Dear Working Preacher,
There is a trap hidden in the Beatitudes that I know I have fallen into countless times, and perhaps you have, too. The trap is a simple as it is subtle: believing that Jesus is setting up the conditions of blessing, rather than actually blessing his hearers.
Do you know what I mean? When I hear the Beatitudes, it’s hard for me not to hear Jesus as stating the terms under which I might be blessed. For instance, when I hear “Blessed are the pure in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” I tend to think, “Am I pure enough in spirit?” or “I should try to be more pure in spirit.” Or, when I hear “blessed are the peacemakers…,” I think, “Yes, I really should be more committed to making peace.” At least with “blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” I have the assurance of knowing that on those occasions when I am mourning I will be comforted. But, to be perfectly honest — and if you’ll pardon the pun — that’s relatively small comfort because the truth is I don’t want to mourn, and hearing this beatitude doesn’t make me any more eager for additional mourning. (Ditto for being persecuted!)
Maybe this predilection is peculiar to me, but I don’t think so. I’ve heard too many Christians — whether in the pulpit or pew — complain about the Beatitudes over the years not to suspect there’s something going on here. Reading them again this week, I began to wonder whether our difficulty with the Beatitudes isn’t symptomatic of a larger problem most of us have; namely, that we are far less eager to be blessed than God is to bless us. Or maybe “eager” isn’t quite the right word. Maybe it’s more that we have a hard time believing God wants to bless us in the first place. It may be that our picture of God is distorted, that we can only imagine God as a stern, demanding law-giver, and so it seems out of character for God to bless without requirement. This isn’t the primary picture of God in the Bible, but it may be the one that we were taught and have a hard time letting go.
Or maybe it’s not that we don’t know God well enough to recognize God’s grace, maybe it’s that we know ourselves too well to feel worthy of that grace. After all, we are intimately familiar with our faults and limitations, our insecurities and failures. And knowing ourselves this well — and knowing that God knows us even better! — we may find it hard to believe God loves us unconditionally. Very little if anything in our world is unconditional. We’re used to paying for our mistakes, paving our own way, toeing the line and reaping the consequences when we don’t, and so it may not only be unexpected, but downright unsettling and nearly inconceivable to imagine that God behaves differently, showering us with blessing apart from anything we have done, earned, or deserve.
But let’s be clear — or at least pay attention to the fact that Matthew is quite clear — Jesus isn’t set up conditions or terms but rather is just plain 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. This is not where citizens of the ancient world look for God and, quite frankly, it’s not where citizens of our own world do either. If God shows up here, Jesus is saying, blessing the weak and the vulnerable, then God will be everywhere, showering all creation and its inhabitants with blessing.
When I was in graduate school, one of my teachers, Dr. Cleophus LaRue, would regularly address me as “Dr. Lose.” Eventually it made me uncomfortable enough that I said to him, “But Dr. LaRue, I haven’t earned my doctorate yet. I don’t think you should call me that.” “Dr. Lose,” he patiently responded, “in the African-American church we are not content to call you what you are, but instead call you what we believe you will be!” Blessing. Unexpected, unsettling, nearly inconceivable, yet blessing nonetheless.
So here’s the question I am left with this week, Working Preacher: What would it be like just to bless the congregation. To tell them that God loves and adores them, that God wants the very best for them, that God esteems them worthy of not just God’s attention but God’s blessing. You may have to say it a couple of times, as we’re either so used to hearing the words that we don’t really listen or so convinced that we don’t merit God’s blessing that we have a hard time believing it.
In fact, perhaps we shouldn’t just talk about God’s blessing but actually enact it. It could be that we decide to have persons come up to be individually blessed. Or that we conclude the sermon with a remembrance of baptism and the blessing baptism signifies. Or perhaps we could have people share with each other where they have recently experienced God’s blessing. Or maybe have folks turn to another to hear and receive God’s blessing. Whatever we do, we need to think hard about how to help people hear and believe that they are blessed because, as Dr. LaRue knew, we become what we are called, and calling our people blessed will over time transform them to be God’s blessing in and to the world.
In the middle ages when someone sneezed you said “God bless you” fearing that they may have the plague. The mantra we repeat so regularly developed, that is, as a way to ward off fear of evil, disease, and death. Perhaps in our preaching and worship this week we can help reclaim those three powerful words to signify not fear but joy, not disease but delight, not death but God’s new life. In doing so, we may just reclaim not only the beatitudes but an essential element of the Christian life itself: the insight that God is a God who delights to create, bless, and redeem, and the reminder that we are God’s own beloved and blessed children.
God bless you, Working Preacher, for your tireless labor to share this magnificent Word with God’s people. What you do matters, and I am grateful for your fidelity!
Yours in Christ,