Perhaps you’ve heard the story of sixteen-year-old Chy Johnson. Chy, a special needs student at Queen Creek High School in Phoenix, Arizona, endured continual bullying. So Chy’s mother got in touch with a family friend, Carson Jones, the starting quarterback for the school’s football team. She asked a favor: would Carson help her identify the bullies so she could seek assistance from the school in addressing this behavior? But Carson decided to take on the bullies himself. He invited Chy to eat lunch with him that day. Every day since then, Chy has joined Carson and the other members of the varsity football team at their lunch table. The bullies saw that the young men had her back and they stopped picking on her. Chy put it this way: “They’re not mean to me, because all my boys love me.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/29/ queen-creek-football-players_n_2039212.html) (http://www.youtube.com /watch?v=gtkHsARkHbg)
Or maybe you’ve read the picture book, Beatrice’s Goat, by Page McBrier. As a small child, Beatrice, who lived with her family in Western Uganda, really, really, really wanted to attend school, but her family didn’t have enough money. They barely had enough food. Beatrice had to stay home and help with the chores – carrying water, taking care of babies, washing clothes, cooking food, growing vegetables. One day the children of Niantic Community Church in Connecticut decided to donate money to Heifer Project International to buy goats. One of the goats they bought went to Beatrice’s parents. The family named her Mugisa, which means “luck.” Mugisa soon had twins. The children drank goat’s milk; the protein and fat in the milk made their bodies much stronger. The family sold the extra milk for money. And soon there was enough money to send Beatrice to school! At age 9, she began first grade. That’s where the book Beatrice’s Goat, ends, but there is more to the story. Beatrice Biira was the best student in her class! She won a scholarship to Uganda’s most prestigious girls’ high school. Then she came to the US to attend Connecticut College and to earn her Master’s Degree from the University of Arkansas’ Clinton School of Public Service. (http://www.heifer.org/join-the-conversation/blog/2011/june/one-of-heifers-greatest-success-stories-beatrice-biira.html)
In today’s lesson from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus declares blessed those, like Chy, and Beatrice, who suffer through the hardest human experiences. In the words of the poet, Francisco Alarcon, “those who have lost everything”: those to whom the world declares: “you’re nothing, you’re excrement, your home’s nowhere,” Jesus also blesses those who, like the Queen Creek football team, and like the children of Niantic Community Church, cannot close their hearts to the pain of others, those who yearn for a world made right, those who commit to God’s vision of mercy and peace even in the face of hatred and persecution.
Obviously, being blessed, according to Jesus, does not equal being happy. The beatitudes are not a simple “to do” list for us to accomplish. This sermon of Jesus is instead a statement about God’s values and priorities. It offers a hint about where in the world, and through whom, the divine spirit is at work. In the first and last of the blessings, God’s consolation is offered now, in the present tense. “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
As Elizabeth Shively remarks, the kingdom of heaven “infiltrates the present condition of the unfortunate and transforms it… the kingdom of heaven breaks into the world with the words and works of Jesus.” The rest of the blessings are presented in the future tense, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” But even these future-oriented blessings offer hope in the here and now. Shively says, “Jesus gives his followers eyes to see that the future is certain and that transforms the present.” (https://www.workingpreacher.org/ preaching.aspx?commentary_id=863)
The concept of the kingdom of heaven, or in the other Gospels, the kingdom of God, is key to making sense of the beatitudes. The kingdom is Jesus’ central, guiding vision for ministry. Again and again, we hear the refrain, the call: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” By claiming the term kingdom, Jesus means to speak politically, not in the partisan sense, but in the sense of addressing our larger common life. Of course, the kingdom metaphor Jesus chooses is not very helpful to us,with its hierarchical and patriarchal implications. And, as Amy Oden observes, “the word ‘kingdom’ removes us from our everyday, concrete lives into the fairytale world of kings and knights, princesses and castles. ‘Kingdom’ makes God’s life sound far away and long ago.” (https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx? commentary_id=1937)
I often use the term kin-dom instead. When we hear “kin-dom,” we understand immediately that the central organizing concept is not the will of the militarily and economically powerful elite; it is the reality that we are kin, called to live in equal and just relationship. Mitakwe Owasin, as the Lakota people say. “We are all relatives.” Ubuntu, as they name it in South Africa, “I am because we are.”
In the context of the Roman empire and the ruling religious authorities, Jesus calls for an end to politics that deny the kinship of all creation. “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people,” he urges. Discipleship is a relational task. Tod Linberg explains that Jesus’ political agenda is: “organized around the pursuit of righteousness by those who are able—at potential risk to their own lives—for the sake of a world in which the unvalued (including they themselves when they are persecuted) are at last fully valued as human beings.” (“What the Beatitudes Teach,” Policy Review,no 144, p. 16)
I was reminded this week of Jean Vanier, founder of the L’arch community. Under Vanier’s model, developmentally disabled persons live in partnership with persons of more typical abilities. Of course, the strong care for the meek, the vulnerable; and the meek experience the love of God in the gift of a safe space in which to thrive. But the strong also gain something in living alongside the meek. They discover that God is more at work in our weakness and trouble than in our success and our power. This is how God acts, leading us out of our zones of comfort and into our places of vulnerability. In the transformative relationships nurtured by the L’arch model of community, people set aside self-reliance to welcome God as our true source of blessing, and our true source of kinship, one to another.
We are invited to receive the beatitudes of Jesus as a promise that God’s blessing is present, even in the most difficult, hopeless, and wounded places of our lives and our world. God is advocating for the poor in spirit; God is consoling those who mourn; God is protecting the meek. Let us make peace. Let us learn mercy. Let us hunger and thirst for a world made right. The kin-dom of heaven is near, always near.