Today and over the next three Sundays we will listen as Jesus shares with us what the late Leonard Cohen called, “the staggering account of the Sermon on the Mount – which I don’t pretend to understand at all.”
I love that line. Leonard Cohen was about sixty when he wrote it and just soaked in life and love and wisdom and grief and God. Cohen had experienced enough of the beautiful sad mystery of this life to know that sometimes the closest that a human being can come to enlightenment is to say, “I don’t understand.”
And there is a lot not to understand about the Sermon on the Mount.
The Sermon begins with these series of statements or aphorisms or proverbs that we call the Beatitudes, a Latin word that means something like “happiness.” Here are nine rapid-fire blessings, the first eight so rhythmic and regular in nature that you could imagine a percussionist keeping time with them, the heavy beats landing on:
Or, perhaps, we could imagine the gathered crowd so in sync with Jesus that they breathe in time with him, inhaling with each blessed and exhaling with each for.
In a way, their highly rhythmic structure makes the beatitudes even stranger. Most of the rhythms that we encounter are pretty predictable in nature. Unless you are listening to experimental jazz, you will likely find in music a groove that you can drop into really easily. When we encounter Abba’s Dancing Queen or Lady Gaga’s Poker Face or (if this is more of musical theatre crowd) the Gershwins’ Nice Work if You Can Get It, we say to ourselves: I know this. I can do this. I can follow this. I can dance to this. With the exception of the occasional drunken uncle on the dance floor at a wedding, whose gyrations bear no relationship to what the band is playing, most of us have a pretty natural relationship with rhythm.
But Jesus’ words. They just don’t follow predictability of his rhythm.
I read a whimsical article a few years back in which the author invited a child – maybe even the author’s own child, I don’t remember – to complete popular sayings or proverbs. For instance, the author gave the child the prompt:
A bird in the hand
and the child replied:
People in glass houses…
and the child replied:
It’s all fun and games until… Darth Vader comes.
Or, perhaps my favourite of them all
Don’t count your chickens… because your chickens need their privacy.
I wonder what it would be like if we invited people – not necessarily children, not even necessarily people who are unfamiliar with the Bible – to do that same exercise, to play “complete this sentence,” except beginning with the words:
What comes next when I say, “Blessed are?”
Well, think about how you and I use that word, “blessed.” Think about how our neighbours use it. I know a number of folks who, when speaking of the healthy number of zeroes in their bank statements or the generous size of their real estate holdings, will say, “I’ve been really blessed.” I know a number of folks who, when speaking about their health, about how they are pretty vigorous at age sixty or seventy or eighty or ninety while many of their peers are sick or hurting or have already died, will say, “I’ve been really blessed.” I know a number of folks who, when speaking of a marriage that has endured across the decades, will say, “I’ve been really blessed.” (I know that last one because, more than two decades into my time with Phoebe, I say that same thing.)
What comes next when I say, “Blessed are”? How do we complete than sentence? Well:
Blessed are the wealthy.
Blessed are those who manage to dodge loss and grief.
Blessed are the mighty, those who succeed in this harsh and competitive world.
Blessed are those who bury their emotions, who mask their fear, who show no one their pain, who stay strong.
Blessed are the white men. Especially the ones who grew up in the middle class. Especially the ones who went to college. Especially the ones who chose a sensible career. Especially the one who are straight or, at least, have successfully stayed hidden in the closet.
Blessed are those who look out for themselves, for their family, for their tribe.
Blessed are those who love their country, those who say, “America First.”
Blessed and the winners.
But that isn’t where Jesus goes at all.
Picture him, standing on the mountainside, the crowd pressing near, the slope of the ground and the hard rock around him making a kind of amphitheatre, making a kind of natural PA system that picks up his voice and projects it into the gathered people.
Jesus says, “Microphone check.” And the mountainside hums with his voice.
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.
And then, as sometimes happens at the end of a song or a poem or a rap number, Jesus breaks the rhythm:
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.
Jesus is like a pitcher standing on the mound. The catcher signals to him: curve ball, fastball, slider. But Jesus just keeps on shaking his head. No. Today, he says, I am throwing nothing but wild pitches. Today, I am going to aim at the dirt. I am going to aim at the crowd behind the umpire. I am going to aim right at the batter.
St. Paul is in the broadcast booth, leaning forward in his chair, breathing excitedly. Paul understands that, somehow, this is the greatest baseball game that he has ever attended. Paul is wearing a headset. And he says to the audience at home, “The pitching of Jesus is foolishness to the world.”
For nine innings, for nine beatitudes, wild pitches are all that Jesus will throw. There are rules that Jesus is playing by. But they aren’t the rules that we know.
