Rev. James E. Lunde
Good morning, it’s wonderful to have you with us for worship this morning at Warrenton Presbyterian Church. Today we are continuing on new year’s sermon series: Standing on the Promises of God. So far, we’ve reflected on God’s promises that we belong to God as beloved children, that God is faithful–even when we’re not, and that God calls each of us to drop our nets and follow Christ in ministry. Today, we are exploring God’s promise of blessing.
Our lesson for this promise is the well-known Beatitudes of Jesus–recorded only in Matthew and Luke’s gospels. In Matthew, these beatitudes are the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In fact, over the next four weeks, the lectionary will walk us through part of the sermon on the mount.
Matthew 5: 1-12 (New Revised Standard Version)
1When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then 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 on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
This is the Word of the Lord…
The beatitudes lesson this morning made me think a lot about this word bless–blessing–or blessed. It’s a word we hear often. It’s a word we use often and in many different contexts. We say, “bless you” after someone sneezes. We say, “I am so blessed” to express gratitude or “You are a blessing to me.” Of course, there’s the well-known and enigmatic southern idiom, “Bless your heart!” “Can you say a blessing for dinner tonight?” It’s a tricky word. It’s meaning is vague. It’s implications can be problematic. If some people are blessed, are others not? Are some blessed more than others? Let’s admit, these are dangerous waters for us to wade–but that’s exactly where the gospel leads us.
Recently, I discovered and have been challenged the work of Kate Bowler, who is a professor of Church History at Duke Divinity School. As a scholar of Christianity in North America, she decided to tackle a looming topic in her field–the prosperity gospel. Her work of this topic came in a recently published book simply entitled “Blessed.” Bowler says: “Put simply, the prosperity gospel is the belief that God grants health and wealth to those with the right kind of faith.” She also says that one of the “greatest triumphs is its popularization of the term “blessed.”” Though this term has been long before even Christ, Bowler claims that the prosperity gospel community has warped the meaning of this word blurring the lines between:
“gift and reward. It can be a term of pure gratitude. “Thank you, God. I could not have secured this for myself.” But it can also imply that it was deserved. “Thank you, me. For being the kind of person who gets it right.”
In this way, Bowler claims that blessed can be Christianity’s form of the humble brag.
In our Gospel lesson this morning, we get a different way of thinking about blessing. Just after Jesus calls the disciples and proclaims the nearness of God’s kingdom, he climbs up the mountain and begins to teach about this kingdom. He does so first by delivering nine specific blessings–that we know collectively as the beatitudes. Jesus begins his teaching on the kingdom of God by proclaiming these blessings. Matthew’s image of Jesus is as a savior who blesses–and who he specifically blesses is at odds with the way we think about the word today.
This classic list of character traits of those who are blessed has become in and of itself a “wish-list” of attributes for Christians—we plaster prints of the beatitudes to our walls and the bumpers of our cars. But one thing really stuck out to me while studying the text this week—many of these attributes are not among things we would wish on anyone! We wouldn’t want anyone to be among the poor in spirit, the mourning, the meek or persecuted! It was then that I realized that these statements from Jesus’ most famous of teachings are not imperatives or commands; rather they are told in the indicative—told as current truths. In other words, they are simply promises. Promises of the very character of God, told to us by Jesus. The Beatitudes are an important part of the Christian life, but they are not commands or requirements—they are a blessing from God.
So to hear: “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God,” doesn’t mean to go and try to be poor in spirit! It means that when you find yourself feeling poor in spirit, God is present, God in Christ is especially concerned with you. Such promise can become a significant part of the Christian life, to know that God is not only with us during these tough times, God is calling us blessed. As distant as God may feel during difficult times, Jesus reminds us that it is in these times that God calls us blessed. In our world today, we tend to think of blessedness as a status only of the fortunate. But here in the gospel, Jesus teaches the crowd from the mount that he calls us especially blessed when things seem at their worst.
So what does it mean to be blessed by God? The greek word used here for blessed is makarios. Along with blessed, it is often also translated as happy–but that really doesn’t seem like the right word here. Many of the experiences Jesus calls blessed seem far from happy–perhaps even the polar opposite. Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the persecuted… Another way makarios is used is to denote favor. Here I think we get a deeper sense of what kind of blessing our Lord offers. When we are poor in spirit. When we mourn and are persecuted, when we hunger and thirst for righteousness…it’s in these moments we see this promise of Jesus that he is near and calls us blessed–favored–beloved.
