Gospel According to Matthew 5:1-12, Micah 6:6,8
January 29, 2017: Annual Meeting
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA
When Jesus* saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: ‘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. ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely* on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
6 ‘With what shall I come before the Lord and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, with calves a year old? ….God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
What a week we have had in these once-thought-to-be United States of America. It has been a week in which every American has been not only invited, but challenged and required to discern our most basic collective values. To get to the bottom of what we truly care about in our life together, and to think carefully about what we are willing to risk in support those values. This is what historians call: a defining moment.
With that in mind, this morning’s readings from Micah and Matthew could not be more perfectly timed. Because they speak to the definitive questions: Who are we? And what are we to do?
These are fine questions to ponder on this occasion of our annual meeting. Also a time when we discern together the grounding of our faithful union. What is it that we value here? And how much of ourselves are we willing to stake and share in the name of those values?
I know many of you marched in the Women’s March in Boston last Saturday as Thalia and I (and others from this beloved community) marched in Washington DC. What an experience! What a rush of peaceful and genuine solidarity across all sort of borders: age, class, race, creed, color, and fashion, to name just a few. The civility of the crowd was amazing. The creativity and humor of so much of the signage was inspiring. And most of all, the steadfast passion among such a diverse collective for a common set of values was sublime. To march with hundreds of thousands of people who were strangers before that day, but are now colleagues in a great movement toward our shared values. Although there were a host of particular issues on parade including immigration policy, prison reform, LGBTQI agency, reproductive rights, and more – in the end, we were all marching for dignity and justice….for all. Every one of us.
And if anything good has come of this presidential election, it is the newly lit fire in the belly of the justice-lovers in this nation and this world, who marched with us last Saturday, and too, last night at several international airports where refugees and foreign-born travelers from a host of middle eastern countries were detained, cruelly and, as it turns out, illegally. As I speak, hundreds of visa and green-card holders are being detained at airports around our nation that has, for a century, professed to welcome the world’s tired, poor, huddled masses who are yearning to breathe free. Professors and engineers and students and translators who have risked their lives to work with the American military in dangerous places like Iraq are sitting in holding cells at our borders. I dare say Jesus would be….appalled.
And so we put our feet to the pavement. Thousands protested last night at numerous airports in solidarity with refugees and Muslims. And hundreds of thousands marched last weekend in the Women’s March. 125,000 in Boston. 400,000 in New York. 12,000 in Oklahoma City, the reddest state in the union. In Stanley Idaho, 50% of the citizenry marched, the population is 63. Researchers at the University of Connecticut estimate that over 3.3 million people marched in over 500 American cities, and there were over 100 international marches of over 250,000 people world wide. All peacefully marching for dignity and freedom….and there was no violence and there were no recorded arrests. Zero. What a witness to the power of justice-love that is swirling in our universe! Last weekend was a clear and present sign that nothing is impossible when human hearts rise together.
Among the most moving and gut wrenching parts of the rally in Washington was a segment that came late in the afternoon. There were many moving voices, but the one that packed the most powerful punch, at least in my view, was led by Janelle Monae, the singer songwriter who is also an actress, most recently featured in Hidden Figures and Moonlight. She said: “Music has always been a powerful tool for galvanizing unity and I believe that singing and standing together, our voices will be stronger than any force that tries to repress us.” And then she led the massive crowd in a rap-like chant called Hell You Talmbout. For we baby booming white upper middle class Episcopalians that is: What the hell are you talking about?
And lined up behind Janelle on the stage – and projected on six jumbo-trons all the way down Independence Avenue almost to the Washington Monument – were the mothers of African Americans slain, mostly, by law enforcement. The back beat began, and one-by-one each mother took the mic and said the name of her murdered child: Trayvon Martin. And the crowd, led by Janelle, chanted: Say his name! And his mother said it again. Trayvon Martin. Say his name! the crowd roared. Trayvon Maritn. Say his name! Trayvin Martin. Say his name! About six rounds for each mother, including the mothers of Eric Garner, Freddie Grey, Sean Bell, Sandra Bland, Aiyana Jones, Kimani Gray, John Crawford, Michael Brown, Phillip White, Jerame Reid, and Walter Scott. Each mother came forward and vocalized the name of her dead child followed by the crowd’s affirmation of his or her human dignity with the simple words: Say his name. Say her name. There was not a dry eye in the District. It was the collision of our sheer humanity and a realization of our sheer inhumanity. It was as if the crowd were assuring these bereft mothers that: Blessed was and is your child. Beyond the injustice of their deaths, they had names, names that God, and now we, know well.
