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Some of you know the name, Frederick Buechner. Four weeks ago, he died at the age of 96. He was a Presbyterian minister, but never pastored a congregation. Instead, he wrote 39 books and was compared to C. S. Lewis. I feel indebted to Buechner because his writings made a major impression on my theology and my approach to the Christian life.
Commenting on the Beatitudes, Buechner wrote, “If we didn’t already know but were asked to guess the kind of people Jesus would pick out for special commendation, we might be tempted to guess a sort of spiritual hero—men and women of impeccable credentials morally, spiritually, humanly, and every which way. If so, we would be wrong. Maybe those aren’t the ones he picked out because he felt they didn’t need the shot in the arm his commendation would give them. Maybe they’re not the ones he picked out because he didn’t happen to know any. Be that as it may, it’s worth noting the ones he did pick out. Not the spiritual giants, but the ‘poor in spirit’ as he called them, the ones who, spiritually speaking, have absolutely nothing to give and absolutely everything to receive.”1
We might add that Jesus did not say that happy people are those who live golden lives and only skirt the edges of the valley of the shadow of death. Instead, Jesus said the happy ones are those who mourn.
He did not praise the intrepid ones who are savvy and know how to lead through strength. Instead, he said the ones who will rise to the top are the meek.
He did not laud those who have learned to be content with the world. Instead, he praised those who are restless and lose sleep worrying about people who catch a raw deal.
He did not extol those who live spotless lives and show others what morally straight looks like. Instead, he held up those who know they need mercy and are quick to forgive others.
He did not tout those who follow every law and commandment to a T. Instead, he said the ones who are closest to God are those whose hearts are pure.
He did not commend those who through spiritual practices had reached a serene state of mind. Instead, he celebrated those who give birth to peace by doing the hard work of reconciling broken relationships.
Finally, Jesus surely sent heads spinning when he said that those who are truly blessed are those who are slandered and persecuted because they are crazy enough to buck cultural norms to follow the way of Jesus.
Preachers know that you need to grab the attention of your listeners at the beginning. You cannot wait until page two to say something interesting or provocative. Jesus, the best preacher, surely had everyone’s rapt attention when he shared the Beatitudes because some of them seem to be the opposite of simple logic – Blessed are those who mourn? I doubt a grieving spouse would agree. And other Beatitudes counter the wisdom of the world – the meek will inherit the earth? Tell that to Putin.
Some glide over these blessings as if they are beautiful platitudes to be cross-stitched and framed. But if we focus on what Jesus is saying and reflect on his meaning, these blessings cannot help but trigger questions and give us pause.
As one colleague puts it, “the Beatitudes are not Band-Aids. They’re not meant to settle, soothe, and lull us to sleep; they’re meant to startle us awake. Yes, they are pastoral, and yes, they can definitely give us hope. But hope is not a sedative. Hope is what gets us up and out the door.”2
Since the time of Jesus, interpreters of the Beatitudes have often used the word “paradox” to describe them. That’s because most of the blessings question commonly held assumptions about the world and make us wrestle with a counter narrative about what truly enriches life.
Professor Rebekah Eklund teaches theology at Loyola University in Maryland. She has studied the Beatitudes for years and in her new book, she highlights the commonly held view that the Beatitudes “are uncomfortable, countercultural, and surprising…(But, she says) At the same time, they contain deep truths that the world cannot see; they are in fact the path to true happiness or flourishing, in contradistinction to the worlds self-destructive plunge into pleasure and material goods. For German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, this culture clash was especially sharp. In his view, the Beatitudes were implacably opposed to his dominant culture’s views – namely the German national church under Nazi rule…American novelist Kurt Vonnegut pointed out, caustically, that Christians often ask for the 10 Commandments to be posted in public places, but never the Beatitudes. He pointed out the absurdity: ‘Blessed are the merciful in a court room? Blessed are the peacemakers in the Pentagon?’…For Vonnegut and Bonhoeffer, the Beatitudes clash with the dominant culture.”3
So, the beatitudes are not platitudes to sedate us. They are surprising teachings that prompt us to question the values of our culture. They are Jesus’ way of jabbing us and making us rethink our priorities. We might think of them as arrows pointing to a rich life. And the Beatitudes are clear – an abundant life is very different than a life of abundance.
It is also important for us to underscore the fact that the Beatitudes are not commandments. They are blessings. Before Jesus ever preached a sermon or healed a sick person, he was baptized. And God said, “This is my son with whom I am well pleased.”
Similarly, before Jesus commanded his followers to love their neighbor, he blessed them. The order is critical because it makes clear that we do not love our neighbor or work for justice or strive for peace in hopes that we can be rewarded with a blessing. We do these things because we are already blessed and we want to pass along a blessing.
Twenty-one years ago today, terrorists commandeered four passenger jets and killed nearly 3,000 people. Cindy McGinty’s husband, Mike, perished when one of the towers of the World Trade Center collapsed.
Cindy says that before they married, they never had a place they could call home. Her dream was to become a wife and mother. Mike always wanted a home and to become a father. After marrying, they were blessed to receive both.
Their yard was Mike’s pride and joy. Cindy still pictures in her mind’s eye Mike cutting the grass and their young sons shadowing him with a miniature lawn mower.
She recalls that the morning of 9/11/2001 was bright and glorious. She put their boys on the bus for school and she went to church to work on a project. She and her friends were chatting away when someone’s cell phone rang. In that instant, the world stopped. Planes crashed, buildings tumbled, and thousands died. Cindy says, “My love, my life was gone…It was as if the world stopped – our breath taken away. But,” she says, “something incredible also happened. Hope was born out of ashes and rubble.
When men with bad intentions used planes as bombs, passengers, flight crews, and strangers banded together and tried to stop them. Firefighters and police ran into burning buildings and saved people. Hundreds of ordinary citizens led traumatized people to safety.
In the days that followed, Cindy struggled with a broken heart. She thought that everyone would know where the widow McGinty lived just by driving by her house. The loving home that she and her husband had built was too much for her to handle alone. She had to take care of her children, but how could she take care of everything else by herself?
One morning she looked out her window and saw Chris Mitchell, the owner of a local landscaping company, mowing her lawn. She had been fearful that people would know where the widow McGinty lived just by looking at her overgrown lawn. But from that day forward, every time she tried to pay Chris, his response was the same, “Take care of your kids.”
Chris mowed her lawn for EIGHT years until the day she moved. His act of kindness was a blessing that showed her how to move forward. Inspired by his service to her, she began serving others. And so started her healing journey.
Among other things, she became involved in the national movement for the 9/11 Day of Service. Since this month is Hunger Awareness Month, their organization will be in 11 cities – where 7500 volunteers will be packing meals for food pantries.4
God blesses us and urges us to bless each other. And we generally find that when we extend a blessing, it returns to embrace us.
In these eight blessings we know as the Beatitudes, Jesus challenges us to consider what gives life depth. This fall, we will do a deep dive into each one in hopes of discovering the gifts they offer us. I would ask you if you are ready to embark on this adventure, except for the fact that we have already begun.
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