Blessed Are the Pure of Heart – For Tyre Nichols

This sermon was originally preached at a hybrid service of St. Barnabas’ Episcopal Church.

Relevant lectionary readings here.

Grace and Peace are yours from the Triune God, amen.

This morning we read Jesus’ first sermon moment in the book of Matthew, sometimes known as the Sermon on the Mount –  possibly the most famous sermon in all of history. The first several chapters of Matthew before this are eventful. Jesus is born a child of questionable circumstances under the reign of terror of the Roman Empire and then flees with his family to Egypt as refugees to escape the brutal violence of an insecure puppet king. He returns and grows up and is baptized in the River Jordan by his cousin and mentor, John, and then is driven out into the wilderness by the Spirit for 40 days of temptation. And then, upon arriving back into civilization, he gets the news that his cousin and mentor had been arrested as an enemy of the state and dragged off to jail, a consequence for speaking out against the king.

In response to the news of his mentor’s arrest, Jesus goes to the town of Capernum. This region was the region where Herod Antipas ruled, the same puppet king who had just had John arrested. Whereas in chapter 2 the threat of another Herod, his father, had sent Jesus and his family “fleeing,” scripture uses that same Greek word again to describe Jesus’ movements. But this time, Jesus flees TO Herod, to the seat of power, and begins his ministry there in plain view and defiance of the arrest of his cousin, mentor, and friend. 

Jesus begins building his movement, preaching the same words that had gotten his mentor arrested, “Repent for the Reign of God is near!” and began calling his disciples, promising them they could fish for people instead. And as this rag-tag movement of dissidents, rejects, and rabble rousers gathered speed, Jesus went around healing and feeding people…the 1st century equivalent of Free Breakfast programs and Community Clinics. Healthcare under the Roman Empire was costly and inaccessible. And it was that way by design. The Roman Empire kept people poor and therefore sick for a reason. People who are struggling to survive can’t afford to overthrow Empires. In a sick, hungry, exhausted population, a free meal and free medical care went a long way. People from all over the region came far and wide to see this healer, Jesus. Crowds were gathering around him, following him.

I mention all of this because I think it’s important for us to know the backdrop against which Jesus said these words we read today – a hostile occupation by a violent Empire who arrested and incarcerated dissidents, who crushed uprisings, who controlled populations by repressing them through the denial of their most basic human needs – an Empire who did all this and more and then called it, ironically, Pax Romana. The peace of Rome.

Later we will see that Jesus blesses peacemakers. This is a peace so unlike the so-called peace of Rome. Jesus doesn’t bless those who keep the peace, reinforce the status quo. He is blessing those who are active and working creatively to build peace, to make peace. The kind of deep and lasting peace that, as MLK wrote, is not just the absence of tension but is the presence of justice. A peace that midwifes in a new world by loving liberation into being. 

A peace that is active. 

These verses today in Matthew were Jesus’ first recorded sermon in this account. But he had been doing what MLK’s contemporary Rabbi Abraham Heschel called “praying with his legs.” Jesus’ life, his caring for people’s bodies, his providing for their personal needs, his peace-making…his life had been a sermon too. 

So when he went up on the mountain with the disciples and preached to the crowd, it wasn’t their first introduction to him. His words made sense and were powerful because they already knew him by his actions. 

He told them,
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed the hungry and merciful and pure of heart and peacemakers and persecuted.”

He looked at the hungry, persecuted mass in front of him and told them they were blessed. 

When we hear the word “blessed” or “bless-ed” in our modern context it reminds me of the sorts of social media posts we all make when we are trying to sort of humble brag about something good that happened to us. Go on a fun vacation? #Blessed. Bought a home? #Blessed. New car? #Blessed.

But the Greek word used here is makarios. And makarios had a different connotation. In the classical Greek era, makarios described the status of the gods. It was used only for those with the most political power, the most social capital, the most wealth.

