The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, 8:30 a.m. service
The Reverend Casey Rohleder, Priest Associate

Matthew 5:1-12

In case you missed it, the key phrase in today’s Gospel passage is “blessed are those.” The Beatitudes is a well-known passage of scripture. I think most Episcopalians, when pressed, can tell you from memory at least one or two of the groups of people whom Jesus declares as blessed.

Blessed.

I don’t know about you, but I hear people throwing around that word a lot in our culture, face-to-face and particularly in the world of social media.

• “We have just built the house of our dreams. We are so blessed.”
• “We just had another healthy baby. We are so blessed.”
• “I just got a huge promotion and raise. I am so blessed.”

Don’t get me wrong. I am all for sharing the good news and happy events of life. It is wonderful when others can share in our joys as well as our sorrows. However, this phrase, “I am so blessed” has really started to bug me.

Why is our sense of blessing so tied to stuff?

The underlying implication when we, professed Christians, casually say that we are blessed is that God has rewarded us with material goods.

Why? Because we are good people?! Because we are good Christians?!

And when we talk about our blessings in this way, what might it suggest to others? I have been rewarded with a big house while you are homeless. I have been rewarded with a big family while you are infertile. I am rewarded with a wonderful new job while you languish in a position you can’t easily escape.

What about those people? Does God love them any less? Are they any less blessed?

No. That is not the God that Jesus presents us with in today’s Gospel. Actually, what Jesus teaches us is quite the opposite.

The first four blessings that Jesus proclaims today – on those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,….these are the folks who are on the margins of society, those who are oppressed and beaten down by the empires of both Rome and religion.

In the understanding of ancient Israel, which – as it turns out – is not all too different from popular convention today, faithful Jews understood that God showed God’s people divine favor through blessings – of land, of descendants, of wealth, and success against their enemies. These blessings came because of the covenant God made with Abraham that we hear about in the book of Genesis.

It was generally understood that those who did not receive God’s material blessing brought it upon themselves through their own sin or the sin of their parents.

So, when Jesus tells his disciples that those who are oppressed and on the margins of society are BLESSED, he is turning the notion of God’s favor upside down. Jesus tells his disciples that who you are, regardless of your standing within society, is what matters to God. Not what you do, not what you have. This is what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like.

But then Jesus switches gears from those who are acted upon to the disciples’ own actions – blessed are the peacemakers, the merciful, the pure in heart. These are the ones who know God and whom God knows. Peace, justice, mercy, integrity – these are key characteristics of those who follow God. There is nothing in this list about material stuff. This is what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like.

It is easy for all of us – myself included – to be sucked into the allure of success in our culture, to judge someone’s worth by size and quality of their stuff. We live in a culture that recognizes and rewards such things at every turn. For goodness sake, the entire daytime soap opera genre has been built upon these very things.

What would it mean for you, for me, to intentionally shift focus away from the material – to expect to find God’s blessing of love in whomever we encounter in the world. Not just those who are successful by the world’s standards, but particularly those who aren’t.

I know the world we live in is complex and that our political and social climates are polarized by fear, division and a profound deafness to listen to what others have to say. We are living in extraordinarily difficult times right now.

But I ask you to think about whom Jesus might name in 2017 as recipients of God’s blessing:
• Blessed are the immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers
• Blessed are the working poor and the homeless
• Blessed are those who are viewed as “less than” for the color of their skin, the language they speak, or whom they love
• Blessed are the addicts and drug offenders
• Blessed are those on food stamps or disability

Like the Beatitudes themselves, this is far from an exhaustive list.

But if any of those blessings make you shift in your pew and feel a little uncomfortable, perhaps they should. I, too, have been confronted in recent months with my own idea of whom God blesses.

2000 years ago, Jesus challenged the political and religious establishment. Jesus wasn’t saying anything new – through the prophets, God had been telling God’s people this for generations. Micah 6:8 is a fine example, when he asks “What does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” This is the heart of the covenant. This is what faithfulness looks like.

But in the incarnation, in the person of Jesus, the Kingdom of Heaven broke in like it never had before. It made some angry and others very nervous. And Jesus was killed for it.

If this sounds way too political, it totally is. But it is not partisan.

It is political because Jesus called us to be full citizens in the Kingdom of Heaven, to align ourselves with those Kingdom ethics, not the power and privilege of the empires under which we all must also live.

Being a follower of Christ is not easy. It is challenges us, right along with challenging the status quo.

Jesus calls us to be a counter-cultural community. To stand apart from the expectations and assumptions about winners and losers, who’s in and who’s out, and who’s welcome and who’s not. As members of this counter-cultural movement, we are to reject the labels of empire – government, culture and, yes, sometimes even the church.

This is not optional for Christians; love is the center of our Christian morality, it is the foundation of our Christian ethics. To do otherwise is not to follow in the way of Jesus, to not follow our call as disciples of Jesus.

What would it mean if we take Jesus-our-teacher at His word about whom God blesses? What if we choose to stand in solidarity with God’s divine’s blessing? Living and acting as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus ushered in changes everything.

Blessed are we who look for God’s blessedness in others. Blessed are we who actively seek God’s Kingdom, where love overcomes hate, where mercy overcomes vengeance, where honoring the dignity of each person trumps our fear of difference.

May we all be truly blessed as we seek to follow Christ better, together.

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