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15-43 149th Street
Whitestone, NY 11357

718.746.7858

The First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone has been at work in northeast Queens since 1871, seeking to proclaim God’s Word and live out God’s justice and peace in our lives and our community. We welcome all to join us for worship, fellowship, learning, and service in our small but vibrant community of faith.

Sermons

Turning Blessing Upside Down

Andy James

a sermon on Matthew 5:1-12

There’s an interesting article that has been making the rounds of Facebook among my churchy friends, “5 churchy phrases that are scaring off millennials.” It lists out five phrases that the author thinks need to be put out of our vocabulary if we are to effectively welcome younger people into our life:

  • “The Bible clearly says…”
  • “God will never give you more than you can handle.”
  • “Love on”—as in, “As youth group leaders, we’re just here to love on those kids.”
  • “Believer/Unbeliever/Backsliding”
  • “God is in control/has a plan/works in mysterious ways.”

The author, a millennial herself—someone who was born after 1980 and so came of age in the new millennium—gives very good reasons to avoid these phrases, and I agree with her completely.

Thankfully I think we’re pretty good at keeping these out of our vocabulary here, but I propose that we add a sixth phrase to her listing: anything involving the word “blessing”—as in, “It was such a blessing to hear that song this morning,” or “God is just blessing me so much these days.” “Blessing” is certainly not as creepy as “love on” and not as presumptuous as “God has a plan,” but all too often I think our use of the word “blessing” is focused on the benefits that come for us rather than on the gracious gifts of God. Sometimes it is used to write off the pain we face by emphasizing some positive thing that we have received. And other times it puts the gifts that we have received from God into a position of special honor beyond what others have experienced. While I’ve worked on it over the years, I still struggle to hear the word “blessing” in the way that many intend it, as a genuine expression of thanks for what God is doing in their lives.

So every three years when the Beatitudes show up in the lectionary, I have to reassess what it means to be “blessed.” These are such wonderful statements of how God intends for our world to live and act, but couldn’t Jesus have chosen another word that doesn’t carry so much baggage for me?? Well thankfully, it’s not all about me and my understanding of this word, but others haven’t done much better with these things. Some preachers have tried to be cute and so describe these as the “be-attitudes,” as descriptions of how we ought to behave. Others use them to describe how we need to change our world ourselves so as to empower those who are in different circumstances than our own.

However, I think the most compelling exposition of these statements of blessing is one that predominates among many interpreters: these are not statements of how we need to behave or what we need to do but rather, as commentator Tom Long describes, the Beatitudes “proclaim what is, in the light of the kingdom of heaven, unassailably true. They describe the purpose of every holy law, the foundation of every custom, the aim of every practice of this new society, this colony of the kingdom, the church called and instructed by Jesus.” (Matthew, p. 46-47)

Unlike so many of our named blessings that claim great value for the things that we have received, these statements of blessing don’t line up quite so well with our experience. When was the last time anyone viewed as poor in the eyes of the world in any way was given such a great gift as the kingdom of heaven? Is it really all that common for those who hunger and thirst for righteousness to be filled? The richest nation in the world is cutting food aid to the poor yet again! And when have those who clamor and work for peace in a world so dead-set on war been offered any broad and real word of appreciation or hope, let alone been called children of God?

Ultimately, in proclaiming the way things are in God’s kingdom, the Beatitudes turn our world upside down. They praise and bless things that we have put down. They insist that God will find a way to transform our lives and our world in ways beyond our wildest dreams. And they promise that the world is already filled with more hope and new life than even the most optimistic person could begin to imagine—even as they insist that there is much more to be done so that these blessings are realized in the here and now and not just in some distant world yet to come.

These nine statements describing God’s blessing, then, should guide our way of thinking and living each and every day, not by promising us blessing but by encouraging us to join in God’s blessing. The Beatitudes give their real promise to those who are in greatest need, to those who have been left out of the world’s blessing, to those who can look only to God for hope and promise. Living out the Beatitudes ultimately gives us a map for fulfilling the wondrous words of the prophet Micah:

What does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

When we live out the Beatitudes in our lives, we live out these simple requirements and join God in blessing what the world so often refuses to bless, in turning the world’s standards and expectations of what is good on end, and in taking even a little step toward the transformation of all things in Jesus Christ.

Biblical scholar Stan Saunders gives us some ideas of what this might look like. When we join in blessing the poor in spirit, we honor those who may seem to have less than we do but who still place their hope in God. When we join in blessing those who mourn, we embody God’s presence and hope and transformation amidst all the damage the world inflicts. When we join in blessing the meek, in honoring those who set aside personal vengeance and instead trust that God will bring redemption, we join in God’s work of genuine transformation in places where the world prefers to return evil with evil. When we join God in blessing those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, we make ourselves vulnerable to those we name as our enemies and those we think are strangers and so make space for a new and different and restored way of relationship. When we join God in blessing the merciful, we “create space for those who have none, space to turn around, to be forgiven, reconciled, and restored to full humanity.” (Saunders, Preaching the Gospel of Matthew, p. 33) When we join in blessing the pure in heart, we encourage integrity in our thoughts and actions and help others to gain a glimpse of God in us and through us. When we join in blessing the peacemakers, we work toward making things whole, promoting the peace and wholeness and hope known in Hebrew as shalom. When we join in blessing those who are threatened by this different way of life, we take our voices away from our world’s ways that are threatened to their core by God’s kingdom. And when we are not afraid of others rejecting us because we have embraced this way of life, we can “‘rejoice and be glad,’ not only because of [our] great reward in heaven, but because [our] suffering conforms to the model of the one who is revealing God’s power and presence.” (Saunders, p. 34)

This is not an easy way of life. We can very easily slide back into the way of the world, a way that says that might brings right, a way that puts off real, constructive change to a day that remains far off because to change now would hurt us, a way that says that God is angry and demands vengeance for the brokenness of our world, a way that suggests that the world is not going to change and that we should put aside our hopes for something different to a distant world yet to come. But with God’s help, we can step into the world and work toward a new and different way, imagining that God can and will transform—and already is transforming!—our broken and fearful world into one that embodies these blessings of God not just in our individual lives or in the church but in every corner of our world, not just in some far-off time yet to come but in the here and now.

So may God give us wisdom and hope to live these blessings each and every day so that all the world might know the blessing we have from God now and in the days to come until all things are made new through Jesus Christ our Lord. Lord, come quickly! Amen.