As in this morning’s reading from the sermon on the mount in Matthew’s Gospel. It is the portion that we call the Beatitudes. It is among the most familiar pieces of scripture in our canon. And, it may be among the least understood. In a nut shell, it lists from the lips of Jesus himself, the ideals that describe the ones who will be the “winners” (to use our current cultural vernacular) in the realm of God. These are the ones who will be welcomed in the airports of heaven. The ones who are blessed. Hence the popular name of today’s gospel reading: the beatitudes; Latin for blessed.
This is the official list of the ones who will inherit the earth…who will receive the mercy…who will see God…who will be called children of God… who will live their everlasting lives in the kingdom of heaven. It is the blueprint for sainthood. But it is the abject opposite of the rhetoric that is filling our national and cultural discourse. And so, although we may think we aspire to be blessed, to inherit the earth and be called children of God, we seem to devalue, to denigrate, even to detest and despise, the characteristics that describe those who will win in the end.
And I can relate. I felt left out of these beatitudes for the better part of my life. Frankly, they did not seem to apply to me in the least, or to the me that I was willing to acknowledge. Who in their right mind would want to be poor or mournful or meek or even pure in heart (so not cool!). And who seeks to be hungry or thirsty for….anything really, and persecuted for Jesus? Well, that was a job best left to the southern Baptists, if you asked me. Because if that was what blessed required – poverty, hunger, thirst, persecution – did I really want to be blessed? Maybe, given who I was and what was expected of me in this world, it was for the best that the beatitudes were not my attitudes. And so for a huge part of my life I could well have been marching with the sign: Not my Beatitudes!
But some years ago, fifteen to be exact, the night before I preached on this very passage of scripture on this very Sunday in 2002, I got a backstage pass to the beatitudes. That Saturday night Thalia and I had to put our 6-year-old golden retriever, Rosie, down. She had not properly recovered from surgery a day earlier, and was suffering terribly. And for the first time in my life……I got it. Like an epiphany. Because that night I was no longer above it all. I was on my knees in the pit of the pit. Poor in spirit, meek, mournful, and begging for mercy. For this first time in my life, I fit the job description – these words of Jesus did apply to me after all.
Because no one on earth felt more impoverished in spirit at that moment in time, than did I. Blessed are the poor, and I was poor. And I have been thinking about that first line of this passage ever since: Blessed are the poor. And at the risk of boring the English majors to death, I think it would behoove us diagram this short sentence for some deeper insights.
Blessed are the poor. Poor is the subject. Are is the verb. And blessed is the adjective object. It’s a fairly simple sentence. But, it just may be one of the most misunderstood sentences in the whole of our religious vernacular. Or maybe just one that seems so uncomfortable that we have not bothered or dared to discern or discuss it in any depth. So here is our chance.
The first word, blessed, is the adjective that modifies the subject, the poor. Now, the word blessed has always caused me a bit of agita when it appears in something that I am reading out loud, especially in public. Because I never quite know how to pronounce it. As in our sanctus. Is it blessed is the one who comes, or blest is the one who comes? Is it blessed or it is blest? Does it even matter? They look the same. Are they just two possible pronunciations of the same word with the same meaning? I think not. I think there is a world of difference, especially in the context of these beatitudes.
I think if we are blest (b-l-e-s-t) we have been given a gift. And that gift has a transitive implication….that is, we have been blessed with something, there is an object or a modifier implied. We have been blessed with good health, or a beloved community, or treasure on earth or in heaven. The poor are thus blest with treasure in heaven. Blest is a gift that is offered to us. Something with which we have been blessed.
