The following sermon was preached by James Nieman, President, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Wednesday, February 5, 2014.
1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain;
and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.
2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3 Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
for they will receive mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 Blessed are you when people revile you
and persecute you
and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
12 Rejoice and be glad,
for your reward is great in heaven,
for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
A family therapist I know once lamented about how gravely we neglect blessing. Whether your relatives are religious or not, when faced with a tough issue, we often seek a blessing from those dear to us. We pour out our anxiety—Is this a good idea? Should I marry him? What about going to seminary?—and then wait for a reply we hope is gracious, a blessing from one who knows us best. Sadly, though, my friend says this is just where things stop, waiting and waiting for a blessing that never quite comes. If it does, it typically falls short, only a grudging recognition or resignation—Well, if that’s what you want to do, I guess I can’t stop you. Even sadder, my friend says that blessing is usually deferred until it no longer matters. This stinginess about blessing is baffling. There’s often very little we can really do to help those we love with the choices only they can navigate, so you’d think that a robust, full-throated blessing would be a delightful gift to share. Instead, in the curious calculus of human hoarding, we usually wait to the end, when the freshness date for blessing has long since expired.
Not so with Jesus. In this first of five long speeches in Matthew, he begins with blessing. Of course, this isn’t the first time we’ve met Jesus in this gospel. In fact, he’s done quite a lot so far: born in a stable, visited by the magi, carried off to Egypt, baptized by John, tested by Satan, preached the gospel, called the disciples, healed the crowds. But today is his coming out party, and he starts strong, blessing disciples and crowds and we who overhear through them—nine times over for good measure. Technically, these are macarisms, from the Greek noun that starts each line, μακάριοι, which we translate “blessed.” But they’re so much more than the clipped blessings we offer, thin approval often with strings attached—Well, that’s really great, honey, and I hope it works out for you. No, to call someone μακάριοι is to declare the joy that is now theirs: Happy are you! How fortunate for you! That’s what Jesus shouts from the mountaintop at the start of his sermon. He doesn’t hedge his bets but tells the truth about how things really are with God: happy, fortunate, blessed. And such blessing belongs to the unlikely of the world: the poor, mournful, meek, merciful, and all the rest no one would ever expect.
It would be nice to stop there and ponder that pure gift for a lifetime. As I said, though, we have trouble with blessings. Their radical grace is a little unnerving, so we try to rein them in, bring them under control. That’s also what we do with the beatitudes. We take their sweet, unfettered joy—Blessed are you righteous, you pure, you peaceful, you persecuted—and with corrosive casuistry convert them into conditionals—If you are righteous, pure, peaceful, or persecuted, then you will be blessed. Do you hear the difference? Gone is the gift of blessing, replaced by the curse of rules—If you live this way or that, then someday the goodies will come. But it’s a twisted logic quite at odds with the gracious blessing Jesus declares.
You see, everything depends on a tiny word at the turning point of each blessing we heard. If you’ll indulge me the Greek just one more time, the second half of each blessing starts with ὅτι, a word we translate “for”—Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. But that conditional means something more like “because,” so that the second half of each blessing really explains the reason for the first. Our ears invent a rule—Blessed are you if you are merciful, for then you will receive mercy. But the real meaning works backwards—Because God gives mercy, the merciful are blessed. So it goes for all these blessings in which everything depends on the “because.” Because God reigns above, the poor in spirit are blessed. Because God brings true comfort, the mourning are blessed. Because God grants the earth as bequest, the meek are blessed. It is not as if poverty, purity, peacemaking, or persecution ever make anybody blessed. Instead, it is because God is first abundant, holy, loving, and just that anyone at all ever receives blessing, and least of all us.
And this is good news not only for those who are already stripped and humble, grieving and longing, but even for us who are not. Because God is this way, therefore God’s ways can be our path. Because God blesses us with lasting life, therefore we can give ourselves to those that the world forgets. Because God encourages us in our weakness, we can bear the weakness of others. Because God secures our place forever, we can abandon our pride for a more humble posture. Because God has shown mercy through the cross, has seen us, called us, known us, we can live more purely for others—peaceably, justly, completely. And all of that means that we don’t just sit around waiting for something better to happen someday. Instead, God’s future already unrolls toward us, invading our days right now. The pattern of life we one day will fully know patterns our lives already—drawn toward a holy meal, attuned to our neighbors, eager to speak blessing where none might ever have been heard. God’s blessed future is present today, and ours is the joy of living into it. Blessed are you, blessed are all of us, indeed.
And we are blessed for yet another reason. Today, our sister Esther is formally installed as LSTC’s seventh Academic Dean. Of course, we know her already through her many years of teaching. Even her official duties began thirty-six days ago with decisions, e-mails, meetings, e-mails, planning, e-mails…well, you get the picture. But today is her coming out party, so like Jesus on the mountain, we might wonder what she will first say to us. As for the rest of us, our script is already given—and it’s all about blessing. We first make promises to one another and then pray for Esther, asking the blessings of wisdom, holiness, and truthfulness because God has first poured out wisdom, holiness, and truth. But then what? What will you say to us in the days ahead, Esther, and what will we say to you? Let me suggest two ideas.
For the rest of us, I pray our words to you would never be stingy but ever be blessing. Let us abandon the cramped and crabbed modes of address—I wonder if she’s good enough? Let’s see if she can do the job. No, for all of us, let’s start in a new place with this newly installed servant of God, a radical place, a place of blessing. God has shown us mercy beyond measure, patience beyond deserving, strength beyond failures. Could our ways and words toward our new Dean be patterned on the blessing we have first received, shaped by the future God offers through Christ Jesus? I don’t know for sure, but I would love to find out.
And then, Esther, without provoking your latent messianic tendencies, let me suggest that your words might be like Jesus’ words today. So often, the office of Dean is filled with rules and policies, the structures that steward the treasures of this school as a fine place of learning. You cannot avoid these without endangering that treasure, but to live by such words alone, the rules and policies, is thin gruel indeed. What would it mean for your first and lasting words to us to be more like beatitudes? What if blessing oriented your leadership, blessing infiltrated every meeting, blessing the goal to which you call our mutual learning? Imagine a whole program of study and scholarship, teaching and research supported by this declaration: Blessed are you, and blessed is this place. Happy are you in your labor and your rest. How fortunate for us all in this calling. What would it resemble, Esther, if your deanship were marked by Christ’s blessing? I don’t know for sure, but grounded in such joy, I would love to find out.