A few weeks ago my spouse went to get a haircut at one of the chains in town that welcomes walk-in customers. His stylist was a woman wearing a headcovering, which he assumed indicated she was Muslim, but when she saw his clergy collar, she shared that she was a member of the Armenian Orthodox church.
And then because my spouse is a geek about churchy stuff, they spent the next 15-20 minutes comparing notes on worship liturgies. This woman took great pride in the beauty of Orthodox worship, and Barrett agreed. He pulled up a video on his phone of an Orthodox cantor and choir reciting a Psalm for Pope Francis–it is a haunting and powerful chant of lament that took my breath away when I first heard it.
When this stylist saw the video, she pointed to the clothes the priest and cantor were wearing and said, “This is us! These are Armenian clothes!” And then, with tears in her eyes she added, “You don’t know how rare this is! So few of us made it out.”
“So few of us made it out.”
She was referring to the Armenian Genocide, which began a century ago in the Ottoman Empire, when the government began a systematic displacement of Armenian Christians, sending them on death marches into the Syrian desert. Between eight-hundred-fifty-thousand and one-and a half -million people are estimated to have died in that political persecution–the first of Modern history. The word “genocide” was invented to describe this massacre of Armenians, which preceded the Holocaust by a generation.
“So few of us made it out.”
I thought of this woman, a fellow resident of Kalamazoo, when I read through these Beatitudes in Matthew, because she helps me imagine the mindset of the people to whom these blessings were spoken and among whom this gospel was transmitted and recorded. Whenever we read the Bible, but especially when we read these extremely familiar passages that so many of us can recite by heart, it is helpful to remember and respect the cultural distance between us as 21st century North Americans and those original audiences.
Jesus spoke these words to people who were persecuted and marginalized in their homeland. They we occupied by imperial forces that compelled them to pay taxes to Rome. The community that transmitted and then recorded this series of blessings saw their leader executed as a political dissident; they saw the Temple in Jerusalem destroyed as they fled from Roman armies; they met in secret caves to tell these stories and share rituals of breaking bread, because they were being systematically hunted and slaughtered by the Roman government. It is this community, huddled in their dark caves who repeated to one another, “Blessed are you…” and who preserved this conviction–this deep belief in God’s blessing–for us to hear today.
I want us to hold these believers in our minds this morning, and sisters and brothers like the Armenian Orthodox hairdresser my spouse met, because their voices, their experiences will help us understand what “God’s blessing” means in the midst of suffering.
This is important, because the word “blessed” too often gets used as a pious synonym for “lucky.” “We are so blessed to have found this house.” “I’m so blessed to have a healthy family.” I first noticed this after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. For weeks the news was full of interviews with survivors who described themselves as “blessed,” and I remember asking myself, “what about those people who didn’t survive? What about their families who are grieving? Has God forgotten or neglected them? Are they excluded from God’s blessing for some inscrutable reason?”
And the beatitudes challenged me then, as they continue to challenge me now: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Being blessed by God is something different from that sigh of relief when we avoid tragedy, or that humble brag about our health or wealth. These beatitudes are not a prescription: if you are meek and mourning and pure in heart, then you can expect to avoid tragedy.
Instead, these beatitudes are a proclamation of identity. Jesus speaks these blessings from a mountain top, at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. The way that the book of Matthew describes this event–this time of teaching–intentionally evokes images and language that call to mind Moses on Mt. Sinai. Just as Moses brought laws from God that defined the nation of Israel as they wandered through the wilderness toward the Promised Land, so Jesus offers this teaching, this interpretation of the Law in order to shape the identity of this people of God as they encountered challenging circumstances on the way toward God’s promised future.
And this proclamation of identity begins with blessing–not the promise that these struggling, hurting people will be blessed sometime in the future, but with the assurance that they are blessed now.
Blessed are the poor in spirit–the ones whose breath is weak, and whose hope is dim–for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted; they will find a way forward.
Blessed are the meek–the downtrodden, the powerless, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness–whose hearts and bodies ache with gap between how things are and how they should be–blessed are they, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful–those who, in the midst of hardship and in the face of fear still choose kindness and forgiveness, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart–those who maintain integrity even when their values are under siege, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers–those who strive to build bridges when communities are torn apart, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake–those who do the right thing and come under attack because of it, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
I imagine the crowd gathered around Jesus, nodding. Some of them recognize themselves. They mourn, they hunger for righteousness and then get kicked down when they speak up for what is right. But maybe not everyone. Maybe there are some who are not sure this blessing is for them. Maybe a tax collector along the perimeter has gotten enough ugly looks from the crowd that he assumes he is not meant to receive this blessing. Maybe a mother in the crowd is too busy soothing her fussy child to recognize herself in the list of people Jesus names as blessed. But Jesus is not picking and choosing. Jesus is not blessing certain people in this crowd. The whole point is that all these blessings are for the community–they as a people must move forward knowing that in all the circumstances they face today and tomorrow, they are blessed.
So, just in case some people missed it, Jesus changes the pronouns at the end. Not blessed are they, but blessed are you:
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Blessed are you.
This blessing is for you. It is not just those others who are blessed. You are blessed. You are beloved. You belong to God. Rejoice and be glad.
Do you hear this? Do you hear this assurance of identity being passed down through the centuries? Do you hear the voices of those first Christians and generations of the church repeating, “You are blessed!” Do you hear that you are blessed?
Are you poor in spirit? Do you feel like all the wind has been knocked out of your chest and you are left gasping for hope? You are blessed. God is with you and will not leave you here.
Are you mourning? Do you walk around with an empty space in your heart or in your home that you know will never be filled? You are blessed. God is with you and will walk with you as you learn a new way of living.
Are you meek? Do you feel powerless, or walked all over? You are blessed. God is with you and will give you everything you need.
Do you hunger and thirst for righteousness? Do you long so much for the world to be different–to be better that you feel it like an ache in your belly? You are blessed. God is with you, and will fill that aching soul with purpose and vision.
When you choose to extend mercy to others even when they have treated you poorly, you are being blessed by God.
When you stand up for what you believe no matter how the winds blow around you, you are being blessed by God.
When you look at the conflict or bitterness or rage around you and look for ways to forge peace, you are being blessed by God.
When you come under attack for doing what is right, you are being blessed by God.
Blessed are you! Blessed are we, the people of God gathered in First Congregational Church in Kalamazoo. Do we believe it? Do we know that ahead of anything else that might try to define us is God’s proclamation of blessing?
If you are sitting near someone you love, I want to invite you to hold their hand. If you’re not, then think of someone you love and want to bless today, and hold their name, or a picture of them in your mind.
Speak to your loved one–say, “You are blessed.”
Say to them, “We are blessed.”
And now let us live as people who believe in God’s blessing. Let us go forth from these walls to share the blessing we have received with the people of our dear city. Let us bless as we have been blessed. Amen? Amen.