A New Beatitude

Someone once said, a preacher only ever preaches what she herself needs to hear.  Today is definitely one of those days – we’re going to leave the lectionary and get back to basics for the week.  I’ll tell you why.

This evening I will make a pilgrimage.  Some of you will join me in this journey to Lakeside, where hundreds of United Methodists will come together for 5 days of holy conferencing, lawmaking, and fellowship.  We will also come into Hoover Auditorium and try, in large and small ways, to be faithful to what we understand the gospel to be.

I love Annual Conference – I love the disagreements, the family atmosphere, the ice cream, the long hours, the heat, even the mayflies.  I love sitting with my brothers and sisters in Christ, praying, singing and thinking through the issues at hand in the life of the Church, on the edge of the Kingdom of God.

But.  This year, I haven’t been looking forward as much.  I dread some of the conversations we’ll have, because I know they will be sad.  Some will, despite our best efforts, be unkind.  They will be hurtful.  Because, once again, we’ll be “debating” the value of some of our beloved friends, colleagues, and family members – our glbt lay and ordained leaders, those like Bill Bronson, who is our elected CFO but who will have his character assassinated again on the floor of Hoover Auditorium because he is both an excellent CFO and honest about his sexual orientation.

I find myself thinking a lot this week about the Beatitudes.  Matthew 5 is perhaps – after John 3:16 – the most quoted portion of the gospels – You can probably recite most of them from memory.  Blessed are the persecuted.  Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are the meek.  Blessed are the mournful. Blessed. Blessed, blessed, are those we do not expect to receive God’s blessing. Blessed.

I find it nearly impossible to share a blessing with some of these, my brothers and sisters who will stand at the mic and defame one another.  But Jesus sets a precedent I can’t ignore – a model of commending even those who appear – from all outward appearances – to be unblessable.  To be incapable of blessing others or being blessed. I need some help understanding how this blessing stuff works… Maybe you do, too?

Let’s remember the scripture again – it’s an old and complex story for Jesus, this understanding of blessing.

Blessed.

The first time we encounter this word in the story of Jesus, it is in Luke’s gospel. Elizabeth offers this word—repeatedly—when Mary comes seeking sanctuary with her elder kinswoman amidst their mutually miraculous pregnancies.

Blessed are you
among women,

Elizabeth says to Mary,

and blessed
is the fruit
of your womb.

And blessed is she,

Elizabeth says soon after,

who believed.

Blessed, Elizabeth says to Mary: once, twice, and yet a third time.

Blessed, blessed, blessed.

Barely beginning to take form, Jesus feels the jolt that goes through Mary when she hears this word, blessed. Something in the growing Jesus feels the way the word settles inside Mary when she recognizes it to be true. When she knows it in her bones. When she claims the word for herself as she sings the Magnificat:

Surely, from now on
all generations will call me
blessed.

Blessed. Jesus absorbs this. Blessed seeps into his forming cells, blessed passes from Mary’s flesh into his own. From the womb, he knows the power of receiving a blessing, of living within it. He understands what it means to inhabit this word, to dwell within one who has been named blessed.

Jesus knows this word from the inside. And so there comes a time when he begins to say it. Again. And again.

 

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.

(It is as though Jesus is saying, Can God fill anyone who is full?  What if you find you are full of illusions rather than truth?)

 

‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

(To mourn is to be given a second heart, to care so deeply that you show your ache in person.  To be unashamed of tears, and to forget yourself for a moment.)

 

‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. (Is meekness the face of weakness, or to be so full of truth that everyone is comfortable in your presence, to need no followers but only the need to be true to themselves.)

 

‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. (What would it be like to be hungry for all that is lasting and right, for broken bread and kept promises.  Hungry for Good News?)

 

‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. (For when you throw around forgiveness unconditionally, like rain on a dray earth, will never be forgotten, nor untouched.)

 

‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. .   (Can God ever say no to one who is like a child exploring a new day, to whom all is possible? Whose heart isn’t hidden?)

 

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. (Are these not God’s special people?  The ones who dream dreams, walk in peace where the wild things are, whose hearts can not stay at home?)

 

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (What is it to be one who says, “I will stand on the side of those with no power.  There is no joy like being the voice of the voiceless.” These are the ones who believe most deeply, for they have the most need to trust.)

 

‘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.

 

It seems, blessed are those who make themselves vulnerable in some way.  Not the powerful, not the wealthy, not those who are strong or who have a plan or who create extravagant church growth charts or budgets. No.  Those who become permeable and let the world in, who take a chance on a different path, they will be called blessed.

 

What Elizabeth did for Mary, Jesus does in the Beatitudes for his disciples. What Elizabeth spoke to the one who bore Jesus into the world, Jesus speaks to these whom he will call to become his body, to continue to bear him in this life, to become his hands and feet after his flesh is gone.

