1 November 2020

Mucking around with saints

Bible Passage: Matthew 5:1-12

The Beatitudes we just heard are the beginning of Jesus’ first sermon. This passage is often compared to Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, referred to as the “Sermon on the Plain,” or the “Blessings and woes.” However, it’s more appropriate to understand the Beatitudes as analogous to Luke’s story of Jesus’ sermon in the temple in Nazareth right after he has returned from being tempted in the desert. Remember? This is essentially Jesus’ “coming out party.” We read it every three years during Epiphany season. He picks up a scroll and reads from the prophet Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
  to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And then he has the audacity to say:

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

In this scene, Jesus lays out God’s plan, tells everyone what he is to be about. And this is what he does in the Beatitudes. Like the scene of Jesus in the temple at Nazareth, the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ coming out party.

The word “Blessed” in the beatitudes does not mean happy or fortunate; it means “honored.”

The poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who long for justice have lost their place in community—they have, as we know from my sermon on Matthew a few weeks ago, experienced some trauma. To be blessed, in the way that Jesus uses the word, is to say: You will be restored in God’s kingdom. You will have the best place at the table. I will turn your experience of loss and humiliation to good.

This all comes at a cost, Jesus reminds his disciples: in the world’s eyes, if you follow me, you will be worthy of ridicule and persecution. In my eyes, you will be worthy of honor.

For most of us, it is difficult to experience this blessing because it is so countercultural. I wonder if it would be helpful to think about the beatitudes in today’s language and today’s world:

Blessed are you who can tell the difference between being rich in things and rich in love. You’re getting a taste of the heavenly banquet right now.

Blessed are you who are able to keep it together in hard times. You are already being rewarded in the here and now because of your resilience.

Blessed are the troublemakers for they shall force change, although not without risk and ridicule.

Blessed are the peacemakers, the ones “in the middle” where “neither side trusts you,” for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are you who mourn and are not able to have healing or closure because COVID is a whole long season of death and grief; you will be comforted.

Blessed are you who never shut up about racism and sexism, because eventually—even if it feels like forever—eventually the world will match the Kingdom.

Blessed are you who forgive those who have inflicted harm on you or those you love; you are channeling Jesus.

The beatitudes are, to borrow a phrase from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesus’ “testament of hope.” The saints lived in this hope.

And by “saints” I mean both the saints I call “Saints-with-a-capital-S” and the saints in our own lives, those souls who have been part of us and gone before us but live on in our hearts.

Many of these departed saints and souls from our own experience may not have even been striving to become saints.

Some of them—like my Dad, whose ancient photo we saw in our opening—may not have even been Christians.

And yet, the communion of saints is so much more than a list of people we can name and number. It is our experience of people who live into the beatitudes, and who model for us a window into the reign of God.

In a stewardship meeting a couple of weeks ago we were talking about how different church is without worshipping together in a church building and Jennifer said: “The saints knew the church was not a building! They lived in the muck of the world.” I believe the Beatitudes are Jesus’ call to us to live in the muck of the world, to muck around in the world God has made, the world God loves so much that he sent his son to unveil the Kingdom of God to us? What if our call is to be a testament of hope, a sign of blessing to the world in all of its pain and struggle?

I’m aware that I’m ending—or close to ending—this sermon with the phrase “pain and struggle.” Really? Yes, because that is the world into which God sends the saints. It is the world into which God sent Jesus to preach and teach, to heal and to love. It is where we are sent, right here. Right now.