“Be All That You Can Be”

~ A sermon by The Rev. Keenan Kelsey ~

Matthew 5:1-12

The BeatitudesWhen Jesus[a] saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.“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[b] 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.

 

Would you pray with me: Dear God, Augustine said “Understanding is the reward of faith. Therefore, seek not to understand that you may be believe, but believe that you may understand.” May it be so.  Amen

I don’t know how much attention you give to sermon titles….but preachers pay a lot of attention!    We have to submit a title midweek, and often I, at least, find myself preaching into whatever title I’ve chosen. In ends up informing the sermon. I initially titled this sermon “Be-Attitudes.”  I like this word play because I think that’s what these eight blessings, or eight acknowledgements, are about: who are you? What is the essence of your being? But I used this same title back in 2011 … And I was afraid Carol de Francis would remember and call me on it!

So, this is a new sermon, with a new title: “Be All You Can Be.” You might remember this as the Army’s primary recruiting slogan for nearly 20 years. The idea was that the Army could bring out the best in a person, it could train and inspire for full use of one’s capabilities and it would ensure success in life. Perhaps this was the same idea Jesus had, the same hope, when he began his Sermon on the Mount, some 2023 years ago.

Since then, I have changed my mind a dozen times. If the bulletin were printed this morning, the title might have been “Foxhole Jesus.”  Or “There Is a God, and It’s Not Me.”  Or ‘Surrender, Dependence, Humility.” Or simply “God’s Love.” Perhaps, in your meditations this week, you can decide for yourselves how you might title these thoughts on the Beatitudes. How do they inform you?

In the Gospel reading, I see Jesus, sitting with his disciples, farther up the hill from gathering crowds who had followed him to this hillside along the Sea of Galilee. I imagine Jesus looking out at them, explaining to his disciples of the truth of a new kind of kin-dom-on-earth—”Look into their eyes” he might have said… “these are the eyes of the blessed.”

There were only two societal classes at that time, the rulers and the ruled, the haves and the have nots.  These were the have nots.  Jesus would have seen faces pinched with hunger and need.  He might have seen the bitterness of broken dreams and the deep hurt of old abuses.  He might have seen bodies twisted and made old by work too hard for any human.  Yet they were coming, faithful, renewed and hopeful, flocking to hear a fabled Rabbi who was speaking with love and of love, who heals, who holds.

We often think of the Beatitudes as commandments. Become poor in spirit, meek, mournful, persecuted.  Become peacemakers. Be merciful and pure. Instead, what if Jesus was just affirming all the human realities that bring us closer to God? That put us in the realm of the blessed?

Not many choose to be broken.  Nor to be emptied and poor. Nor to be bereft, nor have life fall apart. But it happens.  To all of us. *Blessed are you when you are poor in spirit: When you are despairing, unable to deal with the world. With less of you there is more room for God

4” You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. then you allow yourself to be embraced by the One most dear to you.

“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find pride not in what you own, but in already owning everything that can’t be bought.

6“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.

7“You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ that is, full of care, you find yourselves cared for.

9“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s your place in God’s family.

10“You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution, It is not popular or easy to be righteous and generous and forgiving. Fighting the status quo can be harsh, but when we align ourselves with God, we become whole.

These are not commandments; they are acknowledgments and invitations. They demonstrate how very wide open are the arms of Jesus and the heart of God.  The God we call on when we are desperate or afraid or lost or mournful or jealous or helpless – when we are trying to do the right thing and it flies in the face of common practice, that’s the moment we realize we cannot live this life alone.  That’s when we know we don’t want to live this life alone.

Beatitudes are about “learning to live loved” as The Shack calls it – allowing God’s grace to transform us.

Anne Lamott calls it a holy openness to “the gift of failure.”

Jesus isn’t setting up conditions or terms for holy living—I think he is just plain blessing people.  All kinds of people.  That is, all kinds of down-and-out, extremely vulnerable, and at the bottom of the ladder people.  Why?  To proclaim that God regularly shows up in mercy and blessing just where you least expect God to be — with the poor rather than the rich, those who are mourning rather than celebrating, the meek and the peacemakers rather than the strong and victorious. This is not where citizens of the ancient world look for God and, quite frankly, it’s not where citizens of our own world do either.  And if God shows up here, Jesus is saying, blessing the weak and the vulnerable, then God will be everywhere, showering all creation and its inhabitants with blessing.

 

The word translated “blessed” in most English translations is the Greek word “markarios” and it can also be translated “happy.”    But this is not just fleeting, circumstantial earthly happiness.  “Markarios” indicates the blessing and joy of a person who is self-contained and who somehow deeply knows themselves to be right with God independent of external circumstance.

 

A few years ago, I saw a documentary called “Happy.”  The start of the film outlines scientific findings that a basic feeling of happiness in life, deep happiness.  is about 50 % genetically determined.  We all have a 50/50 chance of being basically happy or unhappy.  Beyond that, our life situation and circumstances – the things we work hardest for and think are the most important to our happiness, like job, money, health, friends, family, meaningful activities, are of about 10% importance to a basic feeling of happiness.  Only 10%!  The rest – the final 40% that tips the balance one way or the other, is behavior and attitude.  Our choices and our spirit.

 

And that’s what the rest of the film is about – little life-sketches of maybe 20 people around the world from a Louisiana swamp to a Tibetan cliff village, from a small Danish co-op to a cardboard camp on the edge of Calcutta.  All of whom profess to be, and truly are, happy.  Most are poor; some have suffered terrible accidents and losses; few have any real chance of what we call “improvement.”

 

One story I remember is that of a rickshaw driver in that cardboard camp in the slums of Calcutta.  By day he runs and pulls people through the city streets on his rickshaw; by night he comes home to a village of hundreds (if not thousands) of side-by-side shacks.  His shack is protected from the rain in the monsoon season by a tarp (he’s so thankful for the tarp), and through the rest of the year it’s the most wonderful home he can imagine because there is a window in one wall, wonderful air flow through the shack, and the chance to enjoy life there with his son, his son’s baby daughter, and the good neighbors they have all around them.  “I feel that I am not poor,” he says, “because I am the richest person.  Sometimes we eat only rice with salt, but still we are happy.”

My own story about choosing to feel blessed, choosing to be happy, comes from my experience with a family in Santa Rosa.  The elderly mother had been resisting a move to Assisted Living.  The children had been insisting for over a year. I went with them when the time actually came, As we waited in the foyer, a peppy assistant came over and chirped, “Oh you’re going to love your new room.  It’s sunny and had lace curtains…” But the Mother cut her off.  “I already love it.”  The peppy assistant stammered, “you haven’t even seen it.” The Mom said, “I’ve decided I will love it and so I will.”

The Beatitudes are neither a law, nor a self-improvement program.  They are God’s promise, God’s embrace.

 

I’m going to quote Annie Lamott again. Here is how she prays the beatitudes:

Hi God. I am just a mess. It is all hopeless. What else is new?

I would be sick of me, if I were You, but miraculously, You are not.

I know I have no control over other people’s lives, and I hate this. Yet I believe that if I accept this and surrender, You will meet me wherever I am.

Wow. Can this be true? If so, how is this afternoon, say two-ish?

Thank You in advance for your company and blessings. You have never once let me down. Amen..  

Amen indeed

 

*The rewordings of the Beatitudes are drawn from The Message by Eugene Peterson.

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