“The Blesseds” Colchester Federated Church, January 29, 2023, (Matthew 5:1-12) Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

In the Fourth Century there was a Byzantine Pilgrim who wrote about holy sites around the Sea of Galilee.  Professor Jerome Murphy-O’Connor shared the pilgrim’s reflections in his book The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700.  The pilgrim had written:

“Not far away from there (Capernaum) are some stone steps where the Lord stood.  And in the same place by the sea is a grassy field with plenty of hay and many palm trees.  By them are seven springs, each flowing strongly.  And this is the field where the Lord fed the people with the five loaves and the two fishes.  In fact the stone on which the Lord placed the bread has now been made into an altar.  People who go there take away small pieces of the stone to bring them prosperity, and they are very effective.  Past the walls of this church goes the public highway on which the Apostle Matthew had his place of custom.  Near there on a mountain is the cave to which the Saviour climbed and spoke the Beatitudes.”[1]

When modern pilgrims visit these sites there are often churches that mark these events from Jesus’ life.  As one visits the area surrounding Capernaum, one can worship at the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes, the Church of the Sermon on the Mount, and the Church of the Primacy of Peter.  All these churches are within close proximity of one another along the shores of the Sea of Galilee.  The landscape is both similar and different from when Jesus was on the shore asking the disciples (Peter, Andrew, James, and John) to help him fish for people as we heard last Sunday.  Though the Sea of Galilee, in all its splendor, certainly remains at the center of the landscape.

The churches erected on these holy sites help Christians reflect on aspects of our faith.  There is something moving about being in the physical location where the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes may have happened, contemplating that Gospel story of abundance and compassion for people who were starving.  There is something remarkable about seeing the place where Jesus redeemed Peter after Peter had denied three times that he even knew Jesus.  It is compelling to stand on the mountain Jesus climbed when he saw the crowds, to be in the place where he sat down and where his disciples came to him.  To think about how, with the crowds before him, Jesus began teaching those yearning for hope in troubled times: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”[2]  We can better imagine Jesus standing before the crowds who had gathered to hear his message, to just be in his loving presence. 

The words we can read from that pilgrim traveling in this region in the Fourth Century shows that rooting Jesus’ teachings to particular places was important for the early followers of Christ.  Though many of these churches in the Galilee region are modern in their construction.  It may or may not surprise us that the Church of the Sermon on the Mount for instance was built in 1938.  Think about this for a moment—this is our church’s fourth meeting house dedicated in 1842.  This building we gather to worship in on Sunday mornings is 181 years old.  The Church of the Sermon on the Mount is only 85 years old by comparison.  However, this more recently constructed church is believed to mark the place where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount—the location that the pilgrim to the Holy Land referenced from the 4th Century.  It’s fascinating to think that pilgrims were already setting aside places to remember where certain events occurred.   

The Church of the Sermon on the Mount is shaped like an octagon.  This is to commemorate the eight beatitudes.  Perhaps what is most impressive is to step outside the walls of the church since the glittering Sea of Galilee can be seen in a stunning light as one wanders the grounds.  As Murphy-O’Connor explains in The Holy Land, “Its shady gallery is the best place from which to contemplate the spiritual dimensions of the lake; one can see virtually all the places in which Jesus lived and worked.”[3]

All of this can make us wonder—what makes a place sacred? 

Humans are meaning-making creatures.  We place great significance in some places.  Sometimes we enter a house of worship and immediately feel that this is indeed a sacred place.  Sacred places can be locations, structures, or geographic features in the natural world.  Perhaps we go on a hike and stumble upon a hidden waterfall.  Immediately we feel awe as we observe the waters cascading down.  That becomes a sacred place in that moment.  It may or may not be recognized as sacred by anyone else.  To name and claim a place as sacred means that it is somehow set apart and recognized as a place worthy of reverence.  But perhaps, like beauty, sacred places are in the eye of the beholder.

The mount on the shores of the Sea of Galilee is often recognized as a sacred place.  But here’s the thing that I felt when there, it’s not primarily the modern church that makes it so.  It’s the energy and spirit of the place.  It’s the fact that this location offers this sweeping view of the paths that Jesus literally walked.  The place helps us to better understand the teachings within the Sermon on the Mount.

The Sermon on the Mount is one of Jesus’ most famous teachings.  Over the next several Sundays, we will be hearing sections of this sermon because it begins in Matthew Chapter 5 and goes through Chapter 7.  Some of these teachings we know by heart. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.  Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.  Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”[4] 

Let’s keep in mind that these were words that Jesus spoke in an actual place to actual people.  That’s why pilgrims continue to flock to places like the Church of the Sermon on the Mount.  Because it can help remind us that Jesus talked and walked, lived and breathed, taught and listened, healed and reached out to those on the margins.  Jesus lived in a particular time and place, even as we believe that Jesus lives on in our hearts.  Even as we do our best to follow in his footsteps, to love one another as he loved us.

It’s important to remember that connection to a particular place and people because sometimes Jesus’ words can be taken out of context.  Jesus spoke these words to people like us gathered before him on that mountain.  Jesus spoke these words to people who were sometimes celebrating life’s joys and sometimes mourning life’s losses.  The debate continues about whether Jesus’ teachings are ideals that we can never attain or if Jesus meant for us to work for and ultimately realize these ethics in our daily lives. 

How does “blessed are the peacemakers” sound on a week when we have seen yet more instances of gun violence in our country?  How does “blessed are the meek” sound when we are confronted with bullying in our places of work or at school?  How does “blessed are the pure in heart” sound when we struggle with feelings of worth?  As Seminary Professor Charles James Cook relates, “To be poor in spirit, peaceful, merciful, and meek will get you nowhere in a culture grounded in competition and fear.  Perhaps this is why most references to the Beatitudes imply that in giving his instruction, Jesus was literally turning the values of the world upside down.”[5]

In the end, maybe that’s exactly what Jesus was doing as he offered a different way to be in this world.  A way that recognized the divine spark in every person.  A way that offered compassion in the face of violence.  A way that offered hope when it was easy to give into hopelessness.  Jesus blessed those who gathered before him.  Jesus blesses us still.  Let us leave this place and be a blessing to one another.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700, pg. 317.
[2] Matthew 5:3-4, NRSV.
[3] Murphy-O’Connor, The Holy Land, pg. 318.
[4] Matthew 5:5, 7-9.
[5] Charles James Cook, Pastoral Perspective of Matthew 5:1-12 in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 1, 308.

Photo by Rev. Lauren L. Ostrout