Jan. 29th, 2023
Rev. Rebecca Migliore
If you went to Sunday School when you were a kid, as I did, you have heard of the Beatitudes. This list of “Blessings” or of blessed people was drilled into your head—just like the 10 commandments, or the Lord’s Prayer.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
Blessed are those who mourn,
Blessed are the meek…”
And it is not just a list of the people who have found favor with God, it identifies “outcomes” of these blessings:
“(poor in spirit) Theirs is the kingdom of heaven,
(mourn) they shall be comforted,
(meek) they will inherit the earth…”
What was Jesus getting at in these Beatitudes? Was he trying to lift up the spirits of people in the crowd who had always been told that they were not blessed? Was it a framework for ministry, stating upfront what he was going to emphasize was the “way” to follow him, to follow God? A framework for ministry as the gospel writer Luke seems to do with Jesus’ reading of Isaiah early in that gospel,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set free those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4)
Was it a “vision” of some far-off future, like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision expressed in his “I Have a Dream” speech?, or Isaiah’s vision of a time when lion would lie down with lamb?
I was taken with this idea of the Beatitudes as Jesus’ Vision suggested by Seasons of the Spirit commentators. Visions are things to shoot for, things to dream about, things to run towards, things to motivate us to keep us moving. They show us how far it is we still have to travel. And they urge us not to lose sight of where we are going.
As Sean Gilbert, one of those commenting on this passage for Seasons of the Spirit says, “Throughout human history, visions of change have been passionately offered and responded to. One example is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s dream of a nation wherein his children would be judged by the content of character, not by the color of their skin. Another is Nelson Mandela’s vision of a South Africa beyond the inhumanity of apartheid and an angry retaliation. And in Australia an apology to the Stolen Generations (indigenous children forcibly taken from their parents under a cultural assumption that this was for their good) with telling words of vision and hope.”
The Beatitudes as Jesus’ vision. A vision of what life could be like. Maybe even a vision of how we could live our lives. What if in the Beatitudes Jesus was answering questions about what he meant when he proclaimed “Repent (turn around) for the kingdom of heaven has come near”? What if the Sermon on the Mount was his instruction manual for living? What if the Beatitudes (I read one article online that said it was the BE-attitudes not the DO-attitudes—as if all these blessings were part of our being and did not require any of our doing—but I digress) What if the Beatitudes are a vision of how to try to be faithful in a hostile world?
For surely Jesus as preacher would have known his context—he was preaching to those who lived in an occupied land. He was preaching to many who had been shut out of getting close to God: they were relegated to the outskirts of the temple compound, looked down upon by the religious authorities, told they were constantly breaking God’s laws. He was preaching to people who knew how hostile a world could be.
And surely the writer of the gospel of Matthew would have known his original audience. They were living in the aftermath of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, the place that Jewish Christians would have seen as the very seat of God on earth—the footstool of the heavenly throne. They were huddling together to worship in back room spaces, or meeting in houses for fear of being persecuted or prosecuted. They were trying to figure out what it meant to be followers, what it meant to be church after the resurrection. Matthew was writing to people who knew how hostile a world could be.
And surely, we need to hear these words as well. For we, in this time and place, are trying to be faithful in an increasingly hostile world for us. The Church universal is mourning the loss of influence we once had. We are looking at a world that seems less and less likely to want to be like us. We are fearful of a world where we, the Christian church, seems to be diminishing. But I say to you, isn’t that the world the earliest Christians inhabited? Isn’t that the world that Jesus found himself in? Maybe we have gotten too complacent with our status as the or an official religion. Maybe we have forgotten how often the Bible, how often Jesus, talks about not being “of the world.” Have we gotten disconnected from how unusual this vision is, how unworldly this vision is, how difficult this vision is, how much this vision might require of us?
That’s why I wanted to pass along the idea of living with the Beatitudes for a little while. You have in your bulletin, and we will post with the enews, a list of seven Beatitude flashcards. You can cut them up, or leave them as a sheet. But the suggestion is to make the cards your own. Decorate them. Think of them as “blessing cards.” And each day, pick a card, spend a little time thinking about its meaning, and ask God to help you live and know that blessing throughout the day. I give you permission to change the wording on these Blessing Cards.