Unlike what the prosperity gospel folks preach, blessedness does not spare one from harm and suffering. Scholar David Bartlett claims: “For Matthew, the cost of blessedness is very much like the cost of discipleship.” Matthew, the gospel writer found a wellspring of comfort for his community in these beatitudes. His community of Jewish Christians were beginning to have feuds with Jewish authorities questioning their allegiance. So these words were especially meaningful to them: blessed are those who are persecuted, blessed are you when you are slandered, when you are reviled…when the deck seems stacked against you…Christ says you are blessed.
Let’s return to the story of Kate Bowler the Duke professor. What I didn’t share about her story earlier was that at just about the time she published the her book on the history of the prosperity movement, she was diagnosed with stage four cancer at the age of 35. She has since had a successful treatment and no longer has the bleak prognosis she initially was given. But shortly after her diagnosis, she wrote an op-ed in the New York Times reflecting on her experience. She says:
“CANCER has kicked down the walls of my life… Cancer requires that I stumble around in the debris of dreams I thought I was entitled to and plans I didn’t realize I had made. But cancer has also ushered in new ways of being alive…everything feels as if it is painted in bright colors. In my vulnerability, I am seeing my world without the Instagrammed filter of breezy certainties and perfectible moments. I can’t help noticing the brittleness of the walls that keep most people fed, sheltered and whole. I find myself returning to the same thoughts again and again: Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.”
Perhaps this is what God’s blessing feels like in such a crisis.
If you look closely, these nine blessings of Jesus seem intentionally open-ended and also try to cover the gamut of experiences of the disciples. There seems to be particular attention to those facing tough times, but also some that seem more open–blessed are the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those hungry and thirsty for righteousness. With a gathered crowd, hungry for God’s kingdom–facing a myriad of life circumstances, Jesus seems to find a way for each of them to discover God’s promise that they too are blessed. So too with us, different beatitudes–blessings, will speak to us at various points in our lives and we can discover God’s promise of blessing for us in that moment and experience. This is God’s promise to us: Christ calls us blessed.
Along with this perennial blessing of Jesus, Matthew provides a deeper promise for us within the beatitudes… It’s easy to read these blessings and say we’re blessed and simply move on with our lives. But these blessings require something of us. Each of these blessings Jesus offers says something about what God’s kingdom will look like. If you look back at the beatitudes, Jesus goes back and forth between present and future. 3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” And 4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Remember just before these blessings in the gospel, Jesus begins his ministry with the words: repent, for the kingdom is near. For Matthew, the kingdom of heaven was not a place, but a reign–a reality of God’s encompassing rule–and the beatitudes speak to this reality.
This ebb and flow between future and present in the blessings of Jesus are an invitation for the disciples to live into this kingdom–this reign–this reality here and now. For them and for us, to receive the blessing of Christ is the beginning, not the end. The blessing is responded to with gratitude, then action. In other words, to be blessed means we are to be a blessing to others. The beatitudes then become a sort of guidebook for those who seek to live into this kingdom. A guidebook to seek out those who are in special need of blessing. A guidebook that can be summed up well by the prophet Micah’s words in our first lesson: “what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6: 8 NRSV)
The experience of Christ’s blessing moves us out to share and be that blessing to others. Extending peace, loving and welcoming all who come into our midst–especially those who are reviled and being persecuted. God promises us that, in Christ, we are called blessed. But this promise like all of the others, beckons our faithful response. May we wrestle with what that means for us in our day and time to be a blessing for others as, together, we hunger and thirst for this already and not yet fully present reign of God.
Works Consulted and Cited:
New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, National Council of Churches for Christ, 1989.
Multiple Authors, Feasting on the Word, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), 2010.
Multiple Authors, A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), 2016.
David Bartlett, “The Beatitudes” in Journal for Preachers, vol. XL no. 2, Lent 2017.
Kate Bowler, “Death, the Prosperity Gospel, and Me” Op-Ed in New York Times (February 13, 2016), https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/opinion/sunday/death-the-prosperity-gospel-and-me.html?_r=0