“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before
him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of
with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does God require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
Matthew 5:1-12 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
When Jesus saw the crowds, 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.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“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.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil
against you falselyon my account. Rejoice and be glad, for
your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the
prophets who were before you.
Last week my son, Marc, and sister, Celeste, and I were on a hike that was just under four miles. And we all know that all hiking trails in the Las Cruces area are all uphill, right? At some point a hawk beautifully circled overhead as it was looking for a mid-day meal or maybe just for pure enjoyment. Whenever I see a creature of nature I always feel that is a blessing to my day – to my life. Later we saw a very healthy looking whitetail deer. Another blessing. Of course, being with my family for several days was also a blessing since it had been nearly three years for the three of us to be together.
As a congregation we, too, are blessed. When you hear these Beatitudes what comes to mind? What does it mean to be blessed? Dean Feldmeyer suggests that “usually we associate it with plentitude. It means that we have a lot of something: money, property, talent. Every age and every culture has its own understanding of what it means to be blessed and they are all, surprisingly, similar. Almost all of them involve fame or power or wealth – or sometimes all three.” (sermons.com, Dean Feldmeyer)
“I’ve been blessed.” We hear it a lot, don’t we: We’ve been blessed with a big family. We’ve been blessed with a wonderful home and life.
Then Jesus comes along and turns things upside down – something he is so good at doing – making us question the status quo and our own role in it.
Jesus was just beginning his ministry and people were beginning to really gather and listen to him. It was like an ever-expanding circle as more and more people came together wanting to hear for themselves what Jesus had to say. He had just picked out his disciples – our reading for last week. “Follow me,” Jesus said. And on a hill of northern Israel by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus delivered a sermon to a multitude: people from all walks of life and beliefs: rich/poor; young/old; healthy/sick; mature/immature; believers and nonbelievers. And they listened.
I don’t think these words Jesus spoke are meant to be specifically a comfort, but a challenge to them and us. I still struggle in my understanding of what they mean. Too often we have turned them into platitudes. They are not, however, shallow words to be quoted, but a call to action in transforming our own lives. Maybe you’ve noticed that each of the Beatitudes is written in the present tense. Each of these blessings challenges where we stand in our own experiences as a disciple of Christ.
Owen Stepp reflects that “Jesus re-defines what it means to be blessed. The idea of being poor in spirit is the key to all that is to follow in the Beatitudes.” Stepp shares the following from the Life Application Bible:
“You cannot mourn without appreciating how insufficient you are to handle life in your own strength. You cannot be meek unless you know you have needed gentleness yourself. You cannot hunger and thirst for righteousness if you proudly think of yourself as already righteous. You cannot be merciful without recognizing your own need for mercy. You cannot be pure in heart if your heart is full of pride. You cannot be a peacemaker if you believe that you are always right. You cannot identify with Christ in the face of negative reactions from others without dying to yourself and renouncing your own right.” All of these Beatitudes are rooted in humility, being poor in spirit.” (sermon.org, Owen Stepp, Unlikely Blessings)
Mickey Anders simply puts it this way: “The [one] who is poor in spirit is the [one] who had realized that things mean nothing, and that God means everything.” (sermons.com)
In a recent sermon, Carla Pratt Keyes (ASermonforEverySunday) reflects that the Beatitudes help us to “get in touch with our essential self and worth . . . it can be hard – Christ’s beatitudes relate to how hard it is to get at what is truest about each of us. Happy are the ‘poor in spirit.’
Pratt Keys shares a story of Tony Hoagland, a poet, follower of the Grateful Dead, Buddhist, who writes of this “blessedness.”
Pratt Keys notes that Hoagland “was emptied out not by any spiritual practice, but by the fact of getting cancer. Hoagland died a couple of years ago of pancreatic cancer. He felt moved to speak of what he was learning in the midst of his treatment – moved to share it with America, because he perceived a sickness in this country – the sickness of racism. He saw it afflicting white people, primarily – people like Hoagland himself – people who grew up hearing THAT VOICE that whispers we deserve to be on top, that to profit is our just reward. It’s hard to be poor in spirit when that’s the voice that you hear! But Hoagland saw other people suffering from racism, too: anyone who thinks someone of another religion, color, or background is not indisputably, equally human. [That’s racism.] Hoagland suggested getting cancer puts such illusions to rest. What follows is a good bit of his story, because I believe that in his realizations we find Christ’s blessing.
