What's Tony Thinking

Sometimes You Need a Blessing, A Sermon on Matthew 5: 1 – 12


Here is a sermon I preached earlier this week on the Gospel passage from the Common Lectionary for Sunday, January 29, 2023. First there is a link to the audio recording. Then the written text of the sermon. Let me know how this works for you. The password for the recording is rO#bk*5

Audio Recording

Sometimes You Need a Blessing
Micah 6: 1 – 8, Matthew 5: 1 – 12

The Beatitudes. The beautiful, the memorable, the quotable Beatitudes. Rendered in calligraphy, framed in needlepoint, red lettered in Bibles everywhere.

I have a confession to make. I have never liked the Beatitudes.

I know. I know. “How can you say such a thing? Why would you say it? The Beatitudes are beautiful. They are Jesus on the hillside, the opening of the wonderful Sermon on the Mount.”

Here’s why. And it is more about me than it is about the Beatitudes themselves. I have always heard the Beatitudes as moral exhortations. That is, I have heard them as statements of an ideal to be achieved by sincere effort and stronger faith.

Take, for example, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” What have I heard? You must strive harder to be truly merciful, or more merciful. If you achieve that, then God will reward you. You will be among “the blessed” of the Lord. You must in all circumstances, and without fail, be perfectly and truly merciful. Otherwise, forget it.

Which is how a moral exhortation works. We are told we need to be different or better in one way or another. If we manage that then we will be rewarded by God or qualify as a “real Christian.” Read this way, the Beatitudes are a catalogue of ideals to be achieved. Or worse, they are reminders of how often we have failed. “You really aren’t very merciful, are you?”

I am not the only person to harbor such reservations. One biblical scholar I consulted wrote, “There is a trap hidden in the Beatitudes that I know I have fallen into countless times, and perhaps you have, too. The trap is a simple as it is subtle: believing that Jesus is setting up the conditions of blessing, rather than actually blessing his hearers.”

“Setting up the conditions of blessing, rather than actually blessing his hearers.”

He continues,

“Do you know what I mean? When I hear the Beatitudes, it’s hard for me not to hear Jesus as stating the terms under which I might be blessed. For instance, when I hear, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for their’s is the kingdom of heaven,’ I tend to think, ‘Am I pure enough in heart?’ or ‘I should really try to be more pure in heart.’ Or, when I hear ‘blessed are the peacemakers . . .’ I think, ‘Yes, I really should be more committed to peace work.’”

But what if — consider this — what if that’s not what the Beatitudes actually are? What if I — maybe you too — have been misunderstanding them? What if they are not moral exhortations, which if achieved, will gain for us God’s acceptance or blessing or entry to heaven? What if they aren’t reminders of how often we fail?

What if, instead of being moral exhortation or ideals for which to strive, Jesus’ Beatitudes are something quite different? What if they are simple and straight-up blessings, blessings to those who are what the Beatitude describes?

Any English teachers out there? Did you notice the verb tense of the Beatitudes? Present tense. Not you “shall be,” but “you are.” Jesus is blessing people who are what the Beatitude describes. “Blessed are you poor in spirit — you sinners and spiritual beggars — yours is the kingdom. Blessed are you who mourn, who know loss, who grieve the pain of the world, you shall be comforted.

Blessed are you merciful, you who are more eager to forgive than to keep score, you shall receive mercy. Blessed are you who are attacked, even reviled, for doing a right or good thing.”

Do you know anyone who has done the right thing, and gotten trouble and heartache for their reward? Bless that person, says Jesus.

Do you know anyone who is having a hard time making sense of things, who at least some days feels overwhelmed, who is struggling, who doesn’t feel on top of the world, can’t boast a perfect family or life — who is not rich in spirit but poor, poor in spirit? Blessed is that person, says Jesus.

Do you know anyone who is trying to make peace, maybe between nations, or between fathers and sons, sisters and neighbors? Bless that person, says Jesus.

He doesn’t say you have to do a blessed thing. He just says to the people who are this, bless you. Bless your hearts. God loves you. She really does. You are beloved. I know it’s tough out there. Take heart, I am the bridge over troubled waters.

