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The Blessing of Wanting

A Sermon on Matthew 5: 1-12

[for an audio version of this sermon, click here. Photo by Tina Witherspoon on Unsplash]

“Blessed are the poor in spirit… and those who are persecuted and defamed… and those who mourn…”

Sometimes I have to wonder at the lectionary committees who pick the scripture readings for a day like All Saints Day… the day when we remember those whom we have lost, some before their time, or at least before we are ready to say goodbye. Is this really the best comfort that the gospel has to offer today?

I know that the blessing for those who mourn does promise comfort… but the promise attached to this blessing, and to most of the others, seems so future focused. They talk about the rewards that will be on the other side of current realities: the hope of an eternal someday. And while the comfort of eternity – where we will see our loved ones again - is a real and powerful comfort, it does not solace our mourning here and now, like I wish it could.

It is at this point in my ruminating, that I am reminded that Jesus’s goal in preaching the Sermon on the Mount was not actually to comfort the morning. We hear his words on this day, and we naturally want to adapt them to our context. We are a people in need of comfort. It has been a long, and disorienting, and devastating year. We are weary with so many different kinds of loss and grief. We want comfort. So we turn to Jesus’s words… and wonder why they don’t seem to give us what we need.

But much as Jesus hears and holds the ache in our hearts, he has never been the kind of Savior who adapts himself to others’ expectations. And the sermon with which he launched his public ministry in this gospel is NOT about “giving the people what they want.” Rather, Jesus was calling those who would follow him into a radical reorientation. New Testament scholar Raj Nadella describes the Beatitudes (which we just heard) as “Jesus’ manifesto for transformation in the community he had just inaugurated.”[1]

In the opening words of his first big, public declaration, he starts off by telling his followers “this is what it will look like to be my people.” It is emphatically NOT a sales pitch. Despite the promises of blessings, Jesus is not appealing to intrinsic desires. While we can recognize the goodness inherent in being peacemakers, and pure in heart, and merciful – few people really long for such characteristics. We might idealize them, but when we are honest, we want room to be a bit more “human.” And as for suppressing our own egos with meekness…or embracing mourning… or being desperate for righteousness and then being persecuted for it…being reviled and falsely accused…

I feel pretty confident in asserting that these are not the desires of our hearts.

Now, it’s important to remember that the Beatitudes are not a list of benchmarks for behavior – Jesus is not telling us to “go and be like this.” And neither is he offering some glorification of a life of suffering – given that he spends the rest of his ministry healing and freeing people who are afflicted, this much is clear.

Rather he is saying “my community is a transformed community. A community that values different things that what you value now. That longs for different things that the world has taught you to desire.” And even though that transformation doesn’t sound like anything you would actively want… it is a transformation that means inexpressible blessing.

Of course, until we experience transformation, that can be hard to grasp. When we think of blessing, we expect it to sound more like the reading from 1 John: a promise that we will be called children of God, that we are, in fact, God’s children now. This is easily understood as an assurance of security and love.

But even in this more comforting promise, we hear the reminder that this identity means “the world does not know us.” The comforts and approval and, yes, security that the world looks to for blessing are not for us. Our hope is in something less tangible, but also infinitely more REAL. Our hope is in longing for the right thing.

Did you notice that the community described in the Beatitudes is not a people who have let go of attachment and accepted the inevitability of suffering? As Debie Thomas notes, “the amazing thing about the people Jesus describes in the beatitudes is that they want. They want without reservation or apology. They want justice. They want peace. They want solace. They want healing. Even in the face of oppression, pain, loss, and sorrow, they do not give up wanting – or living in ways that bear witness to that wanting.” [2]

The transformed community that Jesus is creating is not about self-denial and long-suffering. Rather, it is about a transformation of what they desire. The community Jesus is calling forth is a community that is not content with desiring the things that we think will make our lives comfortable (a nice home, good job, even a happy family). Rather, it is a community that longs, that hungers for God’s kingdom come and God’s will be done on earth and through us!

We are not generally trained or encouraged in this kind of wanting. That’s why Jesus calls us to practice it when we gather. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Jesus uses that language of “hungering and thirsting” for righteousness. By taking on human flesh, Jesus came to understand human longing. He knew the all-consuming way that hunger and thirst drive us when we are truly empty or parched. And so, he commanded us to practice eating and drinking as a way to receive his righteousness, the transformation of our lives.

When Jack takes his first communion today, he will be joining in this practice of the church. He will be practicing the transformation of his longing – he will be learning to recognize his deepest need; he will be learning to hunger of Jesus.

(And for all at home today, who cannot now receive the sacrament, you too are practicing the kind of longing that can transform us, even bless us, by transforming our wants).

I said toward the beginning of this sermon that Jesus did not come to “give the people what they want” and that is true. Instead, he came to change what we want, because he knew that transformation would be an indescribable blessing. I don’t imagine any of us fully realize that transformation…yet. But I am confident that those we mourn do. They now want for nothing, because they have what we most need: reunion with God.

And so, as we remember our saints today, let our ritual be more than an expression of our mourning. Let it also be a reminder of that for which our souls most truly long: Not for the chance to be reunited with them, but to know – as they now know completely – that our deepest hunger is for God… and to be called into the work of being God’s transformed people on earth, and not only in heaven.

Thanks be to God.


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