Introduction to the Theme:  27 September 2020

As we continue to deepen our understanding of some of the Holy Habits of the Christian faith, we’ve been focusing on the Holy Habit of Gladness and Generosity.  One of the hallmarks of joyful and generous people is a recognition of their blessedness.  They know they are blessed, and they want to share the experience of being blessed with others.

What, to you, does it mean to be blessed?  Is it to be blissfully happy, as at least one dictionary I found defines it?  Or lucky, as another one does?  Does blessedness mean that one is prosperous—that they have everything they want, and then some?  If you are blessed, are you free from suffering?

One of the most often-read passages at funerals, when we reflect on what is meaningful about life in this world, is found at the beginning of Matthew Chapter 5.  Matthew sets the Beatitudes—statements about those who are blessed, and what their reward will be—as the opening words of what’s come to be known as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  Try to pay attention this morning as if you were one of those who was among the crowds, maybe even one of the disciples themselves, yearning to understand what Jesus was saying about the people of God.

Listen as the familiar words are read, for what the Spirit of God might want you to hear in fresh new ways this morning.   [Scripture reading: Matthew 5:1-12]

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“Blessed Are … We?”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
27 September, 2020
Holy Habits: Gladness and Generosity Series
Matthew 5:1-12

When Jesus described the kind of people who are “blessed”, he listed some very unexpected characters.  But, then, his beatitudes were not kernels of advice for successful living; they were prophetic declarations made about the nature of God’s realm: he was describing visible evidence of God’s ways already being practiced and present in this world, and the world as it will be when God’s kingdom is fully come.[1]

Most people wouldn’t consider it a blessing to be poor, or hungry and thirsty.  Or a mourner.  Or meek.  Or a peacemaker.  Because that would mean that, well, you’re poor.  You’re hungry, you’re thirsty.  You’ve experienced a significant loss.  Or, you’re viewed as weak in the eyes of the world.  And if you’re a peacemaker it means you’re participating in a battle of some sort.

When Jesus described the “blessed”, he didn’t paint pictures of heroes—moral, spiritual, human, or otherwise.  Every blessed person Jesus referred to was suffering in one way or another, and not one description was an attribute that the power-hungry, ego-driven, or status-conscious in this world embrace or celebrate.  Jesus talked about people who, as Frederick Buechner put it, “have absolutely nothing to give and absolutely everything to receive.”[2]

From the time the Psalms were written, “the poor” had been understood as a characterization of the true people of God.  Those who know clearly that their lives are not in their own control; those who realize their utter dependence on God.  But not all poor individuals concede their need for God; and there are some wealthy individuals who do.  Matthew makes this explicit when he says, ‘poor in spirit.’  The people whom Jesus pronounced as blessed are not those who claim a robust ego and a strong sense of self-worth, but those whose only identity and security is in God.  Their sense of who they are, and their character is not in what they know or what they possess, but in having a certain humility, or poverty of spirit.[3]

The blessed are not the victorious faithful who find it easy to rejoice even in the midst of suffering, but include those who mourn the suffering they may have brought upon themselves, as much as those who are suffering griefs and loss they had no control over.

They’re “not the strong ones, but the meek ones in the sense of the gentle ones, that is, the ones not like Caspar Milquetoast but like Charlie Chaplin, the little tramp who lets the world walk over him and yet, dapper and undaunted to the end, somehow makes the world more human in the process.”[4]

“Meekness,” wrote one Biblical scholar about this passage, “…is not a matter of a particular attitude one is urged to adopt, but characterizes those who are aware of their identity as the oppressed people of God in the world, those who have renounced the violent methods of this-worldly power.”[5]  They, Jesus said, are the blessed ones.

“Not the ones who are righteous,” observes Buechner, “but the ones who hope they will be someday, and in the meantime are well aware that the distance they still have to go is even greater than the distance they’ve already come.”

The blessed are “not necessarily the winners of great victories over evil in the world, but the ones who, seeing it also in themselves…are merciful when they find it in others.”

Not the totally pure, but the ‘pure in heart’, to use Jesus’ phrase—the ones who may be a bit rough around the edges, whose feet are as surely made of clay as the next one’s, but they’ve managed to retain enough inner freshness and innocence of spirit that they welcome God’s presence and wisdom as a wonder worth embracing.[6]

Jesus didn’t say that the blessed are those who have necessarily found peace in its fullness, “but [rather] the ones who, just for that reason, try to bring it about wherever and however they can—peace with their neighbors and God, peace with themselves.”

“Jesus saved for last the ones who side with heaven, even when any fool can see it’s the losing side and all you get for your pains is pain.  Looking into the faces of his listeners, he speaks to them directly for the first time.  ‘Blessed are you’ he says.”

“You can see them looking back at him,” Buechner writes. “They’re not what you’d call a high-class crowd—peasants and fisherfolk for the most part, on the shabby side, not all that bright.  It doesn’t look as if there’s a hero among them.  They have their jaws set.  Their brows are furrowed with concentration.

They are blessed when they are worked over and cursed out on his account, [Jesus] tells them.  It is not his hard times to come but theirs he is concerned with, speaking out of his own meekness and mercy, the purity of his own heart.”[7]

Yes, Jesus certainly turned the general value system of this world on its head when he pronounced blessing on the poor, the hungry, and the rest of them.  The blessed that Jesus described look nothing like what the world presses us to emulate and venerate.  Where, in Jesus’ description, are those who do whatever it takes to prevail, who take advantage of the weakness of a moment or the vulnerability of others to further their own advantage?  Where are the manipulators and the crafty?  Where are the tough-talkers who subdue others through fear and intimidation?

Jesus made clear the powerful truth that we will live by what governs us.  As surely as Jesus was governed by love, he lived by and engaged the world with love, by the laws and ways of love.  He also knew, and wanted his followers to understand that the tough-talkers, the manipulators, the predators, the greedy and the power-hungry in this world are governed by fear, which is why they employ fear to govern.  Fear of losing control.  Fear of losing material wealth, fear of scarcity, of what they won’t have rather than recognition of the abundance they possess.  Fear of being made small by others.  Fear of what they look like to others.  Fear of their emotions, of their own fear, of human vulnerability.  Fear of accepting that they are not sovereign, and that God’s ways defy their preferred ways.  In all of this, there is no gladness, no generosity of spirit, no assurance of salvation. . . there is no blessing, because blessedness has been rejected.

Blessed, Jesus taught—with his life, as surely as with his words he taught this—blessed are those who struggle for the kingdom of God, for God’s will and ways to be done on earth even now; who don’t love the heartache and heartbreak, but who suffer it nonetheless for the sake of God’s greater good.  Blessed are those who don’t try to control life so much as they receive life and share life.  Blessed are those who lean into the light, who are governed by love, whose concern is with the wellbeing of all creation; they embody the ways of Love and exude divine Light.

Beloved people of God, those endeavoring to practice the Holy Habit of Gladness and Generosity . . . blessed are we.  Amen.

[1] M. Eugene Boring, New Interpreter’s Bible: Matthew, p. 177.

[2] Frederick Buechner, ‘Beatitudes’, originally published in Whistling in the Dark and later in Beyond Words.  All of the direct quotes that follow are from that essay, as are paraphrases of other concepts about the Beatitudes.

[3]  M. Eugene Boring, New Interpreter’s Bible: Matthew, p. 178.

[4] Buechner, ‘Beatitudes’.

[5] M. Eugene Boring, New Interpreter’s Bible: Matthew, p. 179.

[6] Buechner, ‘Beatitudes’.

[7] Buechner, ‘Beatitudes.

© 2020 The Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC