Sunday, July 18

Rev. Elisa Lucozzi will complete a 2-part series on The Beatitudes with readings from both the Gospel according to Matthew and “A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life” by Shantideva. Her sermon is entitled, Blessed Are You. The choir, under direction of Peter Amidon, will sing his composition entitled “The Beatitudes” as well as “Gate of Sweet Nectar,” a Buddhist invocation set to music by Krisha Das. Hymns will be “Kumbaya”, “I Am the Light of This World” from Rev. Gary Davis, and “I’m Gonna Live So God Can Use Me,” a traditional spiritual. Organist Patty Meyer will play a prelude and postlude and accompany the hymns.

THE SERMON

Blessed Are You

So last week our lay leaders began our study of the Beatitudes as we continue our off the beaten path study of scripture specifically Jesus’ teachings which we all so desperately need to be reminded of right now. This the world we find ourselves in. Hard times for those who suffered loss during the height of the pandemic, loss of life – family and friends who succumb to COVID, loss of housing and employment. 140 million living in poverty here in this country, one of the richest in the world even before COVID. Hard times for those who need health care, who are watching their loved ones get sicker and weaker as they struggle to be seen, heard and treated humanely if at all, as our already broken health care system struggles to right itself in the wake of COVID. Hard times for those who experience hatred and bigotry which continues to steal lives and crush souls on a daily basis. Hopefulness stripped away by mean-spirited acts which demonstrate hatred and instill fear – like the defacing of First Congregational Church West Brattleboro’s rainbow “God is still Speaking sign.” Hard times for the environment, which, continues to suffer despite our trying to get back on track and ramp up efforts to save our planet. Just this week California saw wildfires that consumed almost 20,000 acres of land and are still not contained. In short, these are hard times for anyone who is different, for anyone who is struggling to make ends meet, and for anyone who is alone.

Into all of this trouble steps Jesus, with his message of blessings.  Blessed are you, says Jesus.  Jesus says to his followers that they are holy, consecrated, sacred. And who are these followers?  They are women, men and children.  They are the meek, the poor in spirit, those in mourning, people who hunger and thirst for righteousness, peacemakers, the merciful, the pure in heart, and those who are reviled and persecuted.  Sound familiar?  Quite an interesting collection of folks.  Maybe each of you can relate to these people.  Maybe we are those folks.

The Beatitudes are just the beginning – really they are the very first part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  They are considered by most scholars to be the “preamble” to the Sermon on the Mount. Just think about it Jesus was just getting warmed up when he laid these on the people who had come to hear him teach. The Sermon on the Mount is the very blueprint for Christian lifestyle, and most scholars see it as the best summary of Jesus’ teaching.

 Jesus was considered a wisdom teacher and what does that mean? In the West we generally boil down those who are considered religious authorities to two categories – priest or prophet. Most of the time spiritual leaders are one or the other because it’s hard to be both but that’s another sermon. According to Cynthia Bourgeault however in “the wider Near East (including Judaism itself), there was also a third, albeit unofficial, category: a moshel moshelim, or teacher of wisdom, one who taught the ancient traditions of the transformation of the human being.” [1]  Jesus was this kind of a wisdom teacher, one whose teaching invite us into a journey of transformation. He taught within an ancient tradition called sophia perennis, which is in fact at the root of all the great religious traditions of the world today.

This is why I chose to include the Shantideva Prayer as one of our readings today so you would have another opportunity to hear the Beatitudes but in a different way which demonstrates the “Perennial Wisdom”; the eternal, non-formal Truth at the heart of all religious traditions which are concerned with the transformation of the whole human being. But transformation from what to what?  Some would say from our animal instincts and egocentricity into love and compassion; from a judgmental and dualistic worldview into a non-dual acceptance of all.  I would say that perhaps more than a transformation it is a return home, it is a return to state of perfect belovedness that exists when remember who we really are and in whose image, we were made.

Rev. Nadia Bolz Weber renounce author, theologian and founder of House of All Saints and Sinners in Denver, CO says this about the beatitudes”

What if the beatitudes aren’t about a list of conditions we should try and meet to be blessed? What if these are not virtues we should aspire to but what if Jesus saying blessed are the meek is not instructive– what if it’s performative? …meaning the pronouncement of blessing is actually what confers the blessing itself.

 She goes on:

Maybe the sermon on the mount is all about Jesus’ seemingly lavish blessing of the world around him especially that which society doesn’t seem to have much time for, people in pain, people who work for peace instead of profit, people who exercise mercy instead of vengeance.  So maybe Jesus is actually just blessing people, especially the people who never seem to receive blessings otherwise. I mean, come on, doesn’t that just sound like something Jesus would do? Extravagantly throwing around blessings as though they grew on trees?[2]

This was the message that Jesus came preaching and teaching, a message that was radical in its own time and remains equally radical today. And so Jesus begins his most prophetic teaching by lavishly recalling for us our original state of blessedness. Why would Jesus begin his most powerful and prophetic teaching with this word “blessed.” Do you know the first time we hear this term “blessed” in Jesus’ life and ministry?

 The first time we encounter this word in the story of Jesus, it is in Luke’s gospel. Elizabeth offers this word—repeatedly—when Mary comes seeking sanctuary amidst their mutually miraculous pregnancies. “Blessed are you among women,” Elizabeth says to Mary, “and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” And “blessed is she,” Elizabeth says soon after, “who believed.”

