The Messy Truth About the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12)

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There are coffee drinkers and there are coffee snobs.  Coffee drinkers are people who drink coffee and don’t make a big deal out of it.  Coffee snobs are people who must to tell you about their daily coffee drinking experience.  They feel the need to make memes and tell you how their days aren’t complete without some kind of coffee.  Other coffee snobs are those who go to Starbucks and specialty shop to purchase fancy coffee drinks.  Some coffee snobs own expensive insulated high-tech mugs for taking their coffee from place to place.  While other coffee snobs will make you feel stupid if you don’t know the difference between Kenyan, Indonesian, Hawaiian, or Colombian coffee.  Despite these variations within the coffee world, there is one question separating the average drinker and the coffee snob.  Do you put anything into your coffee?

Sitting in the gas station, I watch person after person go for the flavored creamers.  Hunters, fishermen, women, the young and old all go for cream, milk, and sugar.  Our daughter Jordan, who works at the coffee shop, tells me it’s similar there.  People like cream and sugar in their coffee.  Over the past few weeks, I’ve followed online debates (here on Ocracoke) among people looking for the healthiest cream and sugar substitutes to add to their coffee.  Creamer is serious business.  From my observation, I see little love for black coffee.

The Sermon on the Mount, specifically, the first 12 verses (called the Beatitudes) are much like a cup of coffee.  Everybody loves the Beatitudes.  A few people might know some or all of them by heart.    When taken together, they are strong statements, whose aroma cannot be ignored.  Their flavor can bittersweet.  So what do we do?  We go for the cream and sugar.  We make the dark, strong words of Jesus easier to swallow.  This usually means taking Jesus’ statements which readily fit on bumper stickers, refrigerator magnets, and t-shirts (the ones we don’t usually have a problem with) and turning them into moral pick me ups.  That’s usually when we reach for our mug of Jesus coffee with one hand; wrap our other hand firmly around the other side, and drink from the milky, sugary version of the Gospel to exclaim:  that’s one good cup of Jesus.

Our original cup of black coffee, the scripture we started with before we diluted it with cream and artificial sweetener was an earth shattering, declaration which defined the Kingdom of God.  When you read the Beatitudes, one by one, you’ll notice God’s priorities run contrary to much of what the Roman Empire and even Americans believe about themselves today.   Americans are not into being meek, persecuted, or being hungry.  Just listen to the country balladeer Toby Keith; Americans pride themselves on putting boots up people’s rear ends.  It’s hard to sing about violence on Saturday night, cuss and cheer at a game on Saturday afternoon, and then read these words on a Sunday morning.  You see why it’s easier to add milk to Jesus’ teachings.  If you take these words seriously, you have to take your life in a seriously different direction.

It is a sad cultural reality that many of us are conditioned to believe the hungry, meek, and poor in spirit have done something to deserve their meekness, hunger, and poverty.  You may not realize it but it is there, buried deep among other sins to deep to name.  This is why, in a moment of perfect irony, Jesus blesses the most uncomfortable qualities of our lives.  He drags up what we are unwilling to acknowledge and unable to ignore.  Jesus blesses what we are normally ashamed of, the things we want to hide, the grief we rush through, and the peace we claim is impossible to make.  If these are the qualities which Jesus blesses, why do we run in the opposite direction?  Why do we, in moments of self-righteous impiety, find ways to say Jesus never meant any of these things he said in Matthew 5?  Why would we rather disprove Jesus than live in a world where the meek inherit the earth?

Like black coffee, it takes time to develop a taste for pure, creamer-free Jesus.  For the longest time, scholars, experts, and people who pretend to be in the know give the answer that people like this always give:  that’s not what Jesus meant.  They treat the Beatitudes like a cup of Sanka.  I’m sick of that answer.  There are people who believe Jesus never meant anything he said and the Apostle Paul spoke the infallible word of God.  For many, these verses are a litany of metaphors not meant to be taken at face value.  I don’t buy that logic.  If you want great moral teacher who uses metaphors, I’ll loan you my copy of Socrates.

Jesus is showing us the kingdom of God.  How will it be different from life now?  What will matter most in God’s vision for humanity?  These aren’t theoretical questions.   Our world is obsessed with condemnation and judgment.  There are no grey areas.  You are either for or against what those in power deem to be right or wrong.  The half who believe themselves right are blessed.  The other half are wrong and cursed.  Ironically, when your perspective changes, so does your understanding of blessings and curses.  Jesus changes all of this.  Instead of playing into our divided loyalties, sounding like either a Democrat or a Republican, Jesus sounds like Jesus.  He creates a grey area.  His presence establishes something beyond the either/or zone of competing loyalties we think we need to define ourselves.

He does this by blessing the things we revile.  Jesus blesses a series of beliefs, attitudes, and conditions which most human beings revile, reject, and find contrary to being Christian.  No one wants to be hopeless, grieving, humble, or hungry.  Peacemakers get taken advantage of and killed by those with superior firepower.  Yet, these are the qualities Jesus blesses, characteristics, so easily and readily condemned.  And you know what we revile most of all, the thing we can’t stand to see blessed, is the person looking back at us in the mirror.  How could God bless me?  We don’t feel worthy to be blessed or loved by anyone, especially God.  We don’t believe that God wants to bless us.

We read the Beatitudes like Terms and Conditions for a new computer. Jesus sends us the conditions for which we might be blessed, for which our lives might be changed.  Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in spirit,” and I think, “Am I pure in spirit enough?”  Do I need to be more pure in spirit? What’s the standard for being pure in spirit?  If I’m not pure in spirit enough, I won’t be blessed.

Here’s the messy truth about the Beatitudes:  there are no terms and conditions.  You’re already blessed.  Jesus is blessing everybody; left, right, and center.  By being alive, you’re blessed.  Those to whom he’s preaching; the poor, downtrodden, the homeless, the broke, the family who can’t find enough to eat, the couple whose lights were just turned off, our neighbors worried about being deported, the grieving, they are blessed right now.  By naming them, bringing attention to them, so that they’re not under the radar, becoming more than the occasional prayer concern, Jesus is making it possible for our blessings to be shared.  They are blessed because you are blessed.  And we share our blessings.  There are no blessing hoops to jump through.  Blessings are not a onetime thing.  They are shared moments of divine action.  Blessings are never content with present; they are always ready for tomorrow.  So remember:  you are blessed of God.  God loves you.

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