Homily for the 4th Sunday of Epiphany January 30, 2011
THE BEATITUDES: NOT CHEESY AT ALL
In Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, people at the edge of the crowd listening to Jesus deliver the Beatitudes struggle to hear what he’s saying. “What was that?” one asks. Someone turns around and says, “I don’t know, I think it was, ‘Blessed are the cheese-makers’”! It’s a humorous comment on how difficult it can be to figure out what Jesus is really saying. Indeed, as St Paul suggests, the Gospel is foolishness to many.
The Beatitudes (Blessed are …) are generally considered the heart of Christ’s teaching, and yet they generate a lot of confusion among people, so I invite you to reflect for a few minutes on what these extraordinary verses might mean for us (beyond cheese-making, that is).
First, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” St Luke’s Gospel says simply, “Blessed are the poor,” which takes the saying in a different direction. But Matthew’s version (“Blessed are the poor in spirit”) recognizes that moving toward spiritual maturity involves emptying, letting go — that surrendering the ego is essential to life in the Spirit. It speaks of those who embrace the spirit of humility, of service, of being willing to be open to others and to the world. Jesus does not promote poverty, and you don’t have to be economically poor to have a humble spirit. Matthew’s version suggests something like: Be poor in spirit (in contrast to the self-righteous Pharisees who strutted around acting like they had arrived – like they owned a bigger share in the Kingdom than others – full of themselves but not of God). Be poor in spirit (in contrast to the self-assured TV evangelists with their glib formulas and illusions of success). Be poor in spirit (in contrast to the misguided lunatics who blow up people’s children and communities in the name of “God”). Blessed are those who recognize they have a need and can admit that they are not full, and that they don’t have it all together. To be poor in spirit is to be humble enough to recognize our need of God, and not become stalled in self-righteousness or spiritual pride.
“Blessed are those who mourn; they shall be comforted.” This speaks to the painfully unjust world Jesus saw all around him. There was a lot of suffering, deprivation and loss. Christ’s compassion was especially directed toward those who had been steamrolled by the powerful, the rich, and the religious and royal tyrants of that world. In such a heartless world, blessed are those who stay connected with their hearts, who don’t grow cold and indifferent or numb in the face of much loss and disappointment. Blessed are those who persist in caring enough to allow themselves to be hurt by another’s pain, and courageous enough to embrace their own.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Blessed are those gentle, serene and trusting people who don’t feel they need to grasp and control and own everyone and everything. Happy are those who realize that the beauty of the earth is a gift from God to everyone, and no one can take away the gifts of appreciation and gratitude and wonder that we have. Blessed are those who realize this world belongs to God and is meant to be shared. In all their anxiety and suspicion and hostility, the graspers of the world don’t tend to live long enough to enjoy it anyway. Jesus may be saying, live graciously, and you will develop a capacity to appreciate and inhabit the entire planet.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Martin Luther King said: “An individual has not started living until s/he can rise above the narrow confines of his/her individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” Happy are those who have good reasons to get out of bed and engage each day with a sense of purpose. Happy are those who are driven and motivated by God’s vision of shalom – of Eden – of a world in which all can be fed, all can be valued, and no one needs to be ashamed of who they are. Having a sense that life has a meaning, and that we must pay attention to our dreams and vision, is a reward all its own.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” reminds us that life involves give as well as take. There’s a story of a woman having a conversation with God one day and she said, “Lord, I would like to know what Heaven and Hell are like.” She was led to two doors.
She opened one of the doors and looked in. In the middle of the room was a large round table. In the middle of the table was a large pot of stew, which smelled so delicious it made her mouth water. But the people sitting around the table were thin and sickly. They appeared to be starving to death. They were holding spoons with very long handles that were strapped to their arms and each found it possible to reach into the pot of stew and take a spoonful. But because the handle was longer than their arms, they could not get the spoons back into their mouths.
The woman shuddered at the sight of their misery and suffering. God said, “Now you have seen Hell.”
Then they opened the second door. This room was exactly the same as the first one — a large round table and people gathered around a large pot of stew. The people were equipped with the same long-handled spoons, but here the people were well nourished and healthy, laughing and talking. The woman said, “I don’t understand.” “It is simple,” said the Lord. “Heaven requires only one skill. The difference is: they have learned to feed each other, while the greedy think only of themselves, and so they starve.”
