Sunday, November 1, 2020

Sermon: "Markarioi", Matthew 5:1-12 (November 1, 2020--All Saints Day)

Over the past several weeks, my sermons have been discussing some of the values that God holds and expects us to hold. Through the lens of the lectionary readings, we’ve explored integrity, obedience, and holiness—and found that holding these values doesn’t always look the way we might expect. We’ve been working hard to reframe our assumptions of what God considers important so that we can better conform our lives to God’s will. And this week’s lectionary reading continues to challenge us in this regard. The title of this sermon, “Markarioi” comes from the very first word in the Beatitudes; it literally means “You are blessed.” The word “Beatitude” itself comes from the Latin word for blessing. And of course, we use this word liberally in our everyday life: “What a blessing!” “I’m so blessed!” “God bless the USA!” (or, if you’re more concerned with your immediate surroundings, “God bless this mess!”). But how often do we take the time to really think about what blessing really is?

I mean, first of all, we tend to adhere to a pretty narrow idea of WHO is considered blessed. When we call ourselves blessed, we’re usually implying that we feel fortunate. When we ask God to bless our nation, it’s assumed that we’re asking for prosperity and strength. But what Jesus tells us here doesn’t really fit with this understanding. I’m reminded of the scene in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” where a handful of people are listening to the Sermon on the Mount from a distance and are having trouble hearing. As Jesus teaches, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” someone at the back of the crowd asks what he said. Someone else responds, “I think it was ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers.’” Of course, this doesn’t make much sense, so a nearby woman asks, “Ahh, what's so special about the cheesemakers?” and her husband explains, “Well, obviously, this isn’t meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.”

While this scene is clearly intended for comedic effect, I have to wonder how much of this misunderstanding could have stemmed from disbelief that peacemakers could be blessed. Certainly, they’re doing holy work, but it’s not an easy road. Opposing humanity’s appetite for war is an uphill battle (no pun intended), and peacemakers are often criticized or even imprisoned for their views. Few would call them blessed in the colloquial sense of “fortunate”. It’s true that “blessed are the cheesemakers” doesn’t make much sense, but maybe it’s easier to believe that manufacturers of dairy products are particularly blessed than to believe that peacemakers are. After all, many people, reject the idea of peace, societies and individuals alike, but almost everyone loves cheese!

If you look back through all the people that Jesus names as blessed in this passage, you start to realize that this list is actually pretty counterintuitive. If anyone other than Jesus had made these statements, would you believe them? Consider them outside the context of the Beatitudes: “The poor in spirit are blessed”, “Those who mourn are blessed”, “The meek are blessed”, “the persecuted are blessed”…Nope, nope, nope, aaaaaaaand nope. We tend to use the term “blessed” to describe circumstances that are precisely the OPPOSITE of these. But Jesus doesn’t leave any room for ambiguity. We can’t borrow theology from Monty Python and say, “Well, obviously, this isn’t meant to be taken literally; It refers to anyone who’s ever had a bad day.” Jesus is clear: blessedness isn’t marked by good fortune and strength, but by affliction and adversity. Some of the circumstances that he describes, like grief and persecution, are difficult in and of themselves, while others, like purity of heart and peacemaking, are difficult because they’re viewed with scorn by the world at large. But one thing is clear: blessing, at least in the scriptural sense, is not synonymous with prosperity.

That naturally leads to the question, then, of what it actually DOES mean to be blessed.

By choosing to translate “markarioi” as “happy” (an equally legitimate translation), the CEB forces us to reframe blessing as an internal experience rather than something done TO us, but this translation doesn’t feel quite right, either. After all, when verse 4 is translated as “Happy are people who grieve,” you know there has to be some sort of deeper meaning to the word that we’re missing. I’m no Greek scholar, but a clergy friend of mine, Rev. Carol Holbrook Pickett, explained “markarioi” like this: “Its meaning evolved sort of naturally to convey a sense that God has conferred a little bit of the life that the divine experiences on that person.” In other words, those who are blessed are given something far more valuable than mere good luck or even happiness: they’re given a taste of God’s experience. They know God in a way that those who aren’t “markarioi” can’t.

But just because they’re participating in the divine experience doesn’t undo their hopelessness, their grief, their hunger and thirst for righteousness. And God certainly isn’t the type to overlook or downplay such things. It stands to reason that an equally important part of blessing is God sharing these human experiences at the same time that the hopeless and grieving are sharing the divine experience. These people aren’t just feeling happy, as if God had given them an extra shot of endorphins; they’ve been given the profound gift of divine solidarity. At the same time God gives them a holy sense of wellbeing, they also know that God truly, deeply understands what it’s like to live their lives. God doesn’t just acknowledge their pain and suffering; God stands with them in the midst of it.

In the beatitudes, Jesus isn’t reaffirming our preconceived notions of blessing. He isn’t confirming that our individual comfort is a sign of divine favor. In fact, he really isn’t talking about most of us here, at all: the imagined oppression of our societal obligations don’t qualify. He’s teaching us something new for us to incorporate into our lives: that God stands with the utterly hopeless. God provides for the downtrodden. God defies our conventions of who is worthy, and God blesses those whom society has overlooked or forgotten. God sees and loves and defiantly stands alongside those whom we wouldn’t consider especially deserving of attention. So maybe those Cheesemakers ARE blessed, after all!

Whom do you neglect because of their wretched circumstances? Whom do you mistreat because you believe their misfortune is a sign of their own depravity? Whom do you deride because you view their perspective as weak or na├»ve? Seriously, take a moment to think about it…It’s your choice to turn your back on such people, to concern yourself with your own interests instead of considering theirs. But know that if you do, God doesn’t stand with you. God stands with THEM. Those trapped in poverty…those desperately seeking a better life through immigration…those rejected by society for being honest about who God created them to be…those protesting injustices tirelessly…those willing to make personal sacrifices for the good of the whole…THESE are the people whose experiences God chooses to share. THESE are the ones that Jesus calls “blessed”.

Of course, we all want to believe that our own good fortune is a sign of God’s approval. But God doesn’t work like that. God’s enormous love is for all humanity; as we’ll hear in a moment at the table, Christ’s blood was shed for all people. None of us has more of a claim to divine favor than anyone else. But we do know that where there is suffering, where there is grief, where there is fear and oppression, God is there, giving of Godself, mourning alongside those who are hurting, and sharing a piece of their burden. And don’t we want to be where God is?

Let us, then, bravely step outside of our comfort zone, shrug off the false mantle of our own “blessedness”, and take our place alongside the Lord in carrying the cross that others have been forced to bear. These are the saints that we celebrate today: not the spiritual titans, the powerful and influential, the admired and envied, but all those who have felt God’s presence in the shadow of the valley of death, and those who have chosen to stand together with them in solidarity. Whether you’re one of the hopeless or one fighting for those without hope, God is with you. Carry on with the work of God’s Kingdom, saints of God, knowing that you are not alone, but that a great cloud of witnesses goes with you. Markarioi—you are blessed. May you always remember what that truly means. Amen.

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