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a short sermon for inside a *women's prison


The 12-step meeting I attended for years was next door to the Masterpiece Cake Shop – the one who went all the way to the US Supreme Court to seek “protection” from having to make a cake for a gay wedding.

One Saturday I was in a mood. When I saw that the prime parking spot in front of the bakery was open, I took it, shot a quick pic of me flipping off Masterpiece Cake Shop, posted it on Twitter and went to my meeting.

I mention this because when Jesus says things like, you are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, I think for sure he for sure doesn’t mean me.

I mean, surely Jesus means people who don’t have drinking problems and who never post angry pictures on-line of them making obscene gestures at bakeries and –fancying it to be “activism” –  surely those who Jesus would call the salt of the earth and the light of the world are a superior class of people nothing like me.  This is what I told myself as I was trying to figure out what I related to in our text for today.

So, curious to know more, I went into the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew to try and discover what I could about who this special class of awesome, salty, light bearing people were.

Ok, this is where I offer an installment of “Pastor Nadia’s Nerdy History Of The Bible” – this week’s topic is: Chapters and Verses.

While having the Bible broken into chapters and verses makes it easier to find things and reference them. The Bible didn’t like, come with them . . . as a matter of fact, there actually were no chapter numbers in the Bible until the 13th century and there were no verse numbers until the 16th century. In other words, Jesus never like, sat down and divided his sermons into verses.  So, this means that, believe it or not, you totally have permission to ignore chapters and verses – like, go for it.  Those separations were added hundreds of years later. I mention this because when I defiantly ignored the arbitrary separation between the 4th and 5th chapters of Matthew, it totally changed everything for me.  Because honestly, some monk in the 13th century who was the guy who  decided one day where Matthew chapter 4 ended, and where Matthew chapter 5 begins, is definitely not the boss of me.

I’ll show you what I mean: Our reading today starts at the beginning of chapter 5 but the last verses of chapter 4 say this: Jesus fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them.  great crowds followed him from a bunch of places I can’t pronounce. (which is where chapter 4 ends which I’m sorry, but is stupid because the first verse of chapter 5 says) When Jesus saw the crowds, (when he saw the demoniacs and epileptics and people in pain) he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

See, here’s why sometimes it’s good to ignore the chapter and verse separations.  Because it’s so easy for us to default to hearing Jesus’ Sermon On The Mount as pure exhortation.  As though he is giving us a list of virtues we should try and adopt so that we too can be considered blessed – you know,  be meeker, be poorer, and mournier and you too can meet the conditions of earning Jesus’ blessing.  But the thing is, it’s hard to imagine Jesus exhorting a crowd of demoniacs and epileptics to be meeker.  He wasn’t telling the sick and the lame what they should try and become, he was telling them you are blessed and you are the salt of the earth and you are the light of the world.

Which is why for years now, I’ve been convinced that the Sermon on the Mount is all about Jesus’ lavish blessing of the people around him on that hillside who his world—like ours—didn’t seem to have much time for: people in pain, people who work for peace instead of profit, people who exercise mercy instead of vengeance.

Maybe Jesus was simply blessing the ones around him that day who didn’t otherwise receive blessing, who had come to believe that, for them, blessings would never be in the cards.

What I am trying to say is that perhaps there were people in the crowd who totally had their crap together. People who had solid relationships and never had collection agencies calling them  and always backed up their hard drives.  People who only bought books at Lifeway and who didn’t have terrible secrets and who knew exactly what they were doing.  I mean, of course it’s possible those people were in the crowd, it’s just . . . that’s not who we are told were coming to Jesus.

The ones we are told were coming to Jesus, the ones presumably to whom he was preaching, were described as the sick, those who were in pain, who fought with demons, who were broken and addicted and late on their back taxes.  Those who have more than one ex-wife, and who buy scratchers and think that maybe just a tiny bit of heroin might be a good idea. In other words, the salt of the earth and the light of the world are just the people who happen to be standing in the need of God. And standing in the need of God is standing in the way of blessedness in a way that already having it all together never has been.

