By Dan Clendenin
How often, since the Covid-19 pandemic began, have you said, “I can’t wait until life gets back to normal?” I’ve said it more times than I can count. There’s nothing wrong with saying it — of course we want to return to the lives we enjoyed before the virus changed everything. Of course we want to travel again, and welcome people into our homes, and worship in-person in our churches, and put away our face masks, and send our children to school, and hug our loved ones without fearing for their safety. Of course we want the dread, isolation, uncertainty, and grief of the past year to fade into memory.
But during this week when the church celebrates All Souls and All Saints, and the lectionary invites us to reflect deeply on Jesus’s inaugural “Sermon on the Mount,” I’ve been asking myself some painful questions: What exactly is “normal? Who decides how we define it? What does “normal” look like to Jesus — and does my vision of normality align with his?
Perhaps, like me, you grew up hearing that the “Beatitudes” are “Be-attitudes,” — that is, postures and perspectives we should strive to adopt in order to earn favors from God. If you still believe this, then please read Matthew 5:1–12 again, and notice that the passage doesn’t contain a single “should,” “ought,” or “thou shalt.” There is no transactional language in these verses at all. No commandments. No moral injunctions.
Rather, what Jesus does is simply describe reality. As in, “Here are the facts. Here is how the world works. Here is an accurate description of life as it truly is.” In other words, here is “normal.” God’s normal.
Perhaps, if my interpretation is correct, the essential question to ask about the Beatitudes is not, “Have I worked hard enough to merit God’s blessing?” The essential question is, “Do I trust that God’s description of reality is accurate? Do I believe in Jesus’s version of ‘normal life’ enough to test all of my versions against his? Or don’t I?”
In the Beatitudes, Jesus claims that the poor, the mournful, the meek, the hungry, the merciful, the pure-hearted, the peaceful, and the persecuted are “blessed.” They are the fortunate ones. The lucky ones. The ones whose lives are aligned with the heart and character of God. They are the ones who will enter heaven, experience comfort, inherit the earth, be filled, receive mercy, see God, and be called the children of God.
Do I believe this?
The problem, of course, is that God’s “normal” is not the normal I see and experience in the world around me. I live in a world where the loudest, strongest, wealthiest, and most privileged people prey on the “less fortunate.” I live in a world where greed and selfishness pay big time, while meekness, mercy, and mournfulness earn little more than contempt. I live in a world where securing my own ease and comfort is my “right” — the rest of creation be damned.
But Jesus in his wisdom recognizes this disparity, and addresses it in the very wording of the beatitudes: “Blessed are…for they will be.” The language is prophetic and eschatological. It bridges the present and the future, the now and the not-yet, the kingdom that is and the kingdom that is coming. The blessing is here; God’s favor is now. But its fulfillment — its perfection — still lies ahead.
I wonder if this is why the lectionary so wisely gives us Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount on All Saint’s Day. As we remember and honor those who have gone before us, we celebrate the unbreakable communion between past, present, and future. We draw comfort, resilience, and hope from the fact that countless others have mourned, hungered, thirsted, and grieved in years past, and gone on from their struggles to the fullness of life in God’s presence. As religious scholar Tim Beach-Verhey puts it, “The saints provide a glimpse of God’s already in the midst of our not-yet.”
So then, back to the essential question: do I believe in Jesus’s version of “normal?” Do I believe that the people who care profoundly — the people who yearn, mourn, hunger, thirst, suffer, and speak for justice — are the most fortunate people on earth? Do I see (or even look for) blessing in the world’s most reviled, wretched, starving, grieving, shamed, and broken human beings? Or do I find their desperation, their passion, and their suffering embarrassing? Excessive? Undignified?
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. There is nothing casual, tepid, half-baked, or shallow about them.
In other words, what Jesus describes in his sermon is a world turned upside-down by passionate conviction, intensity, and desire. An economy of blessing that sounds ludicrous to those who refuse to feel so deeply. A reordering of priority and privilege that the church has found awkward and even offensive for centuries. Do we find it offensive, too?
