Matthew 5New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)The Beatitudes5 When Jesus[a] saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely[b] on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Imagine there's no countries It isn't hard to do Nothing to kill or die for And no religion too- John Lennon
We've been spending time looking at the Beatitudes with (hopefully) fresh eyes. And let me just say as we begin- I know this series is not easy for many of us. Traditionally we have read and heard and thought about the Beatitudes almost as platitudes- as niceties- or sayings of Jesus of the struggles we endure, and how God will someday give us a reward for our suffering. All of that is true- the Beatitudes assure us that God is with us, and God has a plan for us. What is different about our reading is that we are offering the idea that jesus's sermon on the mount was God's plan laid out of the people. Instead of seeing these as down the road, or even for the afterlife, we are considering the beatitudes a game plan for right now- as God's saving plan for us- that the beatitudes as actually possible to live out, and that Jesus intended his disciples to follow them.
And throughout this series we are asking ourselves this question, "If there were no heaven or hell, no reward or punishment in the afterlife, would we still be Christian?" And we ask this because the earliest disciples had no afterlife ideas that resemble what we consider to be heaven or hell- they had no promise of eternal reward or threat of eternal punishment when they left their lives and followed Jesus. They followed because Jesus had a plan to change the world by thinking, acting, being, that was different from what they had heard before. Jesus had a plan to stop oppression, and bring about wholeness, peace, God's shalom, to the world- and they believed in that plan and followed. Would we follow?
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God- or- Blessed are those who can drop their ego, shift their thinking from self focused to God focused, allowing their spirit to be drained of selfishness and pride and filled with God's love, mercy and compassion. Blessed are those who mourn, who recognize loss in the old ways, for God will comfort them- will bring about new life- show them a better way. Blessed are the meek- those who show Godly restraint through tough times- like a ship's captain in a storm, they remain in control of the vessel; learning and training to be non-violent to bring about change.
Which brings us today to Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness- for they will be filled. And I'll tell you, I have been struggling with this one all week. Hunger and thirst represent desire- a seeking after in the same desperate way one seeks out food or drink- basic necessities of life stuff- essential for survival, stuff. And traditionally, the church teaches us that 'righteousness' in this case means a nearing to God- a deepening of relationship with God. When we draw closer to God, God changes us- we become better versions of ourselves- our hearts open- our walls drop- we change the way we think and act because of that relationship. Let me affirm- this is true.
And I'm not going to say "however" I am simply going to add... and... while we are drawing closer to God in relationship, righteousness is also the Godly version of setting things right. It is justice. It is fairness. It is equity. It is everything we talked about last week in the breaking down of systems of power, wealth, oppression, corruption. It is bringing about a change in the world that flips the world on its head- the way we do things, the way we function as a people- everything. Now if you remember when we played some of those things out last week, and thought about what the world might look like without the systems put in place to keep us safe, it was pretty overwhelming. When we imagine what the world would look like without those things we've come to rely on the keep us safe, warm and secure...
In this beatitude Jesus is asking us not to be overwhelmed, but instead to hunger and thirst for those things to take place. To work as we would for food and drink, things our bodies can not survive without, toward the breaking down of systems, And no kidding, that's a big ask. What would your life look like if working for these things to take place, working for peace, was as essential to you as food and water? That when you woke up each morning, the ache in your belly was as deep for justice as it is for breakfast? We eat, how many times per day? We are full temporarily until the hunger grows again and we need to return to the table- in the same way, we do and act toward righteousness and are filled- until the need is revealed again, our hunger for the next step burns and aches in us, and we step out again, over and over the cycle continues.
Those who have been through civil rights, or have done something as personal as writing a postcard to a legislator, understand the full feeling coming from performing an act toward change. Anyone who has worked a shift in the food pantry knows the fullness that comes from helping feed others. Anyone who has been a part of any helping ministry, or participated in an act of service understands the satisfaction that overtakes the spirit when you've helped someone, or done something good.
