We begin on this first Sunday of Advent with the first Gospel – not the first one written, as far as scholars know, but first in the biblical order established by the 4th century church. Matthew was given the prime parking spot because of its focus on the community of Christ and on the apostle Peter as the head of the community. The world knows the Gospel of Matthew because it is mentions the Magi that have somehow become the Three Kings included in every Christmas pageant around the world. But for the church, this Gospel is probably best known for its version of the Lord’s Prayer – which is closest to what we say every Sunday – and the Beatitudes, or the Blessings.
Blessings come in many sizes and shapes, for many different situations and purposes. Among the world cultures, the Irish seem to have come up with the broadest variety of blessings: blessings for travelers and friends, for guests and cows, for the coming of dawn and the coming of dusk. Here’s an Irish blessing you might hear sung in a pub:
May you have many friends
And may they be as mature in taste and health and color And sought after as the contents of this glass.
May you have warm words on a cold evening A full moon on a dark night
And the road downhill all the way to your door.
May every hair on your head turn into a candle To light your way to heaven,
And may God and his Holy Mother
Take the harm of the years away from you.
And may you have no frost on your spuds, No worms on your cabbage.
May your goat give plenty of milk And if you should buy a donkey Please, God, she be pregnant!
Writer Megan McKenna says that a blessing is many things: “a prayer, a cry of joy, an acknowledgment of innate goodness and well-being, an affirmation that draws us into a charmed and intimate circle of people, the telling of a truth that honors our deepest realities.” Above all, a blessing is “a description of reality present and of reality to be fervently expected.”
Blessings stand in two different time frames: they speak of now and future, here and hereafter, already and not yet. In the same way blessings are both passive and active: they speak of what is to be given and what is to be achieved; the recipient of a blessing is simply that, a receiver. But there’s also the implication that something is to be done with the gift that one has received, that the grace is meant to be passed on, that what we become by virtue of God’s favor is even more important than what we are now.
It is easiest to hear the passive voice of the Beatitudes:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Remembered this way, the Beatitudes might be comforting but not necessarily inspiring or fortifying. What would a political prisoner think if offered those words? Or a victim of rape or torture? Might they not dismiss these blessings as nothing more than platitudes, meant to appease them but not to lead to any change in their lives or in the world they live in?
Hopefully, they keep reading. Because note what happens between verse 10 and verse 11:
Verse 10: Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Verse 11: Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you.
Jesus switches from speaking in the third person “Blessed are those...” to the second person, “blessed are you.” And he continues in the second person, “You are the salt of the earth.... You are the light of the world.”
Why the switch? What’s the difference between “them” and “you”? Well, imagine this scene: Matthew says that “when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain” to teach. He climbs up hill, through the crowd of people. Then he sits down, and “his disciples came to him and he began to speak....”
The scene that Matthew builds for us is that of Jesus encircled by his disciples, yet also in the presence of a great number of other people. Jesus is speaking to his followers, teaching them specifically, but he does this in presence of a crowd of others. Jesus is in the center, the disciples are around him, and dozens, or maybe hundreds, of curious, hurting, hungry, suspicious, restless listeners are around them.
So when Jesus says “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” whom do you think he’s describing? Them! The crowds around the outside of this teaching circle. “Blessed are those who mourn.” That’s them. Jesus is describing God’s kingdom, God’s beloved people, the ones whom God favors. And this description is remarkably different from what the disciples had been assuming about God’s kingdom as an exclusive, members-only club.
Then Jesus looks at right at the disciples: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you...for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world.” All of a sudden, it’s not about them, out there, anymore, it’s about us, in here. And it’s not just a description anymore, it’s also a warning.
You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste; how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.
Salt makes a difference. You know when it’s present and you know when it’s absent. It take only a pinch of the stuff to make a big difference. The salt from the Dead Sea, which is the salt Jesus knew, could actually lose its saltiness. It contained many impurities and easily lost its taste. In that time, salt was not only used for seasoning food, but also for healing and preserving. It was a valuable, highly traded commodity. Unscrupulous salt traders would mix it with white sand to make bigger profits in bulk sales. That’s where we get the saying “He’s not worth his salt.”
