I have moved around a bit in my life, and with each move, with each new situation and context, I have met new people, developed new relationships, and ultimately, formed new friendships. It’s not always an easy thing to do; for one thing, it takes time. It takes risking a certain amount of vulnerability all over again. I am an introvert, and as such, I am sometimes challenged to reach out and put myself out there, to connect in a deep and meaningful way with someone new. I wonder if it’s any different for you. Connection doesn’t happen instantaneously. You can’t force it. Friendships and relationships are organic. They grow and change and morph and as they do, there may be surprises – many of them (let’s hope most of them) delightful, along the way.
I wonder if you can think back to a time when you met someone new? How did the relationship come about? It’s likely you spent time with this person, that you listened to what they had to say, that you learned something about their story and as you did, you came to understand what was important to them, which in turn told you even more about who they were as a person. When you first met them, you probably exchanged the basic information; name, rank and serial number – or something like that, right? But as you became more familiar with one another, your understanding of the other deepened, broadened, and became more meaningful.
So it is with our relationship with God, now revealed through Jesus Christ. Led by the Spirit of God, this relationship also grows as we spend time with God, in the Word and in prayer. We listen to what is important to God, and now, through the incarnation of God in Jesus, as we learn who and what Jesus values, we become more in touch with God’s subversive love come to fruition in the kingdom of heaven. As we come to know Jesus better, we also come to know about this kingdom of God that sets a new frame of reference for what blessedness is and what being blessed means.
We’ve been doing a lot of getting acquainted with God and God’s ways in the time since our we were introduced to Jesus at Christmas. In the past few weeks, guided by scriptures appointed for each week, we have moved from Jesus’ baptism to the early days of his ministry including the calling of Jesus’ first disciples and his early teaching, preaching and healing ministry. This movement now takes us to the Sermon on the Mount, and a picture of Jesus has begun to take shape. Like a flower that begins as a tightly closed bud and then gradually opens to reveal layers of intricately patterned blossom, we begin to see more and more clearly this Jesus of Nazareth, this God incarnate, and the new way of life he proclaims. Through Jesus’ ministry and teaching, God is revealed. In the ways this kingdom works, the way this household is run, in its values and priorities, God is made known.
In the gospel of Matthew up to this point, Jesus has been unveiling a new reality which he identifies as the “kingdom of heaven”, a kingdom of God that is packed with layers and textures that are frequently surprising, often unexpected, and destined to turn the status quo on its proverbial head.
“Kingdom of heaven” is a phrase that we will hear over and over again throughout the gospel of Matthew. Already, in the verses before these, Jesus has introduced us to it, as Jesus has called those who wish to follow him into discipleship. Discipleship is created as we come to know Jesus better through these texts, and we are introduced to a re-ordering of reality that was initiated with the inauguration of the kingdom of heaven at the coming of Christ. Discipleship is deepened as our relationship is deepened, as we come to know Jesus more fully, and introduce him to others as well.
The text from Gospel of Matthew that we read today opens a discourse by Jesus known as the Sermon on the Mount. We’ll become familiar with Jesus’ teaching through this discourse in the next couple of weeks, but for today, we are reminded of these introductory words, sometimes called the “blessed bes”, otherwise known as the beatitudes. While these beatitudes may read like a laundry list of those who are blessed, it is a scripture passage that reminds us that God’s economy is not like our economy. Being “blessed” does not depend on health, wealth, status or happiness, as we define happiness. It doesn’t depend on self-satisfaction and is not measured by levels of success or power. It is not reward for a job well done or for being correct, or for fulfilling all righteousness or duty.
Blessedness, instead, is a gift. It comes to us as grace. To the people for whom these words were originally spoken and recorded, the reign of God, preached to a largely Jewish audience of peasants who were oppressed by the Roman system of taxes and tributes and suffering under the demands of the tithes and offerings demanded by the Jerusalem temple, they are words of balm for the desperate ones who live on the edge: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven!”
Mary Hinkle Shore writes: “The word of grace is that blessings as Jesus describes them here are a surprising glimpse of the kingdom of heaven. They are a statement of a world turned upside down. They include those who mourn; those ones are comforted. They include those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; they are satisfied, not ignored, ridiculed or further burdened, where the meek inherit the earth rather than being ground into the dust.”
But, while that good balmy news may in fact be great news for some, it may be troubling news for others. As Scott Tunseth, General Editor of Fortress Press points out “Being poor of spirit may sound pitiful to those puffed up by their own knowledge. Being merciful might sound horribly weak to those bent of revenge. But for those who mourn, the promise of God’s comfort is an oasis of peace. For those who are pure of heart, God will surely be near.”
The beatitudes concern not just the way these words make us feel emotionally, though we may feel a deep emotional response inside; neither do they simply highlight personal qualities of those whom we may call “blessed”. Rather, the Beatitudes function to reveal God’s favor for certain human conditions, for particular human actions, and situations. Regardless of where we find ourselves, we are assured that God will act – in hopelessness and suffering, through pain and turmoil, and God’s reign will find ultimate satisfaction in the lifting up of every single one of the afflicted, and raising them to new heights.
Yet, I think there are two things we need to note about these beatitudes. The first is that while they apply to the “ones” who are poor in spirit, or mourn, or are in dire straights, they also call disciples of Christ into community and into action, where we are both blessing and blessed for one another. As we traverse the landscape of Matthew’s gospel this year, we will find that a prime objective of Matthew’s is to call up disciples of Christ. Discipleship for Matthew is found in community. It is the same today and these words can help us to define the community response to the kingdom of God as revealed through the life and ministry of Christ and those he initially invited to follow.
This revelation of God’s life is an invitation that calls for a response. By following Jesus into God’s abundant life, we will conform to the way this kingdom works, its values and priorities. We are born and reborn into new relationship with God, each other and creation. Jesus invites us: we respond. Always first, the invitation; always, the blessing; always, God reaching out acting first; always, God creating ways of new life, always, where and how we least expect it. Always!
Kingdom life is a responsive life, always seeking, always moving. Discipleship leads to community and the beatitudes call us to a hope filled community focused on God, blessed to seek connectedness through relationship to God and to one another, and embracing what God promises for the future.
Theologian James Bailey writes, “the cumulative effect of the beatitudes puts divine imprint on the community – how the community understands itself and views what God values and whom God honors.”
How poetic! What a beautiful way to describe the way that God is revealed here at Grace and anywhere God’s work is done. We bear the divine imprint as the body of Christ, community alive for the kingdom of heaven!
Henri Nouwen puts it another way:
“I am increasingly aware of how much we fearful, anxious, insecure human beings are in need of a blessing. Children need to be blessed by their parents and parents by their children. We all need each other’s blessings masters and disciples, rabbis and students, bishops and priests, doctors and patients.”
“I must tell you that claiming your own blessedness always leads to a deep desire to bless others. The characteristic of the blessed ones is that, wherever they go, they always speak words of blessing.”
It is a wonderful reminder on a day when we raise up God’s grace that blesses us through the radical nature of the kingdom of heaven, as we welcome into the Body of Christ our new sister through baptism, Lisa Buescher. We are reminded that God’s promise is for grace upon grace upon grace, as gift that is governed by the promise of God’s abundant life. As both blessing and blessed, may we each, as disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ, understand that all human beings are blessed by God and worthy of our love and care.
In closing I would like to remind us how Micah instructs us in bearing the divine imprint in our first scripture reading today: “He has told you, O mortal what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God?”