When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Get ready, because we’ve got four weeks on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. It starts with the ever-popular but nonetheless confusing “Beatitudes,” a series of 8 statements indicating who is blessed.
Most of us have heard the Beatitudes, and can probably list a few. The familiarity with this text doesn’t help us, actually. Because we bring our cultural understanding of what it means to be “blessed” with us. When someone says, “I’m so blessed!” their probably not talking about feeling particularly meek that day. And that just makes the Beatitudes confusing. Because our cultural notion of being blessed involves material things or status things or financial things. So Jesus just isn’t making sense.
So, from God’s perspective, what is “blessed”?
I find it more helpful these days to think about “blessed” simply in terms of joy in the absolute presence of God. Think about that a minute. The more fully we experience the presence of God, the more we know how loved we are, how worthwhile we are, how gifted we are, how blessed we are.
The more fully we experience the presence of God, the more everything else—which turns out to be temporary and insignificant anyway—the more they fade into the background. And we’re just left with the peace of God.
When have you experienced that, even briefly? When have you known the presence of God?
For some, it can happen in the quiet of the mountains, at sunset, with birds chirping, and the clean smell of pine wafting in the warm summer breeze. You know what I mean? You know God is there, and the chaos of life down the mountain is far away. At least for the moment. That’s the kind of “blessedness” Jesus is talking about in the Beatitudes.
Those of you who participated, do you remember last August worshiping with the people of Zion Baptist in Denver? I remember one particular moment that day. I got there late because of worship here. Reverend Davis had already introduced guests who were there. At the end of the service, because I wasn’t there for the introductions, he asked me forward to offer a benediction. I went up, and, when he was finished, I turned around and faced all of you. You and the people of Zion, sitting there side by side, a sea of black and white all mixed together. And in that moment, the presence of God took my breath away and I couldn’t speak. There were, in that moment, only people that God loves, nothing except people brought together in a unity that our racist culture couldn’t divide. There was something bigger than black and white, and everything else melted away. All that was left was God in love with a group of people. I was blessed in God’s presence at that moment.
Wednesday night at Confirmation was another time. We’d spent the two weeks prior to that studying the Lord’s Prayer. It was kind of dry—not the most fun our confirmands have had this year.
But last Wednesday, based on all that dry, boring study, we each wrote our own version of the Lord’s Prayer. And some people shared theirs out loud for the group. Some adults and some kids. These were prayers that came from our guts, our real lives. They were beautiful and amazing. Who has ever experienced applause for a prayer? Our self-consciousness faded just a bit, and we were truly in the presence of God and of each other. In the vulnerability of those prayers, the presence of God-hearing-them, we were blessed.
That’s what Jesus is talking about in the Beatitudes. It’s not that we should strive to be meek or poor in spirit. But in those vulnerable situations, when we are made to feel meek or when we are mourning, when our spirits are withered and our pride has been shattered, when everything the culture around us values has been stripped away, there’s only the presence of God. And the peace of that presence is nothing short of a blessing.
You know what my dream for the church is? It’s that we would be the community that people run to when their spirits are withered, when their pride has been stripped away, when they are grieving a loss so deep they can’t move, when they experience the injustice of the world and know that they have to do something about it, when they have nothing of their own left to stand on and can only hope for mercy. My hope is that they will run to us, because we would be a community that recognizes the blessings of money, of winning, of self-reliance that they’ve thought could hold them are false. I My dream is that they would run to us because we would be a community that understands that strength and winning and power and superiority aren’t blessings at all. That we would be a community that can assure them that no matter what they’ve been taught by the world, that no matter what they are experiencing now, in the presence of God they are blessed. We would be the community to show them the presence of God.
Even more so, that we would be the community that runs to them to show them the presence of God. In our world are many who are vulnerable, frightened, lost—who are experiencing a meekness and poverty in their spirits in ways we cannot begin to imagine. We in the United States have been the place many of these would run to for safety. Tragically, today we are not that place. It becomes imperative, then, that Christ’s church runs to them to bring the assurance that these refugees know and experience the reality of their blessedness.
I think if that happened, the decline of the church would turn around in a week’s time.
David Lose, president of our Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, wrote it this way (paraphrasing), “To be [blessed] is to be inescapably fragile and vulnerable, and it turns out that the surprising character of God isn’t to reject these things but rather to gather them all into a divine embrace.”
Not only are we gathered and held when we are fragile, but we are called to gather and hold others who are fragile. All who are vulnerable and lost and helpless are blessed. Right now. It’s just that sometimes we can’t recognize it until all the false blessings of our culture are stripped away. Blessed are you. God is with us, today and forever.