November 12, 2014 by jmar198013
This is the text of a sermon I preached at Cordova Church of Christ Sunday, November 2, 2014. The audio of this sermon may be accessed by clicking here.
I was asked to speak about the Beatitudes today. Frankly, I was afraid to preach the Beatitudes. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, I was concerned that people would simply tune out when they heard the sermon topic. After all, we know what the Beatitudes are all about, don’t we. They’re like an old joke we already know the punchline to. The second reason I was reluctant to talk about the Beatitudes is that I suspect you may have heard lessons on them that insulted your intelligence. The old phrase, too heavenly-minded to be of any earthly good comes to mind when I remember some sermons I have endured about the Beatitudes. So allow me to make a couple of promises up front. First, I promise not to use the phrase Be-Happy Attitudes in this sermon. Well, at least not again. Second, I promise not to invite you to go out and try to be more meek, which is terrible advice if I ever heard any. The Beatitudes are not cute and cuddly. They are dangerous, and they are subversive. They turn the world we know upside-down. They are violent thrusts of grace that rip apart the lies we have been told to keep us in our place. They reveal a God who chooses what the world calls foolish to shame the wise, and what the world considers weak to shame the strong. The Beatitudes tell the truth about God. They grab hold of a world that has turned itself upside-down, and turn it right-side up again.
If we’re going to appreciate the power of the Beatitudes, we’ll need to be aware of their context. Jesus didn’t preach the Sermon on the Mount to a well-groomed First-World church. Probably some of the first people to hear the Beatitudes had never had a good day in their lives. Jesus had been going around saying that the kingdom of heaven was on its way. Kingdom of heaven was his way of saying that God was turning the world right-side up again. To demonstrate what this meant, he started turning some people’s lives right-side up, by healing their diseases, disfigurements, deformities, and demons. Naturally, this drew crowds. In those days, a lot of guys were going around claiming that God was about to fix the world, but they weren’t necessarily doing anything about it. Jesus was. Jesus noticed the crowds, and I suspect that he was not always completely comfortable with a crowd. So he climbed up a mountain and sat down, looking at them. He had gathered a few disciples by then, and they followed him up the mountain and sat down, too. Because that’s what disciples do: follow their teacher wherever he goes. Staring down at the crowds, Jesus decided that they were ready to hear some more good news. And that’s when he made a series of announcements we now call the Beatitudes:
How fortunate are the oppressed, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs!
How fortunate are those who mourn, for they will be comforted!
How fortunate are those who have been made humble, for they will inherit the land!
How fortunate are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled!
How fortunate are those who show mercy, for mercy will be shown to them!
How fortunate are those whose loyalty is undivided, for they will see God!
How fortunate are those who work for peace, for they will be called “God’s children”!
How fortunate are those who are harassed for doing good, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs!
Good for you, when they put you down, and bully you, and tell wicked lies about you, on account of me. Rejoice and be glad: you’re in good company! That’s just how they treated the prophets of old.
Get the picture? Jesus looked out over a crowd of people who were poor, mourning, and hungry; and who had been bullied, abused, and exploited. And he told them, God is on your side! The kingdom of heaven is for you! And we’re about to start turning the world right-side up again!
I suspect some of you might be a little annoyed at me just now because I’ve gone and messed up the words to your favorite Beatitude. Perhaps some of you are wondering where all the blessed ares went. Okay, let me explain. The word that begins each Beatitude is complicated. It can mean blessed. It can mean happy. It can also mean fortunate, favored, honored, or welcomed. There’s no one English word that does it justice. But there’s a more important reason I avoided using the word blessed. See, I’m afraid we First-World Christians have an awkward relationship with that word. What we mean by blessed may in fact be very different than what Jesus meant. We most frequently use the word blessed to refer to our social or economic condition–what we own, what we can afford, what we are free to do, what we are free to avoid. Our perks and privileges. For instance, several years back I was down in Mexico working with a crew to build a church building. Surrounded by poverty, many in our group said that they were learning to appreciate how blessed we Americans are. And I had to wonder: Might our acknowledgement that we are “blessed” simply be a polite way of thanking God that we don’t have to live like the poor? Yet, in the shanties and on the streets of that village, I was meeting the very people Jesus called “blessed” in the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes turn the safe, secure world that we have built for ourselves upside-down. By announcing that the oppressed, the hurting, the hungry, and the persecuted are honored and welcomed by God, they challenge our assumptions about what it means to be blessed. To hear the Beatitudes is simply to learn that the church lives by gifts. We may not each be personally blessed to be poor in spirit or meek, but we are blessed to have such people present in our midst.
