Prepared for and delivered at Riverside Presbyterian Church in beautiful Cocoa Beach. Primary Text: Matthew 5:1-12. **
“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them…”
Somewhere along the way, someone designated those words as the beginning of a chapter. But by starting right there, we lose some details – like where Jesus is, when this episode happens in his ministry, and who is traveling in these crowds. So, I’d like to press pause for a moment and back up.
In Matthew’s telling of Jesus’ life, this is very near the beginning of his ministry. Jesus has called his disciples and has been teaching in synagogues throughout Galilee. He has been proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, curing diseases and sicknesses. As people all over Syria heard about these healings, they brought people with all manner of illnesses to him. These great crowds came from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and from beyond the Jordan.
These were the people Jesus saw when he went up to the mountain and began to teach there. Certainly his closest disciples -the twelve we generally think of – were among those listening. But many others followed him – literally following him from place to place – and Jesus would have addressed them as well.
This passage is the beginning of what we call the Sermon on the Mount, and it is the first glimpse Matthew gives us of what Jesus must have been teaching in the synagogues. Jesus starts with words of encouragement, welcome and recognition. He doesn’t just see the crowd, he knows them. He understands their struggles. And he has the authority to speak into those struggles.
In his teaching, we can hear echoes of the prophet Isaiah, particularly the passage Luke provides in his description of Jesus announcing the beginning of his ministry by reading these words from the scroll:
“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.”
Healing, Freedom, Good news, Favor… These are what you might call Blessings.
We often hear these twelve verses in Matthew (as well as their counterparts in Luke) referred to as the Beatitudes. Not because they are attitudes. In Latin, the word that opens each of the “blessed are…” statements is “beatudo”. Most English translations read “blessed”, though some place emphasis on the divine by translated it “God blesses”.
Now, if you’ve spent even just a little time in the southern United States, you’ve likely heard a couple of idioms that use the verb “Bless” that might color the way we hear what Jesus is saying here…
There’s “Bless her heart” – usually delivered in a tone that tells you that it’s not exactly a curse, but not quite calling down a special provision from God, either.
Then there’s the way people say “blessed” when they really mean fortunate or even lucky. Something along the lines of “I managed to find the last package of pumpkin spice Oreos. I am feeling blessed!” Or the bumper sticker wisdom: I’m too blessed to be stressed.
Certainly God provides for us and we should count those blessings. But sometimes they way we talk about blessings or being blessed is more about comfort, happiness and prosperity than giving thanks for God’s provision.
Just as living in Florida in 2014 shapes the way we understand what Jesus means by blessed, the audience for which Matthew is writing would hear the word markarios (blessed) in light of their culture – The Roman culture that placed great emphasis on honor and shame.
Honor came by way of status- enhanced by those things that might bring wealth and power, like – one’s health, position, job, community connections and family lineage. Conversely, a lack of any of these things could bring shame.
To capture that intended meaning in today’s language, we might use esteemed or honored in place of blessed. Let’s listen to a few of those beatitudes again.
Honored are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.
Honored are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Esteemed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Held in highest regard are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
You see, Jesus is speaking to those who are poor, weak, living on the ragged edges of society…
And he says to them in these statements… You are valuable. You are valued. You are honored.
Some of you may be wondering at this point, especially since you don’t know me, what in the world I am up to, messing with perfectly good verses that you’ve known for years. There’s nothing wrong with saying blessed. And you are right absolutely right. It’s a perfectly good word.
But I do want us to hear it with ears attuned to all of the nuances of its meanings. For instance, if we turn to Psalm 103, it opens with this call…
Bless the Lord, Oh my soul and all that is in me,
Bless His holy name.
And then closes with…
Bless the Lord, O you his angels,
you mighty ones who do his bidding,
obedient to his spoken word.
Bless the Lord, all his hosts,
his ministers that do his will.
Bless the Lord, all his works,
in all places of his dominion.
Bless the Lord, O my soul.
