Beyond Smugness: The Beatitudes Again

On July 18 I returned to the beatitudes in my sermon for the summer fellowship of the Wine Before Breakfast community. There was something about my post last week – Donald, Pat and Jesus – that wasn’t sitting right with me. That, combined with some crises within the broader urban ministry community in Toronto set me down a very different path in reading the beatitudes of Jesus, this summer in Toronto. But we began with a reading of Matthew 5.1-12 that was interrupted. Readers of Empire Remixed might recall this interrupting voice from a post written some years ago by Joe Abbey-Colborne. I offer the reading first, followed by the sermon.

The Proclamation of the Word

The Lord be with you,
and also with you.

The holy gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ,
according to St. Matthew.
Glory to you, Lord Jesus Christ.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain;
and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.

Then he began to speak, and taught them saying,

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Excuse me. Sorry to interrupt, but that doesn’t make any sense.
If I might offer a small correction.

Blessed are the well off and those
with ready answers for every spiritual question;
they have it all.

Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the comfortable;
they shall avoid grief.

Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.

I don’t know what world you are living in!
Blessed are the graspers;
they wait for nothing, they have everything they want,
and they have it now.

Blessed are those who hunger and
thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.

Blessed are those who are untroubled by injustice;
they are content with realistic expectations,
and don’t lose sleep over suffering and oppression.

Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the ones who gain the upper hand;
they are in control and take full advantage of their position.

Blessed are the pure in heart
for they will see God.

Blessed are those with a solid public image
and a well-hidden agenda;
they are never exposed and see people
in a way that suits their purposes.

Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they shall be called children of God.

Blessed are the bullies,
those who will control the world through arrogance,
through an economics of privilege,
and, if necessary, through war;
they shall be called empire builders.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who fit in and don’t rock the boat,
blessed are they because the system works for them,
they already have their kingdom,
achieved through their own initiative, cunning and hard work.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Blessed are you when people praise you, and give you preferential treatment, and flatter you because they think you’re so great. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, because it doesn’t get any better than this. Those who have will get more, and you don’t have to wait for some heaven off in a never never land future.

You see, this is simply the way it is.
This is the truth.

(Pause)

I said, “this is the truth.”

(Pause)

(raising the Bible) This is the gospel of Christ.
Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.

*********************
The Sermon

I’m going to make an assumption.

I’m going to bet that pretty much everyone in this room
thinks that the interrupting voice in that reading is bullshit.

Some of you might think its bullshit
because it was a caricature.

Fair enough.

But caricature or not, my hunch is that most of us
would prefer the voice of Jesus
over the voice of the alternative.

Maybe not all of us.

And if you don’t prefer the voice of Jesus on this stuff,
stay with me a few minutes.

And I’m also willing to bet
that when I contrasted the beatitudes of Jesus
with the vices of Donald Trump,
in my Empire Remixed post last week,
the vast majority of the 1500 folks who read that piece,
agreed with what I was saying.

And that is what is catching me short tonight.
That is what has left me uneasy.

In a sense, it was too easy, too cheap.
The Donald was low-hanging fruit for the contrast.

And, perhaps more devastating, my post (which I still agree with),
and this dialogical reading (which I still think is on to something),
can lead us (indeed, lead me!) to a certain kind of smugness.

And that would be to seriously miss the point.

If we can be smug about this radical teaching of Jesus,
then we demonstrate in our very smugness that we don’t get it.

You see, I’m sure that some folks on that mountainside
heard these words as amazing, turn-everything-on-its-head good news.

For them, the impossibility of it all is precisely what made
this a revolutionary moment.

We are the poor, those who mourn, the meek in the land.
We are hungry to see justice.
And we know all about persecution for the sake of righteousness.
And it is high time that a rabbi showed up with such radical words.

And who could blame them?

Yes, maybe they weren’t so keen on the business of peacemakers;
there were, after all, some real oppressors with Roman boots
who needed to be dealt with.

And maybe they weren’t so keen for any mercy in this war of liberation;
there were some traitors who needed to be punished.

And perhaps they were a little too honest to count themselves amongst
the pure in heart.

But overall, this was a sermon for them.

This was good news for them
because it spoke of the kind of reversals
that they had so deeply longed for.

But, my hunch is that there were all kinds of folks on that mountainside
who weren’t buying it.

You while some of Jesus’s audience
might have responded with a sense of self-congratulatory affirmation,
I’m going to bet that a lot of folks were saying, “What?”

And maybe some of us are with them tonight.

We may think that the modern alternative
to the beatitudes of Jesus is bullshit,
but that doesn’t mean that we are resting

in some kind of comfortable smugness.

Certainly not our friends at Sanctuary these days.

