Tuesday, February 7, 2017

In which the word "Blessed" is ruined for you

1.29.17 MLC
Epiphany III
1 Corinthians 1 18-31
Matthew 5:1-12

“What makes a disciple?”

That had to be a serious, daunting question hanging over the heads of the disciples as they followed Jesus away from the growing, demanding crowds up the mountain.  I guess the first answer to the question “What makes a disciple” is that these men get some very exclusive air-time with him.  

Since dropping their nets, leaving life as they know it, the disciples have been busy with Jesus who is ever on the move. Jesus has been traveling to villages and cities and drumming up all sorts of attention due to his healing of the sick and outcast of society.  The fame of this movement and this man has been spreading.  Questions as to his movement were beginning to stir, and without the aid of social media or even irritating mailbox propaganda, the only real way to figure out what Jesus was up to at this point in his life was to, quite literally, follow him.  The crowds grew, the intention of the crowds were varied -- some were drawn to Jesus, some had been baptized by John the baptist, many wanted to see political upheaval and thought maybe this Jesus was finally the one to bring liberation from Roman rule.  Maybe he was the one to build up a kingdom full of power and might and throw unjust rulers from their thrones.  So the citizens of the world began to fall in line and the verse right before this morning’s reading says and great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.” A diverse, growing following is trailing behind Jesus, no wonder the powers in the established kingdom where wathcing with suspicion...

This would have been the time to make a really great speech, surely Jesus would turn and start preachin’ to the masses, and secure the loyalty of all these people, right? No. Jesus is not interested in being a savvy politician or preacher, he wants to be very, very clear about his intentions and the kingdom of God and so he manages to leave the crowds and hike up the mountain with his closest disciples to do some in-depth teaching on what following Jesus really means.

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.

And on and on the blessings go.

What does this word, “blessing” really mean? Well, let us be wise to remember that over 2,000 years of human history have passed and the way in which we hear and use this word has evolved since these utterances of Jesus.  The greek word here is “makarios” and there is no one, English word that really sums up it’s meaning.  This greek word is typically defined as “happy, grounded, contented”.  Jesus is echoing a phrase we see frequently in the book of psalms and proverbs from the Old Testament, in those writings there are many saying that start out “Happy are those…” or “happy is the one who…” so this rhetoric may have been familiar to the ear of the disciples, it harkens them back to the Torah and God’s law.

Now, you and I use this word all the time -- right? Sometimes it’s light and easy, “I was blessed by the vacation I just took” I have a friend who used to claim she had great parking-lot blessing, always able to that one spot in a crowded lot, parking-lot blessings.  And other times this word is sigh after a difficult chapter of life, “I was so blessed by the support I received” or “I’m so blessed by my family”.  I would like to suggest, as the risk of ruining this word for you forever, that what we really mean when we say “blessed” is “gifted” or “grateful” .  We’re typically taking stock of something good that came upon us.  

And the reason why I think this little vocabulary lesson is important is the way in which Jesus uses the “makarios” “blessed are they…” If I were to ask you, “Who here wants to be blessed?” You’d probably think “yeah, I’ll take something good...promotion, happiness” And maybe that’s how Jesus is starting out this teaching with his disciples.  “Who here sitting on the mountain wants to be blessed?” And then Jesus starts this descriptive work, “poor in spirit, meek, mourning…” Can’t you just see the disciples slowly lowering their hands? Nah, nevermind Jesus, not what I thought the whole blessing thing would be.  

So many were looking to Jesus to rise to power.  So many were hoping that Jesus would affirm the very religious, those that were already sit in the sweet spot of their communities, highly respected and regarded.  Many were hoping Jesus would build a kingdom and they wanted a seat high up in it.

Jesus knows our hearts, Jesus knows what we are really seeking and so he gets up on the mountain to clarify to the disciples what the kingdom of God will be like.  He is describing what this journey of ministry will be like for the disciples, for the people Jesus will encounter and ultimately he is pointing to the cross of suffering and persecution.  

What makes a disciple? Indeed, we are blessed to be a disciple, but we must be wise to remember what that word means when spoken by our Savior who was born in humility, who dined with the shameful ones, who healed the untouchables, the refugee who was persecuted, betrayed and executed...when you know his whole story the floor pretty well drops out of the bottom of this word “blessed”.

The beatitudes, this litany of “blessing” that appears here in Matthew’s gospel and also in Luke’s is not about us at all! The beatitudes is just the beginning of Jesus revealing to his followers the nature and a vision of God Almighty.  

And where is this God intensely present and at work in our world? Listen in to the beatitudes again, the pattern is fairly clear…

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit and those who mourn,
‘Blessed are the meek and ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
‘Blessed are the merciful and ‘Blessed are the pure in heart
‘Blessed are the peacemakers
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted like the prophets before...
This is the upside down, inefficient, favoring, healing movement of God and we, as disciples of Jesus, are invited to be present and working in the kingdom what blesses those Jesus speaks of here.

Even though this is a popular piece of scripture, and we’ve all probably encountered it is still surprising, isn’t it? This is the kingdom God is building? This is the life of listening to the voiceless, comforting the suffering, working for peace and righteousness that we, the church of Christ, are called to.  And this is the blessing of our God to us which somehow is not about us at all, but rather we are swept up into a kingdom that honors our marginalized, suffering neighbor first.  As theologian Henri Nouwan once wrote, “For Jesus there are no countries to be conquered, no ideologies to be imposed, no people to be dominated.  There are only children, women, and men to be loved.”

‘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.