MATTHEW 5:1-12

Did anyone bring their “to-be” list? You know, your homework from last week? Our Tuesday Book study was discussing this a little – what kinds of things they had on their to be list. They also talked about how challenging it can be to take on too many things at once. Maybe try to be kind today and then work on being patient tomorrow. When we allow the way we choose to-be to inform our actions it can make a difference; I hope you found that to be true. I spent some time thinking about my to-be list this week and as I was thinking about what to include – be kind, be generous, be grateful, etc. God seemed to say to me – why not put be bold on that list or be courageous or be daring? Those are really important, meaningful, and necessary. Poet Maya Angelou says, “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, without courage you cannot consistently practice any other virtue.”

Throughout the history of the church, God has used attributes such as courage, boldness, daring – to spur the church forward. Sometimes even when it did not desire to be spurred forward. I’ve been reading a lot lately about how the church used the courage of faithful believers to overcome many social injustices and continues to require this same boldness today. It is hard to grasp the idea that a Christian individual would stand in opposition to another believer being afforded full welcome, isn’t it. Especially given Jesus’ frequent reminder to “love your neighbor as yourself.” But it happened historically and it happens today. There are still more than a few denominations that do not allow women to serve in any leadership role, there are more than a few that do not offer full welcome and affirmation to our LGBTQ siblings in faith, and there are places (yes, even within the church) where skin color continues to be a barrier to full inclusion.

In the day and age in which Jesus first starts teaching, the early Jewish religious community likewise has a number of reasons people are excluded or not offered full welcome: the culture of that day is not necessarily welcoming to women or slaves, gentiles or any non-Jewish folks, people who do not adhere to the food laws and rituals, the unclean, and sick, the poor. Then Jesus enters the scene with his unexpected and sometimes startling and often radical teachings. The Sermon on the Mount contains some of those unexpected and startling teachings. The piece of this larger discourse known as the Sermon on the Mount that we read this morning is familiar to us as the Beatitudes.

With a great crowd nearby, Jesus finds a vantage point on a hillside from which to teach, he sits and calls his disciples to join him. He begins to teach: “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Jesus pronounces a blessing upon people and circumstances that we would normally – not.  It is as though Jesus is looking out at the crowd that has followed him, and blesses them by actually seeing them and naming their struggles, perhaps for the first time. “You – you are blessed. And You, you are blessed.” One of the mistakes, I think that gets made in interpreting the Beatitudes is believing that Jesus is setting up the conditions of blessing, rather than actually blessing the hearers. We wonder if we meet those conditions, if we qualify for a blessing. Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (v 3) Blessed are those that mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are the merciful. If we pay attention to what Matthew is saying, it seems that Jesus is just plain blessing people. All kinds of people.  Even those whom the world chooses not to bless. Jesus teaches us to see how God calls blessed those who are down and out, distressed by their circumstances, passionate about promoting righteousness and working for peace, or persecuted for doing the right thing. We can know that Christ’s blessing is already ours because God’s Word tells it.

But there is a caution, because our very human tendency is to want to help Jesus decide who is in and who is out in the whole blessing thing. It’s something we don’t always want to be reminded of. However, I hope we can find it helpful to look at some of the errors of the past and learn from them how to be ever more Christ-centered and loving going forward. Let’s look for example at one of the most important social issues in the American experience in which the church erred and responded in the past: slavery. At one point in the history of the Presbyterian  Church, the rightness of slavery was an issue that enjoyed nearly unanimous support. For more than 200 years the church accepted slavery … with not a hint there was any other view in the Bible.[1] It took time and much pain to change to an almost opposite position. The result was unexpected, as abolitionists and others refused to follow the path of slavery and instead chose to follow the path laid out by Jesus.

It’s hard to believe the Bible was ever used to justify slavery or segregation. But it was. For years Western theological traditions positioned Noah’s son Ham as the ancestor of the black race and then used passages from Genesis 9 to wrongly justify enslaving dark-skinned people. They even plucked from the New Testament Ephesians 6: “Slaves obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling…” (Eph 6:5a). Prior to the Civil War and even after, the leading theologians of the Presbyterian Church were absolutely confident that Africans were cursed and deserved slavery for both their nature and their willful sin.[2] Those in opposition were often labeled atheists and socialists. Well known theologian James Thornwell expressed that “man’s most solemn earthly interests are his country and his race.”[3] (There is even more to this than we have time to express today in this short time we have together.) We absolutely cannot go back to that, it was wrong, But perhaps the important thing for us to consider is how the church changed its mind. Respected Presbyterian Pastor and Professor, Jack Rogers points to a group of Americans who “read the Bible and came to a different conclusion – these individuals appealed to the Bible as a whole and gave priority to its central themes  and especially that Jesus, as the central figure in scripture always displayed love and a desire to remedy injustice for those who were oppressed.[4] They rightly came to the knowledge that the Bible does not sanction oppression. Why do I bring this up today? Because we still struggle to fully understand Scripture’s meaning for us today. I know I struggle at times. Yet, we can read Scripture in light of Jesus and Jesus’ teachings and we can learn from Jesus’ stance against injustice and for love and for blessing such as we see here in the Beatitudes.

Then perhaps we can see in these Beatitudes a call to action – to receive Christ’s blessing ourselves and (then) to extend it to the world. Come follow me, Christ says, and where he leads is most often into someplace we don’t expect, most often to bless the unexpected – that which the world refuses to bless, to love what the world calls unlovable, to redeem that which the world does not believe merits saving. What would it be like, my dear friends, if we left church with new eyes, new hearts, a new vision – able to perceive in the needs of our neighbor not a nuisance or even something to be pitied or condemned but rather someone to be blessed? Then what would happen if we could see that Christ’s blessing is for us too? Come follow me! Jesus invites, Come follow me into the unexpected path I have set for you. Come follow me and be blessed!

[1] Jack Rogers. “Jesus, the Bible and Homosexuality.”

[2] IBID, 19.

[3] IBID

[4] IBID 32.