Sermon on the Beatitudes (preached at Greenbelt)

Sermon on the mount, detail face

I recently talked to a woman who, when her young brother died tragically, her church said irretrievably stupid things to her like “it must have been God’s will” as though that is a comfort, as though pawning suffering off on God is doing anybody any favors whatsoever. To be honest, and call me a heretic, but this is a concept in theology that’s always bugged me. It’s called “the sovereignty of God” it’s the idea that everything that happens happens because it’s the will of God. Everything. The problem is that this idea of God’s sovereignty seems to most often come up when something awful has happened. So when someone is grieving the death of their child or is facing untreatable cancer and the church makes the claim that God is controlling and even willing all of this to take place seems to just a) make people feel worse and b) make God seem like a heartless bastard. And I am just gonna go out on a limb here and claim that maybe making suffering people feel worse and making God out to be a heartless bastard is not what the church is supposed to be doing.

Anyhow, I bring this up because I started wondering about why God’s sovereignty is never brought up when we talk about the beatitudes. Blessed are the meek, blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn…why do we play the It’s God’s will card when it comes to suffering but never when it comes to blessing? Why don’t we ever make big cosmic claims about God controlling everything that happens when it comes to the way in which God insists on blessing that which the world deems undesirable?

One reason is maybe because I think it can be easy to view the sermon on the mount as pure exhortation. It can be easy to view the beatitudes as Jesus’ command for us to try real hard to be meeker, poorer and mournier in order that we might be blessed in the eyes of God.

But what if the beatitudes aren’t about a list of conditions we should try and meet to be blessed. What if Jesus saying blessed are the meek is not instructive –what if it’s performative? meaning the pronouncement of blessing is actually what confers the blessing itself. Maybe the sermon on the mount is all about Jesus’ seemingly lavish blessing of the world around him especially that which society doesn’t seem to have much time for, people in pain, people who work for peace instead of profit, people who exercise mercy instead of vengeance. So maybe Jesus is actually just blessing people, especially the people who never seem to receive blessings otherwise. I mean, come on, doesn’t that just sound like something Jesus would do? Extravagantly throwing around blessings as though they grew on trees?

So I began to think this week about what our relationship to receiving and giving blessings might be if it’s the giving of a blessing itself, and not the ability to meet the conditions of receiving a blessing that make the receiver blessed

It’s a pretty Lutheran idea really, this whole because of not in order to thing. You see, you live lives worthy of the gospel because you have received grace upon grace. You don’t live lives worthy of the gospel in order to receive this grace.

It’s a pretty critical distinction, but the hard thing about looking at it this way is that for some of us it can be easier to try and meet the conditions of receiving a blessing that to simply receive a blessing.

A couple years ago I experienced this weird thing where old ladies kept blessing me in ways that felt super awkward. Walking off the stage after I spoke at an event at St. Mary’s cathedral in Memphis, a  British woman in her 70s walks straight toward me and in front of God and everybody, embraces me. Not a friendly “thank-you” hug, but it was like embracing-with-the-intent-to-bless.

I had just read aloud an essay about my call to ministry; how it involved stand-up comedy and suicide and AA and pornography strangely and it was about seeing the gospel from the underside of our lives. And now before I knew what was happening some proper old British lady is blessing me. Red cardigan covered arms enfolded me as this stranger whispers in my ear “God has given you something.” She kisses my cheek not breaking the embrace even a little: “Jesus walks with you.” Again she kisses me.  Again she whispers a blessing but always she keeps embracing me.  Me.  A heavily tattooed Lutheran who swears like a truck driver.  I did not feel worthy of any of this But it feels like God’s own self blessing me with warm breath and a scratchy sweater.

When I sit back down I think, “What the hell just happened?”  My friend Sara Miles, having seen the interaction, slides into the pew next to me saying, “Girl, you gotta just submit to letting people bless you.”

It’s hard though.   But she’s right.  we need to let people bless us. Maybe letting ourselves receive blessings is part of the Christian life. It’s just not one that people talk about much because we’re so busy worrying about what we should be doing for others.

A week or so after the scratchy red cardigan old lady blessed me…again just as I finish preaching at Church of the Beloved in Edmonds, Washington, it happens again.  Almost exactly like the last time, only this time it’s a Franciscan nun in her long brown habit. With a hand on each of my shoulders, she looks me in the eye without a hope of me turning away. “You have been blessed.”  She says as she chokes up and embraces me.

I think looking back that maybe God had somehow caught on to the fact that 70-year-old women are the only people whose blessings even I can’t resist.

So if we have a God who, out of God’s sovereignty blesses the poor the hurting, the peace making and the meek then I wonder what a Church might look like that submits to these blessings offered us by God. Perhaps you yourselves have your own version of old ladies with scratchy sweaters who are bringing you God’s own blessings. Look for them. Submit to these blessings brothers and sisters. Because God is a God who blesses in order that we might be blessed in order that we too might bless.

So if there is something we take away perhaps it is not to try and fulfill the conditions of receiving God’s blessing, but perhaps being God’s people is being a people who, like God, bless the world around us not on the basis of the world’s values but on the basis of God’s values. So I say let’s just make up excuses to bless people and places and things because it just seems so Jesus-y and kind of fun and I’m pretty sure that human blessing and NOT human suffering is “God’s will”

Amen.

