Sunday 29 January - Epiphany 4 - Eucharist - Markus Duenzkofer
I usually don’t approve of preachers starting their sermon by complaining about the assigned biblical text. After all, it’s the job of the preacher to wrestle with the text and then to share relevant insight with the community. And if a preacher finds this too difficult, she or he should probably look for another job…
Having said this, I have to admit, that I have a rather ambiguous relationship with today’s Gospel text, with those sentences, which we commonly referred to as “The Beatitudes.” I have an ambiguous relationship, because I have never shared what seems to be the universal appreciation of these nine sentences.
But don’t get your hopes up! I am not throwing in the towel and moving on to become a barista in a coffee shop.
My struggle isn’t with the text itself, but with how it is received by many. And this, after all, is not really the text’s fault…
What I find suspicious about the general reception of the text is that very often it is seen as a manual, as a job-description of what it is to be a Christian, a good person even. I remember German journalist Franz Alt, who in 1983 publishing his book “Frieden ist möglich” – Peace is possible. In the book, Alt, who at the time was a rather famous media personality, used the Beatitudes to come up with an ethical set of rules for our life together in society. And don’t forget the historical context here: Alt wrote his book at a time, when NATO had just decided to station even further ballistic weapons on the European continent. As if the already extant possibly of blowing up our planet multiple times wasn’t enough! We decided we could threaten to do it a few more times – all in the name of a morally rather suspect deterrence ideology. And yes, as Christians we had to speak up, had to object to this destructive arms-race.
And so: why not turn the Bible for arguments?
Why not turn to the Beatitudes, as Franz Alt did in Germany, and as many others did all around in the Western World? It made and makes perfect sense, right? After all these nine sentences were sought of as a much improved version from the rather restrictive- and punitive-sounding Ten Commandments, which also – horrors upon horrors – mention the supremacy of God and call on us to keep God’s Sabbath. The Beatitudes on the other hand do not mention God and speak of peace-making and hunger for righteousness and justice instead (and many just omit that last verse, which seems oddly out of place…).
While the Ten Commandments, or indeed Paul’s rather gruesome revelation of a crucified Saviour and even Micah’s admonition to walk humbly with God, seem to threaten with a moralistic stick, the Beatitudes do not do anything like it. The Beatitudes seem to offer an ethical carrot, focusing on how to live with one other. As one commentator said: the Beatitudes do not only tell us “how to win friends and influence people, but also how to gain eternal happiness in the bargain.” It sounds all very inclusive in Matthew. And I suspect this inclusivity of the Beatitudes is one reason they are so attractive for many.
And it is the very reason the overeager reception of the Beatitudes makes me rather nervous.
It makes me nervous, because in our desire to embrace an inclusive and universal ethical code, we have separated the Beatitudes from the one, who created and spoke them. We have disconnected them from Jesus. As theologian Peter Gomes once said: “We have patented the formula for making people good, and we no longer require the service of the inventor. The Pythagorean theorem works quite well without the inferring personality of Pythagoras.”
Yes, ethical theorems, like mathematical ones, need to stand up alone in order to be valid universally. Bishop Richard Holloway so rightly reminded us that ethical insights do not require religious sanction. A non-believer can be as much of an ethical person as a believer. Many atheist are more ethical and moral in their behaviour than some believers.
And yes, in our time we also do need to remember what people like Franz Alt recalled as part of our tradition: justice, peace-making, and bridge-building are principles that speak deeper to the core of what it means to be human and indeed deeper to the core of what it means to be a Christian than trickle-down economics, nuclear proliferation, and wall-building.
However, what makes the Beatitudes so remarkable, so noteworthy is not that they lay out a universal set of ethical rules. Just think about it: The though of the meek inheriting the earth is crazy. And it is as insane now as it was 2000 years ago. And anybody, who has just lost a loved-one can attest to the fact that there is nothing blessed, nothing happy about mourning even if there might be a promise of consolation in the future.
No, this does not seem to fit a comprehensive code of moral commandments.
Rather, what makes today’s text from the Gospel so unique and relevant even for our times is this: These words weren’t spoken into a vacuum. They were spoken by a real person into a real community. There is depth and profound relevance in these words from Matthew 5, because of the relationship between speaker and hearer and because of the dependence of the listeners upon the teacher. Understood this way, the Beatitudes are not proscriptive, they are descriptive. And Jesus uses the Beatitudes to set the stage for what is to come in the rest of his Sermon on the Mount, which we will continue to explore over the next three Sundays. Jesus sets the stage by naming those who are blessed, by naming those, who are specially marked by God. The Beatitudes are first and foremost a description of the disciples: those, who follow Jesus now; those, who are already in relationship with him and with one another; those, who have already recognised in Jesus God’s incarnate good news among us – and live their lives accordingly.
And when we look at the Beatitudes this way, we discover for one what a strange, colourful, and even broken bunch these disciples are.
It is one thing, quite an expected thing, to look among God’s chosen ones for peacemakers and for those, who are merciful and pure in heart. But poor in spirit? And even those mourning and hungering? Is that really who we think of when thinking of Christ’s disciples?
Yet, here they are – all named and picked by God.
I believe this is an immense relief for us all. It is an immense relief, because none of us is perfect. We are all broken. And none of us has to be perfect either. We are who we are and as such we are called into community with God and with one another. We don’t have to pretend, don’t have to hide behind masks, but can come as we are.
And this, by the way, includes us clergy.
I know I am far, far from perfect: I carry pains, fears, incompleteness, anxieties, doubts, and sin. I am wounded and I am broken. And, yet, in my brokenness and wounded-ness I am called into community with God and with all other disciples, who are equally wounded and broken. When we listen to Jesus’ voice we will hear God affirming each and every one of us: “Blessed are you! Blessed are you, regardless of what you might be going through. No matter your inner our outer brokenness, blessed are you!”
And blessed are also the many, who will surprise us, who will even stretch our imagination and faith.
If we re-examine the Beatitudes in the way I described earlier, there is also a challenge, a challenge for us. There is a challenge to move beyond the self-imposed boundaries of our community and discovered God’s disciples among those who hunger, those who mourn, those are reviled, those who are poor in spirit, those who are meek even beyond our community: in the most unlikely of places and people – like the friend I mentioned in last week’s sermon. Sometimes, we will find those who follow God outside the church, especially when the church fails to live up to the Beatitudes. And we can and should listen to them, because God is at work in them – sometimes even despite the church. And if we learn from them, listen to them, maybe in return we can teach them more about the mystery of the triune God, who in Jesus teaches us about our identity as the blessed ones of God.