MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
February 2, 2014
5:1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.
5:2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
5:3 "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
5:4 "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5:5 "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
5:6 "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
5:7 "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
5:8 "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
5:9 "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
5:10 "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
5:11 "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
5:12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
The poor in Spirit…
Makers of peace…
The pure in heart.
These words are the opening of Jesus’ very first sermon to his followers. In the chapter immediately preceding this, Jesus has called his disciples, and begun to proclaim his message, healing people in the increasingly large crowds who are beginning to follow him.
“Within this context, these opening verses provide a commissioning that undergirds the necessary instructions (the rest of the Sermon) for Jesus’ chosen disciples and others in the crowd who desire to follow Jesus." (This quote and other threads in the sermon come from the Feasting on the Word commentary.)
Beatitudes were a common genre of speech in Jewish tradition. They are really two kinds of speech in one. They are both wisdom and prophecy.
They are wisdom because they describe the world as it is.
But they are prophecy because they describe the world as it should be.
Beatitudes speak a new world into being. Think of them like wedding vows. When the bride and groom say “I do,” they are not conveying information. They are inaugurating a new reality. They become husband and wife in a powerful way.
And what kind of reality do these Beatitudes call into being?
Some scholars suggest that the virtues listed here were not meant to be an all-inclusive list. This is not meant to encompass every behavior of concern to God… rather, this is a representative list of the kind of things that
We might add more to our own list of beaitudes:
Blessed are those who work for justice, for they are doing the work that Jesus calls us to.
Blessed are those who live lightly on the earth, for they will care for God’s creation.
Blessed are those who show kindness, for they will change the world, one kind act at a time.
Blessed are those who let others in on the Beltway, for they make the world a gentler place.
Blessed are those who never read the comments on Internet news articles, for they will not lose hope in their fellow human beings.
We could spin our own list of beatitudes all day!
But if we focus in on the ones that Jesus gave us, we do see a few basic principles for living into the spirit of the Beatitudes: we see simplicity, we see hopefulness, and we see compassion.
Simplicity. Hopefulness. Compassion.
A couple of weeks ago at T4 (Thursday Theology Talk on Tap) we discussed the recent film Philomena. It’s about an Irish woman, Philomena Lee, played by Judi Dench, and her search for her son, who was adopted by American parents some 50 years before. Philomena was one of the Magdalene girls: unwed mothers who were essentially incarcerated in various Catholic institutions in Ireland and forced into unpaid labor as payment for their shameful mistakes. They were allowed to see their children for one hour a day. Their children were adopted out from under them—some would say sold—and sent to live in America. Yes, the young women signed away their parental rights, but it’s not clear whether they were coerced.
Most people would agree that the Magdalene girls were victims of a terrible injustice. Yes, they violated the church’s teaching. But instead of receiving compassion, they received judgment. They were forced to work, in Philomena’s case, for four years after her son was adopted
And yet throughout much of the movie, Philomena (who is by this time in her 60s) defends the Church’s actions. There were good people there, she would say. I don’t want to judge them. I believe in God and I believe in the Church. You might say that she is the embodiment of these beatitudes Jesus spoke about.
Contrast Philomena’s reaction with that of Martin Sixsmith, the journalist who has agreed to help her find her son. Martin is not a religious man, and throughout the movie he asks Philomena how she can excuse the treatment she received by these supposedly holy men and women? What kind of God would allow this to happen?
There’s a scene in the movie in which Philomena and Martin have found out about a coverup that makes the injustice perpetrated even deeper and more devastating. And it implicates the nuns in the convent where Philomena had lived and where her son was born so many years ago. Some of these religious people are right there in the room when this injustice comes to light, and Martin is absolutely livid. Yet Philomena chides him. Look how unhappy you are. Look how angry you are. And she forgives the nuns for what happened. Just like that. Blessed are the peacemakers.
And yet as I sat in the theater, I felt angry along with Martin. And I felt frustrated at Philomena’s passive behavior. Forgiveness is a wonderful thing, but she appeared to excuse what happened. And I realized that anger was not just appropriate in this case, it was righteous. Martin was hungering and thirsting for righteousness… And he went on to write a book about the Magdalene girls and helped expose a whole rotten practice for what it was. And over time these Magdalene houses closed, every single one.
Who is embodying the beatitudes? Philomena, who defends the Catholic Church and in the end forgives her? Or Martin, who helped Philomena, who spoke up for the powerless and sought to hold a large and powerful institution accountable for a terrible injustice?
Maybe they both did. And maybe they both fell short, too.
I remember these beatitudes were hanging on a plaque in my house growing up. They were printed in a fancy script and and mounted on a wooden plaque and shellacked. And that’s how we view them, decorative, smooth and protected, inaccessible to us, something we can’t quite touch.
When Jesus speaks about the pure in heart… we remember the many times our hearts have been anything but pure.
When Jesus blesses the meek, we remember the times we wanted things our way or the highway.
When Jesus speaks about the peacemakers, we were the ways we war within ourselves and with one another.
Will we ever get it right?
In addition to Philomena, I’ve got another movie on my mind. It’s February 2, which means I’m thinking about that Bill Murray classic, Groundhog Day. For those who haven’t seen it or don’t remember, Murray plays Phil Connors, a weather man sent to cover the Groundhog Day festivities in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. He does so in his typically sarcastic way, then wakes up the next morning… and it’s still February 2. Groundhog Day.
This happens again, and again, and again.
Once he realizes that he’s destined to live in February 2 forever, Phil goes through a number of phases. First he decides to enjoy life, eating as much as he wants and so forth. Then he descends into despair and decides to end it all. Then he tries to figure out how to do and say the right thing to woo the woman he’s interested in, almost memorizing a script to try and win her affections. That doesn’t work. Then over time, he realizes, This is my reality. There’s no changing it; there’s no way February 3 is ever going to arrive, so I’m going to live as fully in this experience as I can.
So he learns to play the piano really, really well. He gets to know the people in the town and realizes that they’re wonderful folks. He saves a man who’s choking in a restaurant. He helps a homeless man. He forgets trying to win over the woman, and in doing so—he does! He doesn’t become perfect—there’s no such thing—but in finally giving up trying to get it “right,” he becomes the person he was meant to be.
I think the Kingdom of God is something like Groundhog Day. Sometimes it seems like we are fighting the same battles within ourselves, day after day after day—to be more like Jesus, who was pure in heart and meek, who hungered for righteousness, who did the right thing even though he was persecuted for it, who practiced the ways of peace. And every day we have another opportunity to try again.
But the good news is, unlike Phil Connors, we are not alone in this.
The Beatitudes are not direct calls to action—to become poor in spirit, to mourn, to be meek, and so forth. Rather, the Beatitudes are promises—promises, that when we are poor in Spirit, or in mourning, or hated, God’s love is still with us and for us. It is that love, that blessing, that brings us to this table, to partake in a ritual that many of us have done many many times before. And yet, in the Kingdom of God, this ritual is ever new—an ingesting of the blessings of God, for the living of our days.
Thanks be to God.
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©2014 MaryAnn McKibben Dana. These sermon manuscripts are provided here for personal use, and are not to be redistributed or otherwise reproduced without permission of the author.