Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
One day, when I was about 11 years old my Dad asked me to go out to the nursing home with him. He wanted me to visit a particular woman there and play a card game with her called "Kings in the Corner."
I realized that he wasn't going to force me to do this, but I knew he wanted me to. It wasn't the kind of thing I would choose to do with my free time, but I agreed to do it because my Dad asked me and because I understood that it would be a good thing to do. I went out and played cards with the lady on probably three different occasions.
I see today that my Dad's request was a gift. I certainly didn't think that way at the time. He was asking me to do something I would never have chosen to do on my own. How much fun could it be playing cards with an old woman I didn't even know?
But it was a gift… a rich and lasting gift. I enjoyed the visits with the woman. I especially enjoyed seeing how much pleasure she got from me simply being with her. It provided me with a concrete example of how God wants his people to live together, with compassion and mercy… and I could see the friendship and joy that came from it.
And the experience stayed with me. Because of this childhood experience, I decided to volunteer as an activities aide at a nursing home during my years at college. So this simple, unlikely gift continued to give. Through the relationships I established with the residents there I formed important ideas about what is valuable in life. Spending time with these people deepened my understanding of God's love and the good gifts of life he wants us to share with each other.
It's important to understand that what might appear on the surface to be an unwelcome demand, can, in fact, be a gift to us. My dad's request that I do something that I wouldn't otherwise be inclined to do turned out to be a rich gift that would be shared by me and others.
Sometimes God's gifts look like that as well. Sometimes when God brings his kingdom into our lives it can look, at first, like a burden… a demand. But it is not that at all.
The Beatitudes are sometimes taken this way. The Beatitudes are those 9 statements in today's Gospel lesson that begin with "Blessed are the…"
Some people see demands in these passages… demands that you must be a certain way… live a certain way… before God will bless you. And they don’t like that.
But that is a misunderstanding based on wrong ideas about the relationship between God and his people.
The Beatitudes convey surprising truth about life that all of scripture testifies to.
Jesus’ words draw a picture for us of how people are meant to live in proper and life-giving relationships with their creator and with each other. His words are meant to be heard, to enter the hearts of his people and to place their stamp on our entire lives. And as that happens, all of creation benefits. The beatitudes draw us into a way of life where God’s grace and power can finally take hold of us and work in us and through us. And in this way, they are a gift.
Jesus’ teaching here is different from the teachings of the Pharisees… or any teaching that directs that we must achieve worthiness through correct religious or ethical behavior.
The beatitudes reach much deeper than that. They lay out for us a way of understanding the world and oneself… and a way of living among others. The beatitudes promise that these ways of understanding and living open the door to blessings such as joy and strength and truth.
The first beatitude declares, “Blessed are the poor in spirit….” The “poor in spirit” is an unusual phrase found only here in the bible. Though it is a somewhat mysterious expression, it seems to refer to a deep awareness of oneself as a simple creature of God who knows (s)he cannot boast before God, but can only receive the gifts God gives.
The second beatitude states, “Blessed are those who mourn….” Being human means living with loss. This beatitude reminds us that loss is not a sign of judgment or God-forsakenness. It is something that is a part of life in this world; but Jesus promises that we are given the strength to live with loss through the power and presence of God.
The beatitude “blessed are the meek” has to do with power. This can be seen when one considers the second half which reads: “…they will inherit the earth.” The term “the meek” must then be understood in light of Jesus’ teachings about power.
For example, Jesus explains to his disciples: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; … whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45)
“Blessed are the meek,” then, refers to those who, by the power of God, have no need to control or impose their will on others; but they are free to serve the needs of others because God’s love lives in them.
The beatitude that begins “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” reminds me of the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” It speaks of a deep trust that what God wills… what God aims to do in the world and in our lives… is good. Through that trust, the beatitude promises, God will fill our lives with good things.
“Blessed are the merciful,” “blessed are the pure of heart,” “blessed are the peacemakers…” all of these speak about our lives being conformed to the example and teachings of Christ. When that happens, our eyes, our hearts, our actions reflect the Kingdom of God. When that happens the gifts of God… the blessings of God move through God’s people. They are shared by everyone. That is a gift… a great gift.
The truth about all of these blessed ways of living that Christ describes is that they are not achievements of an inspired human will. They are gifts of God’s spirit that grow in us and shape our lives as we let go of our desire to stake out our own path, and, instead, let God’s word into our hearts. That is an important point to remember.
And the promises of the beatitudes… the 2nd half of each phrase… these are not rewards for work well done or for holy living; they are simply the blessings that we come to know when the spirit of God is active in us, creating, teaching, and leading us. They are the fruits of the Kingdom of God, wonderfully tasted in this world, but also leading us to that final fulfillment of God’s purpose when all things… things in heaven and things on earth… are brought together and reconciled to God in Christ.
When Dad asked me to go play cards with the lady at the nursing home many years ago, it was an expression of his love for me. It was also an expression of his love for her… and for others I would one day come into contact with. That kind of love lies behind the beatitudes of Matthew which call us to a certain way of being… a certain way of living that opens our hearts to the spirit and love of God.
The beatitudes deliver to us the Kingdom of God. They show us what the Kingdom of God is like. And as we take those words in, they open our hearts, and through their truth and through the creative spirit of God, they bring blessing to us and those near us… now… and in the life to come.