Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time – January 30, 2011 – “Blessed are ___ (you fill in the blank)”
Zephania 2:3; 3:12-13, Psalm 146:6-10, 1 Corinthians 1:26-31, Matthew 5:1-12a
For a moment think of the speeches we’ve heard recently. The State of the Union address by President Barack Obama, the critical response by Republican Paul Ryan, the alternative critical response by Tea Party member Michelle Bachmann and also Andrew Cuomo in his State of the State address. In each oration we heard lists of achievements, innumerable problems and endless solutions all geared presumably to make life in our country and in our state better; to give hope to all of us.
In today’s gospel we heard another speech, the first of five great speeches given by Jesus as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. It tells us what we are supposed to do to advance the kindom of God in our lives. And, if you are worried about it, it also tells us what you have to do to get into heaven. Later on, Jesus would call the followers of his teachings a city on a hill, the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  Jesus was telling his inner circle, and others listening in, what he believed in. Later in chapters 8 and 9 Jesus will appear as a miracle worker, a healer and an exorcist to back up his convictions. 
Scripture scholars see these beatitudes not so much as laws but words of wisdom emerging from a long line of Jewish teachings. Jesus employed a rapid fire repetition of words at the beginning of each phrase, a common technique used by speech writers to increase the rhetorical effect.
In 2004 Benedictine sister Joan Chittister, while talking about how to address moral issues in this country, said the Beatitudes are the “most overlooked and underdeveloped aspect of scripture.”  She translated them in a contemporary context. For example, she asked, “who are the poor in spirit?” Refugees, immigrants, homeless people who scavenger for food and shelter. We might add people without work and those who suffer from depression. We might think of and pray for college students who are depressed about tuition, the job market and being accepted by teachers.
We also ask who are those who hunger and thirst for justice? They are the bold and relentless advocates for human rights. Maybe these advocates are not government leaders. God chooses the poor to defeat the strong. We think of the people protesting in the streets of Tunis, Cairo and Alexandria. One man said, “If God is with us we will take a clump of dirt and turn it into gold.”  What a mantra for life. When we are down and out, oppressed and depressed, we work to turn things around, to turn a clump of dirt into gold.
As we look at these beatitudes or blessings we begin to imagine the possibilities in our lives and the lives of others. By doing little things we can make a difference. We are called to lead good simple lifestyles, get rid of excess, speak no lies, avoid cheating and rescue other people from hardships. We’ve heard the song before — help each other, walk the mile and bear the load. 
In the Scholars Bible the beatitudes are translated in this way. “Congratulations” to the poor in spirit, to those who grieve; congratulations to those who hunger and thirst for justice, who work for peace; congratulations to those who suffer persecution.  Congratulations for what you might ask? For honoring one another; for respecting one another.
With these beatitudes Jesus laid out challenges for us to consider on our spiritual journeys, new ways to to turn the world around, to evaluate and deal with our old habits.  I invite you today in your cars, at home, over brunch to write down or talk to each other, your children, your spouses, your partners, about your own beatitudes. If you were to create a couple of blessings or lines of wisdom, what words would you use? For example, blessed are they who work hard in school for they shall change this world someday. Or … blessed are they who keep going in spite of opposition, they will find peace someday. Blessed are they who … well, I invite you to complete this phrase and share it with the person next to you … right now …. [Here the gathered assembly shared their beatitudes with one another.]
Thank you, and, by the way, blessed are those who listen to the preacher! [Laughter and applause]
1 President Obama in his State of the Union Address said the United States is more than a geographical place and called it a “light to the world.” Hmmm.
2 Harrington, Daniel J. “The Sermon on the Mount” in C21 Resources, Fall 2008 <www.bc.edu/church21>
3 A 2004 conversation between Joan Chittister and Bill Moyers about moral values. <http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0MKY/is_20_28/ai_n9483761/?tag=content;col1>
4 Shahid, Anthony. “Seizing Control of Their Lives and Wondering What’s Next “ in The New York Times, January 30, 2011, p. 9.
5 Gillard, Richard, “The Servant Song” in Gather (Chicago: GIA Publications, 1994) 669. Sung in church today.
6 Miller, Robert J. The Complete Gospels: The Scholars Version. (Salem. OR: Polebridge Press, 2010) p.71.
7 Shaia, Alexander and Gaugy, Michelle. Hidden Power of the Gospels (NY: Harper, 2010) p. 76