Are We Blessed?
Way back in 1967 I stood in front of a room full of people in the fellowship hall of the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Pleasant Hills, raised my right hand, three fingers up with my thumb and little finger folded over so that the tips touched and recited these words.
A Scout is:
Lowering my hand, and with a shake of my Scoutmaster’s hand, I was a Boy Scout!
The words I had just recited are the Boy Scout Oath.
What is interesting about those words is that they are not a list of things Scouts are to do each day.
They describe what a Boy Scout “is”.
They are characteristics to be emulated as a way of life.
In every encounter with the world, we are not only to do these things, we are to be these things.
No matter what.
An approach to how we will conduct our lives every day.
The Boy Scout way, so to speak.
When we do, we proclaim our identity as Boy Scouts.
Which brings us to our scripture reading.
Matthew 5: 1-12
5When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
A little background here.
In Matthew, this text is the beginning of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount”.
What we call the Beatitudes.
While there were many folks around who could hear these words, the words were directed to the disciples.
The twelve whom Jesus has called.
It is the orientation of their discipleship.
Their first lesson.
And maybe kind of an ordination charge.
Jesus seems to be saying saying something like this:
“If you want to be my disciples, you must adopt these characteristics.”
Then I have this image of the twelve standing up, raising their right hands and repeating after Jesus.
“A disciple will be poor in spirit.
A disciple will mourn.
A disciple will be meek.
A disciple will hunger and thirst for righteousness.
A disciple will be merciful.
A disciple will be pure in heart.
A disciple will be faithful despite persecution and hatred for being your disciple.”
When they are done, instead of shaking their hands, Jesus tells them they are blessed.
They are blessed because they are his disciples.
And when we decide to be disciples of Jesus, this is the oath we figuratively take, too.
These words certainly raise many questions, but the first is pretty basic.
What does it mean that disciples of Jesus are blessed?
The word “blessed” comes from the Greek word “makarios” (μακὰριος).
Like many words, it has several different meanings depending on the context.
Some translate the word as “happy”.
The idea expressed by makarios is that we are satisfied as the result of experiencing the fullness of something.
A blessing can be experienced in many things.
In the context of the Beatitudes, what has filled the disciples is their relationship to Jesus.
Jesus is their blessing.
And in order to further their relationship with Jesus, they want to learn to be like him.
So, Jesus is here describing himself to them and then has them commit to following his example.
And, like the Boy Scout Oath, the Beatitudes are not a to-do list.
They are characteristics that will identify the disciples as … well … disciples.
They are attributes that guide us in our response to everything we encounter in life.
And in doing so, we will do things the Jesus way.
So, let’s take a brief look at each of them.
A disciple is poor in spirit.
Jesus would likely have used the Aramaic word “anah’”.
In context, when Jesus used the phrase “poor in spirit”, he was really talking about humility.
An understanding that we are not in charge.
That we are not always right.
That we will make mistakes requiring confession and repentance.
That we must rely on God for strength and purpose and guidance.
When we are humble, we are blessed.
A disciple is a mourner.
A mourner laments that things are not the way they should be or the way the mourner wants them to be.
That the world is broken and dangerous and filled with chaos.
That humanity is distant from God like the Jews in Babylonian captivity after Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed.
They mourned deeply, but also believed that God would redeem them and return them to Jerusalem and to the Temple thus putting an end to their mourning.
So, mourners have hope.
They believe that there is some distance between them and God, but that God will come near.
Jesus is that hope.
So, when we mourn, we are blessed.
A disciple is meek.
In the world of 2020, meekness is considered a derogatory term.
A term that implies cowardly submission.
But that is not what is meant here.
Meekness in this context is sort of a stubbornly patient faith that God will do what God has promised to do.
Jesus seems to be relying on Psalm 37 where it is said:
But the meek shall inherit the land,
and delight in abundant prosperity.
But who are these meek people?
According to the Psalmist they are those who:
Trust in the Lord, and do good;
Take delight in the Lord,
Commit their ways to the Lord;
Are still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him;
Refrain from anger and forsake wrath.
Wait for the Lord.
Disciples do all these things with a stubbornly patient faith.