So why have I been struggling? It seems pretty straightforward. Well, play it out. It's fine when we stay in our circle, or in our backyard- when we can control the experiment and we have the safety of going back at the end of the day, you know to the places we feel secure, in our homes, in our towns, our state. There is even a sense of security that comes from knowing we are Americans, and even those who squirm at the term nationalism must admit to the benefits of living in the land of the free and home of the brave. But I go back to the 12 disciples- they left their homes. They followed Jesus (quite often) into what the scripture calls "hostile territory." Jesus sent them out in pairs, take no extra sandals, no cloak, no money, no sword- he asked them to not worry about where they would stay, or where they would eat- the mission had that much urgency. They crossed all kind of borders, physical, sociological, and religious borders.
It's funny- the John Lennon "Imagine" lyric for this week is "Imagine there's no countries, it isn't hard to do- nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too." Funny, because those are the borders Jesus asked his disciples to cross- the boundaries Jesus saw as opposition to bringing about the Kin-dom of God. Later on in in chapter 5, still in the sermon on the mount Jesus will say, 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." And again, may times we take this to mean we are supposed to be nice to the people in our lives who have hurt us, or who are different from us in a variety of ways that are deep enough divide for us to call them enemies. But in Hebrew, the word enemies is never used in an individual sense. It denotes national enemies. This was a huge statement on Jesus's part, because he was directly going against the teaching of the Jewish faith- Jews did not interact with people outside the faith, they were a nation built on separateness, on dependence on one another and God only- God's chosen people meant God's only people- that God's plan for them was a life set apart, and set against other nations who did not believe as they did, and they would engage in wars and violence to insure and secure their borders. God is on our side! They chanted...
So Jesus saying "love your enemies, was breaking down the borders of religion and nationalism in one fell swoop. He was telling them that God loves all- that God has no "sides" - no special group that is "in"- that everyone is "in." And to embrace it, walls need to drop- all of the prerequisites and rules they had about being Jewish, or what was clean and unclean, or who was in and who was out- none of it, according to Jesus, brought about the kin-dom of God. It was about embrace of others, seeing people as God's people, as creation and everything in it as sacred.
Again, why the struggle? Because my friends, this means each of us have to face our own boundaries, both individual and as a people. It means there is a need to cross borders, to travel where we ma not be welcome, to break down walls between "us" and "them"- to start to unpack what and who we define as 'enemies' and separate them (the people) from the systems we are working toward dismantling- and if that feels like a statement that is packed with stuff we can discuss from now until next year, then you understand what I mean. This is a big work!
Systems are not people. People can fall victim to the systems. People can be complicit in the systems, even sow into the systems, but people are not the systems. People are not the enemy-It is a work that will take time, and patience, and perseverance, and dropping of ego, and mourning, and meekness... and as difficult as it is, we need to develop such a passion for doing it that it is as deeply ingrained in us as the need for food and water.
Take a breath.
Like all of the other beatitudes, where do we begin? How do we begin? Together. We begin by reflecting, by praying, but asking God to show us our boundaries, to ask God to help us break down our walls, to implant a desire in us to work toward healing, toward reconciliation, toward righteousness. We listen. We discern. And then we share- we go to another child of God in our community of faith and talk about it- we become vulnerable enough to share our struggles with each other, and tackle walls together.
And just like all the other beatitudes, we will make mistakes. There are going to be times when we fall short of making righteousness as basic to survival as food and water- there are going to be times when the self gets put first, or we just can't motivate ourselves to do any "good" on a given day. We'll get tired, and sometimes bored, and frustrated and hurt, and feel abandoned or left out or plain angry... God knows we will feel all those things- God knows we will feel so bad when we do, about ourselves or about others or the enormity of the situation that we will feel like giving up. God not only knows what we will feel but suffers right along with you at your lowest. God never leaves, God is never disappointed, God is never taking an ounce of love from you- ever.
But this is where discipleship comes in.
No matter how we "feel" on any given day, we still return to the maker. Despite whether or not we want to make time for communication with the creator, my friends its an area that we cant neglect. Because deepening our relationship with God deepens our desire for righteousness. And yeah, it's tough- you dont feel like fitting prayer times in, or don't know what to say, or don't want to go to that next Bible study when you could be relaxing... I know- God knows. So take small steps. Start today. Start now- in the next few minutes reflect....