“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Matthew 5:1-11
Although it may have been buried in the excitement and richness of the Instructed Eucharist we celebrated Sunday, our Gospel text for this past week was Matthew 5:1-11, the opening verses of the lyrical and beautiful Sermon on the Mount. The opening part of this sermon, the Beatitudes, is iconic, recognizable even to those outside the church; it is moving, elegant—and, perhaps, elusive in meaning.
Holy scriptures are living documents. Scripture is a primary way that we are guided by God, so we take great care in our study and approach, so it is helpful to realize that Matthew presents Jesus as the new Moses. Just as Moses brought the Law from Mt. Sinai, so Jesus brings a new understanding of the Law from the mount next to the Sea of Galilee. And just as the Ten Commandments are the general, big-picture version of the more day-to-day delineated laws found in the Torah, the Beatitudes are a summary of Jesus’ message about bringing the reign of God, the Kingdom of Heaven, laying out God’s particular regard for the lowly and the troubled, the people who are ground down by the system. Jesus presents this big-picture of God’s law. In the rest of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus shows the embodiment of that law of mercy, compassion, and inclusion in his person-to-person encounters, affirming through word and action that the values of the world and the values of the Kingdom of Heaven should never be confused with each other.
The message of the Beatitudes come to life in the words of one of my contemporary heroes, Father Greg Boyle, whose work and life has been carrying Jesus’ insistence on inclusion and love, for even the lowliest, least lovable, and—from the judgement of the world—the least deserving among us. His work is with those affected by and involved in gangs in Los Angeles. (Note: Look for Fr. Greg’s books “Tattoos on the Heart” and “Barking to the Choir” in the St. Andrew’s Little Library—on the window sill in Hamilton Hall. They are great reads!) Fr. Greg just won’t let go of the conviction that God’s love is expansive, generous, and all-inclusive to the nth degree. He insists that the limits we imagine to God’s love are not only limitations of our imagination and faith, but reveal our own self-sick souls.
Fr. Greg brings the Beatitudes amongst us, right here, right now. In a description of his own journey to love and inclusion, he writes that the Beatitudes is a geography, its words fundamentally about finding where to place yourself. He writes, “Greater precision in translation would say, ‘You’re in the right place if…you are single-hearted or work for peace.’ The Beatitudes is not a spirituality, after all. It is a geography. It tells us where to stand.” What Fr. Greg is saying, I think, is that you know who and what you are by where you find yourself—where you spend your time, day by day by day, over the course of our lives.
How do we find ourselves in the right place? The example Boyle gives is from the Gospel story of the man who is paralyzed, desperate to be healed but unable to enter the room crowded with those who want to be near Jesus. The paralyzed man’s friends make a hole in the roof of the building so that they can lower the man right to Jesus. The “geography” of the Beatitudes is one that thinks outside the box and figuring out how to get inside, stands with a friend in need and going the second mile to be a source of change and healing, finds the small places of tender transformation that may be beneath notice and yet change a life.
What I love about Fr. Greg’s stories is that through his many decades he has learned that love, inclusion, and what he calls “radical kinship” can “rip the roof” off the most hardened person. We find that the people he encounters are in so many ways like all of us: protective through the challenges of life, but softened by an authentic kind word and anxious to belong to the human family, hungry to find purpose and respect. Fr. Greg’s method of “tearing off the roof” is often a kind word that may need to be repeated over and over until it can be heard, internalized, and be the source of transformation.
Fr. Greg also knows the need for systemic change: his work has led to the formation of Homeboy Industries which provides services and jobs for ex-gang members. Like any business, HBI must recruit, staff, manage, and meet payroll. But HBI’s geography is located in the Beatitudes, in the unshakeable faith in the transformative power of love, inclusion, and kinship. The work of Homeboy Enterprises is done compassionately, with a wide embrace, person by person.
The little stories about little people that Fr. Greg tells become inspiring epiphanies when read through the lens of the small but sneaky and persistent Gospel of radical love, inclusion, and kinship. The Beatitudes lay the groundwork for the Kingdom of Heaven through imperceptible but transformative moments, moments that we choose and embrace in our small and particular lives, average day by average day by average day. The Beatitudes are the geography, the place and the setting for opportunities to say “yes” to rip out roofs and walls—literal or figurative—that shut Others out. You’re standing in the right place when you insist on peace, even when it may be easier and seem justified to stay angry. You’re standing in the right place when you choose to be merciful to someone who has made bad choices and just doesn’t deserve it. You’re in the right place when you stick to what is right rather however discomfiting, and however costly.
May we find ourselves in the place just right—and may we indeed be blessed.