Harrowing Of Hell
January 29, 2023

We are Beatitude People

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

Good morning, Epiphany. It is delightful to have you together at one service. We gather as one body because it’s our annual meeting, and all members are encouraged to be present to vote for the Vestry, and to hear what has happened this past year, and where we are headed. So, thank you for being here, in person and online.

This gathering coincides with one of the great biblical readings of all times, the Beatitudes, which is Latin for blessings. They are eight sentences, held in trust by the Christian community for thousands of years, as Jesus’ magnum opus on the Good Life…which we are feeling more and more as we learn to be out and about in a world where COVID is part of the patterns of our common life.

We’re going to restaurants, we are playing sports, we’re coming to church, we’re getting on airplanes and flying to faraway places. And that is great! Nothing like getting back on an airplane, returning to that pattern of turning to your neighbor and saying: “Friend,” (I can hear you saying that as you make space for them to use the armrest) “Friend, I have some Good News for you. Jesus hopes that you will be poor, that you will mourn, that people will persecute and revile you. Any interest in coming to church with me? (smile) Solid strategy.

So, we have some cognitive dissonance here. The Beatitudes, wildly acclaimed over the millennia as Jesus’ greatest teaching, are completely discordant to our reasonable mind. Doesn’t God love us? Aren’t we God’s children? Is that what we want for our children?

Who among you knows one Christian, personally, who lives completely into all eight beatitudes-other than me. Did Jesus really set us up for that kind of colossal failure? The answer is: No! That is not the Jesus way. So, something else must be going on here, something profound, yet just outside the obvious.

What I hope to do today is show how we are the beatitudes. We don’t seek to emulate the eight points of the Beatitudes. We don’t try to act the Beatitudes out. We are the Beatitudes revealed through our relationship with the Jesus right here, right now.

I don’t quite know where we got off track with the Beatitudes, probably Monty Python where Jesus stands at the edge of a mountain shouting to a throng of thousands: “Hear ye, hear ye, my good people… Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God.  Blessed is ye who mourn, for you will be comforted.”

That wasn’t Jesus’ style. He wasn’t a Roman orator, he was a Rabbi, and as such taught in context using concrete examples. And so, when Jesus explains the Beatitudes to his disciples, he was sitting down with them, on top of a bluff overlooking the Sea of Galilee. 12 or 14, no more, sitting around in a circle. Below them, at the foot of the hill, on the banks of the Sea, gather the massive crowd that traveled in Jesus’ wake. This is the context.

Up to this point Jesus has been on the move. Born in Bethlehem, weaned in Egypt, raised in Nazareth; studied to be a Rabbi and baptized in the river Jordan.  For 40 days he was in the wilderness, and then he appears in Galilee, proclaiming: “Repent for the kingdom of God has come near.”  Which as we know from Bonnie Tyler in last Sunday’s sermon means – Turn around, God is right here, this near…

That is the message Jesus taught.  And when he wasn’t talking about it, he was doing it by healing people. It was Jesus’ healing that created the framework for the Beatitudes. It was the healing that manifested the blessedness that each Beatitude begins with.

Let me remind you that Jesus’ healing was more expansive than mending broken limbs, or cleaning up fungus, or curbing an addiction. Jesus’ healings were an outward and visible sign of the fully inclusive nature of God.

You see in Jesus’ day people believed that if good things happened to you, you were blessed. God liked you. If bad things happened to you, you were cursed. God hated you. People believed that if you had children, and large flocks and were lucky enough to die of old age, you were blessed by God.

Jesus held no disagreement here. Indeed these are blessings, but he expanded the definition to include lepers and those with palsied limbs; to include the widow and the orphan and those marginalized by their own unmanageable minds. Those people were included in the love of God as well. Those people belong in the kingdom of heaven as well. Because if you were, if you are, if you exist, if you were born, you are blessed by God. Because blessing isn’t defined by circumstances, blessing is defined by relationship with God.

Which is why each Beatitude begins with “Blessed.” It is an adjective that belongs to everyone because everyone belongs to God. The Beatitudes are about this relationship with God, in a way that is utterly unique but also, entirely formulaic.

Let me explain by taking us back to the bluff overlooking the Sea of Galilee. There Rabbi Jesus sits with his disciples, and he begins to teach within the context they find themselves, using concrete examples like this: “Look down there,” I imagine Jesus saying…“Do you see that woman in the denim jacket” (or whatever the 1st century equivalent was).  “We met her a while back, in Cana. Do you remember her? She was a poor soul, a lifeless spirit when we met her. She was a person with great gifts of discernment who chose to apply them toward the imagined hierarchy of status and rank. And that always left her wanting and envying and coming up short in her own mind… impoverishing her spirit. And now look at her: Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of God.”

“And remember that man? He was a weepy sort, mourning the life he thought he deserved, but didn’t have. Mourning every wrong that had ever been done to him. Missing that fact that at his core he was a person of compassion. But he applied that to himself which fueled a pernicious low-grade frustration, and piles of resentment that pushed people away.  His self-indulgent self-care left no room for others to care for him, or him to care for them. And then we met him. Now look at him: Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.”

That is the pattern of the Beatitudes, the formula. Jesus and his disciples meet someone who is inherently blessed because they are, yet who has misapplied, by free choice, this blessing, flooding their humanity with a paucity of spiritual poverty.

Then they meet Jesus. Jesus is the conjunction. Jesus is the “for.” Blessed are the _______ FOR…. Jesus is the relationship that connects our blessedness to God’s providential purpose in our life. Jesus is the connection. The Beatitudes is not a list of some spiritual condition that is particularly pleasing to God. The power of the Beatitudes is that of an algorithm. There are three inputs and an output:

blessedness of a gift + freedom to misapply it + meeting Jesus = life in the Kingdom of heaven

The amazing thing about this code is that the structure is the same for all of us, and its outcome is entirely and completely unique for each one of us. You were born strong, chose to be a bully, met Jesus, and became a protector. You were born with a math aptitude, chose to code weapons, met Jesus, and became a teacher of children. You were born a healer, chose to pursue medical efficiency, met Jesus, and now take time with those in need. You were born with a sense of humor, chose to eviscerate, met Jesus and now spread joy. You were born to sing, chose the shower, met Jesus, and joined to the Epiphany choir.            

Every gift has multiple expressions, but they meet God’s providence when expressed as blessings making us Beatitudes people employing our blessing, mediated through Jesus, for the good of the world.

We are Beatitudes people: universal formula, infinite outcome, all revealing life in the Kingdom of heaven. And you will witness this Beatitude life as practiced and played out here at Epiphany at the annual meeting today. This is a place where we can try out our blessings, practice them, and then apply them in unity with community to reveal the Kingdom of God.

The Beatitudes are  a formula which is why it has come to be seen as Jesus’ greatest teaching. The formula is timeless and universally applicable to all people.

Blessed gift + freedom + Jesus connection = God revelation.

And formula thinking is completely consistent with how we operate as a learning church here at Epiphany. This is a place that teaches formulas, not answers. Formulas like: “Wherever you are in your spiritual journey you have a place at Epiphany.” Everyone’s on a spiritual journey. That’s the formula. And everybody’s journey is a unique, beautiful reflection of the kingdom of heaven.                                                             

The Beatitudes are  a formula that we practice here, so we have something to talk about when we’re sitting next to somebody on the airplane. Not a list of the Beatitudes written by a different culture 2000 years ago, but the Jesus connection, the universal formula, and how it has impacted our life right here, right now.

Maybe you don’t even say the name Jesus. Being a Beatitude person is enough. They’ll know it when you let them have the armrest.