Epiphany 4A Matthew 5:1-12
Last week in our gospel story we were at the seaside. We heard the story of Jesus calling to Peter, Andrew, James and John to be his followers. He just showed up at their place of business one day and said: Come follow me and I will make you fish for people. And follow they did. Even though it seems like just the other day we were taking about baby Jesus, asleep on the hay away in a manger, now we see him as an adult. Jesus’ ministry as an adult, as a rabbi, is just beginning and if he had a car in which to drive around the dusty roads of the holy land, it would have had one bumpersticker: Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven Has Come Near!
Repent, Metanoia, turn around. Turn around and see!! The kingdom of heaven is standing right in front of you! Jesus is going about the business of showing, teaching and telling stories about what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like. He tells everyone who will listen to turn around and see and experience the nearness of the Kingdom of Heaven, so the next step is for him to talk about what, exactly, this kingdom IS and why it matters in the first place. One of the first ways he does it is with his sermon we hear today: the sermon on the mount or as it is sometimes called the Beatitudes.
I’m sure many of us have heard these words before. We find them on wall plaques, greeting cards and other Christian paraphernalia. Bumper stickers, too. It was even in the prayers and readings at the president’s recent inauguration. Blessed are the Poor. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. They are probably only slightly less familiar than the other often quoted verses of the 23rd psalm, John 3:16 and that bit Paul wrote about love being patient and kind we hear at weddings all the time.
Even the famous (or infamous?) group of actors know as Monty Python knew the Beatitudes, although they seemed to be a little off the mark in some places. Their movie, The Life of Brian, is a story about a man people thought was the Messiah who was, in reality, just some guy named Brian. People follow Brian everywhere, while all the while in the background the real Jesus is preaching and going about his real ministry. In one scene, Brian is sort of being forced to teach a whole group of people and the crowd seems to hear him say Blessed are the cheesemakers. Aha, what’s so special about the cheesemakers? One person asks. Well obviously, another responds, it’s not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufactures of dairy products.
Now, that silly scene is funny! But the truth is, it might have been easier if our Lord had said blessed are the cheesemakers. Or maybe the butchers, bakers and candlestick makers for that matter. Then, we would all know what to do in order to be blessed. We would all become dairy farmers or purveyors of any dairy products. Blessed are the gardeners, the athletes, the teachers! Blessed are the short people! (I kind of like that one) The street scrapers! The retail workers! Regardless of what Jesus said was blessed, having concrete, specifics would help a whole lot.
People occasionally asked Jesus about how to be sure they had or would receive eternal life. Technically, people often to want to know how to be sure they would ‘inherit’ eternal life. We are just like that now, aren’t we? That’s what we want to know. What’s the formula? What’s the rules? What’s the process, the steps, the way to live so that we can get to heaven? Just point me the way, Jesus, and I’m there! That is quite possibly why the self-help and spirituality shelves of the typical bookstore are two of the most active and growing sections. We want to know how to get to nirvana, personal peace, and the perfect life. We want to know the right mantras, prayers and plans, the right questions to ask ourselves, the right financial and life goals to get ourselves to happiness. We want to know what to do so that God will let us into heaven when we get there. We want to know how to be cheesemakers! Or Whatever!
We want a roadmap for the successful eternal life. And what better place to look for such a map than the bible and, in that bible, the red letter sections! A sermon of Jesus himself! Telling us who God blesses so we can go become just like them so God will love us, bless us and let us in!
Nooooooo! What incredible disappointment we find! Jesus does not say blessed are the cheesemakers! He doesn’t even say blessed are the short people and the street scrapers! Instead, he says: blessed are the poor in spirit. What??? Blessed are those who mourn, the meek, those who are hungry and thirsty and crave the end of injustice, the merciful, pure peacemakers, the reviled and persecuted. I don’t know about you, but that’s not what I was expecting or hoping for.
