Sermon on Matthew 5: 1-12 – January 29, 2017
By Rev. Caroline Penhale
You is kind, you is smart, you is important! In the film, “The Help”, these are the words of blessing that Aibeleen, a black maid in Jackson, Mississippi bestows upon Mae Mobley, the little girl in her care. Little Mae has been hurt time and again by her mother and Aibeleen wants her to have the blessing that she knows all children must have to thrive: the unconditional love and approval of an elder, a parental figure, of someone in authority over us. In the movie, when Aibellen is fired from the employ of Mae’s parents, she reminds Mae Mobley of her affirmation one last time: You is kind, you is smart, you is important!
My mother’s best friend Marie, who had a generosity of spirit about her that was infectious, blessed people in a similar way. She used to say, “T’es belle, t’es fine and je t’aime”. You are beautiful, you are good and I love you. Take a moment to remember and give thanks for those people who gave this gift to you…On a personal note, I anticipate the ways we will work together to embody those living words together for our community.
Where Christians are gathering this weekend, and if they follow the cycle of Scriptures proscribed in the Lectionary, the familiarity of this passage from the Gospel of Matthew confronts us again. So let’s ask this question: how do we understand Jesus’ context for the word “blessed”? What did he mean?
Jesus spoke Aramaic and the scribe translated the Aramaic words into Greek many decades later. The closest Greek equivalent to the Aramaic is Makarios. In English, we translate this word as happy, fortunate, or prosperous. There is another way to come at this word that I like a bit better as it gets at a deeper connotation of “blessed”. It is the word “honourable”. (David Ewart) Especially in the Ancient World’s shame and honour culture, it makes sense to me to think of blessed in this text as honoured or even honourable.
And there’s another proposed translation from the Greek that resonates with me today. It’s “unconditional love”…“Unconditional love.” Molly and I shared this with the children earlier. Unconditional love. As children of God, God blessed us all with unconditional love. Everyone. Everyone. According to David Lose,
“to be blessed feels like you have someone’s unconditional regard. It feels like you are not and will not be alone, like you will be accompanied wherever you go. Being blessed feels like you have the capacity to rise above present circumstances, … Being blessed feels like you have worth — not because of something you did or might do, but simply because of who you are, simply because you deserve it.”
(David Lose, Working Preacher, 2014)
In Grade 6, at Blessed Sacrament Elementary, I had both the privilege and terror of being taught by Sister Beatrice, a French-Canadian nun and a force to be reckoned with. Sister B, as we called her, loved teaching our religion class every morning. I learned about devotion and ritual and prayer. I was taught that God loved me, but how that love was understood in my 11-year-old brain often left me feeling guilty, or unworthy and like I had to earn God’s love and approval. I remember learning the Beatitudes and feeling that only very special people, saints perhaps, could be blessed like this. I didn’t think I stood much of a chance at being pure at heart and I had yet to experience the hard things of life that teach you about mourning. Despite this, it was then, in that classroom, that I learned that God loved me.
The Beatitudes. The structure of this passage follows a literary pattern that is also seen in the Psalms and in Wisdom literature like Proverbs. Each verse contains two sections that are joined together by the word “for”. For example, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God”. In our Java Jive discussion on Thursday, we talked about whether this “for” really meant because and indicated a cause and effect relationship. If so, “for” implies “because”. Ex: Blessed are the pure in heart because they will see God.
If we go with “because” then we are saying that a person would be blessed because they were meek, or pure of heart. And the unspoken meaning would be that blessing would be withheld to those who failed to live up to this standard. That interpretation, though, rings of earning our salvation and earning God’s blessing, which is in sharp contrast to a Reform theology of Grace. It is by God’s Grace that we are saved, Paul assures us.
What then are we to make of these beatitude formulations? Many of the commentaries I consulted would remind us of how much Jesus loved to teach in reversals. In parables. In riddles. Jesus likes to turn ideas on their head and teach in such a way that people were shaken from complacency. In this early part of this Sermon on the Mount, Jesus asserts that blessing with be conferred on those that society would rarely deem blessed, happy, or honourable. In this way, Jesus, is lifting up the outcast ones, the dishonourable ones, and even the ones who are persecuted for following in Jesus way and saying “See these people? See those who mourn – likely widows and orphans who have been left destitute? The impoverished in spirit? They will be blessed and theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Note that Jesus does not say that others won’t also be blessed. He is ensuring that those who would not normally get a seat at the table are invited to the banquet. Jesus is making sure that there is room for everyone in his vision of a heavenly kingdom. Catholic Liberation Theologians call this Jesus’ preferential option for the poor. “Living with a preferential option for the poor means constantly looking around and wondering who we have left out so that we can find ways to bring them in.” (Emily Kahm) Jesus makes sure that everyone is seen as worthy of God’s blessing.
Now if the unconditional love and blessing of God wasn’t good news enough, there’s more! Jesus also declares that even amidst despair, or grief, or abandonment, hatred and persecution, we are all God’s beloved and we are blessed. The Celts would call these seasons in our lives “thin places” where we draw closer to God and are keenly aware of our need of God. It is in that knowing and in the drawing close, that we feel God’s blessing more acutely. So blessed are the persecuted and reviled for they depend more on their connection to God.
As baptized folks gathered in a church congregation, we are called, as disciples, to live into Jesus’ Kingdom vision and to work for flourishing and justice for all people and for all Creation. There is a sense of calling, of possibility and of becoming in this morning’s text. For even as God loves us unconditionally and bestows upon us blessing, God also invites us to live more and more fully into the Kingdom of Heaven here on Earth.
And it’s messy business because we live within human systems and structures that are unjust. It is virtually impossible to be engaged in justice making and at the same time be morally pure. Those who advocate for leaving fossil fuels in the ground, for example, are often criticized for being consumers of fossil fuels. Their credibility gets called into question because they don’t “have their own house in order” when it comes to living without the benefit of fossil fuels. Or we can be told that we don’t have the credibility to participate in a march. Or we can be discouraged from speaking out about an issue because we don’t have it all together yet. And therein lies a danger: we can be silenced or paralyzed in our efforts to work for peace and justice in this world because we fear being called out for not being pure enough, consistent enough, or righteous enough.
When Jesus shared this “sermon on the mount”, he didn’t have a security scanner at the foot of the mountain so that only those who were pure enough, consistent enough, or righteous enough could hear his words. Many of those who followed Jesus were labeled not worthy by the dominant political culture. Jesus didn’t see it that way, about them, and he doesn’t see it that way about us.
Friends, trust that you are good enough. Worthy enough. Loved enough. Know that, no matter what, as a child of God, you have God’s blessing. Let that encourage you to make room at the table for those at the margins.
So what do we do with these Beatitudes today in our world? The Beatitudes call us to speak out. Let us not be paralyzed into inaction or silenced because we fear we are not good enough, or spiritual enough. What they call hypocritical, we know is just the messiness of humanity. And that messiness should not keep us quiet or passive. We are called, in all our messiness, as children of God, to strive for the coming of the kingdom of God here on earth. That is our collective work as Christian community. I know you’ve been doing this work and I so look forward to engaging in that work with Molly and with you all in our ministry together here at Orleans United Church. In all circumstances, we can be assured that we are held in God’s unconditional love. We are worthy. We are blessed. Remember this, and then hear God calling us into action and into fullness: into a time of when supreme love and justice will reign. So let us rejoice and be glad, for ours is the kingdom of God! Thanks be to God. Amen.