If we don’t, what then? What should we do next? Wallow in guilt? Romanticize poverty? Avoid joy? I don’t think so. The very fact that Jesus spends his days and nights on earth alleviating suffering in every way possible suggests that he does not valorize misery for its own sake. Pain in and of itself is neither holy nor redemptive in the Christian story, and in fact, Jesus’s ministry is all about healing, abundance, liberation, and wholeness.
Perhaps the essential question to ask is a question about trust. About aligning my heart with Christ’s. I might begin, for example, by accepting on faith that Jesus is telling me the truth. That his definition of reality is correct, and mine is not. That is to say, I might come clean about the fact that most of the time, I don’t care nearly as much as the “blessed” of the beatitudes care. I am not desperate for God. I am not keenly aware of God’s active, daily intervention in my life. I am not on my knees with need, ache, sorrow, longing, gratitude, or love. After all, why would I be? I have plenty to eat. I live in a comfortable home. Even during this time of global illness and sorrow, I have both health and health insurance. My children are safe. I have access to a vibrant social, intellectual, and recreational life. I’m not in dire need of, well, anything.
In short, there isn’t much in my circumstances that leads me to a sense of urgency about ultimate things. I can go for days without talking to God. I can go days without thinking about God. It’s very, very easy — embarrassingly easy — for all things deep and divine to become afterthoughts in my life, because God isn’t necessary on my 24/7 radar.
This isn’t because I’m callous. It’s because I’m full. So full that I barely register the hunger beneath the fullness. It’s because I have easy access to laughter, and therefore don’t wonder what lessons honest tears might teach me. It’s because I am primed by my cozy life to live in the shallows, unaware of the treasures that await me in the depths. Most of the time, it just plain doesn’t occur to me that I would be lost — utterly and wholly lost — without the grace that sustains me.
I think what Jesus is saying in this Gospel is that I have something to learn about discipleship that my life circumstances will not teach me. Something to grasp about the beauty, glory, and freedom of the Christian life that I will never grasp until God becomes my everything, my all, my go-to, my starting place, and my ending place. Something to humbly admit about the limitations of my privilege. Something to recognize about the radical counter-intuitiveness of God’s priorities and promises. Something to notice about the obfuscating power of plenty to blind me to my own emptiness. Something to gain from the humility that says, “Those people I think I’m superior to in every way? They have everything to teach me. Maybe it’s time to shut up and pay attention.”
In a beautiful reflection on Jesus’s upside-down kingdom, Frederick Buechner writes this: “The world says, ‘Mind your own business,’ and Jesus says, ‘There is no such thing as your own business.’ The world says, ‘Follow the wisest course and be a success,’ and Jesus says, ‘Follow me and be crucified.’ The world says, ‘Drive carefully — the life you save may be your own’ — and Jesus says, ‘Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.’ The world says, ‘Law and order,’ and Jesus says, ‘Love.’ The world says, ‘Get’ and Jesus says, ‘Give.’ In terms of the world’s sanity, Jesus is crazy as a coot, and anybody who thinks he can follow him without being a little crazy too is laboring less under a cross than under a delusion.”
This is not prosperity theology. This is not “blessing” as health, wealth, and happiness. This is a teaching so costly, so soul-rattling, so unpalatable, that most of us will do anything to domesticate or ignore it.
Eventually, whether months from now or years from now, our lives will return to “normal.” We will manufacture and distribute vaccines. We will find better medicines and treatments. We will put our face masks away. We will venture out of our houses and cities. We will grieve the dead, and we will heal.
But even when that time comes, the challenge and the invitation of Jesus’s beatitudes will remain. Will God’s normal become ours? Will we align our priorities with God’s heart? Will we center, privilege, and bless what matters most to God?
Blessed are. For they will be. Lord, give us faith to believe it.
Debie Thomas: email@example.com
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