Who doesn’t know the opening words of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” in which He gives us the Beatitudes – “Blessed are the poor…” I sometimes think that the powers-that-be should not have it in the Sunday cycle of readings. The text is so dense with meaning, so rich in teaching, and has been addressed by people far more capable than me. When this reading rolls around most years, I feel the onset of writer’s block, brain freeze, and the slow rise of that “oh-my-gosh-what-could-I-possibly-have-to-say-this-time.” This is when temptation is the greatest to borrow something from online or to dip into the files of sermons from years past. But then my guardian angel tells me to suck it up and get to work. Oh well… maybe inspiration will come to those who need it….
That is when I noticed the first reading was from the Prophet Zephaniah. Who doesn’t love Zephaniah? There are only three chapters and it is filled with darkness, distress, destruction, death, doom, despair, flood, fire, and famine. And yet in the midst of all that – there is a message of hope, for a remnant, a people humble and lowly, who take refuge in the Lord. A remnant who will remain faithful to God even as all around them crumbles and falls apart. A remnant who have already seen the Assyrian empire conquer the ten northern tribes and most of the promise in the promised land disappear from their history. A remnant that can already see the Babylonian threat on the horizon, a menacing portend of more disaster. A remnant that must be wondering where is God in all this. And yet they are the faithful remnant, humble, lowly, and hanging on – they recognize that they are blessed by God. It might be hard for us to see it, but they see it. And that challenges us.
Blessed are the poor…they who mourn…the meek…the merciful…the clean of heart…the peacemakers… the persecuted. In Matthew’s version, Jesus is not addressing the crowds of people, he is teaching the disciples. He is teaching faithful Jews who know how the story of Zephaniah turns out. Everyone ends up in Exile in Babylon and even when that time is complete, it is the faithful remnant that returns to find Jerusalem destroyed, the Temple gone, and they are the ones that are truly reduced from a great nation to a poor people. And yet they are faithful. And they recognize the blessings in their life.
Pause for a moment and consider the broad strokes of how you might initially think of these questions. Are you fortunate? Are you successful? Do you have a good life? Are you fulfilled? Are you accomplished? How would your answers compare to the question, “Are you blessed?” I suspect that most of us – at least outside of church – would answer most the leading questions in terms of success or the good life as our culture and expectations would define it. Blessing from the world are often of the material kind.
What does it mean to be blessed by God? Maybe the question is easier to approach by asking what it feels like to be blessed. Maybe then we can begin to get a sense of Jesus’ promise. Perhaps we would come up with something akin to: to be blessed feels like you have someone’s unconditional respect. It feels like you are not and will not be alone, like you will be accompanied wherever you go. Being blessed feels like you have the capacity to rise above present circumstances, like you are more than the sum of your parts or past experiences. Being blessed feels like you have worth – not because of something you did or might do, but simply because of who you are. I am pretty sure I just described part of what it means to be in relationship to Christ; to realize that you are blessed… and now challenged to become a blessing for others.
And if you stop and think about it…. Isn’t that a description of Jesus’ earthly ministry? Jesus blessing people. All kinds of people. All kinds of down-and-out, extremely vulnerable, and at the bottom-of-the-ladder people. Why? To proclaim that God regularly shows up in mercy and blessing just where you least expect God to be — with the poor rather than the rich, those who are mourning rather than celebrating, the meek and the peacemakers rather than the strong and victorious. To be with the people of Zephaniah’s time.
Here in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus urges his disciples – then and now – to look at those around us differently than the culture does. To recognize our blessings and then, rather than measure persons by their possessions, we are invited to see them – to truly see them as God sees them. Rather than merely take pity on their losses, we are invited to enter them. Rather than judge their failings, we are invited to forgive and remind them that they are blessed by God and born for more than they’ve settled for. And rather than deride weakness, we are called to see in it the truest point of meeting between God’s children. For God reveals God’s self to us most clearly and consistently at places of deepest need.
This is what it means to be a faithful remnant. To be a community where we recognized that God always comes where we least expect God to be – amid our brokenness – to bless that which the world refuses to bless, to love what the world calls unlovable, and to redeem that which the world does not believe is worth saving. And what would it be like if we left church with new eyes, able to perceive in the needs of their neighbor not a nuisance or even something to be pitied but rather that marks of blessedness to which we are privileged to attend?
It begins with your own answer to the question: “Are you blessed?”
Recognize the blessings in your life and then allow yourself to be shaped in God’s grace to be different from the world around us, to be people, families, and a faith community where others can experience holiness, help, hospitality, and hope.
Blessed are those who seek holiness. Blessed are those who hearts and hands help. Blessed are those who are hospitable. Blessed are those who offer hope. Blessed is the faithful remnant, for yours is the kingdom of God.