When words are more than words

The text of the sermon, based on Matthew 5.1-12, preached with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, January 29, 2023.


Jesus saw the crowds…

Who were “the crowds”? The closing verses of chapter four tell us: Jesus went throughout Galilee…proclaiming the good news of God’s kingdom and curing…every sickness among the people. His fame spread…and they brought to him all…afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him.[1]

“The crowds” were not happy folk on a weekend spiritual retreat. They were grief-stricken and guilt-ridden, worried and world-weary, hungry and thirsty, impoverished and oppressed, sick and dying. Having heard about a famous wonder-worker, they came to Jesus. And what did Jesus do? He “saw the crowds and began to speak.”

Speak? “The crowds” desperately wanted, needed Jesus to do something! For the grieving, relief. The guilty, release. The weary, rest. The hungry and thirsty, bread and water. The poor, help. The sick and dying, healing. No one wanted words!

Nevertheless, Jesus spoke to them all, saying, “Blessed are you.”

These words, the Beatitudes astounded the people. Perhaps us, too. For how can life, our lives, when beset by immeasurable, insuperable problems, be blessed?

Today, let us, as those crowds two millennia ago, listen to these astounding words of Jesus.

Spiritual poverty is not low self-esteem, but rather the humility of our acceptance of all that we are. Weakness and strength. Want and wealth. And in our acceptance, our awareness that we never are in control. Thus, our truest trust always must be in something, someone greater. To live that way, knowing that God is God and we’re not, is to receive the kingdom of heaven.

To mourn is to care for others. Even more, to live with the awareness of the brokenness of our human condition. Thus, how often we grieve others and ourselves. Therefore, to know our need for the comfort of forgiveness.

Meekness is not weakness, but rather having the right kind of anger. Godly anger. In meekness, Jesus cleansed the temple,[2] God’s house of prayer for all people,[3] which, being used as a marketplace for graft and greed, was being misused.

I need say more about meekness and anger…

Ancient folk understood a virtue to be the mean point between two extremes. “Meek” is derived from the Greek “praeis”, describing the mean point between always being angry about everything and never being angry about anything. Meekness, therefore, is anger in right proportion. Thus, we inherit the earth; living life in proper balance.

Hungering and thirsting for righteousness is to have an insatiable desire for right relationship with God and others and ourselves. Therefore, to be filled with the healing of being whole.

Mercy is not safe-distance-sympathy or passing-moment-pity, but rather our response-ability to others. Seeing through the eyes of others. Being as others. According to the spiritual principle that what we give, we get, to be merciful is to receive mercy; including from our very selves.

Purity of heart is singleness of purpose. Not distracted or confounded by many things, but rather wanting, willing one thing. To see God. To behold the unfolding of God’s revelation in the world and in our lives.

Peacemaking is not passive agreement with every point of view. To make peace is to step up and stand squarely on the stage of conflict. Bridging divisions among people. Reminding all of our common dignity as God’s children and our common destiny. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”[4]

Persecution is the surrender of our well-being, even the respect of others that often comes when we stand in a committed place. For the Christian, that place is the cross; a life of self-sacrificial service.

After two millennia, the Beatitudes still astound. These words are not good advice, which we, by our own devices and desires, strive to practice. Rather they are a mirror in which we behold our truest, most authentic reflection. We always are poor in spirit – mournfully, meekly, hungrily and thirstily, mercifully, purely, peacefully, and perseveringly. To know that is to be right: in right relationship with God, others, and ourselves. And that is the definition of a blessed life!

© 2023 PRA

Illustration: The Beatitudes Sermon (c. 1890), James Tissot (1836-1902)

[1] Matthew 4.23-25a; abridged (my emphases)

[2] See Matthew 21.12-13

[3] See Isaiah 56.1-8

[4] From King’s address, “Live as Brothers, or Die as Fools”, The Hill Auditorium, University of Michigan, November 5, 1962.

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