It Begins with Blessing
(Sermon on the Mount, part 1)
When you look around the world today, at the people you know, at the world you see laid out before you on screens and in the news, who would you say is blessed? Who does God look upon with favour? Who’s got God on their side?
Our language gives us away, doesn’t it. When something good happens, in our lives or in someone else’s, we often call it a blessing. Even if we have a niggling doubt about whether this is the right answer, we tend to think that those who are well off and healthy, those who have great jobs and wonderful families, are blessed. Is that how God works? And what did they do to get that blessing?
In fact, one of the major themes of religion, all religions, down through the ages and across religious traditions, is how to get, and how to keep, God’s blessing. Isn’t religion supposed to tell you how to do that? Am I to pray or worship in a certain way? Am I to live a good life? Am I supposed to work hard? Am I to offer sacrifices or give my money to the poor? Do I need to be baptized or invite Jesus into my heart? Tell me, so that I can receive blessings in this life and go to heaven in the next. For those of us who believe in God, we want to get on God’s good side. So just tell me what I need to do.
Does anybody recognize this way of thinking?
Even two thousand years ago, Jesus was faced with these same questions. When he went up that mountain, up the escarpment on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, the whole world was laid out in front of him. From the mountain, he could see them all. There on his left, on the Eastern shore, the Greek towns of the Decapolis, with their love of wisdom and Greek culture. Is it the wise who are blessed? Straight ahead, on the western shore, the shiny new city of Tiberias, home to King Herod and the Roman Legion, the powerful people. To his right, the wealthy village of Magdala and its salt-fish merchants. Are the rich and powerful the ones who are blessed? At the bottom of the escarpment were the hard-working fishers in Capernaum. Is hard work the way to earn God’s favour?
All of the Jewish religious factions of Jesus’s day thought that they had the answer when it comes to blessing, but each of them had a different answer. The priests in Jerusalem thought they could keep God’s blessing through prayer and sacrifice at the Temple. The Qumran community, their settlement located just over the horizon near where Jesus was baptized, they thought that the way to bring about God’s blessing was to separate themselves from the rest of society and to study the Torah day and night. The Pharisees, itinerant preachers, they thought that if only they could get everyone to scrupulously follow God’s laws and avoid impurity, then one day God’s blessing would fall upon them.
Jesus sees all of that. But Jesus also sees something different. His eyes fall upon the crowd that has followed him up the mountain, the people gathered all around him. Who are they? They come from all over, from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and Syria. We’re told that they are those who are sick, those who are afflicted with various diseases and pains, those possessed by demons, people with epilepsy, people who are paralyzed. This was the crowd that surrounded Jesus. They were the poor, and the poor in spirit.
And with the very first words of this, his first major public address, his manifesto, his vision for a new reality, Jesus says to them, “You are blessed. The kingdom of God is for you.”
In a world that has told them that they are of little worth, that they aren’t good enough, that they’re disposable, Jesus says to them, you’re better than good enough. God looks upon you with favour. You are loved, you belong, you are God’s children and you are blessed. There is nothing you have to do, nothing you can do to earn God’s favour. Because you’ve already got it. You are blessed. We call this grace.
Blessing is where Jesus begins. Not with indifference, not with judgement, not with commandments, not with instructions for how to live or how to pray or what to do. He’ll have more to say later about how we should live. But Jesus begins with blessing.
And he begins by blessing those who are experiencing the rough edges of human life. Those, who in one way or another, are down, those who have been brought low. The poor and the poor in spirit. Those who have experienced loss, who are heavy with grief. The meek, which if you go back to Psalm 37 which Jesus is quoting, refers to the oppressed and the humiliated, those whose land has been taken away from them by the rich and powerful.
Blessed are the poor in spirit. For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
The kingdom of heaven is for you. God’s presence, God’s grace and love and mercy are for you. The kingdom of heaven, that movement which God is inaugurating in Jesus to bring about God’s vision of shalom for all humanity, the movement of God which is raising people up, it’s for you. Here and now. You can see it right here, embodied in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
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.
These first three beatitudes aren’t meant to be aspirational. They are not, at least in the first instance, about ethics. God doesn’t want us to be poor in spirit, we’re not to seek out loss, oppression is not to be desired. God doesn’t want us to be down, God wants to raise us up. But when you are down, and the world is telling you’re not good enough, know that God looks upon you with favour and will act to raise you up. Because you are blessed.
But how do get from here to there? The beatitudes begin with a raw acknowledgement of the rough edges of human existence and the promise that God is going to do something about it. The beatitudes envision a way forward, a movement that Jesus calls the kingdom of heaven, movement that will raise people up. How is that going to work? How do we get from here to there?
That’s a big question. It’s the question that will animate much of the rest of Matthew’s gospel as we read through it and study it for the balance of this year. But we get a first glimpse of the way forward in the beatitudes themselves.
Something shifts with the fourth beatitude. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” This is, like the first three, a declaration of blessing for those who have been brought low, for victims of injustice, for those who go hungry in a world where there is food enough for all. But it is also a call to action for those of us who are able to act for justice on behalf of others. Blessed are those who are victims of injustice. And blessed are those who hunger and thirst to raise them up. The kingdom of heaven is a movement, God’s movement to raise people up. Are you going to join the movement? If so, be merciful, show compassion to those around you and especially to those in need. If so, be pure in heart, set your heart on the things of God, and you will see and respond to human need the way God does, you will see God in action. If so, be a peacemaker, do peace, make shalom, end conflict and bring about harmony, wholeness and well-being.
God blesses those who are down and God blesses those who raise them up. And they will be called children of God. It won’t be easy. Sometimes you can be brought down for raising people up. But blessed too are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Yes, life is tough. But God is in the business of raising us up.
This is the movement that Jesus inaugurates with his Sermon on the Mount. It’s a new vision of the relationship between God and humanity. It is radical. It is counter-cultural. It is grace-filled. It is of God. And it is participatory. Comfort for those who are down and a call to action to those who raise them up. We are blessed. We are invited. Come and join the movement.
Jesus calls this movement the kingdom of heaven.
And it begins with blessing.
Homily Yr A P4. January 29 2023. Trinity
Readings: Micah 6.1-8; Psalm 15; 1 Corinthians 1.18-31; Matthew 5.1-12