Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Sermon: Fixing the Beatitudes

Matthew 5:1-12

Before I really get started, I need to make sure you understand a vocabulary word.

I’m not being silly this time, quite honestly, this is a word you need to know. The word is beatitudes. The word refers to this collection of Jesus’ statements that begin “Happy are . . .” that we read earlier. These are so famous that we need some way to refer to them quickly, so we use the word beatitudes. If you didn’t know the word, you would probably call this Jesus’ happy statements. Other translations use the words “Blessed are you . . .” So you might call them his blessed statements, which actually is exactly what beatitudes means in Latin – blessed. All that is to explain that the beatitudes are Jesus’ blessed statements, his happy statements. So for the rest of the sermon when I say that word, you will know what I am talking about!

So let’s talk about the beatitudes. Jesus’ happy statements.

On first reading: The Beatitudes are broken. They don’t make sense. Have you ever noticed that? Happy are people who are hopeless? That is ridiculous. If you asked 100 hopeless people if they were happy, very few would say yes.

Then Jesus says: Happy are people who grieve? Those are two opposite things, Jesus. You can’t put them together like that.

So let me fix these teachings so that they make sense. Jesus should say: Happy are people who have hope. Happy are people who laugh. Happy are people who are proud. Happy are people who have food and drink. Happy are the people who know how to work the system. Happy are people who get everything they want. Happy are the victorious and strong. Happy are people when they are left alone to live their lives freely, and people speak kindly of them. Doesn’t that sound better? It certainly matches better with the world as we know it.

And yet saying things that way isn’t very profound.

It is like pointing out the obvious. Happy are people who laugh. No kidding?

The thing is, what Jesus is saying is meant to disorient us, to make us rethink what is important. He is trying to remove the blinders from our eyes that prevent us from seeing deeper truths. For example, look at these pictures.

From the top one it looks like a vicious lobster is about to eat some poor baby. But when we see it from another angle, like in the bottom picture, we see the reality is that it is just an optical illusion. There is no lobster, no baby, just a very distorted drawing. Jesus is trying to shake us out of the spiritual illusions that we have been living under. He is trying to get us to look at life and God from a different perspective, so that we can see a deeper truth. What truth?

It is in what he says after each statement. Happy are people who grieve because they will be made glad. Happy are people who are humble because they will inherit the earth. In each explanation, Jesus is trying to show us that what makes us happy is not the state of things as they are now, but what makes us happy is being part of the transformation of the world as it moves from being broken to being fixed.

You see, it is not that we are happy because we are hopeless. Of course not, the hopeless are happy because they get to witness the coming of God’s kingdom. They are happy because they are moved from hopelessness to seeing real change. The people who grieve aren’t happy because they are grieving, but because they will witness the coming of gladness into their lives. The humble and meek are happy because they are uplifted by God to places of importance. The hungry and thirsty are happy because righteousness becomes a reality. The merciful are happy because compassion becomes commonplace. The pure hearted are happy because they see God transforming lives. The peacemakers are happy because they have had a hand in reminding us that we are all God’s children. Those who are insulted and harassed are happy because they get to experience God’s uncompromising and unconditional love.

The happiness that Jesus speaks about isn’t in the situations as they are, but in the transformation of what is wrong into what is right. For example, who appreciates a free bowl of chicken soup more – they one who just ate a four course meal at a fancy restaurant, or the one who hasn’t eaten in a few days? There is something about hitting bottom that makes us appreciate the good things in life. What Jesus is reminding us is that through God, everything that we have experienced in life that has been painful, unfair, and broken; will be healed, made right, and made whole. In a sense what Jesus is doing, is moving us from our perspective of life within our timeframe, our point in history, and he is moving us to the other side, and telling us to look at it from the perspective of eternity. While things may not be perfect now, our joy is in watching them become perfected. While many things are struggles and painful, from the other side of history we will see God craft them into blessings and beauty.

So yes, Jesus’ beatitudes are broken, they are disorienting. Which is why the beatitudes are so famous, if all they said was unimportant truths like happy are those who laugh, or happy are those who have people say kind things about them, we would ignore them. They would not live as timeless words of inspiration and hope. But because Jesus takes the time to disorient us, and shake up our assumptions allowing us to see beyond our initial impressions, his words live as constant reminders that the blessings of God are in the works. In fact we are the blessings of God as we live, as we seek God’s realm and reign. What we do each day, the struggles, the search for peace, the fight for righteousness, even the showing of mercy, we are crafting the happiness of our future.

Don’t give up! Happy are those who can open their eyes and see God’s eternal perspective, from there we see just what God was doing and how our lives were a part of that creation of goodness. 

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