When we are rooted in God, then, we can transform the hard things into blessings, bringing a wholeness in our lives, because none of us lives either a perfect life or a life without struggles.
As you heard that wonderful scripture passage known as the Beatitudes read this morning, you may have been thinking, “Wait, that doesn’t sound right! Shouldn’t it say “Blessed are?” Shouldn’t it say “poor in spirit?” Those are the words we are used to hearing.
The translation that we heard this morning comes from the Common English Bible, a relatively new translation done by a wide breadth of scholars – 120 men and women from 24 faith traditions in American, African, Asian, European and Latino communities. In some ways, it may be a more accurate version of what Jesus was trying to say – at least a version that causes us to think in fresh ways about this very familiar passage.
The Beatitudes come at the start of what we know as the Sermon on the Mount. As Matthew shapes the story, Jesus goes up a mountain to lay out the basics of his teaching. Matthew was writing primarily to a Jewish audience and his telling of the good news of Jesus is filled with echoes of the Jewish scriptures that would be so familiar to them.
Moses went up Mount Sinai as the Hebrews were fleeing from slavery in Egypt, heading toward the Promised Land. It was from that mountain that he proclaimed the Ten Commandments that would form the framework for how the people he was leading should live.
Now Matthew has Jesus on a mountain, proclaiming ways of living that were more complex, more challenging than what Moses brought down from the mountain.
There is a place in Galilee in northern Israel that is honored as the setting for Matthew’s story. It is called the Mount of the Beatitudes and it is a beautiful place to visit as is the church there known as the Church of the Beatitudes.
So we’ll get to the words “happy” and “blessed” in a moment. But first I want to loop back to Psalm 15, which we also heard this morning.
This was a song the Jewish people used as they entered holy places to pray – a tent in the desert, a temple in the city. In one way, it is a prayer of confession, an examination of how they hoped to live, what it is like to be a people who are shaped by the character of God. It is a way to check how close we are coming to that goal.
The goal is to be people who speak the truth, who do no damage with their talk, who do not harm friends or insult neighbors, people who keep promises even when it hurts, who do not exploit others financially.
“Whoever does these things,” the Psalm concludes, “will never stumble.” Or, to quote an old spiritual, “just like a tree standing by the water, we shall not be moved.” We are rooted in the life of God.
When we are rooted in God, then, we can transform the hard things into blessings, bringing a wholeness in our lives, because none of us lives either a perfect life or a life without struggles. That brings us back to the Beatitudes.
The Greek word that starts each of these phrases is “markarios.” It described people who are in a privileged, fortunate circumstance. In church language, we might call that “blessed.” In more common parlance, it means they are in a happy place.
Now when you hear the list of things in the Beatitudes – hopeless, grieving, hungry and thirsty for justice, harassed – these do not sound like happy things.
But there are other qualities mentioned here that would bring happiness – humility, peacemaking, pure hearts.
What, then, are we to make of this?
First of all, let’s remember that in Matthew’s telling of Jesus’ story, there are lots of references to the “kingdom of heaven.” This is a way of describing God without actually naming God. This is a way of describing what it is like being with God.
“Happy are those who are hopeless, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs.”
No, they are not going to be whisked off to a beautiful cloud far above the earth where angles will be playing beautiful music on their harps. They are going to experience God in a new way in their lives, even in the midst of their hopelessness.
Yes, I know that the more familiar translation says “blessed are the poor in spirit.” But doesn’t “hopeless” catch the emotion here? Our spirits are drained, we are broken, we can’t imagine going on. And yet somewhere in the midst of that, God’s presence breaks through, perhaps through the people around us.
This is a very mundane example, but it might help. I know that last weekend, a fair number of people from Memorial UCC were part of the Women’s March in Madison. In part that was a response to a feeling of hopelessness about what is happening in our nation. And for those who were there, there was a sense that they were no longer alone.
For folks who are Christians, one way of explaining that is a getting a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven even when we feel poor in spirit, even when we feel hopeless. We are not alone.
OK, but then how can those who grieve be made glad – or, to use the more traditional phrasing, how can those who mourn find comfort?
We probably think of this in very personal terms, grieving over the death of a loved one, hoping that friends and family will comfort, that we will find God’s grace in the midst of our tears. That’s a fine way to view this. But there is more to it than that.
Remember how Matthew is drawing on Jewish traditions in his writing. This phrase connects with a passage in the 61st chapter of Isaiah, which Jesus used as his mission statement – bringing good news to the poor, healing to the brokenhearted, release for the captives.
