The gospel lesson we just heard from the Sermon on the Mount contains some of the most well known verses in the Bible. Blessed are the meek and the poor and the hungry and the peacemakers. But because we’ve heard them so often, they really don’t have the same gravitas they once did.
An All Saints’ Day Sermon on Matthew 5.
Author and minister Frederick Buechner has this to say about well-known words of Scripture: “words—especially religious words, words that have to do with the depth of things—get tired and stale the way people do. Find new words or put old words together in combinations that make them heard as new, make you yourself new, and make you understand in new ways. ‘Blessed are the meek’ are the words of the English translators—words of great beauty and power—but over the years they have become almost too familiar to hear any more. ‘Heureux sont les debonnaires’ are the French words—Blessed are the debonair—and suddenly new beauty, new power, flood in like light.” Buechner goes on to describe les debonnaires like Fred Astaire in a tux with tails, or Oliver Hardy walking all dapper and unknowingly toward a banana peel, and the old friend he plays boardgames with as she rattles dice in her pill bottle. These ones are blessed by God. Blessed are the meek.
Many translators think the problem lies in the word “blessed,” choosing instead to render it “Happy….” “Happy are the meek,” Jesus says in those versions. Though when you get to “Happy are you when you mourn,” it sounds quite a bit off. None of us are happy to bury those we love. Each of us would gladly swap out the mourning with a few more days or months or even years with a loved one. Is that really what Jesus is saying?
Pastor and preacher Earl Palmer eschews translations that utilize “happy” recognizing that when we hear it, we imagine being all smiley and glad, and that is not Jesus’ intent at all. Instead, Palmer suggests, we should opt for a different understanding of “blessed.” He offers the sense most often utilized by the Psalmist, a connotation that expresses being on the right road. “You’re on the right road if you’re meek,” Jesus says this time. You’re headed on the right path. You’re going in the right direction, for your will inherit the earth. Or “You’re heading down the right path when you become a peacemaker, for you’ll be called the children of God.” It turns it from a singular event to one embracing a way of life.
Let me read these nine statements to you again with that slight variation. “You’re on the right track when you are poor in spirit, for yours is the kingdom of heaven. You’re on the right path when you mourn, for you will be comforted. You’re headed in the right direction when you are meek, for you will inherit the earth. When you hunger and thirst for righteousness, you’re going in the right direction, for you will be filled. When you are merciful, you are headed down the path of God, for you will receive mercy. You’re choosing the right way when you are pure in heart, for you will see God. You’re on the right track when you work for peace, for you will be called children of God. You’re on the path of God when you are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for yours is the kingdom of heaven. When people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account, don’t lose hope for you are truly on the path that leads to life.”
When you get on that path, you are blessed. It’s not always easy to walk that way; it is often the way of the cross, but it is also the way of life and peace, as the familiar prayer puts it. It is the way of the saints. Of those who are disciples of Jesus.
And, let me be clear, it is contrary to the way of our society and world. It is indeed countercultural.
Last year I read a biography about Civil Rights icon Congressman John Lewis written by Jon Meachum titled His Truth is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope. Early on, Meacham describes the desire Lewis shared with Martin Luther King, Jr. and others in the Civil Rights movement to build the Beloved Community. It was not, Meacham states, “the more perfect union of the American Founders,” but “something different, something wholly perfect.” Meacham then turn’s to John Lewis’ own words to describe it: “[The Beloved Community is] nothing less than the Christian concept of the Kingdom of God on earth. According to this concept, all human existence throughout history, from ancient Eastern and Western societies up through the present day has strived toward community, toward coming together. That movement is as inexorable, as irresistible, as the flow of a river toward the sea.” Lewis and King, following in the footsteps of Gandhi, committed to non-violence in their work. To “good trouble,” as Lewis put it. To heading down the right path working for peace and showing mercy and hungering and thirsting for righteousness—that is, integrity and honesty and goodness and decency. They wanted nothing less than to see the Kingdom of God here on earth.
As do all the saints. On this day when we recall the way the saints lived their lives, we can see how they chose the kingdom of God over the kingdoms of this world. We can see the ways in which they walked the path toward respecting the dignity of every human being. Of committing their lives to peace, and love, truth and integrity. Like St. Francis who forsook his family’s wealth for poverty and dedicated his life to building up the church. Like Florence Li Tim-Oi, the first woman ordained a priest in the Anglican Communion in 1944, who dedicated her ministry to the Chinese refugees in Macao during World War 2. One record of her life states “She tended to the physical and spiritual needs of her congregation and its neighbors. She baptized, married and buried faithful. She gave counsel and friendship to the grieving, organised food for the hungry and kept hope and faith alive among the people desperately struggling during time of war.” Or like Pauli Murray, the first African-American woman ordained an Episcopal priest, and a lawyer and activist, who worked tirelessly for equal rights for women and people of color.
We are called to be on the right path too. To hear the Spirit’s urging in our lives to seek the way that is often rejected by others. A way of peace over the way of war. The path toward meekness rather than the one of aggressive power. The way that leads to mourning because, as Earl Palmer describes it, we see “those around [us] with the weight they have as Christ’s brothers and sisters, and treat them with such honor, that, were they to suffer or die, [we] would grieve.” We know deep in our souls that this way is contrary to our culture, and yet we also know that it is indeed the way to life and peace. The way toward becoming the Beloved Community.
So as we remember the saints today—and those saints in our own lives who have gone on before—let us see them around us, spurring us on toward the right path. Let us journey on that way with Jesus, who has promised to be with us always. Let us choose with intention to live as faithful followers—as disciples—of our Savior, and by so doing, experience more blessings than we could ever imagine. May it be so.