Mitch, a man who lived a very scheduled and structured life normally, loved to sneak away to the racetrack for some excitement.
On occasion he did moderately well, but it was usually a losing proposition. One day he was there, betting on the horses and losing his money as usual, when he noticed a Catholic priest, attired in the traditional garb, step out onto the track and bless the forehead of one of the horses lining up for the 4th race. Lo and behold, this horse -- a very long shot -- won the race.
Mitch was most interested to see what the priest did the next race.
Sure enough, he watched the priest step out onto the track as the horses for the fifth race lined up, and placed a blessing on the forehead of one of the horses. Mitch made a beeline for the window and placed a small bet on the horse. Again, even though it was another long shot, the horse the priest had blessed won the race.
Mitch collected his winnings and anxiously waited to see which horse the priest bestowed his blessing on for the 6th race.
The priest showed up, blessed a horse. Mitch bet on it, and it won! He was elated!
As the day went on, the priest continued blessing one horse in each of the races, and it always came in first. Mitch began to pull in some serious money, and by the last race, he knew his wildest dreams were going to come true. He made a quick stop at the ATM, withdrew all of his money from his savings account and awaited the priest's blessing that would tell him which horse to bet all his money on.
True to his pattern, the priest stepped out onto the track before the last race and blessed the forehead, eyes, ears and hooves of one of the horses.
Mitch bet every last cent he had, from his winnings and his savings account money. He watched the race with an inhuman interest, screaming and yelling, only to see the horse he had bet everything on come in dead last.
Mitch was dumbfounded. He made his way to the track and when he found the priest, he demanded, "Father, what happened? I've watched you all day. All day you blessed horses and they won. That last race, you blessed a horse--and he lost. Now I've lost all my savings, and today's winnings, thanks to you!!"
The priest nodded wisely and said, "Well, my son, that’s because you didn’t see the difference between the two blessings. The blessing I used on all the other horses was a usual blessing. The blessing I used on that last horse—that was the Last Rites."
So always remember—when blessing someone, it’s important to know which blessing you’re using!
Today, our Bible reading from the Gospel of Matthew talks about blessings. In fact, it has a list going, of all different types of people who are blessed.
We call this section of the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount. It’s called that, because in these three chapters, Jesus goes up a mountain and has an extended time of teaching his disciples and the crowds of people who have shown up to hear him speak. Jesus talks about many different topics while teaching on the mountain, and some of his teachings really challenge us about how to live our lives the way God wants us to live.
And I’ve always been struck by the fact that this is how Jesus starts his Sermon on the Mount. I mean, this is an EPIC sermon. It’s three chapters long, 110 verses all together. It’s much longer than my sermon today (although, if the Holy Spirit gets me on a roll, who knows!).
And Jesus could have started the sermon with something really impressive, to get peoples’ attention and keep it. He could have talked about how he is the Son of God, how he has the ability to do amazing things like heal people and cast out demons. He could have started the sermon with a dramatic healing or delivering someone from demons—that would have REALLY gotten the crowd to pay attention and stick around! As God in human form, he could have started this sermon in a million other ways that would have been a million times more impressive.
But rather than impressing the crowd, Jesus starts his epic sermon on the mountain—with blessings. And not only blessings, but blessings for people who don’t usually feel very blessed. Those who are poor in spirit. Those who mourn. Those are meek. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Those who work for peace. Those who are persecuted and reviled and falsely accused. Rather than starting with a flashy first act, Jesus says those who are dealing with difficult things in life, those who are down and out and struggling and oppressed—they are blessed. He starts his sermon with blessings for the people who truly need it.
We call these blessings at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount “The Beatitudes.” And that word, beatitude, comes from the Latin “beatus,” which means “blessed.” So Jesus starts his sermon with The Beatitudes, because first and foremost, he wants to tell people that even when life is difficult and they are working hard to live out their faith, maybe even especially when life is difficult and they are working hard to live out their faith—they are blessed. We are blessed.
This is a message of good news from Jesus, for his original hearers on the mountain, and for us. Blessed are you who are poor in spirit—yours is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you who mourn—you will be comforted. And the list keeps going. God specifically blesses you and others when you and other people are dealing with rough stuff and struggling to live as a child of God. Jesus said so!
But some people hear these Beatitudes differently. I have a colleague who one time asked me about the Beatitudes. He asked me if, when I heard this list of people blessed by God, if I heard Law or Gospel.
Law and Gospel is a Lutheran thing—Martin Luther, the guy who founded our denomination by accident, talked about it a lot. If you had to guess, what do you think Law is…? Yeah, it’s the same idea in society. Law is what we should do, the rules we should live by. What happens when we break a law? There’s punishment involved. So the Law are those things that God tells us to do, that we should do. Anyone know an example…? The 10 Commandments is a great example. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. Just to name a few.
