Transfiguration of the Lord
Today we begin a slightly expanded Lenten Sermon Series on the Beatitudes. These majestic phrases at the beginning of Matthew are the keynote address of the Sermon on the Mount, which covers chapters 5, 6, and 7. It is a vision statement of sorts, a preamble, the way Christ gives us of thinking about the world, His world.
One really important thing to note, scholar Eugene Boring reminds us, is that the indicative mood of the beatitudes is to be taken quite seriously. They are NOT, ‘you will be blessed if…’, but ways Christ names what IS. Blessed ARE these among us. Now. This is about what Christ calls true, perhaps naming the marks of the church. 1 This series will continue through to Palm Sunday, and will work in partnership with the Wednesday evening study that will begin in a week and a half. Come join us to continue the conversation. Let us pray…
Christ of blessing, as you gathered with your people, as you called truth and life into being, do so again for us today. Entrust us with a glimpse of your wisdom, so we might follow you with boldness. Amen
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Our plane landed in Indianapolis right as the storm blew in last Sunday evening. It was a bit bumpy, through the darkness and fog. About 350 of us gathered at Second Presbyterian Church there to ask one simple, yet really big question: “What is next for the Presbyterian Church?” We have all heard the complaints – maybe even done some ourselves – about the loss of membership denomination-wide, the loss of power and prestige; we have heard the groaning about the price of 35 or so years of contentious debates about ordination. But, for those of us who gathered and struggled, we began to wonder if something new was happening. We joined in powerful worship, had plenty of time for conversation groups, or simply to catch up with old friends over a cup of coffee. Big churches and small, seminary presidents and seminary students, presbytery execs and the church press, we talked about diversity and technology, about empowering new leaders and holding accountable the present ones. It helped that we didn’t have to solve anything just yet, didn’t have to vote on anything at the end of the day. Though a really quick 48 hours, I left with a sense of gratitude for so many gifted leaders, and a deep hope for our church. Maybe God still has plans for our broken church, for this part of the family we call the Presbyterian Church (USA). Maybe there are some things we can still do. Maybe things could be different. Maybe they already are…
The Beatitudes are about vision. Matthew begins his gospel by reaching back, through a genealogy with names we know – like Ruth and Jesse and David – and names we don’t – like Joram and Eliakim and Zadok – all of this to tell his community to whom they belong. Matthew’s church, Jewish Christians recently expelled from the synagogue, were trying to figure out who they were in a world that was changing so quickly. Matthew orients them, and their Lord Jesus, in a long chain of faithful people, filled with the Spirit of God. Jesus’ story begins, naturally, with his birth in a stable, with wise men following a star, with an escape to Egypt. John the Baptist appears fully grown, proclaiming repentance, baptizing all comers, even Jesus. The heavens open after the baptism as Jesus’ ministry begins with temptation in the wilderness, with the facing of difficult questions, with a reminder of the One in whom he is to place his trust. Disciples are called from their nets and them, like a shot, we are off and running, on the hillsides of Galilee, preaching and teaching and healing, the crowds gathering in anticipation. And then it was time. Great crowds, Matthew tells us at the end of chapter 4, followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan. Excitement grew as they wondered. Who is this Jesus? What is he about? Something wonderful seems to be happening, but what does it mean? This is the function of the Beatitudes, to instill them with vision. And not of the way things can be just a little bit better, but of an entirely different order. These beatitudes, these ‘blessed-are’ statements, blend wisdom and prophecy. Eugene Boring describes the form as wisdom because they proclaim the blessing of those in fortunate circumstance based on observation and experience and prophecy because they play in the tension of present and future, already and not yet. 2 Remember, they are NOT, ‘you will be blessed if…’ Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. They are ways Christ names what IS. Even now. This blessing comes because of the authority of the speaker, sitting on the mountaintop. 3 And this teacher, Jesus, is ultimately the one who embodies these blessings—so they become an invitation to follow because this is who Jesus is, what friendship with him looks like, what oneness with God looks like. 4
This vision begins to develop first by what the Beatitudes don’t say. James Howell, a pastor in Charlotte, has written a helpful little book called “The Beatitudes for Today.” An important interpretive lens he uses – and that we should as well – is how these sayings hold up a mirror to our society, turning all of its values upside-down. He says it is so important to note that Jesus didn’t say:
-Blessed are those who climb the corporate ladder; they will be blessed with a comfortable retirement.
-Blessed are those born into fine families; they will enjoy countless advantages.
-Blessed are those who shop; they will own neat things.
-Blessed are those with a fine education.
