Sermon preached for the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“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.
Objects in the mirror may be closer than they appear.
In other words, this mirror may lie to you. So watch closely. Pay attention. Do not get lulled into a false sense of security.
We have been playing around with mirror imagery, this Epiphany. Some of you may have noticed the reflective mirrors in our chancel installation. At Jesus’ baptism, we saw how Jesus is God’s own reflection in this world. As Jesus called his disciples, we saw how we could be called to be Jesus’ reflection in turn. But today, in the opening salvo of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is holding up a mirror to the world as it is—and we may not always like what we see.
The world that Jesus saw was not so different from ours today. There is pain. There is war. There is despair. There are the powerful, who can and do step on the necks of the powerless as they climb towards new heights of control and comfort.
That is the world that Jesus saw, and, from time to time, railed against with such anger and lucidity as to make us deeply uncomfortable. But Jesus also saw another world—one he called the kingdom of heaven. And he lived his life trying to draw our eyes, our attention, our loyalty, from one to the other.
I admit that I have struggled with the beatitudes. Perhaps that is an understatement; sometimes I have honestly hated the beatitudes. I do not want God to ever give the green-light to mourning, or being meek, or being reviled. I especially have struggled with the idea, that I soaked in from somewhere, that we should just put up with the worst life has to throw with us, because God will make it all better in heaven.
To use Karl Marx’s famous phrase, if religion is the opiate of the masses, keeping us drowsy and quiet here by promising us a better world elsewhere, the beatitudes have often struck me as the initial dose.
In too many places, too many people in power have read out the beatitudes to keep people quiet—slaves, women, the starving, the abused. Accept your place, the sermon has gone. God wants you to be meek and miserable. It’s your blessing.
And this week—this week when the pain is so heavy, and when the anger from those who have been told to know their place is so palpable, the beatitudes are tasting a little bitter.
I was complaining to a pastor friend about my bad blood with the beatitudes. How can I preach this, I asked her?
Because it’s not about “someday,” she told me. “These are not pie-in-the-sky promises.”
But where do you see that? I shot back. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven? Doesn’t that sound like we just have to wait around, beat down and despairing, for our eternal cookie?”
Her patience broke then. “Carol,” she said. “Will you get your head out of your you-know-where and look at the freaking verb tense?”
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. That’s not a future promise. That’s a present reality.
I had been so caught up in the idea that heaven was a someday-place, a not-here place, that I had completely missed that Jesus doesn’t see it that way. In fact, what is the very first thing he preaches, as he makes his first circuit tour around the Galilee? Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
Objects in mirror may be closer than they appear.
For Jesus, the kingdom of heaven was not just some other place. When Jesus looked in the mirror, he saw more than just our world—he saw God’s world hiding everywhere among it.
The beatitudes are not just promises for “some day.” They are promises that God is near us. When we despair, God is near us. When we mourn, God is near us. When we are starving for the right thing to be done, God is near us. When we work for peace, God is near us. When we are despised, God is near us.
The beatitudes are a blessing for the here and now. They are the promise that God is near us, not just when things are good, not just on the days when the miracles happen, but on the hard, painful, difficult days too.
The beatitudes are themselves a mirror, two halves of a sentence divided by a comma. Blessed are, Jesus says, for they… For too long I have read that second half of the sentence—for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, for they will be comforted, for they will be called children of God—as an erasure of the first, a solution, a painkiller. It’s fine if you’re mournful or meek or trying to make peace in a wartorn world—God will fix it.
And so, of course, if I have not felt my grief or my despair or exhaustion erased, then I have wondered if I am not truly blessed. I have wondered if I need to be meeker, purer, more persecuted before I can trigger God’s magic eraser, and everything will feel good again.
That too, is a dire misreading of the beatitudes. God’s blessings do not erase our pain; they simply sit alongside it, and give us strength to bear it. God’s blessings are not magic solutions; they are a friend to come alongside us when we feel most alone. Most of all, God’s blessings are not something you can place in a bank vault and save up for another day; they are only something you can breathe in, and breathe back out. God is near.
Some of you have heard me talk about scholar Kate Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity. More than a decade ago now, she began what promised to be an illustrious career as a historian of American religion with a book she titled Blessed. She traced the hostile takeover of the word blessed, which has so often come to mean something as simple and shallow as lucky, or wealthy, or privileged, or pleased. Blessed people, we have somehow come to believe, are people who have perfect hair, perfect families, perfect lives.
Bowler would have said she herself did not believe that; and yet she made plans for her life under the blithe assumption that if she worked hard enough, saved enough money, networked with the right people, read the right mommy blogs—she too would be blessed with the life she wanted.
Instead, at age 35, she was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer. Not terminal, but not good odds.
Suddenly, Bowler was pulled from her academic world of dissecting America’s obsession with being blessed, into a world of rage and bewilderment and intense grief.
“In the devastation of the weeks and months that followed [my diagnosis],” she writes,” I would need to learn to bless my beautiful, terrible life as it was. …
A blessing” she continues, “comes to us like a gift. No prerequisites. No “deserving it” or preparations needed. To give or receive a blessing, we must simply be ready to ask God to show us where to look to see anything remotely divine. Our eyes would otherwise skip over it.” 
Objects in mirror may be closer than they appear. Pay close attention.
A few years ago, Bowler began writing blessings. Short, commonplace blessings, directing our attention to God in the middle of the messy, mundane, and miserable. A blessing for when things don’t make sense. A blessing for when family disappoints you. A blessing for when you wake up tired.
And it turns out people are craving these blessings. Fifty-five thousand people follow her facebook page, soaking in and sharing each blessing she posts. A few days she asked what situations people wanted a custom blessing for—and more than a hundred comments poured in.
Everyone who reads her blessings knows that she is not handing out miracle cures. A few words and a pretty graphic on social media does not cure cancer, or restock bank accounts, or end the war in Ukraine, or put breath back in beaten bodies. But that doesn’t mean the words don’t have power to change us.
In each of these blessings Kate shares, she holds up a mirror to our lives—our real lives, the ones we live in the real world, and says—look, there, lurking behind the curtain, or in the corner, or in your own smile—look close, and you’ll see God. God is near. God is so, so, near.
It won’t fix everything, God’s nearness, because God is not an opiate, drugging us into drowsy apathy. In fact, sometimes God’s nearness sharpens the pain, because we see so clearly the rift between our world and the kingdom God dreams about. Sometimes God being near is what makes us realize we are starving for righteousness, for peace, for hope. Sometimes blessings hurt just as they heal.
Jesus sat on the mount that morning and looked out at a crowd of hurting, worried, anxious, angry, hopeful, doubting, faithful people. People much like us. People trying to care for their parents and their kids in too-small houses. People wondering what their tax bill would be. People disgusted with the government. People hoping we could all just get along. People hoping for a miracle cure. People barely keeping their head above water. People who would kill for a nap.
And this is what Jesus says to them—pay attention. Watch carefully.
Blessings in the mirror may be closer than they appear.