comforted.” “Comfort comes. I can’t explain it. But I can’t deny it either. Blessings come with the flood. Those beatitudes are God’s answers, and they are just as true as the pain is, sometimes more so.”

I have never been in her shoes. I’ve walked some grief mountains but not one that tall. But the mountain you never planned to climb insists on blessing you. If your clenched fists can open and turn upwards. If your white knuckles can release enough to receive them.

Maybe those words of blessing sound like this:

Blessed…are you, when you are tapped out, exhausted, a spiritual progger, which means, beggar… the kingdom of heaven is coming to rescue you.

Blessed… are you, when heartbreak shattered your life and clouds of confusion and sadness hang low in your sky… you will be comforted. I can’t explain it. But neither can I deny it.   

Blessed… are you, when you are meek, like Moses and Jesus, living as bravely as you can even when it makes you feel wobbly inside, the earth needs people like you.

Blessed… are you, when your stomach growls for things to be right, you will have what you need to keep going.

Blessed… are you, when you give someone else a break because you know you need a break too.

Blessed… are you, when you clear away all the baggage and litter and biases and distractions and grudges, and for a moment, your heart feels pure, you will see God.

Blessed… are you, when you place yourself in between the warring parties, with only peace on your lips, that’s what God’s children do.

Blessed… are you, when you’ve done all that, and still you get stung. From that mountain of hurt, you can reach peaks of compassion for others who have hurt before you, you connect with people of faith all over the world who have suffered far worse persecution than an angry Facebook post.

Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven. Isaiah and Jeremiah and Micah and James and John and Peter and Paul and Moses and Jesus. They walked that road too and thanks be to God they did. Because they did not just hang on to the blessed light once they got it, they passed it along, so it would light our path, shine out to us when we were busy making other plans.

These blessings aren’t prizes for us to hold on to or hang on the wall or embroider onto pillows or send on Christmas cards. They are lights, for us to pass along to other thirsty and hungry and persecuted and grieving folks on the mountain road behind us searching for blessing too. So let those lights shine.