When we are meek, we are blessed.
A disciple is hungry and thirsty for righteousness.
This is not just a desire to be provided with righteousness.
This is an active search for it.
An obsessive pursuit of God’s righteousness.
What is God’s righteousness?
Well, it’s what God approves of.
Who God is and What God does and so what we are to try to be and do.
It includes such things as integrity and virtue and curiosity and persistence.
It asks this question constantly.
“What does God want us to do in this time and place?”
It is the desire for this, the hunger and thirst for this, that is rewarded.
When we are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, we are blessed.
A disciple is merciful.
Mercy is an attribute of God.
God is merciful so if we want to be disciples, people of faith, we, too, must be merciful.
So, what does it mean to be merciful?
Here is my favorite definition.
It comes from theologian James Keenan.
Mercy is “the willingness to enter into the chaos of another.”
That is how we know God is merciful.
God has entered into our chaos!
Mercy is the attempt to bring compassion, order, peace, calm, fellowship, empathy and sympathy to those around us, even those not like us.
This is what God has done for us and what God expects from us.
When we are merciful, we are blessed.
A disciple is pure in heart.
This one is a bit harder to define.
Many define it as integrity.
Matching our internal beliefs with our external actions.
Practicing what we preach.
Jesus spent a good deal of time scolding religious folks who preached one thing and then did another thing.
Hypocrites, he called them.
A lack of integrity.
Jesus is here telling his disciples that they are to be honest and forthright.
Let their yes be yeas and their no be no.
To be trustworthy.
When we are pure in heart, we are blessed.
A disciple is a peacemaker.
As Matt likes to say, we are not called to be peacekeepers, we are called to be peacemakers.
Peacekeeping might lead us to avoid some conflict just so an argument does not break out.
But that is not peacemaking.
Peacemaking is reaching out into the conflict and seeking to repair the relationships.
Peacemaking is trying to find out why there is conflict and trying to fix it.
Peacemaking in scripture is all about human relationships, not necessarily social or political conflict.
Those social or political conflicts can be navigated better if we make peace by repairing relationships with each other.
It’s kind of that love your neighbor thing.
When we are peacemakers, we are blessed.
This one is a bit troubling.
A disciple is faithful in the face of persecution and loathing.
Why would people persecute and loath disciples of Jesus?
Because they don’t want to be disciples of Jesus.
They don’t want to be those things that make disciples … well … disciples.
So, they look at disciples with disdain.
I remember on those “Boy Scout” days at school when we were supposed to wear our uniforms.
We got a lot of sneers from folks who did not want to be Boy Scouts or stand for what we stood for.
It was annoying, but to be clear, it was not persecution.
When we talk about persecution, we are not talking about sneers and rejection.
Persecution is physical or verbal violence.
In Matthew’s day, people were dying because they were disciples of Jesus.
And they were faithful even then.
When we are faithful in the face of persecution and loathing, we are blessed.
Now these short comments on each of the Beatitudes do not fully explain what Jesus meant when he spoke them, that will be a sermon series for a later day.
And there is a lot of content to what I said today.
But I do want you to take something with you that is easy to remember.
A particular characteristic of discipleship.
What we commit to when we raise our hands and say we are disciples.
It is right in the middle where a good Jewish Rabbi like Jesus would put it.
A disciple hungers and thirsts for righteousness.
It is to be our way of life.
And it kind of includes all the others.
So, why this message on the Sunday after election day?
We have just been through what felt like an endless divisive political campaign season.
As I write this, I still don’t know the outcome.
But what we need to focus on now are these questions.
How do we remain disciples when a winner is declared, and it is not the one we want?
And, how do we remain disciples when a winner is declared, and it is the one we want?
Interestingly enough, the answer is the same to both questions.
We live the way we promised to live on the day we declared our discipleship to Jesus.
The day we figuratively raised our hand and said:
I will be poor in spirit.
I will mourn.
I will be meek.
I will hunger and thirst for righteousness.
I will be merciful.
I will be pure in heart.
I will be a peacemaker.
I will withstand persecution.
And because I will live with these characteristics and attitudes, I will be blessed.