A (Different) Sermon on the Mount

Cathy Boyd
A view from the Mount of the Beatitudes overlooking the Sea of Galilee. The sermon was preached at a pilgrimage Eucharist on the mount.
Blessed be the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing.
Blessed is the one who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked.
Blessed are you among women.
Blessed are the poor in spirit.
Blessed are the peacemakers.
Blessed are the merciful.
“Blessed” is a well-used word in Scripture, and nowhere more famously than here, in the Beatitudes. It is a dangerously slippery word, blessed.
The Greek used in the Beatitudes-makarios, translated in here as “blessed”-is often thought to mean “happy,” “fortunate,” “well-off.” You may remember Robert Schuller’s book “The Be-Happy Attitudes.”
Unfortunately this (admittedly clever) turn of phrase perpetuates what I believe is one of the great lies of Christianity. This lie tells us that being a Christian guarantees a happy life. That God promises success. The religious environment in which I grew up taught us that if bad things happened it was because we did not have “enough” faith.
The problem with this terrible theology: when things don’t work out, it means it’s your fault. But it’s a setup, isn’t it? Because life doesn’t always work out. Bad things happen, despite our prayers. This way of thinking holds that blessedness is therefore a function of chance and personal effort. This creates shame in people of faith, and sets God up as a capricious score-keeper. A bully.
One of the gifts of the Holy Land is that we are reminded over and over that Jesus rejects this thinking. Jesus lived in a culture of honor and shame and he defied this culture by offering blessing freely. By extending friendship and fellowship and healing willy-nilly…like a farmer who doesn’t pay attention or care where he throws the seed. The people Jesus proclaims in the Beatitudes as blessed most certainly are not the people his society or our society considers blessed.
Lutheran theologian David Lose says: “Because in this sermon he is not — contrary to all of the pseudo-Christian, pseudo-therapeutic preaching of these verses over the years — offering a recipe for success or the keys to happiness or a roadmap to having your best life now. Rather, Jesus is demonstrating that God regularly and relentlessly shows up just where we least expect God to be. God offers freely what we can neither earn nor achieve: blessedness.”
Another, more meaningful translation of the Greek word makarios goes deeper than happiness or luck. It also means unique standing, permission, and empowerment.
When Mary said yes, she was blessed—empowered—among women. And she accepted God’s invitation. Blessed are we among people. We are blessed. We need also to defy our culture by offering blessing to those who seem least worthy. We are empowered to bless the world. Do you really hunger and thirst for righteousness? The Beatitudes are a call to action.
The LORD bless you and protect you! The LORD deal kindly and graciously with you! The LORD bestow favor upon you and grant you peace! Amen.

Doesn’t get any more tangible than this.

[Cathy Boyd]

Of all the pilgrim sites in Israel/Palestine, Nazareth is surely one of the places that has changed the most in the past 2000 years. Mary’s hometown probably contained no more than 40 or 50 homes, lived in by just a handful of families, when Jesus was a boy. It was Nowheresville, as indicated by Nathanael’s question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

During our three days in the Galilee region, our pilgrim group visited Nazareth, now a town of about 75,000 people. We toured the excavations under the Sisters of Nazareth Convent. In the late 19th century, builders discovered several underground layers: a Crusader church was built on a Byzantine church from the 1st or 2nd century. And under that (as Lisa mentioned in an earlier article): the remains of a home from the first century.

It is nearly impossible in the Holy Land to say with any certainty “this is where Jesus thus-and-so.” One has to rely heavily on the traditions of thousands of years of pilgrims, and extrapolation of other things like historical records and archaeology.

But here’s the thing: Tradition has caused this place to be highly preserved and revered since Jesus’ day. Untold numbers of pilgrims have believed that this is the home of the Holy Family. Whether or not that is a fact, history knows that the town was so small, Jesus certainly knew this home.

