Sunday 2 November 2014
All Saints Sunday
The rich are held in high esteem. The happy are admired. The powerful are respected. The wealthy are looked up to. The shrewd are valued. Those who seize the opportunity are applauded. The war heroes are honored. The praiseworthy are celebrated.
If Jesus had just said those things, it would have been a whole lot easier. At least those things make sense. Of course people look up to the rich and the wealthy. Of course people admire those who are happy. Of course people respect the powerful and congratulate those who take advantage of an opportunity to get ahead. Of course we honor our war heroes. Those things just make sense. Everyone knows that that’s the way that things work.
Unfortunately, at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said the exact opposite of all of those things. The poor are held in high esteem. Those who mourn are admired. The meek are respected. The hungry are looked up to. The merciful are valued. The pure in heart are applauded. The peacemakers are honored. Those who are persecuted are celebrated.
The more we really look at the Beatitudes, the more we take them as something more than just pretty words that we learned in Sunday School, the more we are forced to realize that they simply don’t make any sense. Why would anyone look up to a poor person? Why would anyone strive to be hungry? Why would anyone aspire to be like someone who is grieving? We wouldn’t. No one would. So what is Jesus trying to say?
We might try to explain Jesus’ confusing words by going back to the culture at his time. Maybe these sayings made more sense in Galilee two-thousand years ago. But, unfortunately, they don’t. Honoring the poor seemed just as crazy to Jesus’ audience back then as it does to us today. Just like us, first-century Galileans respected people who had made it, who had power and wealth. People generally thought that if you were doing well and your life was good, that must be because God was blessing you, and if you were doing poorly, then God or some other force must be cursing you. Society honored those who were at the top, and they were considered the ones who were blessed.
What makes this story even more interesting is that Jesus wasn’t making up these sayings on his own. Most of these beatitudes are drawn directly from writings in the Hebrew Bible, books like Psalms and Proverbs. And if we were to travel back in time even farther, to when Psalms and Proverbs were in currency, we would find a similar situation. The people at the top were given the honor and considered blest. So whether it is three-thousand years ago, two-thousand years ago, or today, these words are equally confusing and backward. Even though we’ve heard them over and over, and we’ve had generation upon generation to consider them, they still don’t make any sense.
These days, we don’t use the word “blessed” very often. It’s not a typical part of everyday conversation. We mostly use it when we’re trying to sound religious. And we say things like, “We were blessed with a child,” “I was blessed to get a job,” or “We’ve been blessed with a strong pension plan.” When we count our blessings, the things that we think of would universally be thought of as good, pleasing, or fulfilling. We’re blessed with material things, like food, clothing, a house, plenty of money. We’re blessed with talents and skills, like intelligence, musical ability, personality. And we’re blessed with other intangibles, like family, friends, and love. All of these things are clearly and obviously good. They are things that we want and are thankful for.
But what happens when we don’t have those things? What if we lose a job, or lose a house, or lose our investments? Does that mean that God has stopped blessing us? What if we aren’t intelligent, or don’t know how to fix things, or have a hard time making friends? Does that mean that we aren’t blessed by God? What if we lose someone that we love? Does that mean God has turned away from us?
I know a woman with a son about my age. When he was born, he had all kinds of health problems. He had to have open-heart surgery as a newborn. He had developmental delays. He was in constant need of serious medical attention throughout his young life. She was a member of a church. And when she talked with the other church folk about her son and all his problems, this is what she said. “For a while I thought, ‘Why me? Why is God doing this to me?’ And then I started to think, ‘Why not me? Why should I expect God to shield me from the kind of tragedy that everyone faces, just because I’m a Christian? Why not me?’” Needless to say, most of the other church people didn’t think that made much sense. They thought, “If I am faithful to God, then God will bless me. I give God my faith and belief; God gives me blessings both here on earth and in heaven. God shields me from harm.”
It’s a very common belief, and a very reasonable one. If I do what God says, then God will look out for me, provide for me, and protect me. I will get special treatment based on my devotion to God. And if tragedy does come my way, it must be because I did something wrong or because God is punishing me.
But Jesus says something very different, very radical, and utterly countercultural. Even if you are poor, you are blessed by God. Even if you are hungry, you are blessed by God. The world may not think much of you, but God still does. Even if you are shy and meek, you are still blessed by God. Even if you fail to look out for your own self-interest, you are still blessed by God. The world won’t understand what you’re doing, but God still does. Even if you are a peacemaker, you are still honored by God. The world will think you’re foolish or a coward, but God doesn’t. Even if you have suffered great tragedy, even if you are grieving, you are still loved and blessed by God. The world will try to assign blame for your loss, to explain it away, but God will sit right there in the grief with you and love you all the more. Even if you have lost everything, you are still blessed by God. The world will think that you’re cursed, but God will prove to you otherwise.
This is a message of incredible and astounding grace. We want to assign values to God’s blessing based on a person’s wealth or accomplishments or happiness. But God says, “No. I am more than just a divine vending machine. You can’t just insert faith and get back an easy life. Blessing is so much different than that.”
Divine blessing comes in God’s love and care, in God’s comfort and compassion, in God’s presence and persistence. And it comes not only to those who seem to have it made here on earth. In fact, blessing comes most especially to those who most need it, to the poor, the hungry, the meek, the lonely, the suffering, the striving, and the grieving. Even in the worst times, in the most difficult situations, in the times of greatest trial and doubt and fear, you are still blessed by God. Thanks be to God.