Yours is the Kingdom of Heaven
Those of us who serve as clergy know that one of the consequences of being who we are is that many people treat us differently from the way they treat other people. For instance, many people will apologize after, or before, using their usual speach. Expletives are often halted in mid-sylable when a person realizes that he or she is in the presence of a clergyperson. It’s as though a dreaded bolt of lightning is about to strike if one does, or says, anything wrong!
A for instance is at Christmas. I know that it isn’t Christmas yet – but this being November 1st, Christmas is not so far away. So, my for instance is this: At Christmas, most people will say “Have a blessed Christmas” to me and my family – but to everyone else they will say “Have a Merry Christmas!” Don’t get me wrong. I like being wished a blessed Christmas and will most often respond with the same. But, “Blessed” is one of those words in our language which, it seems, cannot be uttered without a certain degree of stilted piety. When we visualize the word “blessed”, it brings with it images bathed in stained-glass-colored light.
“The Beatitudes,” are our Gospel lesson for today. They are a well-known entity within our Christian tradition. Yet, the
very name also conjures up some ultra-religious word associations. “Beatitudes” sound like “platitudes.” Thus, it is tempting to think of them as simply that.
Now, these particular beatitudes are the beginning of what has come to be known as “The Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew’s Gospel. “The Sermon on the Mount” – another of those phrases which is doomed to perpetual pious heaviness. “Sermons” are usually heavy enough, much less to have them hurled downward at us from the top of a mountain! This word association is somewhat unfortunate. Its overall effect is to render these concepts: blessedness, beatitudes, The Sermon on the Mount – as something less than attractive.
The “sermon”, for which today’s Gospel lesson serves as an introduction, is actually a collection of the teachings and sayings of Jesus. They were most likely given at various times during Jesus’ travels with his disciples. But, they are remembered, and conveyed by the author of Matthew, as a single discourse, a discourse delivered by our Lord as he “sat down” before his disciples (as any rabbi of his day would have done) and it seems that Matthew places the sermon “up on the mountain” probably more as an outgrowth of the memory of Moses, than as a matter of geography. Remember, Moses was the first great leader to deliver God’s word to God’s people as he came down from Mount Sinai.
And, the site on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, which tradition has set as the place of the Sermon on the Mount, is much more of a “rolling hill” than a mountian. In Jesus’ day that lush, green hill would have overlooked the large, busy city of Capernaum. Today, the formerly great cities of that area are dwindling ruins. Today, the area around that hillside bears remarkable resemblance to rural settings anywhere in the USA, except for a few palm trees which dot the shoreline where Galilee’s blue-green waters lead the eye to the vast expanse of the Golan Heights on the far horizon.
This place has come to be called in Hebrew the “Mount of Happiness.” For, it was from that place that Jesus told his disciples the words that we have come to remember as “The Beatitudes.” Actually, they are only a few of several beatitudes to be found in the scriptures. You see, “beatitude” is simply a literary term indicating a phrase which begins with the word,”blessed”.
How strange it must have sounded, then, to those first disciples when they heard the Aramaic form of that word being spoken in reference to conditions such as poverty, mourning, hunger and persecution. In fact, it still sounds a discordant note to our ears when we think of “happiness” in relation to the harsher and more difficult conditions of life. So, we buffer the irony by translating the word for “happy” into the word, “blessed”, with its insulating overtones of piety.
However, if we assume, as Matthew does, that Jesus is providing a picture of life in the Kingdom of God through these sayings, then these beatitudes can be understood as glimpses into a realm of joy and happiness. It is the kind of happiness that comes to us in spite of all of the suffering and hardship which often results from living simultaneously in “the real world” and in the Kingdom of God.
With that view of blessedness, or happiness, in mind, my mind’s eye places you and me on that grassy hillside, called The Mount of Beatitude, and my mind’s eye sees Jesus as he describs the blessed ones.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kindom 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 be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Now, I once heard that a pastor asked an adult Vacation Bible School class what their favorite part of the worship service was. And, one lady replied, “The benediction, the blessing at the end of the service.” The pastor made a joke by saying something like, “Yes, that does means that it’s all over and we can go home!”
But, the woman was serious and she said, “No. Because it’s the promise of God to be with us always, and to bless us in every situation, no matter how bad it looks. It means that our Lord’s name is on us, and with us, wherever we go.”
It is the same with “The Beatitudes” for they are a statement of what is as well as of what will be. Let me suggest some “for instances” for you:
1.) Can you remember a time of grief and sorrow that was strangely graced by some sense of joy and peace?
2.) Have you ever been able to laugh at the folly of your own feeble attempts to grasp or control the mind of God?
3.) Did you ever find yourself on the verge of doing something, crazy and dangerous, for good and right reasons; and, in a way that you couldn’t explain, felt an exhilaration that was at least as strong as your fear?
4.) Have you ever known what others would have called “hard times,” yet insisted on calling them “the best times?”
Perhaps you have … perhaps you will. And, when these moments come, God’s great blessing of new life in Christ is once again bestowed, as it is every time we hear the benediction. When we experience these times, or hear those words, it is then that we are taking our place with “all the saints”, who travel in that long pilgrimage of faith, – which began on a lush, green hillside overlooking Galilee. In those moments, we hear the distant echoes of our Master’s voice saying: “Blessed are you — Yours is the kingdom of heaven!”