And you and me sit in the bleachers and we ask ourselves: is this what we came to see? Is this why paid money, why we bought a ticket? We heard that Jesus was the greatest pitcher in the world.
But Jesus’ pitching sure looks like losing.
And so we sit in the bleachers, we stand on the mountainside, we watch Jesus and we listen. And we think, we feel, we say…
Well, maybe I shouldn’t speak for you. Maybe I should just speak for myself. I say:
I don’t understand at all.
But I want to understand.
Sometimes, every now and again, I catch a glimpse. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of where Jesus’ strange blessings come from and where they are going.
I catch a glimpse when I visit with people in my office or in their homes in hospital or hospice rooms. And one person after another will say something similar to me. These folks will describe an experience of big loss or big injustice or big grief. And they will say: I didn’t want that thing to happen, I wish it hadn’t happened. And, in a way that I can’t entirely quantify or name or explain, that loss or that injustice or that grief was a kind of blessing.
Someone will talk about sitting beside her father’s bed during the time of his dying. Someone else will talk about the aftermath of a car accident, how the weeks that she spent in a hospital bed recovering was the first time that she had slowed down in years. Some else will talk about a big disappointment or a big betrayal. And they will explain how these experiences somehow showed them something that they couldn’t learn anywhere else.
I’ve had the same experience in my own life. When my heart has been broken open, I have learned so much about myself, about life, about God. I don’t mean to say that I don’t find God in jubilation or that I don’t find God in the everyday: I do. What I do mean is that is that pain and loss – what Paul calls the Way of the Cross – is necessary to experience the fullness of God.
Blessed are those who mourn.
I catch a glimpse when I participate in working towards a more just world, in working towards what Jesus calls the Kingdom. I’ve spoken several times over the last couple of weeks about the Friday Evening Meal, about how often the people who cook and serve there say, “I sometimes wonder if I am getting more out of this than the people who come to eat.” There is a blessing that comes when we look beyond ourselves.
I experienced something similar when Phoebe and Miriam and I joined a whole bunch of you at last week’s Women’s March. The hundred thousand of us who got together were there for a hard reason: we were there in response to the Inauguration of President who engages in casual misogyny, in his words, in his actions, and now in his legislation. That’s a pretty brutal reason to be gathering. And yet being there, together, was so energizing, it gave me so much courage. My only disappointment was that I didn’t have a Pussy Hat. I came away from that experience of being together, of resisting together, with hope for the weeks and days and months that are to come.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
I catch a glimpse of when I read the Gospel and I realise that, for Jesus, these nine blessings are not an abstraction or a hypothesis, and nor are they something that will happen later on. They are not about following the right rules in order to get into heaven. They are about how we live right now. They are about creating the Kingdom right now.
Notice that Jesus lives each and every one of these beatitudes. He is poor. He mourns. He is meek – or as some scholars argue we should translate the word that we traditionally render as “meek” – he is nonviolent. He hungers and thirst for righteousness. He is merciful. He is pure in heart. He is a peacemaker. He is persecuted. He is reviled for proclaiming the good news, for living the good news.
Jesus does all of this during his earthly ministry. He does all of it right here and right now.
And he calls us, his followers to do likewise.
The cost of discipleship, the joy of discipleship, is that Jesus invites us to take these difficult blessings on for ourselves. And friends, we have an opportunity and a duty to take them on now. We often call America a Christian nation. But there is nothing Christian about scapegoating Muslims. There is nothing Christian about denying health care to the poor and to veterans and to the chronically ill. There is nothing Christian about closing our borders to refugees, to those in desperation.
Those of you who know your history will remember that, in 1939, this nation and Canada and Cuba all turned away the MS St. Louis, a ship carrying 908 Jewish refugees. The St. Louis was forced to return to Europe, where historians estimate that between a quarter and a third of the people on board died in concentration camps. And friends, we’re doing it again.
The Jesuit Priest, James Martin, spoke this week about the appalling irony of America closing its borders to refugees on the same week that that we held the March for Life and Holocaust Remembrance Day, on the same week that we said, Pro-Life” and “Never Forget.”
God help us.
We are Jesus’ hands and feet in this broken world. Jesus calls us to proclaim the beatitudes with our words and our lives.
This is the staggering account of the Sermon on the Mount, which I don’t pretend to understand at all.
But, Lord, I am trying.
I am trying to understand.
I want to say “yes” to these blessings. I want “yes” to you. And I believe that, together as church, we can say “yes,” that we can take on the strange and hard and beautiful promises of the beatitudes. I believe that we can participate in bringing the Kingdom nearer right now. I believe that, with God’s help, we will we say “yes” in word and in action. I believe that, with God’s help, the day will come when Jesus will look upon you and me and say:
Blessed are you