A world without mercy would be a terrible place. I imagine Jesus could probably have predicted the Cambodia’s, the Somalia’s, the Darfur’s and the various Holocausts which have sickened the world like plagues. For Jesus, there is a spiritual law or principle governing life, similar to Karma. Most people seem to believe that “what goes around comes around,” but for Jesus, it speaks of the very personal sense of God that he had, and for him, serving God was best expressed in showing mercy, forgiveness, understanding, kindness and compassion. That is what God is about; that is what life is about. In one New Testament story after another, it seems this is the way Jesus urges people to choose to contribute to the world.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” If you’ve ever been betrayed or cheated in some way, you know how painful it is to realize that some people can seem so genuine, so caring, etc., and yet all along have had ulterior motives – they didn’t mean what they said, they deceived you or used you, and your trust in them has caused you to suffer. And maybe the worst part of that suffering is your own self-criticism at being duped, and the cynicism that often results. It’s amazing the power of one event or one individual to distort the way we view the entire world – narrowing and pinching our vision – and how tough it is to stay open and willing to continue to relating in a positive way. In Jesus’ vision, happy are they who can persist in seeing the good in the world and not allow themselves to lose perspective because of the evil of a few. Happy are they who, child-like but not naive, persist in operating from the motive of love and not self-interest, cynicism or revenge. It is those who persist in love, not the cynical, who see things as they most truly are.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” People who can create peace are a great gift to the world. We human beings seem awfully capable of causing conflict, inflicting pain, and holding grudges, but those who can reconcile, heal, and create mutual respect and understanding, are the true children of the God who expressed himself best in the redeeming love of Christ. When we finally embrace the truth of this piece of wisdom, the wolf shall indeed dwell with the lamb. Remember too, as Isaiah said, that “a little child shall show us the way.” When you pass the Peace this morning, realize you are symbolizing one of the central aspects of the Church’s purpose on earth.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Many people today are ruled by fear, and have disengaged from personal political involvement, social action, and even neighbourhood connections, but for those who do get involved, it is typically very rewarding. For instance, those who joined Martin Luther King’s march on Washington in 1963, despite being arrested, despite being harassed and physically abused, spoke of arriving at a deeper level of awareness, and of a new vitality of life.
Pat Brown, a High School student at the time, says this: “The march changed my life. I left with a sense of connection – that the community had been drawn together in a way that it hadn’t before, with solidarity, with intelligence and without violence.”
Joyce Barrett was a college student at the time and travelled from the northern United Sates to get on the trains moving from the south to Washington. She said this: “The march lifted our spirits. One word to describe it would be “joy” . . . I had a religious background, and I felt I couldn’t be the person I wanted to be unless I opposed segregation. I thought if we didn’t confront it, the country would go downhill.”
Bored teenagers who spend endless hours purposely wasting their time twittering, texting and playing video games, might not be shuffling around like characters from the Night of the Living Dead if they were motivated about something meaningful enough to take a risk for, and make sacrifices for. As Martin Luther King said, “If a person hasn’t discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.”
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you.” Everyone gets picked on at some point in life, and some of those wounds go very deep. Jesus is not advocating for meaningless suffering, but when we suffer for something we think of as important, our faith says, “even when the world says I’m nothing, I am still God’s child.” Even when I am feeling at alienated and insignificant, in faith I can say I still matter to God.
Despite all the confusion and misunderstanding around them, and the fact that the Beatitudes of Jesus are open to interpretation, overall they are actually very clear. But what is also clear is that Christ leads us in a different direction than our society is on at the moment, and that can create tension for people trying to be Christian. Being rejected for believing in the way of Jesus is becoming the norm for Christians. The teachings of Jesus are often counter-intuitive – foolishness to some – and people often think we just have to reinterpret them to make them fit with our experience and understanding of things when in fact we need to reinterpret the Church in their light. It is when the Church ignores those teachings that it is least authentic and least effective. As one writer expressed it: It is not that the Gospel is irrelevant, but that we often are.
Mohandas Gandhi said: “A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.” In the next few months, as we continue the Ministry Assessment Process (MAP), I hope we will proceed in a spirit consistent with the Beatitudes.
The Beatitudes are not just a case of, “Wouldn’t it be great if… “In these words Jesus is offering wisdom to us in the very real and immediate circumstances of life. Persecution, doubt and significant loss happen to us all. To believe that God is actually present to us at such times shifts our perceptions about God. The Beatitudes are an invitation to engage the suffering of the world — to reach out to the poor, the grieving, the victims of injustice with compassion — but also to recognize that God blesses us in our own poverty of spirit, and meets us at our various points of need.