The late Leonard Cohen calls the Sermon on the Mount a “staggering account … which I don’t pretend to understand at all.”
I love that line. Cohen was about sixty when he wrote it, and had experienced enough of the beautiful, sad mystery of this life to know that sometimes the closest a human being can come to enlightenment is to say, “I don’t understand.”
And there is a lot not to understand about the Sermon on the Mount.
The Sermon begins with these series of statements or aphorisms or proverbs that we call the Beatitudes, a Latin word that means something like “happiness.” Here are nine rapid-fire blessings, the first eight so rhythmic and regular in nature that you could imagine a percussionist keeping time with them.
In a way, their highly rhythmic structure makes the Beatitudes even stranger. Most of the rhythms we encounter are pretty predictable in nature. But Jesus’ words… they don’t follow the predictability of his rhythm.
I encountered an amusing photo a few months back of a child’s homework assignment in which she was prompted to complete popular sayings or proverbs . For instance, the prompt gave: “People in glass houses…” and the child filled in: “are rich.” Or, “It’s all fun and games until… Darth Vader comes.” Perhaps my favorite of them all is, “Don’t count your chickens… because your chickens need their privacy.”
I wonder what it would be like if we invited people – not necessarily children, not necessarily people who are unfamiliar with the Bible – to do that same exercise beginning with the words: “Blessed are…”
Well, think about how you and I use that word, “blessed.” Think about how our neighbors use it. I know a number of folks who, when speaking of the healthy number of zeroes in their bank statements or the generous size of their real estate holdings, will say, “I’ve been really blessed.” I know a number of folks who, when speaking about their health, about how they are pretty vigorous at age sixty or ninety while many of their peers are sick and hurting or have already died, will say, “I’ve been really blessed.” I know a number of folks who, when speaking of a marriage that has endured across the decades, will say, “I’ve been really blessed.” (I know that last one because, more than two decades into my time with Phoebe, I say that same thing.)
What comes next when I say, “Blessed are”? How do we complete that sentence? Well:
Blessed are the wealthy.
Blessed are those who manage to dodge loss and grief.
Blessed are the mighty, those who succeed in this harsh and competitive world.
Blessed are those who bury their emotions, who mask their fear, who show no one their pain, who stay strong.
Blessed are the white men. Especially the ones who grew up in the middle class. Especially the ones who went to college. Especially the ones who chose a sensible career. Especially the one who are straight or, at least, have successfully stayed hidden in the closet.
Blessed are those who look out for themselves, for their family, for their tribe.
Blessed are those who love their country, those who say, ‘America First.’
Blessed are the winners.
But that isn’t where Jesus goes at all.
Picture him, standing on the mountainside, the crowd pressing near, the slope of the ground and the hard rock around him making a kind of amphitheater, a kind of natural PA system that picks up his voice and projects it into the gathered people.
Jesus says, “Microphone check.” And the mountainside hums with his voice.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
And then, as sometimes happens at the end of a song or a poem or a rap number, Jesus breaks the rhythm:
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.
And so we sit in the bleachers, we stand on the mountainside, we watch Jesus and we listen. And we think, we feel, we say… Well, maybe I shouldn’t speak for you. Maybe I should just speak for myself. I say: I don’t understand at all.
But I want to understand.
Sometimes, every now and again, I catch a glimpse of where Jesus’ strange blessings come from and where they are going.
I catch a glimpse when I visit with people in my office or in hospital rooms. One person after another will say something similar. These folks will describe an experience of big loss or big injustice and they will say: “I didn’t want that thing to happen, I wish it hadn’t happened. And, in a way that I can’t entirely quantify or name or explain, that loss or that injustice or that grief was a kind of blessing.”
Someone will talk about sitting beside her father’s bed during the time of his dying. Someone else will talk about the aftermath of a car accident, how the weeks that she spent in a hospital bed recovering were the first time that she had slowed down in years. Someone else will talk about a big disappointment or a big betrayal, and they will explain how these experiences somehow showed them something that they couldn’t have learned anywhere else.
I’ve had the same experience in my own life. When my heart has been broken open I have learned so much about myself, about life, about God. I don’t mean to say that I don’t find God in jubilation or in the everyday: I do. What I do mean is that pain and loss – what Paul calls the Way of the Cross – is necessary to experience the fullness of God.
Blessed are those who mourn.
I catch a glimpse when I participate in working toward a more just world, in working toward what Jesus calls the Kingdom. I’ve spoken several times over the last couple of weeks about the Friday Evening Meal, about how often the people who cook and serve there say, “I sometimes wonder if I am getting more out of this than the people who come to eat.” There is a blessing that comes when we look beyond ourselves.
I experienced something similar when Phoebe, Miriam and I joined a whole bunch of you at last week’s Women’s March. The hundred thousand of us who got together were there for a hard reason: we were there in response to the inauguration of a President who engages in casual misogyny in his words, in his actions and now in his legislation. That’s a pretty brutal reason to be gathering. And yet being there, together, was so energizing, it gave me so much courage. My only disappointment was that I didn’t have a pussy hat. I came away from that experience of being together, of resisting together, with hope for the weeks and days and months that are to come.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
I catch a glimpse when I read the Gospel and realize that, for Jesus, these nine blessings are not an abstraction or a hypothesis, nor are they something that will happen later on. They are not about following the right rules in order to get into heaven. They are about how we live right now. They are about creating the Kingdom right now.
Notice that Jesus lives each and every one of these Beatitudes. He is poor. He mourns. He is meek – or as some scholars argue we should translate it – he is nonviolent. He hungers and thirsts for righteousness. He is merciful. He is pure in heart. He is a peacemaker. He is persecuted. He is reviled for proclaiming the good news, for living the good news.
Jesus does all of this during his earthly ministry. He does all of it right here and right now. And he calls us, his followers, to do likewise.
The cost of discipleship, the joy of discipleship, is that Jesus invites us to take these difficult blessings on for ourselves. And friends, we have an opportunity and a duty to take them on now. We often call America a Christian nation. But there is nothing Christian about scapegoating Muslims. There is nothing Christian about denying health care to the poor and to veterans and to the chronically ill. There is nothing Christian about closing our borders to refugees, to those in desperation.
Those of you who know your history will remember that, in 1939, this nation along with Canada and Cuba turned away the MS St. Louis, a ship carrying 908 Jewish refugees. The St. Louis was forced to return to Europe, where historians estimate that between a quarter and a third of the people on board died in concentration camps. And friends, we’re doing it again.
The Jesuit priest, James Martin, spoke this week about the appalling irony of America closing its borders to refugees on the same week that we held the March for Life and Holocaust Remembrance Day, on the same week that we said “Pro-Life” and “Never Forget.”
God help us.
We are Jesus’ hands and feet in this broken world. Jesus calls us to proclaim the Beatitudes with our words and our lives.
This is “the staggering account of the Sermon on the Mount — which I don’t pretend to understand at all.”
But, Lord, I am trying. I am trying to understand.
I want to say “yes” to these blessings. I want “yes” to you. And I believe that together we can say “yes,” that we can take on the strange and hard and beautiful promises of the Beatitudes. I believe that we can participate in bringing the Kingdom nearer right now. I believe that, with God’s help, we will we say “yes” in word and in action. I believe that, with God’s help, the day will come when Jesus will look upon you and me and say:
“Blessed are you.”
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