Part 1 of 4
The name of our sermon today — and the four-week series of sermons of which this commences — is #Blessed.
Why the hashtag?
I realize some of you who aren’t up on their social media and don’t have a Twitter account might be scratching their heads.
And others, who have no idea what a hashtag is — that checkerboard symbol used to mean the “pound” sign on a telephone!
But in the Twitter-verse, that is the world of social media and Twitter, the hashtag becomes sort of a keyword, and that others using the hashtag sign and the same word — such as “blessed” — well, all their posts, or Tweets, are compiled together and, thus, easily found or identified.
And it’s so common on Twitter or Facebook — even other social media platforms — to see “Hashtag Blessed” when people want to call attention to something good that happened to them:
Got a larger-than-expected IRS refund check… #Blessed
Earned an A on an exam paper withoyt studying… #Blessed
UPS guy delivered my package from Amazon a day early… #Blessed
And most of us, if not all of us, barely notice when in the course of conversation about something good that happened in our lives say “I’m so blessed.”
To be clear, I’m not going to tell you what is and what isn’t a blessing in your life… But when we read Jesus’s teachings in the Bible, specifically our reading today in Matthew 5.1-12, the blessings he is speaking of is nothing we can hold in our hands.
They’re not material things at all.
And, if we’re being honest with ourselves, we probably don’t really even want the kinds of blessing that Jesus is talking about here…
In fact, if being poor, or in mourning is a blessing, who wants that?
When we find ourselves meek, hungering or thirsting for justice, would we call ourselves blessed?
Could you imagine social media posts like this:
I’m in detention today for praying in school. #Blessed
Attended a rally to protect my immigrant brothers and sisters. And was punched in the face. #Blessed
Or how about:
Diagnosed with terminal cancer today. #Blessed
It begs the question: What exactly does it mean to be blessed?
And further, what is Jesus talking about in this section of Matthew, in what we call the “Beatitudes?”
Well, let’s dig in to that a little bit this morning to see what God blesses us with.
So, let’s put this into context.
Jesus has just begun his ministry: If we read a few chapters before us, we would see Matthew tells us Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.
Then he was brought into the wilderness to face the temptation of Satan, and Jesus passes the test with flying colors despite all the things that Satan promised to Jesus, if Jesus just worshipped Satan.
That wasn’t going to happen…
Then, as we learned last week, Jesus began his ministry in Galilee — about 100 miles north of Jerusalem — and called his first four disciples: Peter, Andrew, James and John.
So Jesus and these four former fishermen are talking, and Jesus’s teaching attracts more and more people.
So, as Jesus often does, he begins to walk up a hill where everyone below can see and hear him. And he begins teaching.
This is the what we call the Sermon on the Mount, and it’s found in Matthew 5 through 7.28.
We’re discussing the first part of that this week, and in the following weeks, we’ll make our way through many of the teachings dealing with blessings.
The first part is simply called the Beatitudes, which in Latin means “Happiness.”
And so what do we find, right off the bat? Jesus tells us who is blessed and why.
He starts with “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” Verse 3.
And he goes through nine of these “blessings” in this passage.
We tend to read them and say, “Well, when we find ourselves in these lowly positions, we can always look forward to our reward in heaven, so in that way, we’re blessed.”
That’s true — we will have great reward in the afterlife if we love Jesus and give our lives to him.
But is that all Jesus is saying: “Follow me, endure this horrible life, and someday, you will walk with me?”
Not exactly. Jesus talks so often about the kingdom here on earth, too. That which is within us and near.
It does certainly inform us about God’s kingdom; but it also “sketches an image of life in an alternative community marked by justice, transformed social relationships, practices of piety, and shared and accessible resources for everyone,” according to theologian and scholar Warren Carter, who was called to add the study notes in my NRSV Bible.
I just can’t say it any better than Warren Carter here, so I’ll give credit where credit is due…
And so each of these blessings, or Beatitudes, is made up of two phrases: the condition and the result:
If you do this or are this, then you will receive that…”
Again, Verse 3: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
And this is very recognizable to the Jews whom Jesus is teaching.
Because those conditions is very Old Testament thinking, and very familiar to the Jews.
For instance, if you love God, you will be given food to eat, a roof over your head, good health, many offspring and protection from your enemies…
“I will be your God, and you will be my people” — Ex. 6.7
This is covenant language. It’s conditional.
Very Old Testament.
But Jesus takes all that, and presents a new reality. A new set of Christian ideals that focus on the spirit of love and humility than what had been known.
And now, it’s unconditional.
Jesus talks about that which you cannot hold in your hands, but in your heart: mercy, spirituality and compassion.
And those things are happiness. Those things are blessings.
It’s important to note here, too, that Judah is part of the Roman Empire.
