Blessed as much as we can stand

Matthew 5:1-12

You may remember a book written by Robert Fulghum nearly thirty-five years ago titled: All I really need to know, I learned in kindergarten. Does it strike a bell? The book consists of fifty short essays all hinging on the central thesis or Credo that, “Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate-school mountain, but there in the sand pile… and at Sunday School.” Here are some of the things he learned:

  • Share everything.
  • Play fair.
  • Don’t hit people.Put things back where you found them.Clean up your own mess.
  • Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
  • Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
  • Wash your hands before you eat.
  • Flush.
  • Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
  • Live a balanced life— learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.
  • Take a nap every afternoon.
  • When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.
  • Wonder.
  • Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that. Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup— they all die. So do we.
  • And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned— the biggest word of all— LOOK.

“Everything you need to know is in there somewhere. The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation. Ecology and politics and equality and sane living. Take any one of those items and extrapolate it into sophisticated adult terms and apply it to your family life or your work or your government or your world and it holds true and clear and firm. Think what a better world it would be if we all— the whole world— had cookies and milk about three o’clock every afternoon and then lay down with our blankies for a nap. Or if all governments had as a basic policy to always put things back where they found them and to clean up their own mess. And it is still true, no matter how old you are— when you go out into the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.”[1]

We humans do tend to complicate things for ourselves, don’t we? So often we delay and find excuses for not doing the things we know we ought to be doing… and we are forever coming up with rationalizations and justifications for doing things we know (or should know) we ought not to be doing. Goodness! It’s small wonder we find ourselves tied up in knots… particularly during the “silly season” prior to an election. And it seems like it’s always “silly season” these days. A return to “kindergarten ethics,” says Fulghum, will allow us to live happier, healthier lives. Why is that so hard for us? I’m not saying that learning to play well with each other is easy, or natural. It’s not… not since we left the Garden (of Eden), at any rate. But I wonder if it’s not the key to salvation. Maybe this is what Jesus was getting at when he said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18:3). So simple and yet, so difficult.

There are those who would disagree with me when I say that it’s not God making things difficult for us… that we do it to ourselves. God spoke Ten Commandments to the Hebrew people from the top of Mt. Sinai. But because of their stubbornness and unbelief, the Ten Commandments had to be interpreted and adapted into the 613 mitzvot, or tenets of Hebrew Law, in order to keep them on track throughout their forty-year wilderness sojourn. Keeping up with all these rules was a lot of work! It was complicated! Eventually, Jesus had to break it down for the Pharisees when one, a lawyer, asked him which commandment was the greatest. “Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt 22:36-40). If God’s chosen people had only been able to bring themselves to follow the “ground rules” implicit within the Ten Commandments, simply loving God and loving their neighbors, they would have made it a lot easier on themselves.

In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus offers us a glimpse of the path to salvation, helping us to move past our human tendency to overcomplicate things… breaking it down for us in what the church has come to know as the “Beatitudes.” How shall we be blessed? You may remember that the Greek word μακάριος (makarios), which we read as “blessed” in our gospel passage today, might be better translated as “happy.” Not happy-giddy, not happy-go-lucky, not even happy-euphoric, but a deeper and much more profound sort of happy that surrounds and overwhelms us when we give into God’s movement and purpose in our lives. Perhaps the Psalmist says it best in Psalm 144: “Happy are the people to whom such blessings fall; happy are the people whose God is the Lord” (v. 15).

Sometimes the Beatitudes can seem counterintuitive. The words may be pretty and poetic, but how can the “poor in spirit” really be happy or blessed? They’re poor in spirit, after all. How about those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness… or for any other reason? Persecution hurts! Sometimes you have to buckle down and do what you have to do, but I’m more likely to feel put upon and sorry for myself when I think I’m being persecuted, than happy and blessed. But Jesus waited until a crowd had gathered to teach them something profound… nine invitations to Godly living that would be life-altering for them if they could set aside their human tendencies to question, quibble with and qualify God’s Holy Commandments, and accept them as kindergartners might accept class rules laid down by their teacher. Simple, yet broadly applicable and most importantly, given in love.

I found a short reflection on the Beatitudes that I’d like to share with you today. I have no idea who wrote it, or when. And it’s certainly not an exhaustive study of today’s passage from Matthew’s Gospel, but I found it to be helpful when I applied it to my own path of discipleship. Perhaps you will as well.

Jesus said: Blessed are the poor in spirit… Happy are those who are convinced of their basic dependency on God, whose lives are emptied of all that doesn’t matter, those for whom the riches of this world just aren’t that important. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven (cf. Matt 5:3).

Blessed are those who mourn… Happy are those who endure pain and loss… even unto death, all the while remembering that God sent his own son to bear our sins on the cross, and trusting that, “that which is not of God, God can redeem.” They will be comforted (cf. Matt 5:4).

Blessed are the meek… Happy are those who know that all they are is a gift from God, and so they can be content with their greatness and their smallness, knowing themselves and being true to themselves. They will inherit the earth (cf. Matt 5:5).

Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness… Happy are those who wear compassion like a garment, those who have learned how to find themselves by losing themselves in another’s sorrow. They too will be filled (cf. Matt 5:6).

Blessed are the merciful… Happy are those who remember how much has been forgiven them and are able to extend this forgiveness into the lives of others. They too shall receive mercy (cf. Matt 5:7).

Blessed are the pure in heart… Happy are those whose hearts are free and simple, those who have smashed all false images and are seeking honestly for truth. They will see God (cf. Matt 5:8).

Blessed are the peacemakers… Happy are the creators of peace, those who build roads that unite rather than walls that divide, those who bless the world with the healing power of their presence. They will be called children of God (cf. Matt 5:9).

Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness… Happy are those whose love has been tried, like gold, in the furnace and found to be precious, genuine and lasting, those who have lived their belief out loud, no matter what the cost or pain. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:10).

And blessed are you when the world turns against you because you refuse to give into the temptation to believe that there is nothing more to life than this earthly living… You may rejoice and be glad, because the earth is not your home and you will find your salvation with the prophets in heaven (cf. Matt 5:11).

I once had a friend, now deceased, named John S. who would always close his letters and e-mail messages to me with the words: “May you be blessed as much as you can stand.” A thoughtful reading of the Beatitudes reveals that the blessings we receive when we give into God’s movement and purpose in our lives do not come without a cost. We will be shaped, molded and tempered to the limits of our being, but never more than we can endure… if we remain faithful (cf. 1 Cor 10:12-13). We are made in God’s image, and the purpose of our earthly sojourn is to help us recover our humanity, which was lost at the Fall, and become more fully-human… the Body of Christ in the world. The ground rules are simple: Love God. Love our neighbors as we love ourselves and allow God to put all of that to work in the service of the coming Kingdom.

Give in to God! It won’t always be easy. There will be times when we question our ability to persevere and even question God’s goodness for allowing things to be so tough. But in the end, if we’re faithful, we’ll receive our reward, which is the deep joy of a life lived in accordance with Christ’s teachings and an eternity spent as children of God (cf. 1 John 3:1-3). Our time on earth is short, and there’s much to accomplish. Through Matthew’s Beatitudes, Jesus shines a light on the path to salvation, pointing the way through life’s clutter and complexity to a new day and a new way of living in accordance with God’s will.

So, rejoice and be strong in the Lord… and may we all be blessed as much as we can stand.

[1] Fulghum, Robert (2004-05-04). All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten: Uncommon Thoughts on Common Things (p. 2-3). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

 

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