You might know that the Sanctuary community on Charles Street
is a close sister church to Wine Before Breakfast.

And you might also know that for the first time in 25 years,
Sanctuary has closed its doors for a period of seven weeks this summer.
Indeed, tonight the Sanctuary board meets to discern a path forward.

And Sanctuary isn’t alone.
Our friends at The Dale have lost two members to suicide,
in the last couple of days.

And while a communities like Sanctuary, or the Dale,
and Wine Before Breakfast,
finds its deepest roots, inspiration and direction
in the radical gospel of Jesus that we meet in these beatitudes,
sometimes the conflict between the vision and the reality
just gets to be too much.

Our friends at Sanctuary and The Dale,
and maybe a lot of us in this room,
are experiencing the burn out, exhaustion, internal struggle,|
and crisis that comes with trauma;
not necessarily the trauma of one event,
but the accumulative trauma of life on the edge for so many years.

I mean, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,”
which is a lovely sentiment,
but the reality looks more like the kingdom of hell!

The kingdom of heaven is for those who have nothing …
but they still have nothing!

The kingdom of heaven is for the poor,
but they are still poor!

The kingdom of heaven is for the poor in spirit,
but they still feel like they are the garbage of our society!

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

But what if your grief leaves you with sleepless nights?

What if you have years of cumulative mourning from countless deaths?

What if your heart has been so broken
that you aren’t sure it can ever be whole again?

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth,”
is a great idea, but it doesn’t look that way.

If you don’t grasp, you don’t get.

If you let down your guard, someone’s going to take advantage of you.

If you don’t exploit, you’ll be exploited.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.”

Well … maybe, but that doesn’t take away the hunger pangs.

That doesn’t give me much comfort
when I see economic structures and public policy
that perpetuate and institutionalize injustice.

That doesn’t create housing for the homeless,
or dignity for the despised.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

But what if mercy is repaid with scorn and violence?

What if mercy seems to be a bandaid on the real wounds?

What if you are simply all out of mercy?

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

Yes, but you can tell by now that I am not pure in heart.

There is too much cynicism and disappointment for such purity.

So don’t be surprised if I’m having a hard time seeing God right now.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

Well, that’s better than being called an asshole
for intervening in a fight.

But how much peacemaking can we sustain
when violence returns over and over again?

And if we are traumatized by all of that violence,
then where do we even get the resources
to continue as peacemakers?

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Maybe that’s it.

We always felt a little guilty because persecution was something
that we identified with Christians (and other folks) somewhere else.

We weren’t the persecuted.

Heck, people even applauded our efforts
at building community and seeking justice.

But maybe when all hell breaks loose within the community
and deeply within our own lives,
maybe that is its own form of persecution.

Maybe that’s where all of this was going.
But it doesn’t make it any easier.

And maybe that’s why Jesus repeats himself
at the end of his beatitudes.
Maybe its because he knew how impossible all of this was to believe.

Maybe that’s why he expands on that last beatitude:

“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.”

I don’t know,
but that just might be the most impossible

“rejoice and be glad” ever uttered.

How do I say “rejoice and be glad” to a community in deep grief?

How do I say “rejoice and be glad” to folks
who just don’t have the energy for such rejoicing,
just don’t have the emotional space for something like gladness?

I mean, how do I say it to myself?

Or better, how can I hear Jesus saying this to me,
to the Sanctuary community,
to our grieving friends at The Dale,
to those of us here to worship and share a beer together tonight?

There’s a lot of pain in this room.
A lot of sorrow.

And a fair bit of trauma.

Maybe we should have just gone to the beer.
But since alcohol is a depressant,
that would only deepen the problem, wouldn’t it?

No, my friends, my sister and brothers,
my beloved siblings in Christ,
we need to hear, and meditate on,
and dwell with these words of Jesus
precisely because they are so impossible.


You see, if we can’t imagine the impossibilities
that Jesus is talking about here, then,
oppression wins,
repression wins,
arrogance wins,
injustice wins,
cruelty wins,
deceit wins,
violence wins,
persecution wins.

And then we are separated from the love of God in Christ,
we are stripped of all hope,
we are left with a paralyzing cynicism,
and really there is nothing left
but to embrace that alternative voice
that we heard interrupt our reading a few moments ago.

So that’s why we gather tonight to listen, to pray and to break bread.

We listen again tonight to these radical words of Jesus.

We gather to listen, to repeat, to recite
and to pray these beatitudes,
almost like a mantra.

We gather to be invited, against all the evidence,
into an alternative imagination;
the imagination of Jesus.

And we gather around these words,
and around this table,
as if our life depends on it.

And it does, my friends. It does.

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian and the CRC Campus Minister at the University of Toronto. He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is entitled Kicking at the Darkness: Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination.

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