Furthermore, there is a tomb carved under the house, which is unheard of: ancient Jews never buried anyone within the city, unless one was a king or a “Just Man.” The tomb of Joseph, maybe, beneath his family home?

Our guide was a 20-something French woman who clearly believes this is the boy Jesus’ house. This was a very dear experience.

Just to round out the story, about 200 yards from the home under the convent we visited what is—by tradition—the home where Gabriel approached Mary. That house is now, of course, also in the lower level of a church: the Basilica of the Annunciation.

Even in a land where holy places are often disputed, this was a rare and spiritually enriching, tangible experience of Jesus of Nazareth.

Mary’s Houses

[Lisa Green]
Tuesday was a big day for my unofficial “Footsteps of Mary” pilgrimage. Our visit to Nazareth included glimpses of the remnants of not one but two first-century homes where Mary may have lived: one as a young girl visited by the Angel Gabriel, and another as a young mother raising her very special son.
Archaeologists think Nazareth probably had only about 30 houses at that time, so the odds are good that we were standing in a place at least visited by the Holy Family. 
Over Mary’s girlhood home now stands the great Basilica of the Annunciation, adorned with images of the Virgin from many countries. To be here on pilgrimage is to experience the breadth and depth of the communion of saints, joining Christians across the centuries and around the world coming to these holy places, feeling the nearness of Jesus’ human life and the thinness of the veil between earth and heaven. 
We also walked to St. Gabriel’s Greek Orthodox Church, the site of Mary’s spring, where she and the other women of Nazareth came to get water, and we ate lunch in Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine. 

Holy God, we magnify your Name for calling the blessed Virgin Mary to bear your Word of hope to the poor, the hungry, and those who have no voice: Give us grace and strength to proclaim your Good News in every age, with every tongue; through Jesus Christ our Savior, in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Pilgrimage Thoughts

[Rob Beall]

Thinking about the many amazing, moving, important places we have visited so far, I find myself most impacted by two. By impacted I mean where I most felt the presence of God. 

First was our morning in the wilderness: the very wilderness where Jesus was tested.

Second was our afternoon at the headwaters of the Jordan where Jesus asked who people said he was, and Peter proclaimed him the Messiah. 

In both these places — although so very different — I knew Jesus had been but more importantly, I know that Jesus is with me now. Amen!

By the Waters of Galilee

[Cathy Boyd]

Our pilgrim group is sojourning for three days in the north end of Israel, in the Galilee region. It is a relief to leave noisy and tense Jerusalem for the quiet and beautiful countryside.

The Sea of Galilee is fed from the north by the Jordan River, which rises at the Banias nature preserve at the northernmost end of Israel, very close to Lebanon and Syria. The area is lush and full of water.

At Banias, which is near the ancient pagan city of Caesarea Philippi, the ruins of a shrine to the god Pan can be seen above the spring that gives birth to the Jordan. The ancients believed this shrine-cave was in fact a gate to hell. It was here that Jesus, a teacher who always used his surroundings as object lessons, proclaimed that the gates of hell would not prevail against his church.

The centerpiece of the Galilee region is of course the Sea of Galilee, also known as the Sea of Tiberias, and Genesaret.

Our guest house overlooks the sea from the Mount of the Beatitudes. Within view, circling the sea, are the cities of Tiberias, Magdala, and the tiny village of Capernaum. With one glance, one can take in a major portion of Jesus’ home turf. It is very easy to envision Jesus and his friends “going over to the other side” in boats, which was easier than walking.

This evening we shared the Eucharist in one of the outdoor chapels on the hillside overlooking the sea. Lisa Green presided, and I preached, which was a privileged experience to share. It felt ancient to worship in the dark as our spiritual forebears might have in this place (except with light from mobile phones instead of candles!)