-Blessed are the good-looking, blessed are those who satisfy their desires. Blessed are those who have what they need, seem happy, live in great neighborhoods, have some amount of power and control over their lives.
But Jesus doesn’t say that. It doesn’t make sense, almost to the point of being ridiculous. Not blessed are the wealthy and powerful and strong, but blessed are the poor in spirit. The meek. The mourning. Those who seek peace and compassion, who make space for others. Those are things we don’t want to be, generally, that we do our best to avoid. You don’t get ahead that way, Jesus. Surely he must know.
Yet he climbs the mountain. Matthew’s readers would know that this was a holy space, like Moses went up the mountain to receive the law, like Jesus and his disciples would again later in the text for the Transfiguration, that we also read and celebrate today. Special things happen on the mountain. And Jesus announces a blessing. And it doesn’t make sense. We all know what it means when we hear someone say, ‘Bless their heart, but…’ In the south that is condescending, code for pity. It’s not a good thing. But Jesus is saying that God has taken an interest in the poor in spirit, in the meek and mourning. That God is being active, diving in, getting God’s own hands dirty, with us and for us. Blessed connotes in Greek soteria and in Hebrew shalom. 5 Salvation, well-being…not superficial happy, but deep contentment, freedom, peace. Howell suggests Jesus describes blessedness as “being near God, being in sync with God, snuggling up close to truth, committed to follow in Jesus’ way.” 6 Not because of their circumstances, but because of God’s strength, surrounding them, sustaining us.
And in today’s first phrase, Jesus pronounces a blessing on those who are poor in spirit. Tom Long says this could be paraphrased “spiritual beggars.” “This beatitude indicates that those who have come to the end of their own resources, who know they cannot sustain hope and purpose out of their own strength, and who have thrown themselves on the mercy of God will not be abandoned. They have already been given, through the continuing presence of Christ, the kingdom of heaven.” 7 This beatitude includes those who literally poor, bills come due, sleeping in the shelter downtown. But it is also broadens to include all of those on the margins, alone, sick, suffering. It may even include us sometimes, as nice as things look on the outside, feeling that desperation gnawing away. And Jesus reminds us that things aren’t as they seem, that those who may seem like nothing, no one, unimportant, are blessed, loved, cherish by God. Even in their suffering. Even in their deep loneliness. And that the church is called to meet God in those places. Where the poor in Spirit are, God is. Under the bridges, in the alleyways, in the lonely living rooms of beautiful homes where everyone thinks everything is okay. As we all try our best to maintain that illusion. When we keep our eyes wide open and pay attention to one another. They are blessed, so that we might be blessed, so that Christ might bind us all together.
I saw a story last week on the Today Show about Jean Wilson. Jean is 82, and every day for the last three years she has called the same Dominoes pizza in Memphis, Tennessee, to order a large pepperoni pizza and two diet Cokes. Every day, except a few Mondays ago. Her regular driver, Susan Guy, came in Monday morning, and discovered she hadn’t called in a couple of days. “I have to go!” she remembers saying. He manager, unsure, tried to talk her out of it. She told him to clock her out, that she was going. She knocked on the windows, banged on the doors. She checked with the neighbors, who hadn’t noticed anything different. She called 911, and rushed back to work. She ran by later, to see the paramedics and police. Jean had fallen in an interior hallway, and had lain on the floor for three days. She was tired, and dehydrated, but is expected to make a full recovery. The police officer told Guy that Wilson “probably didn’t think anyone would call. She asked who called, and [we] said, ‘Domino’s, a pizza delivery driver.’ And they said she smiled a really big smile.” 8 Because someone noticed. Because a regular person paid attention to someone else.
The poor in spirit can mean a lot of things – brothers and sisters standing at intersections, or in the house next door. In places forgotten to many of us. And we are called, once again, to live into the vision Christ proclaims. Who do you need to look out for? Who do you miss in the pews you need to call? I know you all sit in the same place. How can we, poor in spirit as we may be, be open to the different set of values that Christ proclaims, that Christ himself embodies? Ultimately, the beatitudes are about vision, about seeing the world in all its Godgiven fullness, in all of its possibilities, the kingdom breaking in, with us, even now.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
All praise be to God. Amen.
- Eugene Boring, “Matthew,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VIII. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p 177. This reference comes from the Rev. Jessica Tate’s paper on this text given at the 2010 gathering of The Well, Davidson, NC.
- Boring, from Tate.
- Tom Long, WBC:Matthew, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1997), p 45-46.
- James Howell, The Beatitudes for Today, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2006), p 1.
- Boring, 176, from Tate.
- Howell, 32.
- Long, 46.