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"Blessed Are You . . ."

Date:2/2/20

Series: Martha Stearns Marshall Day of Preaching

Passage: Matthew 5:1-12

Speaker: Rev. Victoria Robb Powers

Well, good morning. I have to start by first saying thank you. It’s such a privilege to get to be among you this morning. As you may or may not know, I am a Baptist just like you, but I’ve been serving in the United Methodist Church for a little over five years now. I grew up Baptist, I was baptized as a Baptist, I went to Baylor – which is what good Baptist girls do, I was ordained Baptist, and I continue to be a member of a local Baptist church. Being a Baptist is part of who I am, and while I love serving the United Methodist Church, I got to tell you, this morning it feels really good to be in a house full of Baptists.

It’s sort of like I’m living with my in-laws most of the time. I love them, but they’re not my family of origin. You are. See I’m usually on my own on Sunday mornings having to defend what it means to be Baptist or just having to rewrite people’s assumptions about what a Baptist is and isn’t. But today I don’t have to do that. You know what it means to be Baptist, or you at least know that it could mean all sorts of things – you know that in some spaces, like yours, to be Baptist means someone like me, a woman, can still stand behind a pulpit like this and preach the word of God just like any man can.

But you know, you would be surprised how many people don’t know that there are Baptist churches like yours that open their pulpits to women or call themselves progressive. Yes, I read your sign outside.   

So thank you, thank you for having me this morning, it is so good to be among my own family, but thank you even more for bearing witness to the love and freedom of the Baptist tradition, the one I will always claim as my own.

Will you pray with me?

God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts, be pleasing and acceptable to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

When I was in my second year of seminary at Brite Divinity School I was tasked with writing my first exegesis paper. If you’re not familiar with an exegesis, it’s just a fancy word for a critical interpretation of a scripture. In an exegesis you are required to take a text from the bible and research it – research its literary structure, its historical context, its theological context, it’s pastoral context and then you’re required after all that research is done to write an interpretation of what you believe the text means.

I was assigned that fall semester of my second year with writing an exegesis on the beatitudes, the scripture we read this morning from Matthew 5. I spent weeks studying the scripture trying to identify an accurate interpretation of its meaning and I struggled. I struggled not because it was the first exegesis I’d ever done, I struggled because I found the scripture awfully troubling.

You see, on the surface it seems like these exhortations that Jesus makes – you know, the blessed are the meek, blessed are the poor, blessed are those who mourn – it seems like these are a list of conditions we should try and meet if we want to be blessed. Like we should try and be meek, or poor, or mourn if we want to be blessed, because it appears as though that’s the condition that qualifies someone for Christ’s blessing and… who doesn’t want Christ’s blessing, right? 

This was and is troubling to me because this kind of thinking leads us to romanticizing the poor or romanticizing those who grieve or those who are hungry… And don’t you know there’s a grave difference between someone who volunteers to suffer and those who have no choice?

I think about it now and I realize that Jesus couldn’t have idealized these conditions. It wouldn’t make sense. Think about it, if being poor, sad, and hungry are what qualifies someone for being blessed why would Jesus ask us to take care of the poor or to comfort those who grieve or to feed the hungry?

I’ve been in ministry now for a little over 12 years, and sometimes I wish I could go back to seminary and rewrite all my papers, (I mean, not really, who would want to do that?) but there is something about being in ministry that makes you rethink all the things you thought you knew before when you were just talking philosophically in a classroom with little to no actual experience.

You see after all these years I can say that I’ve been among the poor in spirit, I’ve sat with the dying, I’ve been among literal poverty, I’ve seen the hungry and the thirsty, and none of those things make anyone blessed. No one in their right mind would ask to be poor, or volunteer to struggle to find food, or ask to grieve unimaginable losses.

We lost a teen in our youth group over Christmas to suicide. It’s been gut wrenching for our entire church, for his family in particular who are still drowning in grief. His family is not blessed because they mourn, it would be offensive to claim so.