Again, the Beatitudes teach us that the church lives by gifts. They reveal a God who sustains his people with surprises. For it certainly is surprising to learn that God wills to populate his kingdom with the poor and the persecuted. This news probably especially comes as a surprise to those recognized in the Beatitudes. For those whose spirits have been broken by poverty and neglect; for those who have been humiliated and abused; for those who have been denied the opportunity to have an opportunity. For them, the news that God honors and welcomes them first is a surprising thrust of grace. From those named in the Beatitudes, we learn that they are gifts to be received with joy. Yet, this is not typically how we have understood them. We have tended not to receive them as gifts. In practice, we often turn the Beatitudes upside-down, as if Jesus had said, If you want to be blessed, go out and be poor in spirit. But of course, this is not what Jesus said. He said that those who are poor, mourning, meek, and hungry already are blessed. He never told anyone to go out and try to be meek. Certainly, he never instructed us to go out and get ourselves persecuted. The Beatitudes are blessings, not commands or recommendations. Jesus certainly didn’t expect that every Christian would display each Beatitude. But he did expect that some who followed him would be meek or hungry or persecuted. Their presence among us is a blessing to us all, because they are God’s promise to us that he is turning the world right-side up.
To have the oppressed, the hurting, the broken, and the neglected with us in the church is also a blessing because they are agents of God’s transforming grace. When we join God in welcoming and honoring them, it changes us. When we offer hospitality to those who have been forgotten, rejected, and abused, we may very well be blessed to find ourselves among the Beatitudes in spite of ourselves. We may find the time in merciless world to be merciful. Our hearts may be purified to seek first God’s kingdom and justice. That is, we will find ourselves working with God to turn the world right-side up. We may be granted the courage and creativity in a violent world to be peacemakers. For instance, think of some of the very gritty, practical, hands-on ministries we have going on here at Cordova. What if we trained ourselves to see them first and foremost as gestures of God’s desire to turn the world right-side up? When the Beatitudes animate our ministries, it is a way for the church to acknowledge that God’s grace always enters our lives in the broken places. To walk alongside those named in the Beatitudes, to embrace them, and stand in solidarity with them, is a blessing to everyone involved.
Perhaps the church’s greatest struggle with the Beatitudes is a matter of trust. We just can’t quite bring ourselves to believe them. We would be thrilled to see a world where the meek inherit the land instead of being trampled in the dirt. But that does not resemble the world we know. Down here in the “real world,” we see the poor and meek always exploited. We have seen those who mourn slide into despair, and even end their own lives. We see peacemakers murdered. And we are left to wonder: Was Jesus being completely honest with us? There are no easy answers to that question. I said at the beginning that the Beatitudes are dangerous, and I meant it. But I do have a couple of suggestions for how we can wrestle with that question, and then the lesson is yours. First, I want to suggest that the primary function of the Beatitudes is to teach us about God’s character: what God values, and what sort of world God desires. People who begin with the idea that God values and embraces the poor, meek, hurting, and hungry are going to understand that “no adult of sound mind can be an innocent bystander.”* They’re going to walk in solidarity with the poor. They’re going to be present to those who mourn. They’re going to stand up for the meek. They’re going to make sure the hungry are fed. We Christians believe that we are made in God’s image. And our God is the God of the Exodus and the Jubilee. He’s the God of widows and orphans. The Scriptures are quite clear about that much. So embracing the people recognized in the Beatitudes is really about imaging God–bearing a family resemblance to the God the Beatitudes assume. This will make us odd in the world, but that is not a bad thing. The world is upside-down, but they have no way of knowing it. That’s why they need a people living among them that lives right-side up. The second suggestion I’d like to make as we wrestle with the Beatitudes is that they are true because Jesus made them true by living their truth. He is each blessing the Beatitudes name, right up to dying as a persecuted peacemaker. A lot of people say that the gospel is how Jesus fixed the problem of sinners in the hand of an angry God. But I think they may have that upside-down. I say the gospel is how God responded to what happened to Jesus when he fell into the hands of angry sinners. The good news is that God takes what we’ve turned upside-down and turns it right-side up again. That’s the meaning of the cross and resurrection. And that’s the direction the Beatitudes point us toward.
* Bruce Cockburn, “Broken Wheel.” From the album Inner City Front. True North Records, 1981.