Sunday, January 22, 2023

Sermon: "May Your Life Be a Blessing", Matthew 5:1-20

Ah, the Beatitudes. Although Matthew’s gospel technically begins Jesus’ ministry at very end of chapter 4, the Sermon on the Mount is the first of Jesus’ teachings that Matthew reports in full, and the Beatitudes are the very first words of it that he speaks. We’re all familiar with the formula, although we may recall different words: “Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are the meek, blessed are the merciful.”

I completely understand if you prefer this version to the CEB, but to be honest, neither translation is without its problems. “Blessed” has developed a different connotation today that it would have had in Jesus’ time. We tend to see the adjective “blessed” used to describe those “living their best life” – think Instagram posts of young people sunbathing on a tropical beach or an extended family gathered around a Thanksgiving table overflowing with food. It seems to mean something along the lines of “fortunate” or “favored by God” in modern parlance, but, well, God doesn’t actually play favorites. Today’s version of “blessed” has more to do with the Prosperity Gospel than it does the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

“Happy”, on the other hand, isn’t quite the right word, either. It’s relatively easy to find simple happiness – dessert does it for me – and it’s not the point of Jesus’ ministry at all. As C.S. Lewis put it, “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” Besides, this translation renders some of the beatitudes completely nonsensical: happy are those who are hopeless? Happy are those who mourn? Happy are those who are harassed? These things don’t usually go together.

This is the difficulty that Bible translators face. The Greek word here, makarios, has no direct English equivalent. Its meaning is a combination of “blessed” and “happy”, forcing translators to make a choice. But each of these words on their own has a colloquial connotation that doesn’t belong in this passage. So, we have to open our minds to consider the contextual meanings of these words and how they might fit together to convey a single idea.

I was personally forced to reframe my understanding of blessing several years back. As some of you may remember, my first ordained position was at an Episcopal church. I found deep meaning in many traditions that I hadn’t grown up with, but there were some that just felt alien and uncomfortable for me. I discovered one such tradition when a member of the congregation approached me after worship and asked me to “bless” a cross that she intended as a gift for her granddaughter. Generally speaking, Presbyterians don’t “bless”. If anything, I understood it as an action reserved for God. I didn’t know what to do.

The rector suggested that I not think about “blessing” as bestowing some kind of magic holiness upon the cross, but instead as the act of setting it apart for a special, divine purpose. After all, the cross wasn’t going to be just another decoration; it was meant to be a constant visual reminder of Christ’s love. It was like a lightbulb went off in my head – that made so much sense, and it’s been my go-to definition of “blessing” ever since – set apart for a holy purpose.

Even though I’D never thought of blessing in this way before, it’s hardly brand-new idea. Many of us use this definition without even thinking about it every time we eat. When we “bless” the food on the dinner table, we’re setting it apart for the purpose of nourishing our bodies. When we “bless” in the communion liturgy, we’re setting the bread and the cup apart for the purpose of uniting us with Christ. You also may have heard about the Jewish tradition of comforting the bereaved by saying “May her memory be a blessing.” This expresses a hope that the memory of the deceased’s best qualities might serve as an inspiration to those of us still living[i] – that her memory might be set apart for that holy purpose.

Of course, people can be blessed, too, and being set apart for a divine purpose isn’t just a nice thing; it can be lifechanging. We all know how important a sense of purpose can be for human well-being – it’s something many people struggled with during the COVID lockdown. Without a larger purpose, we become susceptible to ennui, boredom, and depression. With one, however, we feel energized, fulfilled, and – dare I say – happy. But not happy as in cheerful or in a good mood. Happy like we mean when we say, “money can’t buy happiness” or when we ask someone, “You might be happy, but are you REALLY happy?” THAT kind of happy. Deep, abiding happiness.

So when Jesus says “Makarioi are the hopeless, the grieving, the meek, the peacemakers,” I have to wonder if THIS could be what he means. He’s telling his disciples that these people, whom the world generally despises, are special in God’s eyes. They’ve been set apart for a divine purpose, and although their circumstances are hard, they ultimately have rare access to profound happiness (for lack of a better term) in fulfilling that purpose. Despite what it might seems, their very LIVES are a blessing to the world.

This is all fine and good, but having a purpose is useless if you don’t know what it is. Fortunately, both John and Jesus have already told us what humanity’s collective purpose is – loudly: “The Kingdom of Heaven is drawing near!” All of Jesus’ sermons in Matthew (including the Sermon on the Mount) are composed around this central theme. Watching for, working towards, and living as the Kingdom of Heaven is of the utmost importance to Jesus – and therefore, those who follow him must share this priority. Taking active part in this heavenly kingdom is the divine purpose that God has bestowed upon all those who want to follow Jesus – even those considered “least” in the kingdoms of this world.

The beatitudes explain how this can be, how the kingdom can be built by those who don’t seem to have much to offer. Those who are downtrodden can find holy happiness in exposing the shortcomings of this world and helping us imagine what it COULD be. Those who grieve can find holy happiness in inspiring authentic community and connection that provides comfort to all who need it. Those who are humble can find it in looking beyond themselves to care for the earth that’s been entrusted to them. Those who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness can find it in fighting ceaselessly for justice until it fills the whole world. Those who are merciful can find it by showing and teaching compassion for everyone. Those who have pure hearts can find it in helping others to see and know God. Those who make peace can find it in showing all of God’s children how to live together in love. And those who are harassed and persecuted can find holy happiness in encouraging others not to give up until the kingdom has finally come. Although these people may seem too powerless or inconsequential to make a difference, their lives, too, are a blessing. They’re each able to contribute in their own way to building a kingdom of hope, connection, care, justice, mercy, vision, peace, and determination – which happens to be exactly the kingdom that God envisions.

All of us share this common purpose of building the kingdom of heaven, and each one of us can find happiness and fulfillment in this purpose. But we all live out our purpose in a different way. God sees each of us and our circumstances, and God calls us as we are, because of who we are. If we deny these parts of ourselves, we can’t be the blessing that God intends for us to be. The purpose of salt is to flavor food. But if it rejects its saltiness, the very thing that makes it salt, it’s useless. Try as it might to play a different role – say, sweetening food – it will never be able to, because that’s just not what salt is for. If it persists in denying its nature, the un-salty salt will never be able to achieve its purpose.

You may not like where you are in life or what you’re able to achieve. But God works all things for good, and God has a way for your life to be a blessing, just as you are. Hopeless, grieving, meek, merciful, even salty – you have a purpose. You, too, are blessed – just not in the way others might think. What might God be using in YOU to build the kingdom of heaven right now? Maybe it’s the graceful way you handle profound disappointment. Or how your grief draws you closer to others. Maybe it’s the way you show mercy even to those who have wronged you. Or how you use the words and actions of your enemies to fuel your hunger for righteousness instead of revenge. You may not even notice these things, let alone consider them blessings – but I can assure you, God sees and celebrates the important work you do just by being the salt that you are.

You are blessed – set apart for God’s purposes. The way that you live your life may be the very thing that someone else needs to light their way to the kingdom of heaven. What a gift you are! It should give you a sense of deep, REAL happiness to know that – even in the times that you feel least “blessed” or “happy” by the world’s standards. May your whole life be a blessing just as it is. It’s more than enough. Amen.


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