Sermon on the Mount Part 1: Beatitudes

This sermon was preached at Bellwood and St. Luke’s United Methodist Churches on Sunday, January 29, 2017. It begins a series on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s gospel. Today’s text is Matthew 5:1-12.


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Over the last few weeks in worship, we’ve explored some pieces of who we believe Jesus to be as an exercise in interpreting the meaning of Christmas. Today, we begin a new series exploring Jesus’ mission through some of Jesus’ most well known teachings – the Sermon on the Mount – that will take us up to Lent. And here’s the main thing about Jesus’ mission: Jesus’ calling or purpose in life was to show people what the kingdom of God was like and invite them to participate in God’s kingdom, in this life and the life to come. So, as we look at pieces of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we’ll be exploring two basic questions:

  1. What does Jesus show us about God’s kingdom and character? and
  2. What does living into the kingdom of God look like?

In her essay “Blessedness” on today’s passage, writer and teacher Joy Jordan-Lake includes two stories of parents and children that she could have easily taken from any of our lives. In the first, she recounts her brother calling someone they know a “redneck” – they lived in the South. From the kitchen, their mother overhears them and corrects them: “We don’t call people that.” Later, the scene repeats itself for Jordan-Lake, only this time she’s the mother. She overhears her middle schoolers referring to someone as a “loser” and she corrects them, “We don’t call people that.”

Have you lived this scene? Have you seen and heard language used to keep people down, to segregate people as “us” and “them”? Have you seen and heard language used to build walls, to separate, based on any perceived or real difference from intelligence to wealth, from skin color to worship practice?

I suspect we all have lived this scene. I have lived through this scene. I live it in my home, and I lived it coaching cross-country at our school. And, unfortunately, that my kids and our community’s teenagers need to be reminded, “We don’t call people that,” and “We don’t talk to or about people like that” means that they’ve learned it from someone, maybe even us.

From early in life, we humans are good at separating and sorting. We start with blocks and we move on from there. I spent my day off this week building shelves and organizing pantry things according to type. I’ve even thought about putting labels next to my new pantry shelves: beans, baking, vegetables, jellies, salsa, and so on. We’re good at dividing, separating, and labeling things. Sometimes, it might seem helpful, but when it turns to people, we start to question: “We don’t call people that…do we?” And then we hear Jesus today from the Mount.

Today’s passage is called the “Beatitudes” because, in many familiar translations, each line begins with the word “blessed.” These translations draw on the Latin word beatus, meaning blessed. The version we read today uses happy because the original Greek word makarism means, “happy, in a privileged circumstance, or fortunate.” But whether we use “blessed” or “happy” these beatitudes from Jesus are strange. They don’t fit our categorizations, or those for his First Century hearers.

Seeing the large crowds, Jesus climbs up a mountain, which was more like a large hill near the edge of the Sea of Galilee, and begins teaching them – his disciples and the crowds. The area created a sort of natural amphitheater, somewhat like if Jesus sat on top of the concession stand at the football stadium with all of us sitting facing up from the stands and the field. And he begins with these flip-flopped blessings that don’t fit with our categories.

  • “Happy are people who are hopeless…
  • “Happy are people who grieve…
  • “Happy are people who are humble…
  • “Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness…
  • “Happy are people who show mercy…
  • “Happy are people who have pure hearts…
  • “Happy are people who make peace…
  • “Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous…
  • “Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you…

Does this fit with your view of the world? It sure doesn’t mine. Being in any one of these groups that Jesus calls “happy” or “blessed” are certainly not on my list of desires, except maybe being humble or pure hearted. Even if Jesus says, “[The] kingdom of heaven is yours…you will be comforted…or you will be made glad…” I’m not excited about being labeled as hopeless, grieving, or hungry. For example, if grieving is the way to be comforted, I’d prefer not. Probably we all would.

But this is the trap of reading the Beatitudes. Read in this way, it sounds like Jesus is giving imperative – command-type – lessons: “Want to inherit the kingdom of God? Be hopeless. Want to be comforted? Then grieve.” It’s tempting but incomplete (if not wrong) to read Jesus’ Beatitudes as a prescription for action. It’s tempting because we’re a doing-for-ourselves sort of people. But it’s’ incomplete because the Greek sentence structure isn’t in the imperative form; it’s in the indicative form, the type of language the describes a statement of fact or reality.

Read this way, Jesus is saying something different and more profound. He’s not saying, “If you want to be comforted, then grieve.” He’s saying, “If you are among those who are grieving, who are hopeless, who are left out, who are looked down upon, God’s blessing, God’s fortune, God’s love is already upon you – not because of what you’re experiencing, but because of who God is. This is what God’s kingdom is like.”

All the crowds gathered around Jesus are gathered there for one basic reason: they need healing. Matthew tells us, at the end of chapter four, that large crowds were following Jesus around the region bringing people who had diseases, who were in pain, who were possessed by spirits, and who were suffering in multiple other ways. Jesus’ crowd at the mount wasn’t the middle or upper class folks. They weren’t the ones for whom everything was going well – quite the opposite. And Jesus proclaims that they, these people, blessed.

When Jesus calls these folks out as blessed, he’s using the names their culture labeled them with and turning those labels on their heads. Their neighbors, their adults and children, had done their worse in labeling them in ways similar to our own: “loser, redneck, cripple, idiot, weakling, nasty, woman, immigrant, victim.” And Jesus gives them a new label: “blessed child of God.” In his straight-forward words, Jesus blesses each of the people with a new name, a new identity. They are no longer whatever anyone else has called them. They are God’s. And in blessing these people from the Mount, Jesus reveals to them what God and God’s kingdom are like. God is one who welcomes, loves, and blesses all those whom society has forgotten, labeled, abused, or kept out. And God’s kingdom is one of inclusion, blessing, and restoration.

One year at camp, my high schoolers led a skit in worship. Two people stood in the front as all the other actors walked up and stuck labels they’d been given on them. And the labels were harsh: ugly; fat; stupid; slut; every bad name in the book; worthless; too smart; goodie-two-shoes; immigrant; the N-word; refugee; good for nothing.

There are labels like these we all carry around. They’re labels that others place on us. And sometimes, they’re labels we place on ourselves. They’re labels that sometimes we can’t help but internalize and start to believe. Some we’ve worn for a long time. And our culture is still putting labels on people: or else I wouldn’t have to correct my children, and my cross-country runners, and myself, saying, “We don’t call people that”; or else there wouldn’t be an unknown number of people stranded at US airports trying to enter a country claiming to value freedom.

But in the midst of people putting labels on these actors at camp, another figure entered the scene. She calmly, lovingly, but with great speed, began taking off all these other labels. When she was done, she hung one label around each person’s neck: “Child of God.” We might just as well, today, hang this label: “Blessed and Happy.”

Jesus blesses us each with a new identity, so that we can find joy, meaning, love, and acceptance in God and God’s kingdom. Jesus calls us “blessed.” God calls us “happy and blessed.” May we share in labeling all the people in our lives with the only label that matters – “Blessed child of God” – for this is the kingdom of God.

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