And the people Jesus blesses? They aren’t the top of the social pecking order, not the winners or the glamorous. Often, they are the overlooked, the discounted, the heavy-laden.

The woman climbing the steps to her daily AA meeting. The man who is for the first time facing the extended family who has always known him as a woman. The mother of an adult child who is realizing she can’t fix her son, can’t control life for him, and is struggling to surrender him, and herself, to a Higher Power.

Around Christmas one year I was in downtown Seattle one night, kind of late after being at a friend’s home for the evening. Walking on the sidewalk I noticed a chalked message at my feet. The words said, “Jesus is crazy about you.”

How did I react? “That must have been meant for someone else.” “That couldn’t possibly be true . . . could it?” No conditions, no requirements, no “if/then,” just “Jesus is crazy about you.” An early valentine from God.

There are, to be sure, other kinds of messages, one might see. Perhaps, you’ve seen or heard some of those? Here’s one of the more familiar type, the moral imperative. “Jesus is coming . . . look busy.” Or maybe it’s secular wisdom, “A New Year — A New You!” Preachers have come up with a snappy slogan, “Make the Beatitudes Your Daily Attitudes.”

Which do you find easier to deal with? Easier to believe? “Jesus is crazy about you.” No conditions. Just is. Really?!? Or,
“Jesus is coming . . . look busy,” “Make the Beatitudes Your Daily Attitudes!” Hi yi, captain, on it!!

Which of these two are in the spirit of the Beatitudes? The Beatitudes are far closer, I believe, to “Jesus is crazy about you,” than to “Jesus is coming, look busy” or “Make the Beatitudes Your Daily Attitudes.” Both of those are law, not gospel, demand not grace. They are not about what God has done but what you must do. But law never brings about what it requires. Only grace transforms the human heart.

Jesus ascends a hill, a mount, followed by his disciples and the crowds. He sits, as rabbis do, to teach. He blesses those whom the world mostly does not bless, does not celebrate, or perhaps even notice. “God’s foolishness,” said the Apostle Paul, “is wiser than human wisdom.”

You who know how much you need God, you who aren’t always self-confident and self-assured, bless you. Crazy about you!
You who grieve, who are pained that this world is not the world God wishes it to be and who truly troubled by that, bless you.
You who patiently trust that God is at work even when the evidence points in the other direction, even when it seems the daily news mocks your faith, bless you. You are the salt of earth!

You who have done the right thing, and at least sometimes, gotten only trouble for it, bless you. You are the light of the world!
You who see a world where connivers and con-artists apparently get away with it, even get elected to Congress!, but you just can’t go there — even if you tried — bless you.

You who really do care, who long with a longing so deep that it’s a no stretch to call it a burning thirst, a rumbling hunger, a hunger and thirst to see truth and justice prevail, bless you.

Bless you because it isn’t easy. Bless you because the world often scorns goodness and meekness, mercy and patience. Bless you.

The Beatitudes aren’t mainly exhortations to do better or to work harder or to achieve an impossible ideal. They are not in the imperative voice, “you must,” but in the indicative, “you are.” They are God naming God’s own, calling out and lifting up the overlooked, the people who don’t toot their own horns.

The Beatitudes are encouragement to the discouraged, and reassurance to the perplexed. They are a balm to those unfairly criticized, to the “cancelled.” They are a blessing to those who may be doubting that gentleness and kindness count for a blessed thing — those who wonder, at least some days, if they would have been better off spending their lives watching out for number one and building a mansion to protect it all.

But that’s not you, is it? Bless you.
Jesus is crazy about you.
Sometimes you need a blessing.
Maybe right now?

I am for you. The sovereign Lord of all creation, the alpha and the omega, says in this moment, “Bless you.”
You don’t have to get busy. If you want to get busy, by all means, go for it. But you don’t need to do anything to earn this blessing. It’s a gift, one that comes from beyond us in what God has done and is doing, in Jesus Christ who has forgiven you all your sins and who, upon the cross, has defeated the powers of Sin and Death.

Bless you.
Sometimes you just need a blessing.
Maybe now is the needed time?
The Lord bless you and the Lord keep you. And the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and grant you peace now and for evermore.

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