Blessed are the poor in spirit,
Blessed are those who mourn,
Blessed are the meek,
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
Blessed are the merciful,
Blessed are the pure in heart,
Blessed are the peacemakers,
Blessed are those who are persecuted,
Blessed are you when people revile you.
If I were coming from outside the Christian faith, and this was the first thing I heard about Jesus and the concept of blessedness, one question would come to mind almost immediately: “if these are the ones who are blessed, what would it look like to be cursed?” For from any sensible, what-I-hope-for approach to life, these nine categories are hardly the things that one would aspire to. I mean, “mourning” rather than living without loss? Persecuted? Reviled? Meek? Impoverished, either fiscally or spiritually? While each of these is said to have a positive resolution in future – those who mourn will be comforted, the meek shall inherit the earth – the starting state is so challenging, that it is scarcely the kind of thing you would put on a promotional poster for the way of Jesus.
And yet… these are the words before us, as we mark the annual festival of All Saints. On this day, we remember the faithful departed, those who have with full awareness of the potential difficult consequences, embodied the challenges of Christ-inspired life. Kathryn Turner, a Roman Catholic author in the UK does a nice job of introducing the way our scripture reading – the Beatitudes – speaks to All Saints Sunday:
“as the poetry and rhythm of beautiful images of Kingdom living and the fruits it bears flow into our heads – we can find ourselves lulled into a sense of security that this is how life is going to be. But there is a sting in the tale. Jesus – as we have seen before – is a realist. He knows that the world is not yet ready for people who live according to [these] Kingdom principles. He knows that all too often those who hunger and thirst for what is right will be disappointed – those who are gentle will be exploited – those who are merciful cannot expect mercy to be shown them – and those who mourn often have very good reason to, and cannot expect comfort.”
[In the midst of these hard words, Jesus] reassures His listeners – and us: even when the world hates you for living as a Kingdom person – or ridicules you – or exploits you – even then, remember that you are blest by God. Those are the very times when you can be most sure that you are living according to the values of heaven and bringing them into the world…”
And so, on this “All Saints” Sunday, we remember with gratitude persons who have taken up this hard challenge, embracing their identity as God’s blessed ones: famous people and people known only to us, people with big flamboyant personalities and those who toiled in the shadows, each in their own way living faithful lives that made a difference to others; and a bit later in the service, we will have an opportunity to offer up their memories and their names in prayer.
Some of these people were well aware of the impact they were making – perhaps because people did thank them for their contributions, or perhaps because of how broadly opposed and reviled they were by people uninterested in the kinds of changes they were trying to make. Many, however, would be shocked that their actions were even noticed, let alone regarded as influential.
My hunch is that most of them would also be uncomfortable, maybe even offended, to think that they’re remembered as super-human in some way; for all of the people we remember as Saints are first and foremost people: human beings with strengths and weaknesses, with courageous actions and cowardly avoidances, proud moments and pratfalls. What unifies the saints is not perfection, but their very human reliance on the gracious presence of the God whose name is Love.
This is important, not only to humanize the legacy of those we remember as capital-S Saints – those formally recognized by Church hierarchies – and small-s saints, the faithful departed whom we have known first-hand in our lives, but to close the gap between their lives and ours. Christ’s call through the beatitudes is not just to someone else; Christ may very well be speaking to me, and you, and the person beside you and in front of you and behind you, and the first person you speak to when you leave this place, to reach out in a way that may well change someone’s life. The call to embrace Christ’s understanding of blessedness – is to all of us.
This is all well and good, yet there is still a problem, for the very things that Jesus speaks of in positive, hopeful terms, are things we are trained to avoid.
- Countless inspirational speakers, based in business or sport or “personal effectiveness” view competitiveness as a core value;
- we rightly teach our children how not to be steamrollered by others; and,
- no number of participants’ trophies (“yay, we finished seventh”) can dull the knowledge of how great it feels when our team wins the championship.
Yet there it is: blessed are the meek, the merciful, the peacemaker. Jesus is proposing for us a way that is nothing short of counter-cultural, and he knows it. It was as contrary to the patterns of his day, as it is to ours.