Till All Be Free

[Lisa Green]
Just after viewing the Hafrada Wall in Bethlehem, we learned of rockets and retaliatory air strikes at the Gaza Strip. At Evening Prayer that night, I looked in the hymnal for “God of Grace and God of Glory,” remembering this line: “Cure thy children’s warring madness.”
Visiting Israel is an encounter with cognitive dissonance. Just a few miles from the Wall (security barrier and/or instrument of separation and oppression, depending on one’s perspective), we saw big signs wishing Muslim residents of Jerusalem a blessed Ramadan. As the sirens blared to call us to a moment of remembrance on Yom Ha’Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, we were next to the Dome of the Rock, where non-Muslims are not permitted to pray. As someone asked at last night’s group meeting, “Why do we keep doing this to each other?”
The Cathedral’s hymnal had an extra new-to-me verse of “God of Grace” that has become my prayer mantra in this broken and beautiful place: “Gird our lives that they may be armoured with all Christlike graces in the fight till all be free. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, that we fail not earth nor thee.”

Expect the Unexpected

[Gerry Conradi]
When I made the decision to join the pilgrims from St. Martin’s, I had no idea what to expect. I had never been to the Middle East, I had never been part of a group tour, and I had never been on a pilgrimage. I began to learn more about Jerusalem. I read, I watched videos and I talked with others. Although helpful, nothing prepared me for the experience of the last several days.

This has been an incredible journey. I’ve visited places I’ve read about and familiar Bible stories have come to life. I have learned a lot and realize how much more I have to learn. There are things that I didn’t anticipate: my tears at the Temple steps and the Western Wall, the humility I felt seeing the Bedouin shepherd and his goats and sheep walking on the desert path, and the joy and serenity of new friends and Christian fellowship.

The journey is not only about where we have been or where we are going. It is an inner journey- carving away time to be still, unpacking the itinerary and allowing God to lead me. I am blessed!

Faith & the Dead Sea

[Judy Yates]

Yesterday I did something that many people have on their bucket list. I don’t have a bucket list, but nevertheless I found myself floating around in the Dead Sea, considered to be one of nature’s wonders.

It wasn’t the floating that attracted me because I float naturally in almost any position in any type of water. For some reason God has made me very buoyant. It was the natural healing of the skin that takes place because of the high density of salt and minerals in the water that really intrigued me. I tend to have sensitive skin so I thought I would try it out and see what would happen. I waded into the water and sticky mud. I walked to the middle of the enclosed area and sat down to float. It was an interesting feeling. The water felt like syrup against my skin. I felt very smooth. I floated around for awhile talking to people. It was a very different than normal swimming but it was very peaceful.

As I pondered this experience, I found myself drawing some analogies between the Dead Sea and my faith. In the Dead Sea nothing can live, but the Sea lifts people up so that they can float. There is no struggle because the salt supports them and they cannot sink. When I was dead from sin, I could not not achieve eternal life on my own, but Christ lifted me up with him on the cross. I did not have to struggle because his love supported me.

When I get stuck in the mud of daily living, Jesus cleanses me with his blood and makes me whiter than snow. He smoothes out the rough patches in my life. When my desire to follow him loses it saltiness, my life seems meaningless but he restores my faith. He is the spice of my soul. Christ’s healing power is far greater than that of the Dead Sea. His love never recedes, but continues to roll over us forever. We cannot sink because he is there to lift us up in all circumstances. Glory be to God!

Ave Maria, gratia plena

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb.

Today our pilgrim group visited Ein Karem, a sweet small town neighborhood west of Jerusalem. The town is, by tradition, the hometown of John the Baptist and the site of Mary of Nazareth’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth.

This is a view of the countryside Mary (may have) traveled through.

The courtyard at the Church of the Visitation features mosaics of the Magnificat in dozens of languages, as well as one of the most delightful statues anywhere, depicting the pregnant Mary and the more-pregnant Elizabeth standing belly to belly. Lisa Green and I both love the statue.

Also in Ein Karem: an ancient spring as old as Mary’s visit, and named for her.