About Nadia Bolz Weber

I am the founding Pastor at House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado. We are an urban liturgical community with a progressive yet deeply rooted theological imagination. Learn more at www.houseforall.org

  • Jane Keith

    I don’t know, Nadia. I lost my husband to pancreatic cancer 6 years ago. My faith was rocked, but I tend to believe that faith begins with doubt. However, as painful as the process of walking the path of cancer with my husband was, and as painful as the process of grieving was, I always believed that God knew better than anyone my pain. That while He doesn’t cause suffering, or evil, or bad things to happen, none of it comes as a surprise to him. I do believe He does indeed work ALL things for good to them that are called. . . . It’s not like he looked and saw that my husband was diagnosed with cancer and said “oh dear me, oh dear me, let’s see how can I work this one out?” In His omniscience, in His all knowing, He just knew this would be as well as knew what the outcome would be 5 -10 – 100 years down the road. Just because I don’t understand the why doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

    I will agree with you that people say the most ignorant things when people are hurting and “it must be God’s will” is NOT helpful. But not being helpful doesn’t equal not being true. I believe as God’s child there is nothing that comes into my life, that has not first passed through his heart and his mind and in his perfect and holy knowledge of everything His plan is and will be accomplished.

    Just my .02 and it’s probably really worth 1/2 of that!

    • poosh1

      One wonders, though, if it’s all God’s will, anyway, why did Jesus teach us to ask for it in the Lord’s prayer?

  • peterhamm

    I get riled up when people blame God for bad stuff that happens to us, too. Thanks for pointing it out. It’s sloppy theology, and if someone is hurting, you are much better off holding their hand and crying with them than trying to explain it.

    Bad stuff that happens can’t be explained away anyway.

  • Kathy Winteregg

    Such startlingly clear truth that finally helped me understand Jesus’ intent when he spoke the beatitudes. I was always taught not to question God’s will no matter how painful. And believe me, as a 6 year old praying on my knees beside my mother to heal my daddy of heart disease unless “it was God’s will to take him” provided a lot of pain and paradox in my life. How could God really love me and still allow my father to die leaving 5 children when he was only 38 years old? Many other tragic and painful events have taken place over my 60 years, and I always “accepted” them as God’s choices for my life. Or should I say I’ve tried to because that’s “what a believer should do.” I’ve even spoken the terrible words myself…”it must be God’s will,” to others when what I really wanted to say is “it feels like the heavens opened up and dumped a truckload of shi…(my auto correct won’t let me spell it out) all over you, doesn’t it?” Trying to say and think the “Christian way” I know so well hasnt made anything better for anyone. Now I’m dealing with a situation of having my husband diagnosed with early onset dementia. It hurts, it makes me angry, my hopes and dreams (simple and yet mine) for our retirement together have been dashed, and it seems like one of the worst things ever that could happen to my sweet husband who I love so much. Is it GOD’s WILL? How can it be??? But we are being blessed by so many people who are being “the hands and feet of Jesus” to us. And now I believe that I more fully understand the sermon Jesus gave on the mount. Wonderful words they were and still are…that God loves us and in spite of our circumstances is extending blessings to all of us. Maybe God will help me to finally accept them as they were intended. Blessings to you, Nadia.

  • http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/ jesuswithoutbaggage

    Not only is God considered responsible for individual deaths, many think he is responsible for devastating hurricanes and other natural disasters that punish us for some imagined offense.

    I believe the Father desires good will, peace, and reconciliation for all of us, but he does not orchestrate it directly; he operates through us. However, some of us produce more harm than healing and blessing.

  • http://beautyandterror.blogspot.com/ Michelle

    A few days after I read your post, I picked up the book “My Grandfather’s Blessings,” by Dr. Rachel Remen. Its first few pages amplify what resonated with me from your writing:

    “A blessing is not something that one person gives another. A blessing is a moment of meeting, a certain kind of relationship in which both people involved remember and acknowledge their true nature and worth, and strengthen what is whole in one another. By making a place for wholeness within our relationships, we offer others the opportunity to be whole without shame and become a place of refuge from everything in them and around them that is not genuine. We enable people to remember who they are.” (pg 6)

  • Gary Dyer

    Being married to a sexual assault survivor, she (and I) learned the church’s old language of “God’s will” meant God wanted it to happen…..which is hard to consider or believe… And in her journey, she got a “do-over” to think through and consider this point of view. As you witness here, the blessing is the draw now and the mission, not the “protection of the faithful theology” which crushes its own young when something bad happens.

  • Aldo Sánchez Santa

    http://alivechrist.spreadshirt.com/p2 …… store for clothes with hope messages and love..

  • marty_jones

    >A heavily tattooed Lutheran who swears like a truck driver.
    I’ve had a similar sort of experience here in Collins [I had hoped, once again, to get to HFASS last weekend in Denver, but family needs came first]. I met two ‘foul-mouthed’ kids [ok, they were in their thirties] who completely dropped their own lives to help my kids with the most Murphy’s Law-infested move I’ve ever heard of. I’m reminded of Todd Agnew’s line: “Jesus would never be welcome in my church; the blood and mud on His feet would stain the carpets.” It is so easy to stereotype people based on their appearance and their language.
    You are definitely a blessing in my life. One of these days I’ll be able to give you the hug that goes with it.

    Blessings, Marty

  • Christopher Dietz

    This is such a tough topic. I recall an acquaintance, a father of 9 kids, committing suicide about 10 years ago. The pastor, in front of his grieving widow and kids said “If you don’t think this was part of God’s will then you’re wrong”. He couldn’t have said anything worse. I almost walked out of the funeral. I’m one to believe that bad things happen because we live in a broken world…a world that God is working to restore with our help to the paradise He intended for us in the first place. The new heaven and new earth. He didn’t “cause” that man to commit suicide, that man chose to commit suicide by his free will (although one could argue that he was in so much pain he didn’t have full control of his will). The struggle for me comes in when I see that God clearly steps in to save people from bad things many times, so why doesn’t he step in to save us from all the bad things. That’s a mystery, but it still doesn’t shake my faith and trust that He is all good.


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