Bless-ed, on the other hand, is not a gift that is given, it is the gift itself. If I am blessed, I have not been given a gift, I am the gift. I am the gift. I am – the 1st person singular present active form of the verb to be: I am. And so these might well be called the to be attitudes.
Blessed are the poor. And no surpirse, the verb in this short sentence is itself a to be verb. The verb is are. It is not articulated in the Greek. The Greek just reads blessed the poor, but our English vernacular requires a verb and so the conventionally implied verb is are. Blessed are the poor – again, the present active form of the verb to be. Another reminder that these are not the to do attitudes, they are the to be attitudes. Grounded not in what we do, but in who we are.
And finally, poor – the subject of our sentence. It is the poor who are blessed. Not just those who are poor, but the poor. There is a definite article here.
Now, you might have noticed that typically in our liturgy we have changed most of our references to “the poor” to “those who are poor.” We have done that so that we do not objectify people living in poverty. Impoverished is not who they are, it is simply the state of their being. But I think the objectification is exactly what Jesus means in this Sermon on the Mount. He is speaking, not just to those who are poor now, but to we who are poor at the core of our humanity, all of us. Underneath whatever we have acquired in our lifetimes, we are still just children of God. Jesus cannot just be speaking to those who are poor here, because if those living in poverty now were lifted to a life of not-poverty, it begs the question: would they no longer be blessed? If Jesus were speaking only to those who are living in poverty, then their blessedness would be as fluid as is their daily situation. And my faith-gut tells me that this is balderdash.
We are all the poor in spirit, all of us, whether we realize it or not. We are the mournful, the meek, the pure of heart, the peacemakers. We are hungry and thirsty for right relationships, every one of us at our core. I have seen this truth in living color over and over and over again as a priest. There is not one of us who will not know these beatitudes in the core of our being at some point in our lives, if we do not know them already.
And at that moment, when we are stripped of ourselves and left only with God, that will be the moment when the blessing that is us, at our essence, will be revealed. It will also be the moment when we take our place at the margins of our world.
Because let us not forget that our God is a marginalized God. Jesus was nothing if not marginalized. And so ours is a God who is and was and has always been on the outside looking in. A God who has always challenged the status quo, always confronted those who dominate and fragment and oppress others. A God who is rejected as a threat to those who have power and privilege. Our God was the immigrant, the one bearing a frightening new religion that was not accepted, the one who was different from the cultural norms and challenged the existential status quo of the general population not unlike the queer communities do today, the one who challenged every oppressive order, crossed every border, and stood with every detainee. Ours is a God who would have gone to the cross to stand with just one refugee.
I think these beatitudes are saying, at the deepest level, that we were created to be at the margins, and that God is with us there. The margins are not where we may one day find ourselves if we are among the un-preferred or the unlucky. The margins are where we belong if we are Christian.
And so, from our scriptural sommelier, the perfect pairing with these beatitudes is today’s reading from Micah, who gives us the recipe for living into our blessedness. Micah gives us the to do-attitudes to go with Matthew’s to be-attitudes. Micah says, God has told us what is good and what is required. We know which path to take: Do justice. Love kindness. Be humble. Walk with God. It is as old as our scripture…..the prophets are telling us to stand in solidarity; the prophets are telling us to rise to our feet and march for shalom.
And we’re all invited. As Christians, we cannot stand for the sort of indignity that comes with arrogant, isolationist, inhumane policies like “America first.” As Christians we must work tirelessly for policies that deploy compassion and mercy and justice and generosity and respect for every part of God’s creation. As Christians, we know that service does not come without sacrifice. And so as Christians, we cannot simply stand for that which should bring us to our knees. We must act. We must live like we are the blessed ones of God….because we are. And so we must weigh every action that comes from our authorities against the Gospel. What would Jesus say?
And so on this occasion of our annual meeting, we need to be the church, the Body of Christ in the world, now more than ever. We have never had such an opportunity to make such a difference in the wider world. What we do together here matters! So let us pool our be-attitudes and get to work! God is calling our name!
© January, 2017 The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw