The Rev. Dr. Andrew R. Guffey
Preached at Vail Chapel, Northwestern University
29 January 2017
Micah 6.1-8 Psalm 15 1 Corinthians 1.18-31 Matthew 5.1-12
In the name of the One, Holy, and Living God. + AMEN.
The Beatitudes. Such a familiar part of Scripture, isn’t it? I used to have a really kitschy little bookmark with all of the beatitudes on it. It’s probably stuffed in one of my books somewhere. Monty Python, of course, had their own take on it: Blessed are the cheesemakers. Well obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally; he’s referring to any manufacturers of dairy products. Blessed is the Greek. The Greek? Did anyone get his name? Oh, it’s the meek. Well, that’s nice dear, cause they’ve had a helluva time. You all probably know by now that I’m a fan of Eddie Izzard, too. He has a bit where the Beatitudes become a film: The Meek! They want it all. “What do we want?! The earth. When do we want it? Now!”
They seem rather tame, don’t they? Especially in Matthew. At least in Luke, the Beatitudes are for the poor, not the poor in Spirit, the hungry, not those hungry for righteousness. And the Beatitudes are followed up with a series of curses in Luke. As Reg in puts it in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, “Apparently, blessed is anyone with a vested interest in the status quo.” But is that right? What kind of Good News would that be? What do they have to say to us right now?
It’s been another contentious week, hasn’t it? The unrest is only growing. We started the week on Monday, in case you didn’t hear, with a protestor in Seattle apparently shooting another protestor because he thought he was a white supremacist. In fact, as it turns out, the victim had a tattoo of a CROSSED OUT swastika (last I heard he is in stable condition, and they are working to reconcile). But these are the times we are living in; times that make us suspicious of everyone. That sort of suspicion is beholden, ironically, to exactly the same sort of fear that made the President of this country sign an executive order to ban all Muslim refugees.
What do the Beatitudes have to say about this? A LOT, actually! That opening word: Blessed, makarios in Greek, does not mean blessed in the sense of God actively blessing people for something. It means, these people are the fortunate ones and you should be like them. So who are these fortunate ones in God’s eyes?
Fortunte are the poor in spirit, those who do not simply trust in their own powers or wisdom, but given themselves in trust to God, who seek to serve God’s truth and goodness and not presume to be self-righteous, and therefore they will inherit the kingdom of heaven.
Fortunate are those who mourn. And who among us is not mourning now? Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian, pastor, and martyr who resisted the Nazi regime, had a great deal to say about the Beatitudes. Mourning, for Bonhoeffer, meant “refusing to be in tune with the world or to accommodate oneself to its standards.” Another theologian I respect a great deal, talks about a theology of public life, of engagement with public life as Christians, as something we do “during the world.” And he means that in two senses: both in the temporal sense of “while we are in this world” but also in the sense of “enduring the world.” The temptation is to think we will get it just right, that we can make things perfect and rest. But we can’t. It will never be quite perfect, which is why we always need to strive to be better.
And I think that’s why Bonhoeffer also liked how Luther translated the Greek for mourning—as sorrow-bearing. This part is worth reading a bit:
“The disciple community does not shake off sorrow as though it were no concern of its own, but willingly bears it. And in this way they show how close are the bonds which bind them to the rest of humanity. But at the same time they do not go out of their way to look for suffering, or try to contract out of it by adopting an attitude of contempt and disdain. They simply bear the suffering which comes their way as they try to follow Jesus Christ, and bear it for his sake. Sorrow cannot tire them or wear them down, it cannot embitter them or cause them to break down under the strain; far from it, for they bear their sorrow in the strength of him who bears them up, who bore the whole suffering of the world upon the cross. They stand as the bearers of sorrow in the fellowship of the Crucified: they stand as strangers in the world in the power of him who was such a stranger to the world that it crucified him.”
As Christians, we are strangers to a world that says to anyone, “You are unwelcome!” Because Christ said, “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest!”
Fortunate are the meek, fortunate are the pure in heart, fortunate are the peace-makers, because peace is not easy—it must be made. Not coerced, but won through genuine openness to each other. Fortunate are you when you are persecuted on Jesus’s account. Because we are in the fellowship of the Crucified.
But I skipped a couple. Fortunate are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; fortunate are those who are persecuted for righteousness’s sake. That sounds a little holier than thou, except that word, “Righteousness,” in Greek, that’s the same word for justice. Fortunate are those who hunger and thirst for justice, and those who are persecuted for the sake of justice. That’s what these Beatitudes are about. These Beatitudes are not simply pronouncing God’s blessing on the downtrod, but they invite all of us to fight for the cause of justice, because in fighting for the cause of justice, and in bearing that form of sorrow we find ourselves in the company of the Crucified, we find ourselves in the company of God.
And this is not a new message to God’s people. Jesus wasn’t making this up on the fly. In the ancient world, ancient Babylon, Assyria, Egypt, etc., there were no laws protecting refugees—foreign dignitaries and important people, yes, but those fleeing oppression, no. But Israel and Judah were different in this respect. They worshipped a God that cared especially for those who were oppressed.
We read it in the book of the Exodus, in no uncertain terms: “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans” (Exod. 22:21-24).
We read it in the book of Leviticus: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God” (Lev. 19.9-10). Again, “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as a citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (Lev. 19:33-34).
We read it in the book of Deuteronomy: “You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice!” (Deut. 24.17).
Abraham welcomed the strangers and in doing so welcomed God (Genesis 18), because that is the law of love, just as the letter to the Hebrews says, “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained [that is, welcomed] angels without knowing it” (Heb. 13.1-2).
In the Beatitudes, Jesus was laying claim to the heart of the Good News of the Law and the Prophets, which our reading from Micah puts succinctly: “You have been told what is good. And what does the LORD require of you, but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” What does the LORD require, but that we work for justice in the faith that in doing so we can turn the world, that we exercise mercy out of the great love of God that has been poured into our hearts, and that we do all of this circumspectly, humbly, knowing that it is not our own righteousness that makes us seek justice, but the very mission of God, in which we participate by God’s grace?
The Beatitudes, then, reflect exactly the kind of life we are called to as Christians in all times, not just these. But in these times, such a mission is rightly labeled resistance. We are seeking justice in a time of injustice, demanding mercy in the midst of an unmerciful generation. This message is indeed foolishness to those who currently run Washington. In seeking to become righteous they have been infected by a spirit that is anti-Christ. Because it is not some abstract principle that drives us; it is the God who meets us in love, and bids us welcome.
Jesus was not always kind. You should know that. In the same Gospel as the Beatitudes, Jesus tells a parable about final judgment, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him” (Matt. 25.31-46). First, he turns to one group and says, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” And they ask when they ever saw him hungry or thirst, or whatever. His response: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” But then he turns to the other group and says, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels, for I was hungry and you did not feed me,” etc. And they say, “When did we ever see you hungry or naked or thirty?” And he says, “As often as you did not do it for one of these the least of my family, you did not do it for me.”
With these words in mind, there is really one duty of Christians to the ungenerous and unjust spirit of these times—to resist. Let these Beatitudes remain the foundation for your resistance. Strive to be among the blessed, those who carry themselves with poverty of spirit, attentive to God in prayer. Let that attention to God empower you to carry the sorrow of the world in joy, rejoicing in the company of God who carries that sorrow with you. And let that sorrow drive you to hunger and thirst after justice, in which the alien and the foreigner are welcomed and embraced, in which the poor and the hungry are fed, in which those who flee for their lives are made safe among us.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Cost of Discipleship, trans. R. H. Fuller and Irmgard Booth (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995 ), p. 108.
 Ibid., p. 109.