Debilitating taxes, Roman guards posted everywhere as just one of many reminders that the Jewish nation is not their own, it belongs to Caesar. And there is much persecution, poverty, hunger and meekness going around.
What a contrast to the blessings Jesus is preaching.
Life under Rome’s imperial rule, where monetary wealth ruled and the poor suffered, was not God’s will.
That was not Jesus’s vision.
The true kings, the true rich are the powerless and poor, according to Jesus.
And when Jesus preaches that it will be the poor — the Jews — and not the wealthy — the Romans — who will be victorious, well that’s a direct challenge to Emperor Caesar. That’s treason.
Jesus says God will reverse this imperialism over God’s people.
Jesus is a radical, a rebel.
And so we see the blessings as twofold in this context:
The first is that if you suffer, God is with you here and now. God is comforter.
Jesus is saying that those who suffer, God is near, and therefore, that is a blessing.
That for those who mourn, God is comforter. That is a blessing.
That for those who work for peace and justice, God is with them, and that is the blessing.
To have God with us is the blessing.
(Diverge): Listen, there’s a difference here between God being near us and God being with us.
God is always near — God is everywhere. It’s impossible for us to be any distance from God. God is in and around us —everyone and everything — always.
But God doesn’t have to be with us. In other words, God doesn’t have to be for us. But God is. God wants to be with us.
Despite our sins and our brokenness.
And that’s the amazing blessing
But in these low moments, God especially is with us, and that’s the blessing.
How does that feel? Does that satisfy you? Almost as if you’re lucky to have tragedy bestow you…
Maybe we’re blessed because God is not put off by our tragic condition. By our lowliness. By our sinfulness that leads us into pits of despair — sometimes.
When we are at our worst, God is at God’s best for our benefit.
It’s a god who doesn’t say, “OK, that’s enough crying and weeping,” but rather, “Go ahead and let it out. I am here, and I won’t leave you.”
God doesn’t mind our messiness.
We don’t have to have it all together to have God’s love.
In other words, God always draws near to us and draws us near.
What a blessing. What an amazing blessing.
And, again, the second part is that God promises us we won’t be alone even after we’re all better, when we get through it.
Instead, God tells us: You will be with me always.
And so that gives us a great roadmap of how to count the real blessings — God’s abundant presence and promise — in our lives.
But a roadmap still is a set of instructions, isn’t it?
And if Jesus gives us a roadmap, we don’t have a choice but to follow his directions.
Jesus shows us the way in the Beatitudes. We have no excuse if we decide to not walk the path he made so clearly — and paid for with his own blood.
Jesus teaches us these not only to endure for ourselves, but to help all of our brothers and sisters who are poor, meek, hungry, thirsty and persecuted.
He comes alongside of them — and us — and shows us how.
In other words, we must use our blessings to bless others.
And God is that model that Jesus speaks of.
Like we just said, God won’t let us go even in our darkest times, in our messiest moments, in our most hopeless of situations.
God rides that out with us. That’s unconditional.
I know we all want to not have to cry anymore.
And we want those who we comfort to not cry.
“Don’t cry,” we tell our loved ones who are suffering.
We don’t like mourning. We want our hunger and our thirst to be satiated as soon as possible — and when it is, to call that the blessing.
We want to get out of that financial hole as soon as possible.
This is why we’re too quick to say we’re blessed with prosperity and shiny physical things.
That reduces the gift of Jesus’ sacrifice for us — the undeserving.
It sets up this dangerous conditional precedent that IF we are obedient, THEN we will receive blessings.
That’s what the Jews had believed.
So then does that mean that if I find myself crying, desperate, depressed, sick, poor or persecuted that I brought that on myself?
That I’ve somehow been stripped of God’s blessing?
Or God’s blessings aren’t available to some other people because of their circumstances, their nationality, sexuality, skin color or beliefs?
There are some who believe that. And that’s dangerous.
And this is the epitome of what Job’s quote “Friends” represent when they try to justify exactly why God has turned from Job.
Jesus tells them, no, you are not being punished for your lack of obedience. God only brings good.
Jesus, God made flesh, is proof of that!
You may want to contradict me with all sorts of Old Testament language and stories, but Jesus came to free us from that bondage.
Not just you and me. ALL people.
God sent Jesus to flip that around.
Look, we are called to be a people who seek out the poor, the mourners, the meek, the hungry, the thirsty, the persecuted and show them the kingdom of God.
The very act of serving those needs — not as someone who is “above” them, but who is “beside” them — is showing them the kingdom of God.
What do I mean by that?
You see, even with our best intentions, sometimes the way we serve others creates a false dichotomy of what we really are intending.
Even without the intention, we come to the poor or the meek and we reach out to help. But we have to be careful that those who were helping don’t see us as the good ones.
