Meg Peery McLaughlin
June 27, 2021
Matthew 5: 1-12
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.
This is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
I don’t know who is going to come back to church.
I hope you are.
Committee meetings of late have all been speculation:
will people be beating down the doors on August 1?
will there be enough space?
have people been out of the habit for too long?
prefer watching at home in their pjs?
Last week in our worship,
you saw some friends who have just joined our church family.
I know we’ll be glad to welcome them in person!
And I’m so glad for all those who’ve signed up for our church-clean-up-workday,
to get the building for everybody.
But I don’t know who the “everybody” will be.
I don’t know who is going to come back to church.
But I tell you what I do know.
I know people want to be near to God. Almost everyone I know, actually.
This Spring, our friend Jay Klompmaker sent me a Wall Street Journal article[i] written by a Rabbi.
The Rabbi was reacting to a recent poll saying that less than 50% of Americans belong to a religious community, the lowest since we’ve started measuring.
When I was a student at UNC, that number was over 70%.
Things are changing fast.
That article was not dire or depressing,
as you might think such numbers would be,
instead it communicated what that Rabbi,
what and Jay & I know to be true:
that though folks may not be coming to church,
they are still hungering for God.
God— who was and is and will be
the Creator we crave
the Redeemer we require
the Mystery that moves us
And what our scripture today describes is what it is like to be close to this God,
who it is that keeps intimate company with the divine.
The word Jesus uses for that nearness is blessed.
That word blessed has been co-opted;
somehow it’s taken on a saccharine feel
that connotes a one-ups-man-ship,
as if blessing had to do with square footage or
how neatly your family fits into the mold, whatever that mold is supposed to look like.
But friends, listen for a minute,
when Jesus marches up that mountain to teach us about the blessed life,
he’s not describing the popular, pleasing, or picturesque.
He’s naming those who are in sync with God,
and it’s not necessarily the ones who we’d guess.
Jesus says the blessed ones, are those
who’ve come to the end of their rope;
the weeping class,
the lenient and those restless for things to be right
It’s those who’ve let down their guard
who are singleminded, whole-hearted.
It’s those who get beat up for standing up
and who stand for the wrong kind of people.
Perhaps, if you’re like me,
and you hear Jesus saying all this, you want to get it all right,
and so the instinct is to make these beatitudes into a kind of to-do list,
as if Jesus is laying out conditions for the good life.
And so we sit rank and file with those first disciples and ask,
“wait, will this be on the quiz?
I don’t have a pen, hold on,
can you say the third one again?[ii]”
But, friends, we’d be missing it.
These aren’t instructive, they are performative:
meaning the pronouncement of the blessing confers the blessing itself.
Doesn’t that sound just like Jesus,
throwing love around to those who need it most?
These statements don’t lay down demands for salvation
(as if to be saved we needed to pass some test!).
The beatitudes simply tell the truth of those who know what it is to nuzzle near the divine.
And if WE are telling the truth,
we’ll admit that we may not have picked these as the most likely suspects.
Preacher James Howell says Jesus is describing an entirely different order than we are used to.
Jesus rudely crumples up the mental map of the known world.
And nobody seems to appreciate having their traditional view of the world
refolded and then redrawn, as if by some spiritual origami.”
This week Vacation Bible School begins
and this scripture is one of the ones that our children will read.
The theme this week is God’s Heroes.
And I wonder if some of our children
will experience some of this spiritual origami, too,
some rethinking what it is to be a Hero,
and thus some wondering about if church is a place
where sometimes things feel a bit folded up and upside down,
and a place where they can find themselves close to God.
Now, let me be clear:
nothing can stop God’s nearness to God’s blessed ones, nothing.
And let me be clear:
the kingdom of God cannot be contained to a church:
not even an awesome one on Franklin Street,
not even one that is all cleaned up after a workday and one that is ready to live-stream.
Our committees will continue getting ready for whoever comes to UPC on August 1
and every Sunday thereafter,
but I don’t know who is coming to church.
But I do know that some of those who have been nearest to God
are those who kept finding themselves in places like this,
perhaps because it was here
where they kept encountering Jesus who teaches unexpected things.
Church is where I’ve met
business leaders who make choices that kenan-flagler would never suggest
the addicted who know more about persistence than any olympian
grieving moms who even after their own agony, choose to sit with someone else in pain
teachers who change lives off book, that no standard could ever measure
dying ones who instruct me about being abundantly alive
Church isn’t the only place, mind you, but at least for me,
it is where I have rubbed elbows with the blessed
and thanks to you, where I continue to.
And church is where I come to get my stubborn mental map
of what the good life is refolded and reshaped.
I am hungry for God.
So, so eager to be in sync with the holy one.
So if you’ll let me paraphrase[iii],
let’s remember again that Jesus said:
Blessed are they whose spirits are low.
Blessed are those who doubt; who aren’t sure of it all, they can still be surprised.
Blessed are the sad. Blessed are they for whom death is not an abstraction.
Blessed are they who don’t have the luxury of taking things for granted anymore.
Blessed are the ones that no one else notices. The kids who sit alone at middle-school lunch tables.
The parts of ourselves that don’t want to make eye contact with a world that only loves the winners.
Blessed are those who forget to eat because all they can think about is doing good.
Blessed are they who know there is more than this. Because they are right.
Blessed are the merciful for they totally get it.
Blessed are the kids who step between the bullies and the weak.
Blessed are those who are always in trouble for treating the right people wrong
and the wrong people right.
YOU are who Jesus chooses to surround himself with. Yes, you. You, church, you.
Rejoice and be glad!
[ii] Barbara Brown Taylor
[iii] A mix between Nadia Bolz Weber and Barbara Brown Taylor