The Power of Remembering: 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, saying:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
When I was in college I had the good fortune to spend three summers working at social justice organizations in Washington, D.C. I felt like it was such a gift to work in a city that was so different than the place that I came from. DC was the first cosmopolitan city that I really spent time in as a young adult. I loved it. Beyond the special Peruvian-style rotisserie chicken that I ate with my colleagues and pick-up basketball games that I watched over lunch, I loved something else about DC. In DC, I met other young people who were passionate about social justice and pursuing callings to bring about radical social change. For two summers, I lived in a house with people who worked for an ecumenical Christian anti-hunger organization and a Catholic social justice group that specifically addressed issues of poverty. The third summer, I counted among my colleagues several people who were in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps or Lutheran Volunteer Corps members. These programs, where one volunteered for at least two years, were like Peace Corps with Jesus.
My housemates and coworkers were often recent college graduates, usually just a few years older than me. They were Christians who felt called to work towards God's empire of love and justice. So, they offered up two years of their lives for service, often with hopes of doing similar work professionally once they finished their time with the program. They worked in very hard positions for little pay. They lived in intentional community, which meant they were required to help with the housework even when they didn't want to, and often nobody had a car (they could always take the bus... and they probably couldn't have afforded it anyway). Their service, while bringing comfort to the underserved, also brought challenge to those who were served by the status quo. They worked and prayed hard. It was good to be around them.
They also knew how to have a good time. They threw wonderful potluck barbeques. They remembered people's birthdays and celebrated as people came into the program and as they went home. And, they loved to play softball. They were suckers for bad religious puns, so they wanted to give their team a name that was both funny and described something about their lives of faith and service. I thought that sounded great. Then, I saw their shirts. And, I was confused. They said Batitudes. What in the world is a batitude? That doesn't sound social justice-y or Jesus-y. It kinda sounds like an amalgam of bad, bat, and attitude. That didn't sound like them at all. I asked one of the volunteers about it and he said, "Oh, no! it say's B-Atitude." He pointed out an hyphen that I had missed. It said B-Hyphen-Atitude. The Beatitudes made much more sense as a team name for a bunch of do-gooder, social justice Christian types.
The Beatitudes are another name for the section of scripture that we heard from the book of Matthew today. The word beatitude has roots in the Latin word for "blessing" or "to be blessed." In the scripture, Jesus listed a bunch of people who could count themselves among the blessed. Now, some of us have been told that worldly success is a sign of God's blessing. There is a whole strain of Christianity that says that if you pray hard enough, do go enough, repent all the time, love Jesus a lot, and go to church, God will reward you with material gain. Your wealth becomes a sign of just how much Jesus loves you and of how good of a Christian you are. Your health and well-being can become a sign of how good of a Christian you are, too. The relative safety with which you go about your daily business may also be a sign of God's favor. In these theological constructions, wealthy, healthy, happy people who live in very safe neighborhoods all demonstrate signs of being blessed by God. In today's scripture, Jesus' list of blessed people looks a little different.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the peacemakers and the persecuted. Now, if you or I were compiling a list of most blessed people, it is highly unlikely that the people on Jesus' list would make our lists. We might say that the merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers and at least some persecuted people were blessed. Those characteristics at least seem like values that good people should have. But, how many of us would call the powerless, the dispirited and depressed, the mournful, or victims of injustice, blessed? If anything, most of us would be tempted to call them cursed, and might even utter that faint praise "there but for the grace of God go I." How many of us could actually see blessedness in weakness, sadness, persecution, and powerlessness? These are not characteristics we seek out. They are characteristics we avoid. We try to create a world where we will never actually be any of these people who Jesus called blessed.
Now, to be clear, I don't think Jesus is telling us that we have to incite these characteristics in ourselves in order to receive God's blessing. As several scholars I read this week pointed out, these blessing statements are not intended to be prescriptions to direct good Christian behavior. Jesus is not necessarily telling people to go out and try to be more meek and poor in spirit. Instead, these statements are intended to describe something about God. And, this something has to do with the nature of a blessing. At this point in scripture, blessing seems to have little to do with the actions of the people who are blessed. The people Jesus described have not done something specific to earn a blessing. Instead, we are shown an image of God not as one who demands specific actions in order to be blessed, but who delights in blessing all people... even people who most of us agree don't seem to be very blessed.
In this piece of Scripture, God's primary action is to offer blessing, even, as scholar David Lose puts it, showing up in the most down-and-out situations we can imagine. Jesus reminds us that God is not only present among the victorious and strong, but also among the dispirited and the weak. God is not simply in our celebration but also in our mourning. God is with those who suffer injustice and are persecuted, even when they wonder if they have been forgotten by everyone, including the Divine. As Lose stated, "If God shows up here, Jesus is saying, blessing the weak and the vulnerable, then God will be everywhere, showering all creation and its' inhabitants with blessing." And, when we find ourselves among the mournful, weak, and persecuted, we, too, can remember that God is surely there with us, even when we feel most alone.... even when we feel the most hopeless. I think this is why my colleagues chose these scriptures as the theme to represent their life and ministry together. They understood that God lived among the poor and broken-hearted, and they tried to live every day seeing God among the people they served. I think our church here would also do well to remember these words. Even in all the world's brokenness, God is here. And we are called to know that we are beloved and blessed.
On this day in the church year, many Christians will take a moment to remember those who have died. On this day we remember that we have counted ourselves among those who mourn. Among those we remember, we may find the meek and the powerless... we may find the sick and struggling. We remember the ones who hurt until the very moment that they left this world. We may also remember the proud, and the powerful, and the joyful... the ones whom we have no problem remembering as blessed. The good news that we can hear from today's Gospel is that God is present in our remembering. God is present in our mourning. God does not shy away from our sadness any more than God would shy away from our joy. It has been a tough year with many loses, both close to home and far away. I am sure that many of us could use a little reminding that we are beloved children of God, as were the ones we loved who have died. I pray that as we spend some time together remembering those whom we have lost, that you may feel some of God's grace surrounding you. For God is surely in this place whether we are celebrating, weeping, or doing a bit of both at the same time. In remembering our beloved ones who have died, may we remember that we, too, are beloved.
Works Pastor Chrissy consulted while writing this sermon
Sermon Brainwave podcast, #383: http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=552
David Lose, "God Bless You": http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1542
Frederick Buechner, "Beatitudes": http://frederickbuechner.com/content/beatitudes-0
Greg Carey, "All Saints Day: Facing Death (Matthew 5:1-12)":
Lance Pape's commentary on Matthew 5:1-12: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2203
Karoline Lewis, "When Tears Are Wiped Away": http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3411
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.