[This is adapted from a sermon I preached Jan. 29]
There is an awful lot that needs to be said about Donald Trump, but I don’t want to begin there. I want to approach American politics via Jesus. And yogurt. So I begin with the Beatitudes. Many Christians think of the Beatitudes as “the New Testament Ten Commandments,” but I prefer to think of them more like “yogurt.” The Ten Commandments are, as it happens, commands. What the Beatitudes and yogurt have in common is that they are both not commands.
The Beatitudes aren’t telling us to do something. They are telling us what is true. Look at the verb construction: “blessed” isn’t a verb here, it’s an adjective. And the verbs in this section are all future tense. Jesus isn’t inventing commands, he’s using a rhetorical frame that goes back to the 6th and 8th century prophets, even back to the Psalms, who use this phrasing, “Blessed are those who walk in the way of the LORD,” to indicate a desired lifestyle, or the presence of God.
But Jesus resists conventional blessing formulas. He takes the traditional formula and twists it, as if staring at one of those eye-manipulating books, blurring and adapting your eyes, until it reveals the picture underneath.
This is a locative speech. It locates us in God’s reality. Jesus is making his first major public speech. A first, major speech isn’t when you tell people what to do. It’s when you tell them what reality is. What reality they are living in, if they want to live in your vision. Jesus’ is outlining the nature of reality, and in doing so, he is telling people: the Roman reality is not the only reality. The highly stratified, polytheist, corruption-based power brokering of Roman elites is not the only way of being.
In first century Judea, all their lives, the people grew up absorbing something entirely different from what Jesus offers. Blessed are the wealthy, says Rome. Blessed are the soldiers who defend the empire and abuse the peasants.
Jesus is describing a reality, but he’s also building a reality. He sets out the vision for his ministry—prepare for the year of blessing the poor!, he declares. Prepare for the year of mercy to the sick and ailing! Prepare for the year of nonviolent, creative resistance to Caesar and the Herodian-Jewish institution that has abandoned the word of God for loyalty to the empire.
Jesus is not making if-then statements. It’s not “if x, then y.” It’s “those who are x will be y.” It’s a present and a future tense observation. Whoever is poor will be blessed. But it’s also descriptive: if you’re looking for the blessed places, go to the poor in spirit. If you’re looking for blessed places, go to those who mourn. Jesus is telling us where blessing exists.
That’s what makes the beatitudes so hard to follow. It’s not about what to do; it’s about where to go, what to look for, where to position yourself to experience faith. The beatitudes are the anchor for everything else Jesus says and does.
Later, Jesus will offer commands. He will say things like “Pray like this.” “Heal like this.” “Eat like this.” But first, he explains what the reality is.
This is why the beatitudes are like yogurt. The beatitudes—the whole Scripture—is a process of fermentation. Scripture doesn’t change our lives all at once. It sits and sits inside of us, incubating, until a moment arrives and we summon up a text and exclaim, “Ah! I understand what I am called to do.”
The Scripture is the yogurt, we are the milk, warmed in the presence of Jesus (I know it’s tacky; I spent a lot of time making yogurt this week). Here, Jesus creates the conditions of transformation. And we sit in the presence of transformation until we are transformed.
But the transformation isn’t always that simple. Yogurt only takes a few hours. Sometimes, our lives are more like kombucha, or wine, or whiskey. We sit on the shelf for years and years before we are transformed. Faith is not an instant thing. Faith is a slow, fermenting transformation.
As we watch the world shift after Trump’s inauguration, as we watch Christians suddenly redefining themselves as activists, we should remember that our activism was not created ex nihilo. It came from somewhere, from a long-fermented, tangy process. This has been inside of us for a long time; this is not a break, it is a continuity. What we do comes from who we already are. We can’t do anything that we didn’t already value.
This week, I went back through the beatitudes, looking at each one, each noun, its connotations in the Greek, the alliteration of phrases, the assonant syllables and the play on words. I dove into the connotations, tried to listen. This is what I heard:
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to teach them, saying:
Blessed are the empaths
for they will find kinship among the kin of God.
Blessed are those who have reasons to cry,
for they will have reasons to rest.
Blessed are those who are mild with their pride,
for the earth will bloom at their touch.
Blessed are those who emptied themselves out pursuing justice,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the compassionate,
for they will feel compassion.
Blessed are those with immaculate backbones,
for God will reveal himself to them.
Blessed are the blacksmiths of peace,
for their hands have the same callouses as the hands of their father God.
Blessed are those who are insulted for their integrity,
for their kinship is among the kin of God.
Blessed are you when your name is in their teeth
and they ruin you with rumors,
promising post-truths because they fear God’s truth.
Cheer up and uplift yourself,
for you will be repaired in heaven.
For in the same way they harassed the holy dissenters
and the social poets who came before you.