Scripture: Psalm 84; Matthew 5:1-12
Years ago I experienced what most youth leaders crave: a young person saying to me “I want to understand the Bible better.” Granted this came after a dramatic accident and the
young man made a hospital bed plea to God “help me recover from this and I’ll learn more about you.” That was somewhat beside the point...he still ended up coming to me with Bible in hand saying “help me understand this.” Awesome.
So, he started with the Beatitudes - the verses we just read from Matthew 5. And when he first mentioned them, within 2 seconds I thought “great! these are easy - blessed are the
people - it’s Jesus saying that people in all these different situations are blessed.” But then, the nerve of this young man...he started asking questions like…..
“What does it mean that the meek will inherit the earth - are they getting land?”
“What does it mean to be poor in spirit? Are they and the people who are persecuted the only ones who will be in the kingdom of heaven?”
“Should I try to be poor in spirit and persecuted?”
My happy thoughts about Jesus blessing people immediately when to “crap. Those are really good questions.” Since then, every time I read or study the Beatitudes, that young man’s face and his very legitimate questions come to mind. (And no...the meek are not necessarily getting land given to them….and no, we should not make it our goal to be poor in spirit and persecuted.”)
Coupled with our Psalm selection today, let’s decode some of this talk about being “happy” and “blessed.”
In the “regular” world outside these walls, “happy” is often associated with feeling great - anything from spending time with a good friend to eating your favorite food to having the
opportunity to relax and take a nap. These things make us happy. “Happy” normally doesn’t come with a sense of sorrow or worry attached to it.
Psalm 84 is one of the “songs of Zion,” songs that would be sung as a way of remembering the journey to the Temple...as a way of remembering the peace found in being in the
presence of God. Almost an amplified, divine version of “over the hills and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go.” Underneath it, is an understanding that the journey
there is often filled with obstacles. When the Psalmist references going through the valley of Baca, that phrase means to tell of pilgrims passing “through a place of weeping or sorrow into the realm of blessing and abundant water.” (Walter Bouzard, workingpreacher.org)
It is peace and grounding found amidst turmoil and sorrow. Psalm 84 essentially exclaims that “better is one day” in the presence of God than a thousand on white sandy beaches or in a mountain cabin or whatever your choice of getaway may be! Why is that? Because with God we find peace and rest and breath and reassurance and grounding. “Happy are those
who live in your house...Happy are those whose strength is in you…” Not “happy are those who eat pizza everyday for lunch” or “happy are those who have the latest smartphone.”
Similarly, fast forward to Matthew 5 and Jesus echoes this upending of the world’s method of finding happiness or blessedness. These “beatitudes,” these “blessings,” are truly not supportive of any prosperity gospel being preached (as Kate Bowler’s book “Blessed” sits on my desk).
These words in Matthew encourage us to not base our happiness or our definition of blessed on the world’s standards of wealth, health, and victory. Jesus is redefining those standards. Where society (and every commercial out there) may try selling us the idea that we are blessed by what we have in our wallets, Jesus’ words tell us that is not the case. We are often “unhappy” because we aren’t meeting standards of this world - standards of wealth, standards of social status, standards of body image, standards of possessions. The world’s standards. These words of Jesus show, yet again, that God’s standards are not the world’s standards.
Let me note, though, we shouldn’t try achieving these statuses….poor in spirit, meekness, mournful, etc. I don’t want to come across one of you trying to be sad so that you are “blessed.” Don’t worry: life will throw enough curveballs eventually.
These beatitudes are written to change our view, our perspective on what is valued. These beatitudes make us see that the people in the world who seemingly have everything together are not the only ones loved and seen and blessed by God.
One of the best writings I’ve come across to help decode some of the Beatitudes is written by Nadia Bolz Weber, an Episcopal priest and speaker. In a slightly abridged version, settle in and listen as she breaks down a few of them:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the agnostics. Blessed are they who doubt. Those who aren’t sure, who can still be surprised.
Blessed are they who are spiritually impoverished and therefore not so certain about everything that they no longer take in new information. Blessed are those who have nothing
to offer. Blessed are they for whom nothing seems to be working. Blessed are the pre-schoolers who cut in line at communion. Blessed are the poor in spirit. You are of heaven
and Jesus blesses you.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are they for whom death is not an abstraction. Blessed are they who have buried their loved ones, for whom
tears are as real as an ocean. Blessed are they who have loved enough to know what loss feels like. Blessed are the mothers of the miscarried. Blessed are they who don’t have the luxury of taking things for granted any more. Blessed are they who can’t fall apart because they have to keep it together for everyone else. Blessed are the motherless, the alone, the ones from whom so much has been taken. Blessed are those who “still aren’t over it yet” Blessed are they who laughed again when for so long they thought they never would. Blessed are Bo’s wife and kids and Billy’s mom and Amy Mac’s friends. Blessed are those who mourn. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who no one else notices. The kids who sit alone at middle-school lunch tables. The laundry guys at the hospital. The sex-workers and the night shift street sweepers. Blessed are the losers and the babies and the parts of ourselves that are so small. The parts of ourselves that don’t want to make eye contact with a world that only loves the winners. Blessed are the forgotten. Blessed are the closeted. Blessed are the unemployed, the unimpressive, the underrepresented. Blessed are the teens who have to figure out ways to hide the new cuts
on their arms. Blessed are the meek. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the wrongly accused, the ones who never catch a break, the ones for whom life is hard
– for they are those with whom Jesus chose to surround himself. Blessed are those without documentation. Blessed are the ones without lobbyists. Blessed are foster kids and trophy kids and special ed kids and every other kid who just wants to feel safe and loved and never does. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are they
who know there has to be more than this. Because they are right.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are those who make terrible business decisions for the sake of people. Blessed are the burnt-out social workers
and the over worked teachers and the pro-bono case takers. Blessed are the kids who step between the bullies and the weak. Blessed are they who delete hateful, homophobic
comments off their friend’s Facebook page. Blessed are the ones who have received such real grace that they are no longer in the position of ever deciding who the “deserving
poor” are. Blessed is everyone who has ever forgiven me when I didn’t deserve it. Blessed are the merciful for they totally get it.”
The beatitudes are about changing our views on this world and how it operates and how we see others. They are an example of Jesus’ upending message. Like Psalm 84, they remind us that happiness, as the world defines it, is not happiness as God defines it. In this season of Epiphany, “the Beatitudes are a call to action to point out just who Jesus really is. ...The Jesus who reminds you, at the most inconvenient times and places, what the Kingdom of Heaven is all about. The Beatitudes are a call to action to be church, a call to action to make Jesus present and visible…” (Karoline Lewis, workingpreacher.org)
Today, I pray that the Psalm and the beatitudes are our call to action to manifest and spread the values that Jesus taught. The values that teach us how to realign our priorities. The
values that teach us love and respect of one another, no matter where we are at in life.