So I’m wondering now, what if the beatitudes aren’t about a list of conditions we should try and meet to be blessed? Meaning what if these are not virtues we should aspire to have, what if Jesus saying blessed are the poor, blessed are the hungry, and blessed are those who mourn, what if these are not instructive words but performative ones? What if the pronouncement of blessing is actually what confers the blessing itself?[1]

Here’s what I mean: Maybe Jesus is not saying you are blessed because you’re meek, you’re poor, you mourn, you hunger… What if he’s just throwing out blessings lavishly on the people that surround him, which just so happens to be the people that society doesn’t notice - the people that know something about pain, the people who are thirsty and hungry?

Maybe Jesus is actually just blessing people, not because of some condition they’ve met that qualifies them, but because it’s just his nature to bless, especially those who never seem to receive blessings otherwise.

Think about it – our world blesses the powerful, blesses the rich, blesses the self-sufficient, blesses the strong, blesses the winner, the gold medalist, the performer. We bless the one who’s most attractive, who had the most success. We bless and praise the kings and queens, and we frown upon if we even look at them at all – the meek, the weak, the poor, the lost, the failure.

I don’t know about you, but it sounds consistent to me that the Jesus I love would show up and look upon all those that never get praised, that never get blessed, and would just start blessing them, left and right. A blessing for you, a blessing for you, and a blessing for you… Doesn’t that sound like something Jesus would do?

Like if he were here today, he would stand behind this pulpit and say…

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of God. Blessed are the agnostics. Blessed are those who doubt, who wrestle, who don’t know for certain. Blessed are those who are willing to admit that there is more to learn. Blessed are the spiritually impoverished who have no arrogance about their faith or their piety. Jesus loves you and blesses you.

Maybe he would stand in the hospitals or he’d be found at the bedsides saying blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are those who know something about real pain. Blessed are those who have buried their loved ones, who have lost their children, who have grieved enough to fill an ocean. Blessed are those who can’t get out of bed because the force of depression has paralyzed them. Jesus loves you and blesses you.

Maybe he’d be in the streets claiming blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who are afraid. Blessed are those who give up because they can’t handle the risk. Blessed are those who have failed again and again. Blessed are the unemployed, the retired. Blessed are the elderly who possess all the wisdom but are too routinely forgotten. Jesus loves you and blesses you.

Maybe he’d be down at Austin Street or CitySquare shouting out blessed are those who hunger and thirst. Blessed are the homeless. Blessed are the immigrants, the refugees, the families separated at borders. Blessed are the starving. Blessed are those in need of water. Jesus sees you, loves you, and blesses you.

Maybe he’d be in Washington proclaiming blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers. Blessed are the ones who choose peace over profit, mercy over revenge, honesty over deceit. Jesus loves you and blesses you.

Maybe he’d be in the prisons or the local schools or the VA, saying blessed are the persecuted for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the incarcerated. Blessed are the teen moms. Blessed are the disabled, the war veterans, the orphans. Blessed are all of those who have been forgotten, who never get the reward, who never get seen, who are never acknowledged. Jesus loves you and blesses you.

See, I don’t think it’s a stretch at all to imagine Jesus here now blessing all of us and all the things we try and hide or make up for, or the things we insult in ourselves and others. Because don’t you know it is not our strength and virtue that qualifies us for Christ’s blessing, it is our need for a God who makes beautiful things out of dust?

We may hate our human bodies, hate our failures, hate losing, hate weakness, but Christ blessed all human flesh and all human weakness. Remember the gospel story? While we sought power, he blessed human vulnerability. The Jesus we follow and proclaim is the one who mourned at the tomb of his friend, who turned the other cheek in the face of violence, who washed the feet of his betrayer and who forgave those who crucified him on a cross. He was God’s great Beatitude to us – God’s blessing to the weak in a world that only admires the strong.

So if you feel weak, unseen, abused, forsaken, or no longer useful, receive the blessing of Jesus Christ himself.

Blessed are you, all of you, beloved children of God.

Amen.

[1] I first heard this thinking of the beatitudes in a sermon I heard by Nadia Bolz Weber. Much of this sermon is inspired by her framing the beatitudes as a generous blessing Christ gave to those who surround him.