Maybe you hear the Beatitudes in a different way (for these cards from Seasons of the Spirit have tried to present them in simpler and more up to date language, but that also means they have made choices in what they mean). The whole idea is to have the Beatitudes become more than just reciting the words. For if this is Jesus’ vision, then wouldn’t we want to begin to incorporate it into our lives? Wouldn’t we want to cultivate some of those blessings?
In other words, I respectfully disagree with the idea that the Beatitudes have nothing to do with DO-atitudes. I think Jesus would have had Micah running around in his brain, even if he didn’t have a great song to worm its way into his heart. What does the Lord require of us? Not just being, but doing. Not just nouns but verbs. Seek, Love, Walk. Justice, Mercy, Being Humble with our God. They are intertwined, the bedrock towers of justice and mercy and humility—with our activeness in helping to bring them about—seeking and loving and walking.
Now, I want to make two comments. First of all, the Beatitudes are not intended as a positivity exercise, to try to flip bad things into good things. I was horrified to read in Barbara Ehrenreich’s book “Bright-Sided: How positive thinking is undermining America” that when she was dealing with breast cancer, she found herself surrounded by the attitude that cancer was really a blessing. As one woman was quoted in the Washington Post, “If I had to do it over, would I want breast cancer? Absolutely. I’m not the same person I was, and I’m glad I’m not…”
There is a difference between finding blessing amidst the trials that we all face in this life, and thinking that the blessing IS the trial. In other words, God doesn’t bring death into our lives so we can mourn so we can be comforted. No, the “blessing” is that when we mourn (as all of us do), God, as well as those who are trying to live in God’s ways, steps in to comfort, to stand side-by-side, that we might not be alone. For me, when I read the Beatitudes, I find that I might understand them better if I substitute the idea of God’s favor for the word Blessing.
I know God looks with favor on those the world shuns. So, that second Beatitude would sound something like, “God looks down on those who mourn, God sees their anguish, and God favors them because of their distress, and, God will act, God asks us to act, and they shall be comforted, they will not feel so alone.”
Or consider the meaning of this Beatitude when paired with the courageous story of Mamie Till-Mobley as seen in the movie “Till” or in Mobley’s book “Death of Innocence.” No one, I hope, could see Emmitt Till’s death as a blessing. The world was robbed of this precious life. But God favored Mamie Till. God gave her the grace to know that her beautiful boy was in “exactly the right shape” for a funeral viewing. God gave her the strength to insist on an open casket, not shying away from what had happened, and in so doing, allowing the brutal images of his body to be printed and seen around the world.
Her mourning became all of our mourning and contributed to the foundation of the civil rights movement. In November 1955, the same year Emmitt was killed, Rosa Parks attended a rally at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to hear Dr. T.R.M. Howard speak about Till’s death. Years later, Jesse Jackson would ask Rosa why she refused to move to the back of the bus, and she replied, “I thought of Emmett Till and I couldn’t go back.” Truly, Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Secondly, I know there are some of you who noticed that if we handed out seven cards for daily Beatitudes something got left out. And I admit, it’s hard to read those last sentences: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
How typical that we don’t have room for these ideas, don’t have another day to wrestle with this blessing, don’t need to imagine the favor that accrues from being persecuted or reviled or having all kinds of evil uttered falsely about you. And yet, this Beatitude promises great reward in heaven, for, it says, you have followed in the footsteps of the prophets before you.
This is the Beatitude that most clearly states that this vision is not “of this world.” In fact, Jesus’ vision might put us in direct opposition to the world—in conflict with the world. For these people God favors, are not considered “out front” or A list. And their blessing isn’t in terms of how many followers they have on social media, or how big their bank account might be, or what awards or accolades they can put on display. It is shocking that God would favor those who are poor in spirit, or who are deep in grief, those who are meek, or who feel the gnawing hunger and thirst for a different world, those who act with mercy, or who are pure in heart, those who are peacemakers, or who are persecuted.
Jesus doesn’t just let us in on the secret that it’s these people that are blessed. Jesus throws it out there, vision casting for all to hear. Want to turn your life toward God? Want to see what I’m talking about? Listen. This is what the kingdom of heaven is like. These are the people who curry God’s favor. This is what I ask of you. To be those who are blessed. To be those who are a blessing to others. To embrace the vision, to have it permeate through your being and your life. That is what I want. For you to be one of those who are:
A Blessed Child of God.
May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.