The Beatitudes… one of the only passages in our Lectionary rotation that show up in each of the three years all on the same day… All Saints Day which technically was last week as it falls on the day after Halloween. Part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that actually takes place on a mountainside bringing to mind other famous mountain experiences – like Moses receiving the 10 commandments on Mt Sinai or King David ruling from Mt Zion. As you might suspect, Jesus puts some thought into his preaching location, for from his vantage point Jesus has stationed himself above and away from the gathered crowd. This high up position evokes a certain sense of authority for the crowd. This guy knows what he is talking about and the people can trust that he is telling them the truth about God. He’s like a yogi or mystic hermit who teach and guide from a high up cave. Jesus assumes the role of venerable teacher offering deep and moving teachings about God and the world.
Before we move into exploring the Beatitudes a little more closely, I would like to share this video clip with you:
Wanna know why this movie makes crowds giggle when it’s the cheesemakers that are blessed? Well, because the beatitudes are so darn well known. Allen Hilton, minister in the United Church of Christ in Minnesota pointed out in a commentary I was reading: “ Twenty centuries of Christian repetition threaten to make the beatitudes into a sage chestnut that we pick up and remember together with a knowing nod. Even biblically illiterate 21st Century Westerners recognize them as the kind of words Jesus is supposed to say.”
Except that they aren’t. The beatitudes aren’t sage little pearls of wisdom. They are surprising words spoken by an unexpected Messiah. Surprising? Unexpected? These words we have heard spoken year after year?
You see, there is a little trap hidden in the Beatitudes. It’s a trap that I’ve fallen into, and I suspect many of you have as well. The trap is as simple as it is subtle: it’s the trap of believing that Jesus is setting up the conditions for blessing rather than actually blessing the listeners.
Do you get what I mean? Let me unpack what I mean. When we hear the beatitudes it’s very hard for us not to hear Jesus stating the terms under which we might be blessed. For instance, when you hear “blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God” do you find yourself thinking, “is that true of me? Am I poor enough in spirit? Is there something I need to doing in order to achieve this blessing?” Or what about “blessed are the peacemakers?” do you wonder if you are enough of a peacemaker?
I know that I am not, that we are not, the only ones who feel this way. In her book Accidental Saints: Finding God in a all the Wrong Places, Nadia Bolz-Weber (Lutheran pastor in the states) has a chapter on the beatitudes. I want to share a good chunk of what she writes on the topic, because she talks about the issue of conditions of blessings vs being blessed. She writes:
Since the beatitudes are always the reading for All Saints Sunday, it can make the people who are called saints seem so unattainably good and the people who aren’t (that would be us) feel unworthy. Plus, it can be easy to look at, say Mother Teresa, and think well she’s a saint because she is meek. So if I want to be blessed I should try to be meek like her. (Don’t get me wrong, we could use a few more people trying to be Mother Teresa. I just don’t think her virtue of meekness is what made her considered blessed by Jesus)
Nadia askes: But what if the Beatitudes aren’t about a list of conditions we should try to meet to be blessed? What if they aren’t virtues we should aspire to? What is Jesus saying if saying “blessed are the meek” is not instructive but performative – that the pronouncement of blessing is actually what confers the blessing itself? Maybe the sermon on the mount is all about Jesus’ lavish blessing opf the people around him on the hillside. Blessing all the accidental saints in this world, especially those who that world – like ours- didn’t seem to have much time for: people in pain, people who work for peace instead of profit, people who exercise mercy instead of vengeance?
Maybe Jesus was simply blessing the ones around him that day who didn’t otherwise receive blessing, who had come to believe that, for them, blessings would never be in the cards. I mean, come on, doesn’t that just SOUND like something Jesus would do? Extravagantly throwing around blessings as though they grew on trees?
She continues by saying: On that All Saints Sunday (with her congregation) I imagined Jesus standing among us offering some new beatitudes, and I said to the congregation:
Blessed are the agnostics.
Blessed are those who doubt. Those who aren’t sure. Who can still be surprised.
Blessed are they who are spiritually impoverished and therefore not so certain about everything that that they no longer take in new information
Blessed are those who have nothing to offer.
Blessed are the Sunday School kids who cut in line at communion.
Blessed are the poor in Spirit, you are of heaven, and Jesus blesses you.
Blessed are they for whom death is not an abstraction.
Blessed are they who have buried their loved one, for who tears could fill an ocean. Blessed are they who have loved enough to know what loss feels like.
Blessed are the mothers (and the fathers) of the miscarried.
Blessed are they who don’t have the luxury of taking things for granted anymore.
Blessed are they who can’t fall apart because they have to keep it together for everyone else.
Blessed are the motherless, the alone, the ones from whom so much has been taken.
Blessed are those who “aren’t over it yet”
Blessed are those who mourn. You are of heaven, and Jesus blesses you.
Blessed are those who no one notices. The kids who sit alone at school lunch tables. The laundry guys at the hospital. The sex workers and the street cleaners.
Blessed are the losers and the babies and the parts of ourselves that are so small, the parts of ourselves that don’t want to make eye contact with a world that loves only the winners.
Blessed are the forgotten.
Blessed are the closeted.
Blessed are the unemployed, the unimpressive, the underrepresented.
Blessed are the teens who have to figure out ways to hide the new cuts on their arms.
Blessed are the meek, for you are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.
Blessed are the wrongly accused, the ones who never catch a break, the ones for whom life is hard, for Jesus chose to surround himself with people like them.
Blessed are those without documentation.
Blessed are the ones without lobbyists.
Blessed are the foster kids, and trophy kids, and special ed kids, and every other kid who just wants to feel safe and loved.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Blessed are those who make terrible business decisions for the sake of people.
Blessed are the burned out social workers, and the overworked teachers, and the pro bono case workers.
Blessed are the kids who step between the bullies and the weak.
Blessed are they who hear that they are forgiven.
Blessed is everyone who has ever forgiven when it wasn’t deserved.
Blessed are the merciful, for they totally get it.
So in that moment, right then in her congregation, Nadia imagined Jesus standing there blessing all of them because she believed that was his nature.
She says: after all, it was Jesus who had all the power of the universe at his disposal but did not consider his deep connection with God something to be exploited. Instead Jesus came to us in the most vulnerable of ways, as a powerless, flesh and blood newborn. As if to say, ‘you may hate your bodies, but I am blessing all human flesh. You may admire strength and might, but I am blessing all human weakness. You may seek power, but I am blessing human vulnerability.” This Jesus whom we follow cried at the tomb of his friend and turned the other cheek, and forgive those who hung him on the cross. He WAS God’s beatitude – God blessing the weak in a world that admires the strong.
So here’s the long and short of it as I (Tricia) see it: Jesus isn’t raising (or lowering) the blessings bar or the sainthood expectation. In fact, Jesus is blessing us. Extravagantly throwing blessings around like confetti. To us, over us, around us, where we are, just as we are. We don’t have to fill some criteria to be blessed, we just have to come and be ourselves – everyday saints. We come with all our scars and bumps, our strengths and weaknesses, our successes and our failures, and we allow the blessings to sink in, resting in and around us, reminding us that on this All Saints day, we are part of the ALL SAINTS piece. Each and everyone one of us is loved and blessed as we are. And that love is then reflected back on the world through our actions, words and service. You my friends, are part of the beatitudes, and are the everyday saints of this world and this ministry.
And God loves you just as you are.