Sarah Dylan Breuer, an Episcopal leader in Seattle, notes that the path advocated by Jesus was so radical that his first followers had to leave behind many of their usual friendships and supports in order to take up this new way of life. In looking at the Greek word makarios, which begins each line of the beatitudes, she chooses to translate this word as “honoured” or “esteemed” rather than “blessed” or “happy.” With these two ideas in hand, she writes:
“In the New Testament world, the esteem you commanded was in large part a function of how important your connections were — your family members, your patrons, and your clients. If you were…part of a very important family, you were important. If your family was less important, you were less important. If you weren’t connected to others, that didn’t make you [‘self-made’]; it made you a nobody… Being pushed out of your network of social relationships could mean being left with nothing to live on and no way to get out of that position.
“Jesus gathers in all of these people who have are completely bereft and without honor in their culture’s eyes, and …ascribes honor to them, declaring that these are the people whom God honors. Their human [networks] may have disowned them, but they are children of the God who created the universe, to whom all honor belongs.
Think of this for a moment: these words of blessing, which began the Sermon on the Mount, are not just ironic, counter-cultural words; they are words that probe the lives of those who gathered around Jesus, and with these words he honoured them. In addition to those who had lost some degree of community support by deciding to follow Jesus, the crowd would also have contained many people who were already at the bottom of society’s pecking order, people who heard Jesus say, “blessed are the meek” and thought, “that means me.” There would have been people whose spirits were low, or who carried burdensome grief, or who were constantly being put down and limited, and to these people who wanted and needed transformation Jesus said: God is with you; the seeds of blessing live in you at this moment and will, I promise, bloom to glorious flower. And in that same crowd, I surmise, there may also have been folks who had not been quite so beaten-down, who had endeavoured to build their lives around words like peacemaker, merciful, or seekers after righteousness; and to them, Jesus offered encouragement to stay the course, for these priorities are held gently in the palm of God’s hand.
In the beatitudes, then, in addition to stating a lofty ideal, Jesus also saw his audience for who they were: those who were told by the world that their lives weren’t worth much – the poor, the poor in spirit, the reviled, the dreamers, the dissatisfied. Especially in the earliest years of Christianity, when it was still more of a movement and less of an institution, those most eager to follow Jesus were those who were constantly slamming into life’s barriers and boundaries: slaves and servants, foreigners, women, free thinkers. In the very first words of his first big sermon, Jesus recognized these people, and honoured them. By saying these words out loud, Jesus said to them, and to you, and to those we now honour as saints, that you’ve been seen, identified, known by God as one of those people who wants to go further in living a life that is full, good, worthy, and that the process leading to those good things is already under way. At points in my life when my spirits have been low, when anxiety or depression have had the upper hand, that sense of Christ’s activity in my life, God’s unfolding purpose which I embrace but is not of my making, has been the life-affirming gift I needed.
These words of unexpected honouring affirm that God-in-Christ recognizes that those who are most aware of their shortcomings have great potential to understand the power of love. Jesus shows up in our lives, not at the end of a program of self-improvement, but in the midst of our brokenness: our exclusion, our grief, our thirst for a righteousness that is beyond us. And these words are not merely designed to lift our spirits, but to look around for others needing to know that they, too, are loved and honoured by God: to meet those who are not particularly honoured by the dominant culture, and say “our home is your home.” For these words are not just intended to encourage individuals to “be their best selves”; these words define who we are to be as a people – what kind of community we are to be as a congregation, as a denomination, as disciples of Christ Jesus. The beatitudes both honour and bless those who are not well-served by the systems of society, and place in our midst a picture of a new way of being, where the last and the lost and the least join together in our shared humility, knowing the glory of God’s unshakeable love which does not rise and fall with the tides of public opinion.
In these words of blessing and honour, Jesus places before us the hope of a new reality that has in some senses already begun, and yet clearly still “in progress” – the home of the humble and the merciful and the peacemaker. May these words shape our commemoration of the saints who have gone before us, our attitude toward the world around us, and our own sense of being a community of Christ’s own belovedness. Amen.
Breuer, Sarah Dylan. http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2005/01/fourth_sunday_a.html
© 2017/2022 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church