Sunday, January 29, 2023

The Beatitudes


Mathew 5:1-12

Epiphany 4 / Year A

The American novelist Kurt Vonnegut once noted wryly, “For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes.  But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings.  And of course, that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere.  ‘Blessed are the merciful’ in a courtroom?  ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ in the Pentagon?” he asks and then responds, “Give me a break!”

Tony Campolo, an evangelical pastor, says if you want to establish a religion which is the polar opposite of what Jesus teaches in the Beatitudes it would look a lot like the ‘pop Christianity’ which has taken over the airwaves.  There is something radically counter-cultural about the Beatitudes, calling into question everything we know and value and they may make us uncomfortable because, for the most part, we like our culture as it is.

Blessed are the poor (Matthew adds ‘poor in spirit’, whereas Luke retains what is most likely the original, shorter form of the saying).  Blessed are the poor?  This may be what Jesus taught, but in our world we act as if blessed are those who win the lottery.  We live in a country where the wealthiest 1% control 40% of the wealth; where the six heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune have more money than the bottom 30% on the economic ladder.  James Harlan, our diocesan Canon for Evangelism, was the rector of the Episcopal Church in Palm Beach before coming here.  He has fascinating stories about his time there, including when President Trump visited at Christmas and Easter.  In describing the culture and affluence of that community, he simply and succinctly says, “I can be very seductive.” 

Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.  I mourn the proliferation of gun violence in our society and find little comfort anywhere.  I mourn what human activity has done to our planet and do find some comfort.  Our air is cleaner than when I was a child.  So is our water.  Growing up along the Cuyahoga River, it was little more than an open sewer system and famously once caught fire.  It is now safe for recreational use and is being stocked with fish.  A stretch of the river is now a beautiful national park.  Someday in the near future a dam will be taken down and the Cuyahoga falls will be restored; a possibility I find very comforting. 

Blessed our the meek?  Charles Barkley, in his hay day, was a fearsome physical presence on the basketball court.  He was featured in a memorable magazine ad for Nike in which he had a mean scowl on his face as he clutched a basketball.  The caption read, “The meek may inherit the earth, but they’ll never get a rebound.”  That pretty much sums up what our culture thinks about meekness.  If you what it, you have to take it for yourself.

Hungering for righteousness?  I want what is right for me.  I saw a cartoon of an adult teaching a bible study whose instruction was this: “If you don’t hunger for righteousness just say, ‘that is not my calling!’”  Being merciful?  We live in a world which is all about getting even.  Making peace?  Well, we are into peace keeping, which involves using force and power to suppress resistance, but making peace is something entirely different and much more difficult.

All of my ranting is to say it is easy to see why no one is clamoring to have the Beatitudes posted in public places or taught in schools.  Simply put, they are too revolutionary.  They teach that the marginalized are blessed and the satisfied are missing out.   The Anglican bishop and scholar N.T. Wright says the Beatitudes are the way God’s kingdom, heaven’s rule, begins to appear on earth.  They are not about how to behave so God will do something nice for you.  They describe the ways in which Jesus wants to rule the world. 

In Jesus’ reign there are no haves and have nots.  There are just those who are meek and merciful and those who aren’t.  There are those hunger for righteousness and peace and those who don’t.  There are those who suffer for doing what is right and those who prosper by doing what is wrong.  There are those who find this teaching comforting and those who find it uncomfortable or perhaps incomprehensible.

If Jesus handed out report card and graded us based on our adherence to the Beatitudes, mine would have a lot check marks in the boxes which say “Needs Improving.”  I suspect I am not alone.  Maybe when this lesson comes up again at the end of January 2026 most of my marks will be in the “Is Improving” box and the person doing the grading will write a note saying, “Keith has worked very hard to incorporate these teachings into his life.”  How about you?  What would your report card look like?