Sermon for 4th Epiphany
God Bless You
By Vicar Sharon Richter -
In a chaplaincy program at Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia, I met a trauma patient named Rudy. He had been hit by a delivery truck that sped off and left him lying in the street. He was awake and alert, but in a lot of pain. His most obvious injury was that he had his foot on backwards. He had leathery, discolored skin, which made me suspect he was homeless, and he was. Then I learned that he was 82 years old, and my first reaction was, “How do you be 82 years old and homeless?”
Rudy told the physician he had a wife, Mary, but that they hadn’t lived together for 40 years, so there was no point in contacting her. But when it became clear that Rudy had internal bleeding and needed emergency surgery, I was asked to try to locate a next of kin.
I went through his clothes (a daunting task) and found a number for a daughter in Texas, who called her mother Mary. Within 20 minutes, a quintessentially South Philly family (think Rocky) showed up, including Mary, her sister, and her son by another father. Mary later told me Rudy had always been fun. A party guy, but also rather volatile. He was a “my-way-or-the-highway” kind of guy, and every person with whom he had lived over the past 40 years had either kicked him out or watched him leave in a huff. But they were all still fond of him.
The medical staff and I had assumed that, Rudy being homeless, nobody was gonna show up for him. When his whole estranged family showed up, I just thought, “Well, God bless you!”
When I was thinking about the Beatitudes, that “God bless you” came back to me. Everyone loves the Beatitudes, but they’re sort of abstract. Blessed are the poor in spirit . . . what does that mean? And it seems weird to say “blessed” for these things, and even weirder to say “happy,” as some Bibles translate it. It helps to look at some scholarly discussion of the context, but how many people outside of seminarians and pastors do that?
So when I--of course—did that, I decided not to bore you with too many details. Okay, maybe just a couple . . . first of all, Matthew composed the Greek, as elegant, alliterative poetry. Knowing that the words are chosen for poetic reasons is helpful when we are bold to put these into our own words.
More important, this is not a prescription for good living. No. Jesus is describing people in his audience and invoking a blessing on them. Jesus is not saying “Do what the Joneses do to get into heaven.” Instead, the son of God is speaking to the Joneses, and he’s saying, “You Joneses are good people. My heart goes out to you. God bless you!
I thought it might help to rephrase each blessings, with explanations where needed:
Blessed are the poor in spirit becomes this: You who, whether rich or poor, take on the spirit of the poor, a spirit of humility and gratitude, knowing that everything you have and everything you are comes from God, God bless you!
In the context of when Jesus spoke, the next blessing becomes this: You who mourn the loss of the nation of Israel and pray for the coming of God’s kingdom on earth, God bless you! Today we might say, you who mourn any loss--a loved one, or too much violence, or political rejection of refugees, or the degradation of the planet, God bless you!
Now we come to the meek, which is kind of hard to understand.
Here’s how I would say it: You who can wield power, or money, or influence unjustly, but instead choose to be gentle and gracious, and not to oppress others, God bless you!
When Jesus says “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” he’s talking about God’s righteousness, not our righteousness. So, it becomes, you who long for God to come and just make things right all over the world (and wouldn’t this be a good time for that?), God bless you!
You who have mercy on anyone, deserving or not—refugees, the poor, the imprisoned, the uninsured, the exploited—God bless you.
You who love God with all your heart . . . and don’t serve other gods—or today we might say, you who don’t worship wealth, or drugs, or beauty, or pride—God bless you!
You who see conflict at work, or home, or church, and try to make peace, God bless you!
You who see something wrong and call attention to it, or try to correct it, even at risk to yourself, God bless you!
And you, who do the right thing when it’s easier to just go along and get along, or who stick up for people being bullied, or who take the risk to say, no, it’s not ok to be racist, or sexist, or homophobic, because Jesus stood up for the kind of people you are reviling, God bless you!
The Bible is a living document that we reinterpret in each generation. We know that the Beatitudes are poetry that Matthew has already rephrased from what Jesus said. Luke rephrases them differently. So you also can feel free to rephrase them as well, with your own understandings of the words, so long as you uphold the gospel message of God’s faithfulness, righteousness, justice, and mercy to us, the undeserving ones.
And when we also understand that the Beatitudes are not a guidebook for better living, it’s easier for us to see that God’s blessings are not limited to this list. God blesses us, sinners and saints alike. We can invoke blessings too. I invite you to take a moment and call out a blessing for someone, sinner or saint. You don’t have to say why.
And while you’re at it, invoke a blessing on Rudy, and on Rudy’s family, who took him in, as inappropriate and raucous and sarcastic as he was, and housed him as he rehabilitated. Knowing Rudy, knowing how fun, but also difficult, he was to be around, I often think back and wonder how long they were able to put up with him. Or how long it was until he hobbled away in a huff. God bless them!
And God bless you, too.
Vicar Sharon Richter
Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California
January 29, 2017
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