There is much to dislike in this list; much that can leave us disheartened or even make us say, ‘that’s not fair’. There is a lot that is in complete contradiction to what we think of as the good life in the first place. There is much we can see as undoable or, at the very least, much we do not want to do.
Who wants to crave the end of injustice so much that at the sight of it we feel like we are dying of thirst and hunger? For indeed, if we look we might find deserts in this world so lacking in justice we might starve, our throats parched in a wasteland.Who wants to respond to that hunger and thirst with mercy and making peace? Who wants to be persecuted for just these things? Who wants to be despised? Who wants to mourn?
Most of all, who wants to be poor in spirit? I don’t know about you but that is the last thing I want to be and, to be frank, doesn’t ‘poor in spirit’ sound like the opposite of what faithful people are to be? Seems like ultra faithful people would be captains of the spirit squad!
Biblical scholars debate over what this actually means. The word used for “spirit” here is the same one used for the Holy Spirit. Some say it means the faithful who are poor and some say it is those who are poor in their faith—poor in their spirit or in THE Spirit. Whichever one it is, I really don’t want that! I want to be mighty in spirit and faith! Like that widow who put in her last two coins. I want to be mighty in spirit so I can say to a mountain “move” and it be moved, to a tree “be uprooted and put into the sea” and it happens. After all, that’s the way Jesus describes strong faith, right? And if it does mean faithful and still financially poor, well, I sure don’t want to be that either.
Which brings us to something else: does God want us to be poor, in mourning, experience injustice and witness unjust actions toward those we love? Does God want us to be reviled, despised and persecuted so he can love us and bless us? Is that the path to the kingdom of heaven that Jesus is laying out for us?
Somehow, that just doesn’t fit the God we know. There are countless places in scripture where God says something to us like this: I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for good and not for evil, to give you a future of hope.
Let’s look back at the scriptures for a minute. Like we said before, Jesus has just begun his earthly ministry and his bumper sticker, his great mantra, is “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near”. Turn around and look because the Kingdom of Heaven has come near to you; is standing right in front of you. That’s an important choice of words. He does NOT say, turn around and get on your way to the Kingdom of Heaven or put your feet on the road that leads eventually to the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus does NOT say follow this yellow brick road to get to the Kingdom.
The Kingdom of Heaven isn’t something we need a road map to get to. God isn’t somewhere in the high and mighty heavens above sitting on a cloud saying “follow the signs! I’ll be waiting for you when you figure out how to get here! It’s just like a scavenger hunt or search for pirate’s treasure!”
Jesus is not saying: here is how to get to heaven. Jesus IS saying: Heaven has come to you.
Jesus is not giving his disciples and us a plan of action to win our way to heaven or giving a list of characteristics or tasks we must accomplish like a Greek hero so that we may receive the gracious blessings of God as a reward for good deeds. He is telling us that God already loves us. In spite of our poverty, be it financial, emotional or spiritual, God blesses and loves us. In spite of our times of mourning and sadness, God blesses and loves us. Even when it seems the world is full of loss and hurt and justice is no where to be found, even when we ourselves are the ones who have committed injustice, and even when we struggle but feel powerless, God still loves us and brings healing and justice to us. Even when it seems we are all alone and everyone is against us, God still blesses and loves us. God does not wait for us to be strong enough, good enough, righteous enough brave enough, merciful and peaceful enough to make it to him. God has come to us.
Blessed are the cheesemakers. Blessed are the teachers, firemen, and mechanics; bankers, nurses and bakers; engineers, musicians and volunteers. Blessed are the short and the tall. Blessed are the street scrapers and the retail workers. Blessed are we who are desperately looking for a roadmap, a plan, a way to something better. Blessed are we who may have given up on such things a long time ago. Blessed are we who live broken in this world that is broken and being made new again; this world that sometimes feels shattered but is still never beyond the healing love of God. Blessed are we who struggle with our faith, who are poor in ways we might not have ever imagined.
Look! Turn around and see! The Kingdom of Heaven is come to us!