In just about every wedding sermon I give, there is a moment when I urge the couple to turn around. Typically, they are standing with hands joined, facing each other. I usually have to say it more than once. Really, I mean it: turn around. Take a look, a good long look, at this beloved community gathered here to witness to your promises, and to make their own promises to love you and support you in your life together. It’s always moving to watch this interaction, to see the couple meet eyes and exchange smiles with friends and family. It is a moment in which blessing happens.
I wonder if this is a bit how that still-wet-behind-the-ears preacher, Jesus, felt in those early days of his ministry as he looked out over the crowds of people who were streaming to him. Matthew chapter four reports that huge numbers gathered around him everywhere he went—the sick, the hurting, the hungry, the forgotten. I don’t imagine that Jesus sat down the night before delivering his famous “sermon on the mount” with papyrus and quill, aiming to write one of history’s great speeches. I doubt he realized that these words would become so important, and so familiar to us.
Today’s text begins: “When Jesus saw the crowds…” I think it was as simple as that. He turned around and took a look, a good long look, at the people gathered around him—people who were marginal in their world, people longing to be healed, yearning to receive good news. He saw them. He saw God in them. And he taught them to see God in themselves. Jesus recognized the sacred worth of people others discarded and exploited, and in that moment of acknowledgment blessing happened. They felt blessed.
Each of the Gospels portrays Jesus’ inaugural moment, the beginning of his public ministry, with a slightly different emphasis. In Mark, Jesus’ first act is an exorcism, implying that his work is to free creation from the forces of evil. For Luke, he is a prophet sent to stand with the marginalized. John casts him as a miracle-worker who turns water into wine in order to reveal God’s astounding abundance. In Matthew, Jesus is, first of all, a rabbi, a teacher. And if the heart of Jesus’ ministry is teaching, then disciples are students. A commitment to follow Jesus is a commitment to learning.
And Jesus’, first, and most important lesson is about blessing. It’s my understanding that in modern Judaism there is truly a blessing for every circumstance: for waking up in the morning, for putting on clothes, for seeing a rainbow, for washing hands and for eating. Daniella Levy, in her article “Crash Course in Jewish Blessings,” notes that the subject of these blessings is God. They always begin, “Blessed Are You, Creator of the Universe.” She wonders, “Why do we bless God? Isn’t [God] blessing us?” The purpose of a blessing, she explains,
Is not merely to show gratitude. The purpose of a blessing is awareness. When I hold an apple in my hand and say, “Blessed are You, Lord, our God, [Creator] of the Universe, who creates the fruit of the tree,” what I’m really saying is a lot more than just “thanks for making this apple.” I’m saying, “Your presence in this world has been made that much greater, has increased, through this fruit You created that I am about to enjoy.” This is one of the main themes of Judaism: channeling the Divine into the mundane and revealing the spiritual through the physical. Simply put: in this apple, I see God.
Now, I’m sure that Jesus didn’t grow up saying his blessings in quite the same words, or with the same rituals, that modern Jews do. All the same, I suspect that he was steeped in blessing, that he was profoundly shaped by his community’s insistence on the importance of blessing. The Greek word, makarios, translated as “blessed” in today’s text, is interesting. Over time, as words do, it took on many shades of meaning. Originally, in classical Greek, it referred to the gods or to people who had died and reached the world of the gods. Some time later, it was also used to describe “the elite… people whose riches and power put them above the normal cares and problems and worries of the lesser folk—the peons, who constantly struggle and worry and labor in life.” And finally, when the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek, makarios was used in yet another way. It referred “to the results of right living or righteousness. If you lived right, you were blessed. Being blessed meant you received earthly, material things.”
It’s striking that Jesus draws on none of these established meanings of makarios. In fact, he holds the word in tension with itself in a way that would have been jarring to his hearers. The whole world around Jesus essentially saw blessing as equivalent to wealth and status, and then, with a circular logic, pointed to back these “blessings” as evidence of divine favor. In declaring “Blessed are the poor in spirit”; “Blessed are those who mourn”; “Blessed are the meek”; “Blessed are the persecuted,” Jesus exposes the conventional way of thinking about blessing for the lie that it is.
He insists that God’s blessing is for everyone, everywhere. God inhabits all people, every nook and cranny of creation. And yet, notice that Jesus speaks blessings that are incredibly specific. He blesses those no one else would bless in order to point out the hypocrisy of a society that acts as if only a few are blessed. Who, in particular, does Jesus bless today?
Yesterday, I spent the afternoon with 2000 other people of faith, including about a dozen from First Church, in #PropheticResistance with ISAIAH. We were reminded that as people of faith, at such a time as this, we are called into an exercise of moral citizenship, citizenship that goes far beyond simply voting. As Rev. Dr. William Barber puts it:
Moral language can re-frame and critique public policy regardless of who’s in power. A moral movement claims higher ground than merely a partisan debate, something that’s bigger than left versus right, conservative versus liberal. We have to begin to re-frame the conversation not to talk about left policies and right policies, but let’s talk about violence. And as people who run for office, are you on the side of violence?
God blesses all people, the whole creation. In the face of immoral leadership that denies this truth, our faith calls us to resist, to proclaim God’s blessing from the rooftops. “We are being tested,” said Doran Schrantz, ISAIAH’s executive director. We are being tested to see whether or not we will consent to radical attacks on civil rights to the dismantling of our democratic institutions, of our healthcare system, our social safety net. We are being tested to see whether or not we will consent to state-sponsored scapegoating and terrorizing of immigrants and Muslims, and to the suppression of science that allows for the exploitation of the earth for profit.
Who, in particular, does Jesus bless today?
At last week’s women’s march, Rev. Ashley Harness of Lyndale UCC blessed the crowd before we set out for the capitol. Let me share some of her words with you.
Blessed are those who protest.
Blessed are the women, cis- and transgender.
Blessed are those who work too many jobs to make ends meet and those who cannot find a job.
Blessed are the refugees and immigrants, no matter their legal status.
Blessed are the uninsured and those who fear they will lose their insurance.
Blessed are those with preexisting conditions.
Blessed are those who have survived sexual violence and abuse.
Blessed are those who cry, “Black Lives Matter.”
Blessed are the indigenous and blessed are their sovereign, sacred lands.
Blessed is the Earth under the siege of climate change.
Blessed are those who are differently abled.
Blessed are the sacred choices of women about their bodies.
Blessed are those who are Muslim and threatened with a registry.
Blessed are those who are Jewish and threatened with bombs.
Who, in particular, does Jesus bless today? Turn around and take a look. Really. Take a good long look at our beloved community, gathered here. See how God blesses each and every one of us. How God is alive in us. How God is alive in our neighbors. All our neighbors. Amen.