The gospel according to Matthew, the fifth chapter:
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Word of God. Word of life. Thanks be to God.
When a cousin of mine learned to point at objects, it was in an odd way. [I am fully aware that’s not my best opening line to a sermon, so stick with me here.] For instance, if he wanted to point at the historically inaccurate image of Jesus up here [pointing to the church’s stained glass window], he’d put his finger straight up to the ceiling and move it away from his body, he’d turn his head slightly away from the object, and he’d crack his eyes back toward the image. In his mind, his eyes, the tip of his finger, and the object he wanted to point to were all in alignment. It made perfect sense to him. But, sadly, the rest of us had no idea what he was pointing at, we had no idea where to look.
There are a lot of fingers being pointed in the the U.S. and around the world right now. And I’m afraid that many of us feel like we don’t know where to look. I don’t know about you, but the national headlines throw me in a new direction every few seconds. Here are a few headlines just from the past few days: “Iowa Pipeline Leaks Nearly 140,000 Gallons of Diesel,” “Trump Advances Controversial Oil Pipeline with Executive Action,” and, just yesterday, “Refugees Detained at U.S. Airports.” All of these headlines pull at me as a citizen. Even more important for the purposes of this conversation, however, is the fact that these headlines pull at me as a person of faith.
If you were away from the news yesterday, it’s important that you hear the details of what’s being enacted: An executive order closed the nation’s borders to refuges on Friday night. Refugees who were airborne on flights to the U.S. when the order were signed were stopped and detained when their planes landed. The President’s order also blocks the admission of refugees from Syria indefinitely, and bars entry into the United States, at least for several months, from seven predominantly Muslim countries—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.
Let it not be lost on us that on the very same day that the world commemorated Holocaust Remembrance Day, and mourned the fact that millions of Jews died because they couldn’t find refuge in the U.S. or elsewhere, our elected administration said that Christian and refugees of minority religions will now be privileged over Muslims coming from Muslim majority nations. Let it not be lost on us, one writer said yesterday, that “while we sit in church and sing of our devotion to Jesus and his way of justice, as our children—who are regularly told that they matter—worship and play and laugh and eat snacks nearby, there are millions of people who are fleeing their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disasters.”[i] Over half of them are children.
There is so much unfolding in the public square that comes into direct conflict with the faith convictions that we confess week after week that I, for one, struggle to know where to begin with my response. Add our personal vulnerabilities into the mix—those pieces of our personal lives that we are juggling alongside national and international news—and we can find ourselves totally overwhelmed. There are lots of fingers being pointed, but we’re not sure where to look.
When Jesus went up the hillside in today’s story, he went with people he knew and those he was only just coming to know. I suspect that some of his family members were there. His disciples were there, too; their feet were still sopping wet from stepping out of their fishing boats to accompany him on the journey. Some of the people who he had healed in the past few weeks were there. He had given their lives back to them, which means they would follow him anywhere. And then there were the curious onlookers—those people, in every time and place, who show up just to see what all the hubbub is about.
As the unexperienced pastor—that is, Jesus—scanned the crowd he saw a group of people who were beaten down by the Empire’s systems of oppression. These weren’t cabinet members; these were fishermen who couldn’t even afford to own the nets they used. These weren’t the ones making the rules; these were the people abiding by the rules that were not often created with their wellbeing in mind. I think it’s safe to say that everyone on that hillside had been touched by the Empire’s chains, but in different ways.
Jesus looked at the group as he preached his first sermon. I don’t think he had prepared his remarks in advance. No, I think he simply moved from person to person and thought about what they needed to hear most clearly. I actually think that each beatitude could have a name attached to it because he was speaking to the specific vulnerabilities in people’s lives. To Joe, whose partner of 30 years had just died, Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” To the activists who stood on the docks every Friday to demand rights for fishermen, Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” To Sarah, the little girl sitting at his feet, Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
Yes, I like to think that Jesus’ first sermon is written by the people to whom he preaches. That is to say, he looked at the crowd and thought to himself, what do these people need to hear? Not what do I want to tell them in order to assure they’ll believe that I’m the messiah, but what word of freedom do they need to be given right now, on this Palestinian hillside?
Jesus is pointing at what matters and, in so doing, he’s redirecting the gaze of the crowd. He’s pointing them away from gawking at the ruling elite. He’s turning his back on the Empire’s power, and, instead, focusing his attention on those who are threatened by it. He’s pointing the crowd’s gaze where it ought to be—to the sick, to the vulnerable, to the self-giving, to the hurt, to the people who are under siege. He’s reminding us of what Audre Lourde says, “We are not free while any[one] is unfree, even when [their] shackles are very different from our own.”
I’ve said it here before that I think the Beatitudes are spoken for those society doesn’t much care for—people with broken pieces. We hear Jesus articulate eight specific blessings in Matthew’s gospel, but I’m confident that this was meant to be a “starter list.” Jesus must have known the collection of beatitudes would grow as his people continued to learn and to love. Today, I think we can boldly add to the list begun so long ago:
Blessed are the refugees. Blessed are the immigrants. Blessed are those who are the Muslim and threatened with a registry, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the uninsured. Blessed are those who fear they will lose their insurance. Blessed are those with preexisting conditions, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the activists who pepper social media with their passion and show up with their bodies. Blessed are those who cry, “Black Lives Matter.” Blessed are the indigenous peoples clinging to their sacred lands. Blessed are the species living under the weight of climate change, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who live below the poverty line. Blessed are those who work too many jobs. Blessed are those who cannot find work. Blessed are the laborers who feel left behind by the technological revolution, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the differently-abled. Blessed are those who are trans. Blessed are those who are LGBTQ. Blessed are women, for [by golly, one of these days] you will receive mercy.[ii]
It’s a flipping of the dominant narrative that sounds foolish to most. But it’s Jesus’ way—and by extension, ours. “If you’re not sure where to look today,” Jesus points clearly and says, “look at each other. It’s there that my blessing will be found.”
[i] Pavlovitz, John. Paraphrased.
[ii] Some of these beatitudes come from Pastor Emily Scott at St. Lydia’s Dinner Church in New York, who encouraged others to use her adaptation of Matthew 5. Some of them come from Pastor Ashley Harness, with whom I stood and blessed the crowd of 100,000 at the Women’s March MN. Some of the words contained in these blessings are from Matthew’s Jesus. And some of them are mine.