This was a response to the collective grief they experienced during decades of exile. Isaiah writes about comforting those who mourn and giving Zion’s mourners a crown in place of ashes, joy in place of mourning, praise in place of discouragement.
These are words of hope for people who collectively are suffering. Your grief will not last. You will be made glad. If you saw the movie Selma or heard its most powerful song that tells the arc of the battle for civil rights – “Glory” – you know this feeling – “One day when the glory comes, it will be ours, it will be ours.”
“The humble will inherit the earth.” Yes, we are used to hearing the word “meek” here, but that suggests a kind of mousiness in the face of trouble. Humble suggests a self-knowledge, even when we are without much power, a confidence in the face of trouble. When you have that, you can be happy. As Psalm 37 says, “The weak shall inherit the land and enjoy a surplus of peace.”
Notice how the Beatitudes are not just about us as individuals. They are about as a community.
Imagine Jesus sitting on that hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee, seeing his home base of Capernaum down the shoreline. Imagine him looking out at the crowd, not the elites of Israel but the laborers, the farmers, the fishermen, the widows, those caught in the corruption of religious leaders and the exploitation of the Roman occupiers.
“Happy are the people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness (which means justice), because they will be fed until they are full.”
There are echoes from another Psalm here, this time 107. It is a Psalm of thanks to God for God’s love in the midst of hardship. Listen to a few lines: “Some of the redeemed had wandered into the desert, into the wasteland. They couldn’t find their way to a city or town. They were hungry and thirsty, their lives were slipping away.”
Did you ever feel like that? Can you image the people of Palestine feeling like that today? The refugees from Syria? Those fleeing from terror in Somalia? Those worried about their health care or their immigration status or the religion they practice or the color of their skin?
Yet in the Psalm, there is still a sense of God’s love and care with them. Do these words sound familiar? “God satisfied the one who was parched with thirst, and filled up the hungry with good things.”
There’s a danger, of course, that thinking this is all somehow magical, that we don’t have to do anything. That’s why the next few Beatitudes are important.
“Happy are the people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy.
“Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God.
“Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children.”
Remember that within the Jewish traditions, there were some competing strains of how one connected with God. One strain had to do with the rituals of worship, offering sacrifices, following the rules of purification and prayer. But there were many prophets who said this is not what God really wants.
“I desire faithful love, not sacrifice,” Hosea says in God’s voice. That’s the pure heart, one focused single-mindedly on God.
Or those wonderfully powerful words from Micah: “With what should I approach the Lord…Should I come with burnt offerings, with year-old calves, with thousands of rams and rivers of oil?”
No, says Micah. “He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.”
Focus on God. Show mercy to those around you. Help bring peace in a conflicted world.
This Sermon on the Mount started out with promises of a better future for people struggling with the present. It continued with some of the keys of how to get there. But the end – ah, it’s a reminder that doing this is not easy.
It ends with talk about harassment, insults, false charges. In the words of the traditional version, it talks of persecution.
On Friday, much of the world paused for a moment for Holocaust Remembrance Day, recalling that time of horrible harassment and persecution of Jews, gypsies, gays and others by the Nazi regime, the execution of millions of people because of a hate-filled ideology and an insatiable desire for power.
And on Friday, our nation closed the doors for now to refugees from some of the most war-torn parts of the world, a few of them refugees that the people of Memorial and the people of the Madison were reaching out to with mercy.
It’s not over yet, Jesus told the people on the hill. He knew his words would eventually take him to a cross. He knew his followers would face hard times trying to live out his message of love and inclusion – words we will hear more about over the next few weeks as we continue to dive into the Sermon on the Mount.
So what were his parting words for this section?
Be full of joy and be glad – people have harassed the prophets who came before you.
Jesus kept turning the world upside down, offering hope where there was despair, healing where there was pain, challenges where there was complacency.
The promise was not the kind of victories his ancestors had known – victories in wars over enemies.
His promise was moving closer to the kingdom of heaven – that is, closer to God, because, like the writer in Psalm 115, when we live free of blame, speak the truth, keep our promises, when we love justice and do kindness and walk humbly with our God, then we shall not be moved and we can live in the tent of our God, we can dwell on God’s holy mountain.
A composer named David Haas wrote a song setting the Beatitudes to music. It’s called “Blest Are They.” Let’s sing it together.