“They must be the blessed ones. They are the fortunate ones. They are better than I am.”
When we serve others, do we serve them from above — reaching down to them to give them what they need — or do we come up beside them, sit with them, talk with them, cry with them?
If we don’t do this, then we’re not modeling what Christ has done for us. Instead, we’re maintaining our walls, or even creating them.
Think about it: Jesus didn’t seek out royalty, scholars or the influential to be his disciples; he chose the least.
He ate with prostitutes and tax collectors. He didn’t heal the elite; he healed the poor. He wept with them. And he died between them.
The way we minister to others, the way we serve, the way we live…
This is exactly why I don’t robe or preach from up in the pulpit. I’m right here, with you. Beside you.
This way we serve…
It’s showing them Christ in us.
And it’s seeing and showing Christ in them.
No matter who they are. Where they’ve been.
No matter what country they come from. What religion they are. What color their skin is. What their sins are.
The world, this very minute.
Today, my heart is so heavy, brothers and sisters.
I can’t begin to tell you how completely sad and disheartened I am, and how I suffered in writing this sermon.
Let me ask you something, and I need you to answer:
Did Jesus call us to love one another as he first loved us? (Await answer). JOHN 13.34.
Did Jesus tell us to love our neighbors as ourselves? (Await answer). Mark 12.31
Did Jesus say when you serve the least, you serve me? (Await answer). MATTHEW 25.40.
Did Jesus speak of helping a national enemy, embodied in a parable about The Good Samaritan — that the color of your skin or nation of your birth does not keep you from God’s love, mercy or grace? (Await answer). LUKE 10.25.
Did God send Jonah to the the evil Ninevites — the enemies of Israel — to give them an opportunity to experience God’s grace? (Await answer) JONAH 1.
Did God call down to Peter, telling him to kill and eat food once thought unclean, and did that not mean to spread the Gospel to all nations and all people? (Await answer). ACTS 10.13.
And did Jesus say that “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility?” (Await answer). EPHESIANS 2.14
In just this past week:
Our president has signed executive orders to reinstate torture in this country. Torturing our brothers and sisters. Children of God!
He has signed an executive order to publish the names of immigrants who have committed crimes. We don’t know what crimes or what immigrants. We just know it’s not a list of all criminals in this country, just the ones he wants us to be afraid of. Creating “us” versus “them.”
He has signed an executive order to force the taxpayers and businesses of this country and Mexico to pay to build a wall at the southern border.
And, worst of all, he has signed an executive order to completely halt any Middle Eastern foreigners from coming into this country regardless of whether they are 100 percent legal, whether they work for the government or the private sector, have legal families here or attend our universities and seminaries. Thank God, at least a part of that was upheld by the courts last night.
He has signed orders that are in direct conflict with our very own Constitution — as if it didn’t exist.
To instill fear. To instill fear that there is an enemy in our midst, who is a threat to our freedom, and who is a cancer that must be eradicated now and no matter the cost. Us verses them.
You might not believe this. You might not agree with me.
But history has shown us again and again that to keep people under your power, you create an enemy who you start to believe is below humanity. Us verses them.
Don’t you find this at least a little bit ironic that these last orders were signed on our very own Holocaust Remembrance Day?
Is this what Jesus would do?
I’ve said it before: Solidarity is not empathy. Solidarity is standing up beside the persecuted no matter what it costs you.
All those Bible verses I just quoted you, and all the verses from our reading in the Beatitudes today… These are verses of solidarity.
Make no mistake: It’s God before country, always.
Jesus did not say these were optional.
To call them thus would be to diminish his teachings to us, his great love for us as well as his sacrifice for us.
We are blessed.
Now it’s time to be the blessing.
Now it’s time to live into his truth and into his blessing. Now, more than ever.
Otherwise, what are we doing here? If we’re not following Christ’s teachings, we are wasting our time.
Humble yourselves as you discern this today and in the tumultuous days ahead.
When we love Jesus, we don’t let others stand down Jesus’s love.
Be the blessing
For those who are merciful, pure in heart, persecuted for righteousness’ sake and defenders of Jesus’s name — the blessing is knowing that:
—we will see God, Verse 8;
—we’re children of God, Verse 9;
—we will inherit the kingdom of God, Verse 10;
—we will be rewarded in heaven, Verse 12.
Those are blessings, amen?
A god who never leaves us, that is a blessing, amen?
And an example of how we are to change the world for ALL of God’s children, not just the ones we pick and choose based on whatever criteria we think or is fed to us — this is a great blessing for us today and tomorrow, amen?
And we can understand, then, that anything we do that brings us and ALL people closer to Jesus is a blessing, amen?
And we see that it’s not the temporary things, but the eternal things that are true blessings, amen?