Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12
Old Testament Reading: Micah 6:1-8
Folk singer songwriter, Pete Seeger died this week. At our house, when a musician dies, and we own their record, my husband puts on the album. All week long I’ve had the song, “Little Boxes” in my head. Pete Seeger didn’t write this song, but he collected songs from all over the US and made this one famous in 1963. It was written by his friend Malvina Reynolds and goes something like this… “Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky-tacky. Little boxes on the hillside and they all look just the same.” To me, it is a song about conformity, the falseness of it, the cheapness of it.
These houses in the song, were meant to provide inexpensive, high density housing to meet people’s needs. To make them affordable, I imagine they all have same floor plan, are painted one of four colors, and are squished pretty close together, so they resemble boxes on the hillside. The problem is, they were poorly constructed and poorly planned. The song extends the cookie-cutter analogy to the people that live in the houses, that they all go to summer camp and then to the university and they are just the same as the houses, looking for satisfaction in being like everyone else, rather than thinking for themselves, or being true to their own sense of self.
At various times in our lives, we may try being more true to ourselves and at other times we try to make ourselves fit in. And there are times in our lives when we expect others to conform to our ideas of how a person should look and think and behave, and other times when we are more open to other ways of being in the world. Today’s Gospel includes some words of Jesus in his inaugural sermon, called the Beatitudes. Jesus’ Beatitudes express God’s values—that God honors the meek, peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for their faith. If we wrote a Beatitudes of the world’s values, of the people that we think of living in those little boxes on the hillside, we would say, blessed are they who are happy, blessed are they who are thin, blessed are they who have their course in life all plotted out, blessed are they who have what everybody else has, blessed are the young, the strong, the pretty, the settled.
For me, the Beatitudes are about the real people, when you get to know them. If you walked into one of those little houses, because this song is about a real housing development, and met the people living there, you would find a much different picture than what appears on the outside. The reference to the “ticky-tacky” alludes to this. That something isn’t right in this picture that we are all the same or should be. You’d meet people who are mourning. You’d meet people who had disabled children. You’d meet alcoholics and drug addicts. You’d meet shy people and people who didn’t graduate from high school, unwed mothers and grandparents raising their grandchildren. Jesus said this is who is really blessed by God. This is where God is truly present, in times of difficulty and pain.
I think we sometimes make assumptions about other people’s lives, that they have it easy. We believe that because we don’t know them or their story. We just see the surface. But the people we know and care about, we know the mountains they’ve had to climb, the hardships, the tragedies.
When I first read this lesson, I thought of having you stand up in each of these categories and then honoring you in some way. But of course nobody is going to stand up when I ask who is meek and who are the pure in heart. Not that you aren’t those things, but that you’re also modest. Plus it just seemed cruel to make you stand up if you are grieving.
Think about these categories and who falls into them. Blessed are those who mourn. There are the obvious ones who have just lost close family members or friends. In a month or a year they will still be grieving. After a year has gone by they will still be grieving, but would others see them that way? How soon do we forget that another has a broken heart? You could talk to anyone in this room, I suspect, and find grief—someone they love who has died, maybe many years ago, but that pain is still there on a daily basis. We wouldn’t normally think that grief or mourning makes them blessed. But God promises to be there in that pain. God knows what it means to mourn. And God has made more compassionate people out of us, through the pain that we’ve experienced. We are able to be a blessing to others because of what we’ve been through. You who are mourning losses both fresh and of long ago, we honor you. God honors you. God’s blessing be with you.
I thought of having the peacemakers stand, but I am not sure they know who they are, or maybe they know all too well. Some play this role in families, having learned it from running back and forth between arguing parents. Sometimes middle children play this role in families, drawing siblings together who are very different. In our society we often value those who hold firm. I think of the recent impasse in the government over extending the debt ceiling. Some of our leaders thought it was time to stand their ground and their approval ratings fell. In the end it was compromise that seemed to work the best, for now. Jesus was a peacemaker. He didn’t force everyone to follow his way. He showed us the way to be gentle with each other and invitational and he gave us life, rather than resort to violence to try to change this world. In our congregation, I’ve really felt blessed by the peacemakers. There are some in this congregation who will do this very well. They help people find the common ground. They are able to see both sides. It may be the whole congregation against the one, but those peacemakers take the part of the one. Most of us probably would not consider ourselves peacemakers, but there is a peacemaking part to all of us, or we’d never tolerate being in a community with other people, who have different opinions and tastes. We have to compromise to be here. To all you peacemakers, we honor you, we value you, God loves you. God bless you.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for justice and goodness. There are some in this congregation who are more apt to get involved in politics and community service, who get more riled up by injustice in our world. These folks help us quit dreaming about a heaven after we die and help us start ushering in God’s way of life today, so that everyone could be fed, creation respected, balance restored. We all have this hunger at different levels. We all have our dissatisfactions with this world and how it is set up to benefit a few at the expense of the many. We all know this world is messed up. That’s partly why we come here—to see a vision of a world the way God intended it and to be empowered to help make our world that way in whatever little way we can. You who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for goodness, for balance, we honor you. May you feel that blessing of God pronounced this day and know God values your passion and the work you do.
Much of this world is so focused on values of greed and physical beauty and fame that there isn’t room for God’s values. We fill every space in our homes with stuff, every moment of our lives with entertainment. But the Beatitudes here express a kind of emptiness that the world fears. When you are mourning, you are missing someone you love. There is an emptiness. When you hunger and thirst for righteousness, you are empty of those things and longing for them. If we are peacemakers, we are lacking certainty that makes us feel secure. If there is an empty moment, what will we discover about ourselves? Will we feel that dissatisfaction? Will we feel helpless? Will we come face to face with ourselves and our complicity in making a mess of this world? How can we look for God, unless we are able to make space for God or recognize the space that only God can fill?
This reminds me of my 5th grade science class. Our teacher made a model showing us how the lungs work. Here are the lungs represented by these two balloons. This bottle represents our chest cavity. And this part here represents our diaphragm. When our diaphragm pulls down, the balloons open up to receive the air. There are certain things in our life that make us open up, like these lungs. They act like the diaphragm here, pulling on the lungs. Things like a loss, an illness, or people bullying you or persecuting you will cause that reaction of the diaphragm pulling back. When you are starving for justice and peace, when you are longing for mercy, when you lacking in forcefulness, you have room in your lungs, in your heart. And because God is everywhere, in all, surrounding all, God rushes into those places of openness and fills them with God’s breath and life, God’s Holy Spirit. And that is what blessing is, the presence of God. God walks in all our places of emptiness and we’re not alone. God has told us that God will be in those places in the Bible. God has shown God will be in those places in the life of Jesus Christ. This speech to the disciples was giving them a heads up about where they were going and what was coming. They were following Jesus to be among the meek, the peacemakers, those hungry for righteousness, the pure in heart, the poor in spirit and to be all those things, themselves—to practice meekness and purity of heart, making peace, and grieving. Jesus knew that they would find blessing in those places of emptiness, the Holy Spirit rushing in to give them strength and hope when they weren’t sure how they would go on.
I invite you to look for God in those places of emptiness and space in your lives, to look for blessing there, to seek out those who fit this description of who is blessed and honor them. And remember when you are going through any of this that God is with you. May you find strength and courage from this blessing of God.