All Saints Year A Matthew 5:1-12
Have you ever wondered what it would have been like to hear Jesus preach in person? That is a great answer to the question: what historic event would you like to witness? I’d like to hear Jesus preach. I wonder what he would have sounded like. Would he have spoken loudly, passionately, softly; would you have to strain to hear him or would he have shouted so people could have heard for miles and miles? Unfortunately, we do not have any particular description of what Jesus’ teaching and preaching actually sounded like because that wasn’t the kind of thing historians of the day or Jesus’ disciples were interested in writing down. But we do have clear ideas of what he said when he taught. In his early ministry, the Gospels tell us that Jesus’ message centered around this phrase: “repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” Around the time that he begins to call his first few disciples, Peter, Andrew, James and John, this is the phrase we hear that he has proclaimed.
Repent, Metanoia, turn around. Turn around and see!! The kingdom of heaven is standing right in front of you! Not a bad first sermon! Immediately after this, Jesus goes about the business of showing, teaching and telling stories about what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like and what it actually is. One of the ways he does it is with the text we heard today from the gospel of Matthew. This is one of Jesus’ sermons. The sermon on the mount or as it is sometimes called the Beatitudes.
Every time I read or study this text, I cannot help but think of the Monty Python movie, The Life of Brian, and the crowd of people who misunderstand or mishear the phrase ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ and think it is ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers’. “Aha, what’s so special about the cheesemakers? Well obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufactures of dairy products.” Part of the reason this is so funny to me is because honestly, it sure would have been easier of our Lord had said blessed are the cheesemakers or any other concrete description because then we would all know what to do in order to be blessed. If the cheesemakers are blessed, then we all go make cheese! If it’s everybody who comes to church on Friday nights, then we start having a Friday service and everybody comes. Blessedness in the bag! If Jesus had just said all the people in this one group are blessed, then we could all go do that thing, whatever it was, and we would know we were blessed, too.
In so many ways we Christians are like the people who kept asking Jesus about how to inherit eternal life. That’s what we want to know, isn’t it? What’s the formula, the rules, the process, the steps, the way to live so that we can make it into heaven? Just point me the way, Jesus, and I’m there! Give me the check sheet I need to fill out, the hoops to jump through.
One of my favorite things around this time of year is to get a new day planner; one of those big calendars where you map out your weekly plans, quarterly objectives, personal mission statements, and measurable, achievable goals. Many of us have probably spent our lives in vocations that encourage us to make Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely goals, then map out the step by step process we will take to achieve these goals. Students have this, too. The goal to have a certain GPA, to finish in four years, to graduate, to apply to grad school, and then all the little steps to get there. Contribute to 401k, pay off the car and the mortgage, check of things on the bucket list. It’s all about checking off the task list to win the goal.
It’s easy to see why this moves right over into our faith life. We want to know the right mantras, prayers and plans, the right answers to questions, the right goals to get ourselves to get to happiness. We want to know how to get to heaven, whether that is heaven on earth or the afterlife. In the plainest sense of things, we want to know what we have to do so that God will let us into heaven when we get there. We want a roadmap for the successful eternal life. Best place to look for such a map is 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! Yes!
What incredible disappointment we find! Jesus does not say blessed are the cheesemakers! Notably, he also does not say blessed are the goal makers either. 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. Oh, that is not at all what we wanted to hear.
There is a lot on this list that we really just do not want anything to do with. 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? 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? A lot of this is stuff we spend virtually all our energy trying to escape, perhaps most of all is the place where Jesus starts his sermon. Who wants to be poor in spirit? Really? I don’t know about you but that is the last thing I want to be! Who has ever heard anyone say, ‘Poor in spirit! Sign me up for that!’ Is that on your goal list for this new year?
Biblical scholars have debated for decades 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. Truth is, it doesn’t really matter which of those it is because none of them sound like the right way to go.
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 in other places in scripture. And if poor in spirit actually means faithful and still financially poor, well, I doubt any of us want to be that either.
Which brings us to something else: does God want us to be among those on this list? Does God wish for 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 THAT he can love us and bless us? Is that the path to the kingdom of heaven that Jesus is laying out for us? Do we have to become like that list of painful things in order for God to love us and bless 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. (Jeremiah 29:11, just to name a single one of many)
When we get conflicting things like this, it’s good to go back to the scripture we started with, so let’s look at that again. Jesus has recently begun his earthly ministry and his big recurring theme in preaching and teaching is “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near”. Turn around and look because the Kingdom of Heaven has come near to you. The Kingdom of Heaven is standing right in front of you. It is notable that Jesus does not say, “Here’s the Roadmap to Heaven.” The Kingdom of Heaven isn’t something we need a road map to get to, and that is a central part of Jesus’ point when he is saying that phrase. 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! Jesus isn’t saying: here’s how to get to heaven. Jesus IS saying: Heaven has come to you. Here. Now.
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 some Greek hero so that we may receive the gracious blessings of God. He’s not giving suggestions about completing our SMART goal of getting to the pearly gates and winning divine love. Jesus is telling us that God already loves us. He isn’t giving us a who’s who of people to emulate in order to get into heaven or a set of life struggles we must seek out and conquer before getting to be with God. In fact, Jesus may indeed be saying exactly the opposite.
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 justice is no where to be found, and even (as unbelievable as it sounds) when we ourselves are the ones who have committed injustice, 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 Heaven. God has come to us and brought us Heaven in Jesus.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, 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. Blessed are we who live in this world that is broken and being made new again. Blessed are we who are sometimes afraid of the unknown future, who cling to our check lists and planning goals and our own feeble abilities, who want to do the work of God but are not sure how to do it. Blessed are we who struggle with our faith, seeking to step out into it but still unsure, and we who are poor in ways we might not have ever imagined.
Look! Turn around and see! The Kingdom of Heaven has come to us all!