Jesus looked out at the people – his people – suffering under occupation, languishing under the Empire, hungry, poor, desperate, sick. And he said,

“You. You are blessed.”

In Jesus’ time and now we often falsely equate poverty and suffering with losing God’s favor. We assume that if someone is poor that it is a result of their own individual actions, that they must have done something to deserve it. But in many, many verses, scripture reminds us that that is not the case. Poverty is a sin, but it is not the sin of the poor. It is the systemic sin of the Empire who creates it and the sin of apathy and complicity of those who allow it.

It is subversive for Jesus to call these people blessed. But another possible translation of this word is even more clear to my modern ears. 

Makarios is also translated “elite.”

My call as a pastor is in downtown Chicago on the South Loop and as part of my work, I am the pastor for a group of just under 200 unhoused people. These are people suffering under the burden of multiple layers of systemic injustice. People who are too often forgotten and discarded. Many of them are sick and without care. One of them died outside on a park bench in the cold only a few weeks ago.

I imagine Jesus speaking to a crowd not unlike them and saying:

It is not the people in the halls of power that God says are elite. It’s not celebrities and politicians and landlords and warlords.

It’s you.

You are the ones on God’s Who’s Who List. You are the one’s invited to all of God’s fancy galas. You are the ones walking God’s Red Carpet.

Elite are those of you who are wondering if you should give up, who doubt if any of this means anything, if any of this is worth it.

Elite are those who have lost so much, those of you with empty chairs at your tables, with loved ones whose names are now hashtags, those of you who wail.

Elite are those of you who are beaten down. Who can’t take one more step forward.

Elite are those of you with stomach pangs, whose bellies are growling, who are hungry for bread and hungry for justice. 

Elite are those of you who cut the people around you a break when no one else will, who hold onto your innocence in a world set out to destroy you, who try to build up community and make the world a better place. 

You. The forgotten. The discarded. The targeted and profiled. The erased. 


You are elite because God is for you. God is one of you. God is with you.

Tyre Nichols was 29 years old. He worked the second shift at FedEx. He loved his mother so much he had her name tattooed on his arm and would go to his mom’s house every night at 7 for his meal break. He had a four year old son.

He was not the sort of person our society would call elite. Not by a long stretch. But those he loved talk about what we might call his pureness of heart. His art. His love of skateboarding. His mother called him “a beautiful soul and a good boy.” She said, “No one’s perfect. But [Tyre] was damn near.”

The systems of this world did not treat Tyre as one of the elite. They took Tyre away from his mother, away from his child.

But Jesus looks at Tyre and says, “To me? Tyre, you are elite. Elite are you for making the world a more beautiful place through art. Elite are you for your love of sunsets. Elite are you for loving those close to you so well. Elite are you because no matter what the world says, you are mine.”

God is for you. God is one of you. God is with you.

Jesus came to earth as one of the common people, living under Empire, in solidarity with Tyre and all those like him. Jesus is embodied, tangible proof that God is for people like Tyre. Because God is one of them. And as God welcomed Tyre into God’s eternal mercy, the kind of mercy not shown to Tyre, God made good on God’s promise. Blessed are you Tyre, for you will see God.

Those of us who claim to be followers of Christ have a responsibility to be for and with the people Christ said he was for. The poor and the mourning. The meek and the hungry. The merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemakers.  The persecuted. And when we do that, we become one of them. 

Being followers of Christ, being for Christ, means being for Tyre. It is a heavy call. It is not without cost. We know that being for and with people like Tyre was dangerous enough to the Empire that they had Jesus killed too. And that is why God promises us we will not do this work alone. That’s why God reminds us that when we align ourselves with those God calls elite, we have Jesus by our side, fueled by his body and blood, with a whole community of saints beside us.

Elite are you who are hungry for justice. 

Elite are you who imagine better worlds and work for them.
Elite are you who are in solidarity with those God loves.

God is for you. God is one of you. God is with you.


One reply on “Blessed Are the Pure of Heart – For Tyre Nichols”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s