“Blessed,” Elizabeth says to Mary: once, twice, and yet a third time. So there in the womb as he was just being formed, Jesus was blessed through the blessing of his mother. Jesus was absorbing that word, that state of being into his own self.  And so, it should be no surprise to us that it becomes the core prophetic message of his ministry. As I’m fond of saying Jesus learned everything he knew and taught from his mother and the women around him.

 We think of Jesus’ teaching as prescriptions for getting to heaven (even though we haven’t followed them). Instead, the Sermon on the Mount is a set of descriptions of a free life. The beatitudes aren’t about a list of conditions we should try and meet to be blessed. We often talk about being blessed as if it is a reward, as if good fortune comes to us as just desserts. Much of Christian culture equates blessing with prosperity, with health, with satisfaction and obvious abundance. While it’s tempting to equate these gifts with the favor of God, this notion comes with a corresponding fallacy that says that those who are sick, those who are not prosperous, those whom misfortune has visited: these are not blessed.

With the beatitudes, Jesus utterly disrupts this line of thinking. Being blessed is not a reward for a job well done or for the accident of being born into fortunate circumstances. It is likewise not an accomplishment, an end goal, or a state of completion that allows us to coast along. The Greek word translated as “blessed” in this section of Matthew is makarios and can also be translated as happy. But being blessed does not rest solely upon an emotion: blessing does not depend on our finding or forcing ourselves into a particular mood.

Here in the beatitudes and throughout his ministry, Jesus proclaims that blessing happens in seeing the presence of Christ, in hearing him, in receiving him, in responding to him. And because Christ so often chooses places of desperate lack—those spaces where people are without comfort or health or strength or freedom, those places where they hunger for food or mercy or peace or safety—it is when we go into those places, when we seek and serve those who dwell there, that we find the presence of Christ and in that finding, then carry him with us.

To be blessed is not a static state. There is a dynamism within the word blessed: it implies an ability to be in the ongoing process of recognizing, receiving, and responding. To be blessed is to enter a kind of pregnancy: to take Christ in, to let him grow in us, to bear him forth, then to receive him and bear him yet again in our acts of mercy, of compassion, of solidarity, of love.

And you? Who or what do you name as blessed? Where do you encounter the blessing of Christ in this world? How do you seek to embody the blessing of God in your own life—to see and to hear Christ, to recognize him and bear him? Do you think of yourself as blessed? Who has given you this name? Who have you named as blessed?

 Here are some beatitudes according to Guilford Community Church:

“Blessed are the families who have been torn apart due to differing views on how to handle the pandemic crisis and personal choices about vaccines. May they find new love in unexpected common ground.”

 “Blessed are the quilt makers, for they have learned to stitch tiny fragments of their life with love into something whole and colorful and beautiful.”

 “Blessed are those who wished for rain; blessed are those who wish it would stop.”

 “Blessed are the grandchildren for they bring laughter and smiles to weary hearts.”

“Blessed are those who are overwhelmed for they shall receive help.”

“Blessed are we being helpful to people and friends and everybody and around the world.”

Here is a beatitude that Rachel found and submitted which I had never heard before:

“Blessed are the gypsies, the Makers of Music, Artists, Writers, Dreamers of Dreams, Wanderers and Vagabonds, children and misfits. You are loved. You are enough for they teach us to see the world through beautiful eyes.” – Anonymous

Which beatitude do you connect with the most and why? The one I connect to the most  – “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” (on my behalf or in my name) I invite you too reflect on the one that touches you the most over the next week.

 I also invite us today to think of this list of blessings not as virtues we should aspire to but more about who we already are. That Jesus was pushing us toward transformation of the heart by showing us that to live a just life in this world is to identify with the longings and hungers of the poor, the meek, and those who weep.

 Here’s another question – Does anyone know what the very next section of this preamble to the sermon on the mount is?

 The very next part of Matthew’s gospel is the section where Jesus says “you are salt; you are light.” You are the salt of the earth – Salt as necessary to life, as the air we breathe, as Ruah.  Salt with brings out the best in everything it touches, which brings zest to life. You are the light of the world – light which helps us and everything around us to grow, which illumines our path, which is a beacon for those who come behind us, for those who live in the shadow of loneliness, struggles or despair.

Or to put it according to the prophet Isaiah: (Chapter 61:1-6)
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
but you shall be called priests of the Lord,
you shall be named ministers of our God;

You are the salt of the earth.  You are the light of the world and the spirit of the Lord is upon you.  Here, now, today, every day we are being called to embrace this blessed state of being and share it with the world. Take the risk, let go of the old, be reborn into a world of love and compassion.  Reach out your hands and those who have gone before will be waiting to encourage you.   Look back and help those just beginning the journey, reach for those who have forgotten who they are.  Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God.  Embrace the hope of this moment.  Know that you are called by God – you are called beloved. Step out in faith.  Blessed, blessed are you! Amen.

[1] https://cac.org/jesus-wisdom-teacher-2017-04-09/

[2] Nadia Bolz-Weber, Some Modern Beatitudes—A Sermon for All Saints Sunday, November 6, 2014, from her blog Sarcastic Lutheran.