Or we can look at the opening of many traditional Jewish prayers:
Barukh Adonai Elohainu melakh ha olam
Blessed are you oh Lord our God, King of the Universe.
Those are proclamations of glory and honor given to the God we love and praise; the God who is three in one; the God who took on flesh, sat on a mountain and spoke to crowds who longed for a word of healing, wholeness, hope… and grace
If we can hear the echoes of those proclamations in the beatitudes, then I think we can begin to understand Jesus is speaking with deep compassion for those people, each of whom are made in the image of God, just like himself.
Honored are you… who despite the pain and the poverty, who despite the troubles and the trials you endure…
Honored are you who continue to seek the Lord…
Held in Esteem are you who have waited in eager anticipation of a Messiah
You are not forgotten. God is for you. God is with you.
As I think about Jesus teaching this way, I can’t help but imagine the response of the leaders and teachers Jesus sparred with throughout his ministry. They had been given, and some had probably even sought out, honor and esteem through their positions in religious circles. And here is Jesus, as he will do where-ever he teaches, conferring equal honor on the very people those leaders would scorn.
But here’s an important point… these crowds were not simply an audience for a sermon given on a mountain. They were among the first of our kind. They are our ancestors in the faith.
On All Saints day, we remember those who have come before us in faith. Those on whose shoulders we stand. We especially consider those who have claimed their place in the church triumphant, who are in the presence of our Lord in ways that you and can’t comprehend as we stand here today.
Earlier in the service, we heard the names of those saints Riverside honors today. I could add many names to that list, several from my home congregation. Even yesterday, we celebrated the life of C—-, a dear sister in Christ.
We honor these men and women, remembering their lives of faith and their contributions to the Body of Christ. Much in the same way we celebrate Christ’s ongoing ministry as we remember his death in the breaking of the bread, we honor the way a saint’s life goes on beyond their days.
I think about J—, who was a second mother to many young men as they navigated high school, three of whom are now creating a similar legacy as teachers, coaches and mentors.
I honor B—, who survived his brother and a whole squadron of navy men during World War II, and who struggled to find honor in his own survival amidst the evil and loss of war. And yet he persevered for the wife and children who loved him.
I honor N—, whose desire to face death with clarity and peace after a lifetime of battling addiction and demons challenged me to consider what keeps me from fully accepting the grace God has poured out over my past.
And I honor T—, who endured chemo and radiation while living in the alley behind a restaurant. His tenacity and trust that God would make a way led to many deep conversations over his Bible and devotional books with nurses, care providers, and this chaplain.
I suspect that, “when the roll is called up yonder” there will be a many unexpected saints singing in the heavenly choir. People who lived on the ragged edges of society. People written off as too meek or as rabble-rousers. Those who sought peace and advocated on behalf of others in God’s name – even when the church wasn’t ready to advocate.
There will be people who don’t look like us, who don’t worship like us, who didn’t ascribe to the same doctrines or dogma, who slept outside and smelled of urine.
There will be young people whose lives were cut short, by disease and by violence.
As well as those who perpetrated violence against them.
Because that is the nature of grace.
That is the nature of Christ – to sit and speak to us as people who deserve his compassion and his presence in our lives.
That is the nature of Christ – to offer us healing and then to plant deep down in us a hunger for righteousness and justice.
That is the nature of Christ – to teach us what it means to love and honor both God and neighbor, all by offering love and honor to us.
As we gather around the table today, we’ll break bread and drink from the cup. And we’ll remember. We’ll remember the end of Jesus’ ministry on earth, the night of his betrayal, how he foreshadowed the breaking of his body and the spilling of his blood. We remember the work that was done for you, for me, and for the sake of all humanity.
We remember an act that is greatly to be honored.
We are blessed.
**I want to acknowledge Margaret Aymer’s work in the Horizon’s Study Confessing the Beatitudes as well as the segment on the Sermon on the Mount in Preaching Matthew (Graves & May) for helping expand my understanding of “blessed”.