And anyone want to take a stab at what Gospel is…? It’s the good news, it’s all the good stuff that comes from God, the stuff God promises to us, no strings attached. I should mention that when we say the Gospel of Matthew, we mean the book of Matthew—but we are literally saying “the Good News according to Matthew” when we say “The Gospel of Matthew” because the word Gospel literally means “good news.” People sometimes use the words grace and Gospel interchangeably. It’s love, forgiveness, mercy, peace, salvation—all given freely by to God to us as a gift.
So here’s the thing. We need both Law and Gospel. If we had only Law and no Gospel, we would feel hopeless, because we would always fall short of the high standards God has for us. If we had only Gospel and no Law, then we wouldn’t even try to live the way God wants us to, because it doesn’t matter. So the Law actually shows us our shortcomings, shows us that we can’t do this ourselves. It actually shows us that we need…Jesus. We need that unconditional love and forgiveness because of Jesus’ sacrifice for us on the cross. When you listen to Lutheran sermons, and Lutheran teachings, and how Lutherans read the Bible, you will hear both Law and Gospel, because we need both. All of that make sense? It’s like my brother and me. He’s a lawyer. I’m a pastor. He’s Law. I’m Gospel! You need both of us!
So going back to my colleague’s question. When you hear the Beatitudes, do you hear Jesus saying Law, those things we have to do, or do you hear Gospel, the good news and promises of God?
My colleague asked me that question for a reason. It was because all he heard was Law. When he heard “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”, he heard “You need to work to be poor in spirit, in order to get God’s blessing.” When he heard “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” he heard “You need to work for peace, so that you can be blessed as a child of God.” Do you see how that’s Law? He heard all of the things he had to do, to live as a follower of Jesus.
And when he said that, I was completely shocked. Because, before then, all I had heard in The Beatitudes was Gospel, the good news, which I’ve said earlier. I heard: “If you are poor in spirit, don’t worry. You are blessed and the kingdom of heaven is yours.” I heard: “If you are a peacemaker, don’t worry. You are blessed and you are called a child of God.” Where I had heard the good news and promises of God, he had heard mandates and rules. It was really fascinating.
As I read The Beatitudes now, I think the answer is both. The beatitudes are both Law AND Gospel. Jesus is saying, this is how you should live, and he’s saying you are blessed.
Because, in his Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is teaching about what it means to be his disciple. And being a disciple, a follower of Jesus, means hungering and thirsting for justice. It means being merciful. It means loving people and mourning when they die. It means working for peace. It means doing things that we know we should do as Christians, even when they are unpopular, and dealing with people hating you and treating you badly because of it.
Those are things we are called to do as disciples of Jesus Christ. Those are the things we should do. But Jesus also says that while we do those things, we are blessed. We are comforted. We will inherit the earth. We are called children of God. We see God. We receive mercy. So we also hear in The Beatitudes the Gospel, God’s grace and love for us, while we live as disciples of Jesus.
Jesus is brilliant with his Beatitudes. That’s not super surprising, since he’s, you know, God. In the Beatitudes, Jesus shows us how to be disciples, what we should be doing as his followers, that’s Law. And Jesus also tells us that he is with us every step of the way, blessing us and showing us his love, that’s Gospel.
Being a disciple of Jesus is not easy. That’s Law. But we know that we are blessed and loved and called children of God as we follow Jesus. That’s Gospel. We need both of those. And we have both Law and Gospel in Jesus’ Beatitudes in the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount.
At age 16, Andor Foldes was already a skilled pianist, but he was experiencing a troubled year. In the midst of the young Hungarian’s personal struggles, one of the most renowned pianists of the day came to Budapest. Emil von Sauer was famous not only for his abilities; he was also the last surviving pupil of the great Franz Liszt. Von Sauer requested that Foldes play for him. Foldes obliged with some of the most difficult works of Bach, Beethoven, and Schumann. When he finished, von Sauer walked over to him and kissed him on the forehead. “My son,” he said, “when I was your age I became a student of Liszt. He kissed me on the forehead after my first lesson, saying, ‘Take good care of this kiss—it comes from Beethoven, who gave it to me after hearing me play. ‘I have waited for years to pass on this sacred heritage, but now I feel you deserve it.”
In the Beatitudes, Jesus calls us to be his disciples and work for justice, work for peace, work for mercy in our world. And as we work for those things, Jesus promises to love us, be with us, help us, and to bless us. Jesus walks over to us, kisses us on the forehead, blesses us, and says “I am passing on this sacred heritage. Live as my followers. Because of what I’ve done for you on the cross, you deserve it.” Amen?