Jesus will not cease to say blessed after this passage, this litany, in Matthew 5. He will speak it yet again. When the imprisoned John the Baptist sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus tells them to return to his cousin and tell him what they see and hear, of the healing that comes to the blind, the lame, the lepers, and more…What Mary did—hearing, seeing, opening, receiving, responding—Jesus invites all his hearers to do. The blessing that imbued Mary—the blessing that Jesus absorbed in the womb and proclaimed throughout his ministry—Jesus tells the crowd is available to them as well.

We often talk about being blessed as if it is a reward, as if good fortune comes to people as just desserts for good behavior. Much of Christian culture equates blessing with prosperity, with health, with satisfaction and obvious abundance – with, if you will, WINNING.

 

With the beatitudes, Jesus utterly disrupts this line of thinking.

 

Christ is telling those who hear him that they are fortunate to be this way. They are fortunate to possess these qualities of life. Why? Because it means they inherit the blessings or fortunes of God’s promised kingdom.

 

In Israel, where Jesus first shared these Beatitudes, it was not common to think of the poor, the hungry, or those who were in mourning as blessed. The Beatitudes were a shocking reversal of expected values and virtues. We also live in a land where prosperity is equated with blessedness and the poor and the hungry are pushed aside. If we were to rephrase the Beatitudes, what words and images would we use today?

 

Annual conference is a season when I find it most difficult to believe in blessing.  I want everyone to be peacemakers – but I myself am not one.  I want all to be meek, but this is not who we have become.  I want all to be pure in heart, hungry for righteousness… but we are human and fall down.  We all hold some hatefulness in our hearts– how can people who behave in such ways possibly be blessed?  How can those who are oppressed by them be?  And If I’m going to be a beatitudes-liver, can I learn how to bless and be a blessing to even those who I struggle with the most?  What the beatitudes command from me – in the model of Jesus – is the willingness to bless those who look unblessable.

 

Are people who hate – for whatever justifications, rationalities, or reasons of faith or conscience – are people who hate “bless-able?”  What is to redeem in that behavior?  How can we all watch one another make mistakes – even terribly damaging ones – and bless one another, just as Jesus blessed those around him who would ultimately fail him at the cross?

 

In answer, I’ve been working on some “alternative” and rephrased Beatitudes this week, to address these modern questions.  Let me know what you think – you should write your own, and let me know how it goes.

 

Blessed are those who wait, for they shall see the completion of the Kingdom.

Blessed are the anxious, for they will receive peace.

Blessed are the narrow-minded, for they will find the greatest measure of transformation.

Blessed are those who think in only black and white, for they have at least found two points on the spectrum.

Blessed are those who have been told they are to stay silent, for they will be spoken for in God’s voice.

Blessed are those who notice desolation, for they will be also the first to recognize new growth.

Blessed are those who have grown small, for they will be given more space in which to breathe.

Blessed are those who suffer, for they will be strong and ready for times to come.

Blessed are the tenderhearted for they will recognize hospitality in strange places.

Blessed are you who have been wounded by others, for you will find a new way to heal.

Blessed are those who love unwisely, for they have found the secret to living.

Blessed are those living in dark places, for they will care most creatively for the light.

Blessed are those at the end of their rope, for they will reach out for help and expand therefore their community.

Blessed are the envious, for they will remind others of what they already possess.

Blessed are the clumsy, for they will drop seeds along the path.

Blessed are those who give out of their poverty, for they will be good stewards of what they have been given.

Blessed are they who are hated, for they will rise up and give the lie to the false gospel of earned salvation.

 

Beatitudes are for people who have their hearts set on the Reign of God.  They are a way of life designed for those who want their lives to be a blessing.  They have a kingdom on their minds that won’t let them rest until all the world is striving to be just, compassionate, and single-hearted.  They call us forth from the cozy ruts of daily living and urge us to be Christ in the world.  They tell us that the Reign of God is already in our midst if we can bless the world with beatitude-living.  The beatitudes are values that come straight from the heart of Christ.

 

To be blessed is not a static state. There is a dynamism within the word blessed: it implies an ability to be in the ongoing process of recognizing, receiving, and responding. To be blessed is to enter a kind of pregnancy: to take Christ in, to let him grow in us, to bear him forth, then to receive him and bear him yet again in our acts of mercy, of compassion, of solidarity, of love.  And so, we can bless those who are hateful.  We can bless those even who seem opposed to Christ.  We can bless those who we do not understand, who are strangers to us – we can do this because giving a blessing is about being on a path together, about the journey TOWARD Christ.

 

And you? Who or what do you name as blessed? How do you seek to embody the blessing of God in your own life—to see and to hear Christ, to recognize him and bear him?  Are there any here, or down your street, or across the country who you need a new beatitude for in order to give them a blessing?  Who are they, and how will you bless them?

 

I pray that you’ll be with me in spirit this evening and through the week at Annual Conference – pray that we will be blessings to one another, that the Beatitudes will be alive and well there.  Pray for our Conference, for our lay leaders and pastors, for our conversations.  Pray that they are holy.  Pray that they are kind. Pray that we will be a beatitudes people, a blessing to one another.

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