These people, the wretched ones left behind in the last verses of chapter 4, they follow Jesus, in a way that the least, the last, the lost and the lonely have always followed him.

I thought that to be the light of the world, to let my light so shine before men, I have to be whole, and strong, and perfect. I’d have to be in that special class of people I’ll never belong to.

But when I listen closely, I realize that nowhere in the Sermon On The Mount does Jesus say “here are the conditions you must meet in order to be the salt of the Earth.” He does not say “here are the standards of wholeness you must fulfill in order to be light for the world”.  No. He simply looks out into the crowd of people in pain, people who have been broken open – who bear those spiritual cracks that let in the light, who have the salt of sweat and tears on their broken bodies, and says YOU are salt. You. You are light. You have that of God within you – the God whose light scatters the darkness. Your imperfect and beautiful bodies are made of chemicals with holiness shimmering in then…you are made of dirt and the very breath of God.

So please, don’t wait until you feel as though you have met the conditions of being holy. Trust that Jesus knows what he is doing. You are already holy. Don’t try and be it. Know that you already are it. And then, for the love of God, take that seriously. The world needs it. You need it. This prison needs it. AMEN.

In closing I offer you this –

I imagine Jesus standing among us offering some new beatitudes:

Blessed are the agnostics.

Blessed are they who doubt. Those who aren’t sure, who can still

be surprised.

Blessed are they who are spiritually impoverished and therefore not so certain about everything that they no longer take in new information.

Blessed are those who have nothing to offer.

Blessed are the preschoolers who cut in line at communion. Blessed are the poor in spirit.

You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.


Blessed are they for whom death is not an abstraction.

Blessed are they who have buried their loved ones, for whom tears could fill an ocean. Blessed are they who have loved enough to know what loss feels like.

Blessed are the mothers of the miscarried.

Blessed are they who don’t have the luxury of taking things for granted anymore.

Blessed are they who can’t fall apart because they have to keep it together for everyone else.

Blessed are those who “still aren’t over it yet.”

Blessed are those who mourn.

You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.


Blessed are those who no one else notices. The kids who sit alone at middle-school lunch tables. The laundry guys at the hospital. The sex workers and the night-shift street sweepers.

Blessed are the forgotten. Blessed are the closeted.

Blessed are the unemployed, the unimpressive, the underrepresented.

Blessed are the teens who have to figure out ways to hide the new cuts on their arms. Blessed are the meek.

You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.


Blessed are the wrongly accused, the ones who never catch a break, the ones for whom life is hard, for Jesus chose to surround himself with people like them.

Blessed are those without documentation. Blessed are the ones without lobbyists.

Blessed are foster kids and special ed kids and every other kid who just wants to feel safe and loved.

Blessed are those who make terrible business decisions for the sake of people.

Blessed are the burned-out social workers and the overworked teachers and the pro bono case takers.

Blessed are the kindhearted football players and the fundraising trophy wives.

Blessed are the kids who step between the bullies and the weak. Blessed are they who hear that they are forgiven.

Blessed is everyone who has ever forgiven me when I didn’t

deserve it.

Blessed are the merciful, for they totally get it.

I imagine Jesus standing here blessing us all because I believe that is our Lord’s nature. Because, after all, it was Jesus who had all the powers of the universe at his disposal but did not consider his equality with God something to be exploited. Instead, he came to us in the most vulnerable of ways, as a powerless, flesh-and-blood newborn. As if to say, “You may hate your bodies, but I am blessing all human flesh. You may admire strength and might, but I am blessing all human weakness. You may seek power, but I am blessing all human vulnerability.” This Jesus whom we follow cried at the tomb of his friend and turned the other cheek and forgave those who hung him on a cross. He was God’s Beatitude—God’s blessing to the weak in a world that admires only the strong.


Visit Nadia’s website here.

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