Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
January 22, 2023
Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on God’s law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they flourish.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
– – –
Have you ever wondered why in the world Jesus would call someone who was poor blessed? Or someone who was grieving? Or hungry or thirsty, or humbled, or persecuted and reviled?
Our society tends to assign the status of “blessed” (also translated “happy”) to people who have just had a healthy new baby, got a promotion, beat cancer, or took really cute photos with all their immaculately dressed, smiley grandchildren. We are blessed if we are on vacation in Cancun, not if we are unable to pay a light bill, mourning the young adulthood of our child who’s struggling with addiction, facing a terminal diagnosis, or sidelined at work for speaking out against bad ethics. Even our psalm this morning has a different interpretation of it – you’re blessed if you’re following God’s laws, and the sure sign of it? You’ll be flourishing, or prospering as the NRSV says, like trees planted beside an ample source of water.
So what is going on here? What is Jesus saying?
First, let’s talk about what is not going on here: Jesus is not saying “Congratulations, life is terrible now – but lucky you, you’ll be rewarded in heaven.” The Beatitudes – the name by which this litany of blessings is often known – have been misinterpreted and misused that way, to keep enslaved peoples submissive, to keep poor or oppressed people poor and oppressed, to get us to focus on the life to come at the expense of the life God has gifted us right now.
And, fair enough, Jesus uses a lot of future tense here; but he uses the present tense to talk about “the kingdom of heaven” – when you are poor, when you are persecuted, “yours is the kingdom of heaven” right now. That’s confusing when we’ve been trained to think of heaven as not here or now, but somewhere up in the sky, after we die. But Matthew’s Jesus uses “the kingdom of heaven” interchangeably with the “kingdom of God,” as in the reign of God’s love that Jesus’ ministry is ushering in – right now. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. It’s a matter of bringing heaven to earth, not waiting for some reward in the hereafter.
That’s the key to the Beatitudes – they don’t make sense, not by society’s standards, and also not very much by the standards of the psalmist, who tells us that if we do everything right by God all will go well. No, the Beatitudes only make sense by the standards of the kingdom of God, where the first shall be last and the last shall be first; where outcasts, not the religious elite, claim the attention of the Son of God; where, as we’ll talk about a few weeks from now, workers get paid the same amount no matter how many hours they’ve been working because everyone needs a day’s wage to feed their families. It’s an upside-down, inside-out perspective, where people aren’t valued by what society says we deserve but by what God knows we need.
It’s a kindom ethic, just like in Mary’s Magnificat which we’ll sing in a few minutes as our closing hymn, where God doesn’t favor people who aren’t powerful or mighty or arrogant, but rather people who are down and out, people who have been humbled or humiliated, people who render mercy where vengeance would be expected, people whose hearts see the good in others instead of holding them hostage to their faults, people who stick their necks out for what is right or risk their safety or status to make peace in the midst of conflict. Those are the people close to God’s heart, the same God whom the Psalmist proclaims “draws near to the broken-hearted.” Jesus says the peacemakers will be called Children of God – literally in the Greek, Sons of God – a title that had been reserved solely for Roman emperors who enforced “peace” through conquest and violence. Can you see how upside-down all of this is, how countercultural – how refreshing?
They’re even moreso in Luke’s version, where Jesus doesn’t spiritualize the blessings. Matthew’s additions – “blessed are the poor in spirit” and “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” – reflect his focus on righteousness, on being right with God; but they’ve led to some utterly obscene claims that extra-pious people are blessed and that we can safely ignore the plight of the poor. Yet Pneuma – “spirit” in Greek – translates equally well to “breath”: “Blessed are the poor in breath, blessed are those who can’t catch their breath” reads a lot differently, doesn’t it? It makes me think of George Floyd and Keenan Anderson, of people trapped in generational poverty who can’t keep ahead of the bills no matter how many hours they work, of people unequally affected by Covid because of their lack of access to vaccines or treatment.
Add to that the fact that the Greek word for poor derives from the word to “cower” or “crouch” like a beggar, and suddenly Psalm 34 comes to mind: “God draws near to the broken-hearted, and saves those who are crushed in spirit” – not merely those who are humbly pious, but those of us who are utterly at the end of our rope.
