Taste and see that the Lord is good; *
happy are they who trust in him! (Psalm 34:8)
I have fallen hard for a TV show called This is Us. I love the characters that consist of two parents, three children, and a growing assortment of spouses and grandchildren. They are taking me deeply, but gently, into the lives of struggling, broken, yet hopeful and kind beings. One of the characters is the adopted son who struggles with perfectionism. He wants so much to be “just right” that he pushes himself often to the breaking point.
Being extremely hard on himself, any misstep or any self-perceived “less than perfect” performance can cause him to experience paralyzing anxiety. In one of the episodes we learn that when this man was a child, his father developed a practice with him that when he began to suffer from fear and anxiety that would leave him trembling and locked in panic, his father would place his hands on both sides of his face and repeat softy, yet firmly, “Look at me, breathe, you are here, you are alright, breathe…” This gentle presence and affirmation would eventually allow this child to come back to himself. He would remember that he was safe and that this who person loved him no matter what could be trusted. In this action, he received a blessing.
Jesus has begun his ministry following the arrest of John the Baptist. He has moved from Nazareth to Capernaum near the Sea of Galilee and is beginning to call people to be his disciples. And the response to his ministry has been dramatic. Throngs of people come to him to hear his words and to be healed by his touch. In the Gospel reading this morning we hear that Jesus sees these crowds and along with his disciples he goes up on a mountain and begins to teach. Because the ringing in our ears reminds us of another time that Moses went up on a mountain to receive the law from God– we know that something big is about to happen. Jesus sits down, His disciples come to him and He begins to teach them through blessings.
The Beatitudes appear in Jesus’ inaugural sermon that we have come to know as “the Sermon on the Mount.” (Quite an awesome beginning!) I know that I have looked at the Beatitudes and seen in them a kind of moral checklist. I have heard in them the need for me to be more open to God, to more actively work for peace, to strive to be pure in heart—less mixed in my emotions, to try to walk more faithfully with God —none of these are unworthy of my attention and dedication. But this time when I read the Beatitudes, I heard the teachings of Jesus not as a set of conditions urging a distinct ethic, but rather as unconditional blessings that invite us all to imagine what it’s like to live in the kingdom of God. What it is like to be loved completely by God who offers us blessings first. Before a single instruction has been given, before there has been offered examples of obedience or disobedience, Jesus says, “Blessed are those… Blessed are you…”
If the blessings were only for those who would meet some requirement or who were deserving, very likely they would have appeared at the end of the sermon probably prefaced with the conditional clause, “and after you have done all these things.” But appearing at the beginning, they say that God blesses us–gives us God’s favor before we can act. The blessings come before any response from us.
And notice those who receive God’s unconditional blessings are many who our culture does not view as blessed. Those who are “poor in spirit” rather than confident, “a winner,” in control, on top? Those who mourn rather than are happy? Those who are meek rather than stridently powerful? Those who hunger and thirst for a connection with God and God’s creation rather than seeing God and others in terms of what they can do for us. Seeing this through the eyes of the world—these blessings are absurd.
But the Beatitudes are not stated as moral injunctions. Rather Jesus presents them as simple facts. The Beatitudes are primarily about the character of God as seen through the life of Jesus. This is who God is! The Beatitudes point to what God has done and what God is doing in Jesus.
God puts God’s hands on each side of our face and says, “Blessed are you.” Jesus has come to show us God and he has confirmed the Beatitudes in his own life. It is from Jesus that we learn what it means to be “poor in spirit.” This is why Paul can commend the Philippians to “have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus”:
Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death even death on a cross (Phil. 2: 5-8)
“Those who mourn” is particularly mindful of Jesus as he walked in a world whose kind of justice and even peace stood in stark contrast to the world as God wills it to be. He wept over Jerusalem. Jesus called his disciples to endure the injustice with the hard meekness that hungers and thirsts for righteousness. Jesus says, “Learn from me for I am meek and gentle of heart.” (Matt. 11: 29)
Jesus worked continuously for peace and was sustained by his single focus on God and God’s working purpose through his life. Yet he suffered great persecution because he offered an alternative to the way of the world that often runs on violence, injustice, and oppression.
It is through Jesus that we can count on the promises offered at the end of every blessing. In blessing us, Jesus points to God’s reign here on earth. Not in a far-off time or place, but right here and right now. The future reign of God is guaranteed. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, its presence can already be felt and seen in the world.
So these blessings come to us because of who God is and who Jesus is. We can embrace these calls on our life because Jesus shows us the way. Jesus walks with us in the kingdom which is truly the upside down version of our world, which means that it is really right side up. Because of Jesus we can trust that those who weep, will find comfort, that those who are meek—which really means that their power is under control—will be used by God to transform the world, and those who hunger and thirst to be connected with God and with all of God’s creation—will find a deeper satisfaction than any food or drink can accomplish.
Today is a day that we remember and offer gratitude for those who have brought blessing into our lives –for those who have put their hands on our faces, on our shoulders, held us and cared for us so that we see the hope that is in us. Today we celebrate All Saints’ Day, a time to remember those people who we know well and those who have touched our lives. We remember them as saints, not because they never had a bad day or made mistakes, but because they kept at it—working hard for others, opening themselves to the possibility of compassion and mercy so that they were filled and that compassion and mercy could spill over into our lives. Saints are people just like you and me who make time to share their gifts so that the world is better. Because of their presence in our lives, they make us want to be like them and offer hope to others.
Saints are all around us. Some of our saints are present with us—here in this life. They make dinner for us, invite us to play with them, offer us companionship, and remind us that we are alive and that we are of value.
Some of our saints have finished their time on this earth. They now live beyond that horizon we call death. But they are not lost to us, because they are a part of us. Their love, the time we spent in their presence, what they showed us about ourselves have helped make us who we are. We are better people because we loved them and they loved us.
And today we welcome into the community of the beloved, Claire and Mark. They will be baptized in the ancient tradition of water and then they will be marked with holy oil and claimed as “Christ’s own forever.” We who will witness this rite also pledge to walk with these precious children, holding them in love, and reminding them daily that they are good, that they are blessed, that they are loved, just as they are by God whose very being is blessing.
Because God is love, those of us who today are poor in spirit, who suffer from illness, who mourn, are hungry, or are persecuted, we will be provided comfort and assurance. We are blessed and we can be assured that circumstances that currently cause us to suffer will not be the last word.
And we who are satisfied right now, happy, accomplished, well fed, are blessed when we recognize that nothing can separate us from our need for God. And we are blessed when we recognize that all that we are and all that we have are gifts and so our lives can be lived in response to this divine grace. We are blessed when we reach out to each other in love, not “in order to” but “in response to” God’s love and blessings.
May we hold on to these blessing, trusting that God who delights to create, bless, and redeem looks deeply into our hearts and sees us as beloved and blessed children, this day and through life eternal. Breathe, God is near, we will be alright, breathe.