“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus says to his disciples, to us. “The salt that has lost its taste is no longer good for anything.” But the church can lose its saltiness. Baptist preacher and scholar Clarence Jordan said that when tensions between the church and the world cease it’s for one of two reasons: either the whole world has been converted to the way of Christianity, or the church has been converted to the way of the world. The former has not happened; there is much evidence that the latter has. In many places the church looks so much like its surrounding context that it’s hard to tell the difference. It becomes so closely associated with a certain nation or a specific ethnic group or a political party or a particular social class that it blends in with the background. As a result it’s easier to ignore it than to notice it.
No wonder Jesus’ saying about salt is placed right after his words about persecution. Don’t lose your saltiness, he’s saying. Because then you won’t be worth persecuting, you’ll just be ignored. To be the “salt of the earth” is to be salt to the world. Christian disciples are meant to be different than the world, to be in it but not of it. We can’t transform the world if we’re so deeply a part of it that we can’t see outside of it, just as we can’t change it if we’re completely separated from it.
God does not give us the gift of faith and faithful community in order to blend in with the woodwork and pretend that everything is fine. We are asked to put on Christ, not rose-colored glasses. Religion is not meant to insulate us from the world or its pain, in fact just the opposite -- to bring us closer to it. To make us able to feel the world’s suffering without being crushed by its power. Faith makes it possible to live in the knowledge that things are not right, because faith gives us a vision of what can be, what should be, what will be.
In the summer of 2008, the city of Grand Rapids hosted the quadrennial meeting of the North Central Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church. In English that means that Grand Rapids was the location of the once-every-four-years gathering of representatives from the many Conferences of nine northern Midwest states. The primary purpose of a Jurisdictional meeting is to elect and appoint bishops.
As the Associate Pastor of the large downtown United Methodist church, I was asked to help organize the Consecration Service that would take place in our sanctuary, a worship service that would commission the one person who would be elected as bishop that year.
As part of my organizing responsibilities, therefore, I met a few days ahead of time with the dancers who would be participating in the service. They were a special needs dance troupe. I had never seen a special needs dance troupe, I didn’t know what to expect, and (I’ll admit it) I was a little concerned that they might not “fit in” with the pomp and circumstance of an episcopal consecration service.
The group was made up of seven girls, their teacher and a couple of mothers. One girl was in a wheelchair and the others walked slowly, with differing limps and hesitations. Not all of them could stand with straight backs, but all of them wore pink ballet slippers and enormous smiles. I fell in love instantly.
“Would you like to see our dance?” they asked. Of course I would. I sat down next to the mothers. The music began and seven crooked bodies, seven signs that the world is not what it should be, were transformed into the most graceful, no, most grace-filled, dancers I have ever seen.
I am a big dance fan. I am the mother of two dancers, one of whom danced professionally until an injury put an end to that career. I have attended performances by the Bolshoi, the American Ballet Theatre and the San Francisco Ballet. Once upon a time I had season’s tickets to the New York City Ballet. Nothing I have ever seen on a dance stage could rival the remarkable joy and beauty of these dancers. Their arms arched overhead, their legs lifted in time; they were slow but utterly confident. The wheelchair was transformed from a mechanical device into a dancer itself as it wheeled around in circles, carrying other dancers and partnering with its operator. Helping each other up the steps was simply part of the choreography.
By the end of the dance tears were streaming down my cheeks. I heard the two mothers sniffling as well and we laughed with each other. “Is this the first time you’ve seen this dance?” I asked. “Oh no,” they answered, “We’ve seen it thousands of times. It always makes us cry!”
“Special needs” indeed. These girls know in their very bones, literally, that things in life are not always as they should be. They know intimately and constantly that the human condition is far from perfect. But through the work of their less-than- perfect bodies, they not only celebrated, they shared with me the grace of God who is the source of all that is good and right and perfect. Their bodies were not changed, but I was changed; I had seen a vision of God’s kingdom, a few moments of perfection, a foretaste of heaven.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that “A blessing demands to be passed on – it communicates itself to other people. To be blessed is to be oneself a blessing.” These dancers knew they were blessed, so they became a blessing to me and to hundreds of others.
“Come to me, all who are hungry, Jesus said “I will be your bread.” Blessed and fed, we share the loaf.
“Come to me, all who are thirsty, I will be your living water.” Blessed and refreshed, we offer the cup.
“Come to me, all in darkness, I will be your light.”
We are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let us shine the light of Christ, giving glory to God in heaven and on earth.