1/30/2011 -- Emily Guthrie -- Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

posted Feb 6, 2011, 3:31 PM by Unknown user   [ updated Mar 2, 2011, 2:45 PM by Terry Brady ]

On the Beatitudes

The Rev. Emily Guthrie, Assistant Rector, St. Margaret’s

January 30, 2011, Epiphany IV


Opening Prayer

Oh God, turn our minds upside down with questions,

Turn our hearts inside out with love

And shake our souls with your justice,

That we, and all people, might glimpse the ever-present realm of heaven.  Amen


Today, thanks to the revised common lectionary, which determines the lessons we hear and inwardly digest each Sunday, we begin a six week adventure through the Sermon of Mount.[1] Catholic theologian Raymond Brown calls it “Matthew’s greatest composition” …in which he weaves together sayings, parables and teachings of Jesus[2] that provoke and prod us, push and astound us.  

Matthew sets this great sermon on a mountainside. For Matthew, as ever, was speaking primarily to a Jewish Christian audience and thus wanted them to experience the echo of mountaintops, particularly linking these teachings to those of Moses who came down from Mt. Sinai and illuminated the Ten Commandments, the central laws of Yahweh, which shaped the practice of living as the people of God.  The Matthean Jesus continues this conversation: teaching, directing his disciples, and us to the way of life as a people striving to be a community of justice in the midst of injustice, a community of love in the midst of alienation, perhaps even pointing us toward what it might be to live in and into the Kingdom of Heaven.

The opening words of the Sermon, the Beatitudes[3] are a majestic collection of aphorisms - pithy one-liners - familiar and foreign all at once that turn conventional wisdom right on its head. 

Oh Jesus, you’re always givin’ us a headache with those mysterious elliptical phrases of yours. Your stuff should come with a Warning label: this made sound familiar, but it is neither logical nor rational in places and may be downright subversive if applied without proper care.

As my 16 yr old stepson said after reading the Beatitudes: ‘these don’t make any sense at all! Why would God want you to mourn in order to know that you are blessed? How are you comforted by mourning? If you are meek – whatever that means – wouldn’t you just get stomped and therefore not have any influence?’ Many of us have this initial reaction.

The Beatitudes stand in stark contrast to the conventional wisdom that shapes the dominant culture in which we live.   They don’t reward affluence, achievement or appearance! [4]  So let’s just consider, as Anne-Marie did with us a few minutes ago with the children, what the beatitudes do not say.  Here are a few beatitudes that don’t appear in the scriptures, courtesy of the author James Howell[5] who wrote:

·         Blessed are those who invest shrewdly; they will own a second home on the coast.

·         Blessed are those born into fine families; they will enjoy countless advantages.

·         Blessed are those with a superb education.

I encourage you to come up with your own…it really is quite helpful. I came up with a few, including: Blessed are the independent and self-sufficient, for they will succeed in everything. And then in my kitchen: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for the organic and fiber-full, for although poorer, they shall be clean & regular. You get my drift. We are bombarded by the values of our culture…packaged in every conceivable way.  These values - not all bad in my book - worm their way into our heads and our hearts so much so that it is truly difficult not to define ourselves and all those around us by those standards of success and achievement.  This conventional human wisdom so easily crowds out the space in our souls for what Paul might call God’s foolish wisdom.[6] 

·         Blessed are the poor in spirit… those who know their emptiness, who cannot help but need, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

·         Blessed are those who mourn…those whose hearts are torn with loss, for they will be comforted.

·         Blessed are the meek, the humble, for they will be open to inherit the earth.

·         Blessed are the pure in heart for with hearts bursting with love, they will see God…

I love that the Beatitudes are written as indicative statements in Greek – descriptions of the way things are – not imperatives or commands of how things should be. [7] This is not a laundry list of requirements for a successful relationship with God or a passing grade in faith!  If we hear it that way, something of their essence is lost. This poetic language points to a vision of human life transformed in relationship with God, with the Holy.

Here Jesus invites us to consider not only the characteristics, the ways of being that reflect the kingdom of heaven –mercy, humility, openness to love, vulnerability – but  that the bounty of those ways of being are not reserved for a utopic afterlife, but available to us in our lives, in the present, right now.

The beatitudes invite us to question under what circumstances we recognize that we are blessed, fortunate and Jesus implies these may not be obvious to you or the world.  Challenging situations, the death of a parent or child, being in a situation where you have been wronged or hurt and must choose whether or not to show mercy, choosing to be humble in the face of arrogance, may crack us open, shake us out of the hold of conventional wisdom. As crazy as it may seem, we may find ourselves wondering - upon reflection -  if a difficult or even desperate situation has been the opportunity to see that we were not alone in that circumstance or even that it has been the very avenue for an encounter with the Holy. (Notice that each is written for groups of people: blessed are those so in its very construction we are meant to see that we share our human experiences.) We may find that “the hungry, thirsty, needy parts of ourselves are actually blessed”… the very doors to the Holy. [8] There is such power in that recognition – and the recognition that you are not alone. These places where we are vulnerable, where we either have little conventional power or choose to respond in a peaceful way, can be liminal places where we can recognize the Holy.

So what is this upside down ethic of living? For Matthew, Jesus uses the beatitudes as a launch into the way of thinking that prepares us to choose to live ethical and faithful lives.  Matthew does mean to make us think, to shake us up so that we are open to the teachings about the kind of lives that Jesus would have the people of God lead. The Sermon on the Mount begins here with the vision of the house where blessing is so close it is already ours, and ends with the parable of the wise one who builds his house on a rock, the solid foundation of the wisdom of God for he hears and ACTS on it, contrasted with the foolish one who builds her house on sand because she hears the teachings, but does not act on them. 

Yearning for, trying on, and living out the ethic of the Beatitudes, we open our hearts to the recognition that we are already blessed, that for example, in being merciful to another, we see that mercy is all around us, for it is part of the architecture of the realm of God.  And that magnificent realm is available to us always, for as Jesus tells us, we carry the kingdom of heaven within us – and among us.

Our job as it were, as people of faith, is to struggle to make those characteristics of the realm of God - mercy, patience, humility, love -- manifest in ourselves, our households, and the world.  We are called to make peace, to hunger and thirst for justice, to love kindness and walk humbly with God so that the reality of the kingdom of heaven might break through and illuminate the reality of our lives and the world.

[1] The Revised Common Lectionary is a calendar of readings for each day from the Hebrew Scriptures, the Psalms, the Letters/Epistles of the New Testament and the Gospel. Divided into three 1 year cycles, it allows a structured use of various readings appropriate to the liturgical season. The RCL is used by many Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, and Episcopal congregations and thus on any given Sunday, parishes across the country are listening to the same scriptures. For me, imagining this offers a way to understand our unity even with such lively diversity.

[2] Raymond Brown, Introduction to the New Testament, Gospel of Matthew.

[3] English beatitude from the Latin beatus for blessed or happy. This was the translation of the original Greek word used by Matthew, makarios, meaning fortunate.

[4] Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, chapter on Jesus and Wisdom, pgs 75-77).

[5] James Howell, The Beatitudes for Today, pg. 5.  I have to stop and add that the wonderful weekly group at St. Margaret’s led by the intrepid David Griswold, last fall read and discussed James Howell’s book. They meet Monday nights here at St. Margaret’s and I encourage anyone interested in lively thoughtful discussion of the scriptures and various theological topics.

[6] 1 Corinthians 18-31, particularly, “…for God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom.”

[7] Feasting on the Word, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Year A, Ronald Allen, pg.311

[8] Manuel Costa, “The Teachings of Jesus,” pg. 61, with my additions at the end.