Today in our gospel reading, we encounter the Beatitudes, the version that is found in Matthew’s gospel. We’re near the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, in fact. Heretofore, Matthew has described the birth of Jesus, his flight into Egypt as a refugee fleeing the genocide of Herod, and his return to Nazareth; then his baptism in the River Jordan by John the Baptist, followed by his temptation in the desert. Then comes our reading today which comprises the opening lines of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew goes on for some time. Indeed, we will be reading parts of it for four Sundays in a row, beginning today. This sermon will not last nearly so long, I assure you.
In Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount is the very first public act of Jesus. This is his first undertaking, his first effort; this is the first work of his earthly mission. Each of the evangelists starts off the story of Jesus’ public ministry a little differently. In Mark, Jesus’ first public act is an exorcism. In Luke, Jesus begins his public career by declaring that his ministry will alleviate the suffering of outcasts and the downtrodden of the world. In John, Jesus’ first endeavor is to turn water into wine at a wedding feast at Canaan. So, an exorcism, a declaration of solidarity, a miracle, and then in Matthew, a teaching.
Matthew’s Jesus is first a foremost a teacher, a Rabbi, one who teaches us what we should know, teaches us the difference between right and wrong. And if Jesus is a teacher, then that makes us and all who would follow him his students, learners who hearken to his lessons, and through his teaching, gain in knowledge and wisdom.
But if Jesus is a teacher, his first lesson is a little suspect. He seems not to have his facts straight. His first teaching seems not to be grounded in facts at all. Instead we are given ‘alternative facts’, some sort of fantasy, a description of a world that we don’t recognize.
Blessèd are the poor, blessèd are the bereaved, blessèd are the hungry, blessèd are the persecuted. Well, no, I don’t think so.
The poor don’t enjoy many blessings in our world or any world we’ve ever known; far from it. Poverty in our world seems to perpetuate itself. Our social scientists tell us that children born into poverty often live out their days in poverty. The cycle of poverty seems unbreakable. And the hungry… more families in our country struggle with more food insecurity every day; and those affected are overwhelmingly women and children.
The persecuted and beleaguered aren’t blessèd, not by us anyway. As of yesterday, we began to turn them away.
Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
So says the inscription on the Statue of Liberty. Yesterday, that golden door was slammed in the faces of some of the most persecuted people in the world, those who are dog-tired of war and violence, whose homes, indeed their entire homelands, have been laid waste, those who gasp for a breathe of the freedom that we so cherish.
The world Jesus describes is not the world we live in at all, and it’s not the world he lived in either. The world Jesus depicts in his lesson from the mountaintop is nothing less than the kingdom of God. It is not a description of the world as it is, it is a vision of a world in which God, and the tenets of God, the values of God, reign supreme.
Not a world in which we deport the persecuted, rather it is a kingdom in which the persecuted belong, as much as anyone else. The world Jesus envisions is not one in which the poor are denounced as lazy, rather it is a kingdom that belongs to the poor, as much as anyone else. It is not a world in which the hungry are demeaned by drug tests in order to qualify for aid; it is a kingdom in which the hungry are filled with good things. It is not a world in which the meek are diminished as weak, to be exploited; it is a kingdom in which the meek inherit just as much as the mighty.
It’s an upside down world; one in which everything we know of the world we live in is upended.
In our reading from Corinthians today, Paul tells us such beliefs as these are foolishness to some. The hope that this kingdom that Jesus describes is the world that could yet be is a stumbling block to the more pragmatic, the more practical among us.
No, sadly, this lesson of Jesus’ is not one we’ve taken much heed of. It’s a lesson we’ve heard before, often, but we not yet passed the test. We’ve not yet shown that we got it. We have not built the kingdom of God that Jesus envisions for us. And for many of us, it seems the task of doing so just got a lot harder.
But that’s no excuse for despair, or disillusionment on our part, friends. Our Christian duty to the poor, the hungry, the persecuted and the meek might seem harder today, but that duty has not decreased -- quite the opposite.
The world needs to believe in the vision Jesus gives us, now more than ever. And we need to be about the work of building that kingdom, right now, maybe more than ever before.
Paul admonishes us, “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters,” and so we must. And what is that call? The prophet Micah gets at it this way, “What is good? What does the Lord require of you?” he asks. He tells us it is nothing less than to “do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
You may feel that justice is in short supply these days. You may long for a kinder world. You may miss the time when humility was something more often seen. And if so, you’re not alone.
So, then, do justice, in as much as you can. If you wonder what ‘doing justice’ might consist of, consider the words of a psalm today: Speak the truth from your heart. Let no guile be upon your tongue. Do not heap contempt upon your neighbor. Do not take back your word. Do not give your money in the hope of gain; and do not take a bribe against the innocent. And honor all those who fear and follow the One God.
Love kindness, name it, call it out when you see it, lift it up when you find it. Emulate it, always.
And be humble. Don’t demean or diminish or denounce anyone, even those who demean and diminish and denounce others. As our bishop proclaimed to us at our diocesan convention yesterday, disrespect begets more disrespect; but then so too does blessèdness beget more blessèdness.
Be blessèd, because that is what you are.
Whether you are poor in spirit, or hungry for righteousness, or mournful for what seems to have been lost, or meek in the face of such overwhelming moral wrong. Be pure in heart even still, and be blessèd. Be merciful in spite of mercilessness, and be blessèd. Be peacemakers in a world of controversy, opposition and adversity, and be called children of God.
Let the master teacher teach you a new way. Abide by the lessons of Rabbi Jesus. Do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. +Amen.
© The Rev. Mark R. Collins