If you read aloud the entire Sermon on the Mount, for which today’s scripture is the beginning, it would take you about 20 minutes. The Beatitudes, the first 12 verses, are just the start of one of Jesus’ greatest teachings. He is on a hill, with his disciples and surrounded by a crowd. He sits down, as was traditional for a Rabbi who was teaching, and begins a long discourse about God, God’s Kingdom, and what it means to live into the Good News. For the rest of the month we will be focusing on this long lesson, taking it in small chunks. We will consider what Jesus says about being salt and light, what it means to follow the law of people versus the law of God. We will hear him teach, and marvel at what he says. We will try to remember that his lessons were provocative, even revolutionary. We will be spending a few weeks with the crowd listening to Jesus teach.
But today, we hear again the familiar beginning of the lesson. The Beatitudes are so well known, even those who do not go to church, often will find the words familiar. In my experience the Beatitudes are treated in one of two ways: either they are assumed to be the entirety of the Sermon on the Mount, therefore robbing people of the rest of what Jesus taught, or they are lumped in with the rest of the lesson. When that happens, they are thought to be exhortation, that we as followers of Jesus are told to be poorer, meeker, and more mournful in order to be blessed too. It can feel like, when reading these blessings, that we need to give up the comforts of life in order to find God. Now, of course, there is always that spiritual need to strike a balance between the abundance of possessions and the abundance of God, to not feel that having more things, more money, or more power is what makes us blessed. But I sometimes worry that the Beatitudes can be guilt-inducing for people. As a pastor, I struggle to look out at my beloved community and tell them to be meeker and more mournful.
But, what if, rather than an exhortation or lesson, the Beatitudes are actually blessings for the crowd? What if, as Jesus sat down to teach his first great and public lesson, he first looked out at those who were listening and blessed them? Maybe it was more like the benediction, but at the start of the service, not the end. It would be like me starting our worship service, arms outstretched, and saying what I say every week to end our time together: “May God bless you this day, this night, and all of your days to come. Now let’s worship together.”
Of course, Jesus being Jesus, used his blessings to teach at the same time. Turning things upside down like he always did: the poor in spirit will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven; the meek will inherit the earth. He was a teacher after all, so he taught with everything he said and did. But, I think first, he blessed. He started with blessing and went from there. He started by looking out at the crowds, in all their glorious imperfection, and blessed them. And I think if Jesus was standing here today, he would do the same. What would like sound like?
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Blessed those who doubt. Those who are unsure of who God is and their place in God’s kingdom. Blessed are those who question everything, even their own questions. Blessed are those who have been told they don’t deserve to know God and those who can’t bring themselves to pray. Blessed are those who are on information overload and feel like they can’t take in anything more. Blessed are you who are poor in spirit, for yours is the Kingdom of Heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Blessed are those for whom death is not an abstraction. Blessed are those whose tears have filled oceans and keep on coming. Blessed are those who can’t give into grief because everyone is counting on them. Blessed are overwhelmed and exhausted. Blessed are those who laughed again for the first time and worry that it means they have forgotten a loved one. Blessed are you who mourn, for you will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Blessed are the fearful, unable to see anything but danger in their neighbor’s face. Blessed are those who feel unnoticed and sit alone. Blessed are those who receive the free lunch at school and don’t want their friends to know. Blessed are those who sleep on a friend’s couch and worry about outstaying their welcome. Blessed are those who spend their days trying to manage medical debt. Blessed are the unemployed and the underrepresented. Blessed are you who are meek, for you will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” Blessed are the protesters, showing up even though no one else does. Blessed are the children demanding action on climate change. Blessed are the lawyers taking on the pro bono cases. Blessed are the public officials fighting for civil rights. Blessed are the reporters sharing the truth. Blessed are those who give more than they take and are tired. Blessed are you who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for you will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” Blessed are the social workers with too many cases. Blessed are the kids who step between a bully and their victim. Blessed are the nurses and doctors who volunteer at free clinics on Saturday mornings. Blessed are those who demand justice and equal access to the voting booth. Blessed are those who show grace, even though they didn’t get any in return. Blessed are you who are merciful, for you will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” Blessed are those who acknowledge their own prejudice and ask for forgiveness. Blessed are the ones who show up week after week to feed the hungry and lonely, even when they are tired. Blessed are those who sit with a friend amid a mental health crisis. Blessed are the teachers who purchase their own school supplies. Blessed are the ones who listen first and speak second. Blessed are those who pick up other people’s trash on the sidewalks. Blessed are you who are pure in heart, for you will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Blessed are the diplomats, sitting across tables trying to prevent war. Blessed are the police officers who serve their community, always remembering they are neighbors first. Blessed are the interfaith councils who come together to say hate is not God. Blessed are the musicians and artists and poets, who depict what peace looks and sounds like. Blessed are the parents settling disputes between their children over dinner after a long day at work. Blessed are you who are peacemakers, for you will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Blessed are those who are publicly humiliated by the powerful because they speak truth to that power. Blessed are the mothers who stand in front of tanks. Blessed are those who kneel to protest the killing of those with black and brown bodies. Blessed are those who hang rainbow banners and have their buildings graffitied. Blessed are those who are fired because they said MeToo. Blessed are you who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus looked out at the crowd, saw them for who they really were – as flawed, imperfect people but created in the image of God – and he blessed them. I believe, with every fiber of my soul, that Jesus would stand in front of us today, see us in all our flawed imperfection, and bless us. That is not only a gift, but a reminder that we are to go and do likewise. That we are too see the world and our neighbors and offer our blessing. How different would the world be if we blessed first. If every encounter, whether with a friend or a stranger, started with a blessing. It’s difficult, I think, to hate a person or their beliefs, no matter how different, if we first bless them.
Beloved Community, you are blessed, even if you think you don’t deserve it. You are blessed even if the world doesn’t think you deserve it. That is the gift we have and there is enough for everyone. We are called to share the blessings of God with abandon, to realize the table of God is big enough for everyone, and to welcome all to join in. Blessed are you. Amen.