These are my thoughts as I approach Matthew 5:1-12
They say, Sausages taste good, but those who love them are better off not knowing exactly how they are made. The same might be said of sermons. At the risk of dashing anyone’s preconceived notions about my personal sermon-writing process, lest anyone labor under the illusion that my sermons flow, fully formed, from my brain, through my fingers and onto the computer, I am about to let you in on the truth: which is to say, the rabbit-paths, the worm-holes, the bouts of free-association and mental blocks I came up against on the path to this week’s sermon.
First, the Beatitudes, the blessings, which open the fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel, and begin the passage commonly known as the “Sermon on the Mount.” My earliest associations: I learned the Beatitudes during the course of my Catholic school education. Something visual about the memories I associate with them leads me to believe I was eight years old, in the fourth grade. At the risk of veering into cloyingly cute territory, I will confess that when I first heard of them, they were referred to as “The Eight Beatitudes,” which I heard as, “The Apey Attitudes,” as in, the attitudes of apes, gorillas, simians. And, being eight years old, I believe my response was something along the lines of, “That sounds interesting. Jesus is teaching us about gorilla behavior.” Only, I was wrong. As I was to learn.
The second thing I recall learning about the Apey Attitudes was that I ought to find them comforting. Blessed are… the poor in spirit, those who mourn, etc. etc. And I was supposed to be consoled by those blessings. Only, I didn’t particularly relate to any of the Attitudes. I knew I couldn't claim to be poor, in spirit or otherwise, I certainly wasn’t meek. I had lost my Aunt when I was four, but really, it was my mother who mourned, not me. Pure in heart? I didn’t think so. Peacemaker? Spend an hour observing my brother and me at play. No to peacemaking. So… I was supposed to feel a certain way about the beatitudes, but I didn’t. And so I felt guilty about that.
Then, I learned a song. A happy, happy song.
Happy is the man who walks in the way of the Lord our God and King.
Blessed is he and happy are they who put their trust in him!
And the song goes on to recount the beatitudes. I regret to inform you that I spent an afternoon this week staring glumly at the computer screen while the melody of that song, which hadn’t crossed my consciousness in at least 35 years, taunted me.
Then I noticed something fascinating: I was getting angry. Angry at the beatitudes! At these beautiful statements made by Jesus, whom I have made it my business to follow, or, at least, to know kind of a lot about…these statements which I ought to find consoling. I realized that I have a suspicion about these statements, going back to a conference I attended about fifteen years ago. A speaker compared and contrasted Matthew’s beatitudes to those found in Luke’s gospel, and found them wanting, found them watered down. Jesus wasn’t talking about the poor in spirit, she said, he was talking about the poor! And we’ve accepted the watered down message! These statements are used to keep those who are oppressed down, by reassuring them that, in the end, God will vindicate their losses and their sorrows. And by gaining their acquiescence, by giving the poor and downtrodden these assurances, we ensure that they will not fight for their rights, that they will not rise up in revolution to demand their full human dignity!
As I said. It’s not a pretty process. But this week I felt compelled to let you hear all the ambient noise going on in my head when I came to encounter the first 12 verses of the Sermon on the Mount. Now. Perhaps I can get down to what they actually say.