Luke’s version is also more powerful because Jesus isn’t speaking in the third person – “Blessed are they…” but rather in the second: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.” Imagine how powerful that would have been to be in that crowd pictured on your bulletin cover – how powerful it is now – to hear Jesus speaking directly to you: “Blessed are you who mourn, for you will be comforted”; or, in Luke’s achingly bittersweet version, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” It’s not some dismissal of your pain now, it’s not some delayed reward that could never make up for the loss you’ve suffered – it’s a promise that when you have lost everything, when your world is absolutely shattered – Jesus is with you. God is on your side. The Spirit is closer than your breath. And they will not leave you to utter annihilation; they will, one day, bring laughter again to your lips. It’s a promise that no matter what terrible things we face, we will one day have joy again.
I mentioned earlier that our speaker for our CONNECT event this week will be Leticia Ochoa Adams. Leticia decided to get confirmed in her Catholic faith when her childhood sweetheart, Stacey asked her to marry him, and she realized she would have to be Catholic to do it. So she started going to classes and learning and she thought she had figured out a plan for life. Go to Mass every week, go to confession, pray these prayers, do these novenas – which are several days’ long prayers – be the right kind of pious, and life will turn out well. And you know, it did – it went fine for awhile. She married Stacey, they moved to the suburbs – she had grown up really poor and so to her this was “making it.”
And then one day, her son Anthony died by suicide. And nothing was okay anymore. Nothing was okay. And Leticia says that she decided she would keep going to Mass just so she could yell at God, because that’s where she knew God would be. Leticia in her real life (though not in speaking gigs) cusses a lot, and so you can imagine what those silent prayers sounded like when she was dealing with this world-shattering, heart-breaking, un-understandable tragedy.
I won’t give away too much of her story because that’s hers to share on Wednesday, and I hope you’ll join us for it. But she knows now, years later, that there is, indeed, joy on the other side of grief. It doesn’t make the grief go away; there’s not a day she goes through that she doesn’t wish that Anthony was alive and here to be a dad to his two daughters and an older brother to his siblings and to be both her first-born and her best friend. Nothing will ever fix that. But when she sees his daughters, her granddaughters, running around chasing the chickens on their land – they moved out to some raw land in Texas because they realized that life in the suburbs was not all it was cracked up to be – a lot of the pain caused by abuse she suffered as a child and by reaching for things that weren’t ever going to fix that pain has started to heal out there. And she’s able to crack herself when she goes out to dive bars with her husband on Friday nights. She’s able to play games with grandchildren and go on vacation with them. She’s able to laugh hysterically with her kids about some comedian on YouTube making a joke that they know Anthony would have found funny too. And it’s a miracle.
Each one of these Beatitudes is a miracle, isn’t it? That if you’re meek,if you’re the humiliated and the humble, that the earth is yours. That if you are persecuted and reviled because you stand up for what is right even though you know you’re going to lose a lot for it, that God’s kindom really is yours – you already have heaven brought to earth. That when you are hungry and thirsty for something, whether it’s actual food and water or something so deep that your soul needs to be satisfied – that when you find that, and even when you haven’t found it yet – God is with you. Those are all little miracles, little resurrections*, little reminders that our God is a god who does not wait until everything is fixed and perfect and well to show up, but that God promises to bring us happiness right now, before everything looks picture perfect and we’re on that vacation in Cancun.
Friends, the psalmist wasn’t wrong. Following in God’s way – staying close enough to God that our roots can reach the stream of God’s love – doesn’t guarantee that nothing will go wrong. We’re human – pain, and suffering and disappointment and injustice are just baked into life. It’s not that the tree never goes through drought – it’s that when it does, its roots are planted down deep enough in something life-giving that it can’t be stripped barren no matter how severe the weather.
So whether you are one of those folks going through something difficult and you need to hear that God is on your side, or whether you’re one of those people faced with a situation where you could choose to bring God’s presence to those who need it – the peacemaker, the person who says “this isn’t right, it needs to stop” – know that God is with you. In all the ways the world tells us we are successful – those might be nice. But what really matters is that we have a God who brings heaven to earth, right now, right here, to us. If we can just see it in the right way, if we can just be brave enough to take that one step – then we get to be a part of it too. May it be so. Amen.