All Saints A: Preaching a Beatitudes Inversion

Matthew 5:1-12

Dear Partner in Preaching,

There is a scene in Schindler’s List that came back to me while reading the Beatitudes. Amon Goeth, played by Ralph Fiennes, is the commandant of a German death camp. Goeth is, in brief, a violent sociopath, prone to kill the Jewish prisoners at his camp indiscriminately. And he believes that his ability to kill is the very essence of power. Oskar Schindler, played by Liam Neeson, is a consummate showman and has somehow worked his way into Amon Goeth’s good graces. One evening, Schindler challenges Goeth’s beliefs about power. The ability to kill isn’t power; the ability to have mercy is power. That’s why, Schindler argues, the Emperor was the most powerful person in Rome. Anyone could kill; only the Emperor could pardon a convicted criminal out of mercy. Goeth “tries on” being merciful, pardoning a few people who have annoyed him. It feels good, but he can’t pull it off for long, eventually returning to his brutal ways. Exercising mercy, it turns out, is harder than it look and proves to be a power that he eludes him as he is drawn back to the ordinary, cultural exercise of violence as power.

I thought of this scene in relation to the Beatitudes because I believe the common mistake we make – or at least that I have regularly made – when reading the Beatitudes is to see them as a kind of moral check list. Sermons following this interpretative line will typically urge their hearers to live a “beatitudes-kind-of-life” (or employ some other moralistic and simplistic slogan). Quite frankly, it’s hard not to be a little sympathetic to the pull of this reading. This is Matthew, after all, who is prone to defining the Christian life in terms of behavior. And the beatitudes do indeed lift up particular behaviors – hungering and thirsting for righteousness, being merciful – that are admirable and lend themselves to exhortation. But while I can imagine imploring folks toward some of these ideals, it feels like it makes less sense to urge other beatitudes as actions – “Go be meek!” – and somewhat ridiculous when it comes to others still – “Be mournful!”

Rather than merely urging a distinct ethic, Jesus is, I think, inviting us to imagine what it’s like to live in the kingdom of God and, by inviting that imagination, drawing a sharp contrast between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world and challenging our often unconscious allegiance to the latter. Notice first that the people who Jesus is calling “blessed” are definitely not the people the larger culture viewed as blessed. Those who are mourning rather than happy? Those who are meek rather than strong? Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness rather than wealth? Absurd. And that holds for pretty much everything on Jesus’ list.

So perhaps Jesus is playing for larger stakes than an improved ethic. Perhaps he’s challenging who we imagine being blessed in the first place. Who is worthy of God’s attention. Who deserves our attention, respect, and honor. And by doing that, he’s also challenging our very understanding of blessedness itself and, by extension, challenging our culture’s view of, well, pretty much everything. Blessing. Power. Success. The good life. Righteousness. What is noble and admirable. What is worth striving for and sacrificing for. You name it. Jesus seems to invite us to call into question our culturally-born and very much this-worldly view of all the categories with which we structure our life, navigate our decisions, and judge those around us.

And this includes our view of those we have loved and lost in the previous year. Indeed, my very word choice seems suddenly inadequate in light of the kingdom Jesus’ proclaims. We have not “lost” those who have died. Rather they live now in the nearer presence of God, beyond our immediate reach, yet connected to us through memory, faith, and love. Part of what we do when we celebrate All Saints’ – and, indeed, at all memorial services – is to participate in the inversion of the kingdom of the world which believes that all we can see, hold, control, or buy is all there is. When we commend those we have loved to God’s care, we proclaim that God’s kingdom is not some distant thing or place but rather exists now, exerts its influence on us now, transforms our reality now. All Saints’, along with all Christian funerals, is a repetition and rehearsal of the Easter promise that there is something more, something that transcends our immediate experience, and this proclamation is rooted in the confidence that God’s love and life are more powerful and enduring that the hate, disappointment, and death that seems at times to surround us.

Which is why I thought of the scene from Schindler’s List. The other-worldly possibility of imagining that exercising mercy is more powerful than wielding violence is, in Jesus, suddenly a very this-worldly possibility. But it’s not easy. It takes practice. Returning hate for hate, condemning those who do not conform to our expectations or moral categories, and exercising violence against those who will not yield to us seems nearly omnipresent, and it’s hard not to believe they are the only possibilities, whether as participants or victims. And so we gather this week around One who would have been considered, in almost every conceivable way, an absolute loser and tragic victim, rejected by the prominent, executed by the powerful. Yet God this One, Jesus the Christ, raised from the dead, vindicating his claims and validating the reality of the life and love to which he witnessed.

So perhaps the task before us this All Saints’ Sunday, Dear Partner, is less to exhort our people to a particular ethic than it is to pronounce God’s in-breaking kingdom, promise that this kingdom is real and transformative, and invite a kingdom imagination. The trouble with exhortation, quite frankly, is that it rarely works. It’s not that we don’t know what we should do, after all, it’s that we can’t do it. And so we need not more rules but a new heart, one created by God’s own promise to continue to surprise us by who is blessed, who is loved by God, and who has been commissioned to exercise the counter-cultural imagination Jesus proclaims. And that starts with the people in front of us this Sunday, people who probably don’t feel particularly blessed, loved, or capable, yet who Jesus is still calling just those things.

It’s hard to give what you don’t have, Dear Partner, so let’s give folks not just a beatitudes-informed list of ethics but a beatitudes-created set of eyes capable of seeing God blessing them to be a blessing. The world needs them. And they need you to stand in Jesus’ place and surprise them with the news that they, too, no matter what their circumstances or situation, and whether the world sees them this way or not– and even whether they see themselves this way or not – are blessed and beloved of God, and linked in this way with all the saints who have gone before us.

Blessings on and gratitude for your proclamation, Dear Partner. The world needs, and is waiting for, your witness and the beatitudes inversion it sparks.

Yours in Christ,