Speaking to America, Hoagland began: ‘the first time you enter the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas, ‘you may feel [alien and forsaken, and like you’ve] been singled out unfairly, plucked from your healthy life and cast into this cruel ordeal. Walking through the lobby with a manila envelope of X-rays under your arm and a folder of lab reports and notes from your previous doctor, you’ll sense the deep tremor of your animal fear . . .
But there is good news, too. As you pass one hallway after another, looking for elevator B, you’ll see that this place is full of people – riding the escalators, reading books and magazines, checking their phones near the coffeepots. And it will dawn on you that most of these people have cancer. In fact, it seems as if the whole world has cancer. With relief and dismay you’ll realize: I’m not special. Everybody here has cancer. The withered old Jewish lefty newspaper editor. The Latino landscape contractor with the stone-roughened hands. The tough lesbian with the bleached-blond crew cut and the black leather jacket. And you will be cushioned and bolstered by the sheer number and variety of your fellows.
This strange country of cancer, it turns out, is the true democracy – one more real than the nation that lies outside these walls and more authentic than the lofty statements of politicians…. In the country of cancer everyone is simultaneously a have and a have-not. In this land no citizens are protected by property, job description, prestige, and pretensions; they are not even protected by their prejudices. Neither money nor education, greed nor ambition, can alter the facts. You are all simply cancer citizens, bargaining for more life.
It is true that this is not a country you ever planned to visit, much less move to. It is true that you may not have previously considered these people your compatriots. But now you have more in common with them than with your oldest childhood friends. You live together in the community of cancer.
More good news: now that you are sick, you have time to think. From this rocky promontory you can contemplate the long history of your choices, your mistakes, your good luck. You can think about race, too, because most of the people who care for you will be nonwhite, often from other countries. You may be too sick to talk, but you can watch them and learn. Your attention is made keen by need and by your intimate dependence upon these inexhaustibly kind strangers.
This is the stupefying and ultimately transforming thing, that here, where I do not expect it, I encounter decency, patience, compassion, warmth, good humor. I remember the middle-aged nurse from Alabama, his calm Southern twang and beer belly, who stood firm one night, utterly unperturbed while I vomited repeatedly, as if a demon had seized control of my insides. With empathetic watchfulness, he administered the proper shot until I fell backward into a state of blessed relief. I remember the shift nurse with pale-olive skin and thick eyebrows who, in the middle of the night, brought me hot packs of damp folded towels heated in a microwave. She was from the Middle East, maybe Syria or Egypt. She was so kind and respectful to me that, after she departed, I abruptly burst into tears and blew her a kiss through the closed door.
The historical record – for tolerance, for human leaning – is not promising. Yet I believe, more than ever, that at the bottom of each human being there is a reset button. Undeniably it is difficult to get to. To reach it seems to require that the ego be demolished by circumstance. But reach that button and press it, and the world might reshape itself.’
In order to change Hoagland said: ‘you must cross this threshold, enter a condition of helplessness, and experience the mysterious intimacy between the sick and their caregivers, between yourself and every person who is equally laid low. Poor in spirit.’ [Blessed are the poor in spirit.]
Hoagland beckoned: ‘come into the fields and meadows of the examination rooms, come to the clean beds, to the infernal beeping of monitors, to the lobbies and alcoves of the labyrinth. Look at the faces of the ones who are attending to you. Witness those who are silently passing by on their pilgrimage to surgery or radiology. Let the workers be fairly paid and valued, for their skills draw us together like the edges of a wound. Listen to the music of the voices around you. As the machines tick, as the ventilators suck and heave and exhale, as the very ground beneath our feet starts to dissolve, we shall be changed.’
Yes, we shall be changed. We shall be transformed. We shall be moved. That is hard work – to get past our egos and understand our dependence on one another and our intimate connection to everything God has made. We must be “poor in spirit.” Richard Rohr described that poverty as “an inner emptiness and humility, a beginner’s mind, an ability to live without the need for personal righteousness or reputation. It is like the first step of Alcoholics Anonymous – to admit [we] are powerless – that [our] life has become unmanageable. It’s what [we] acknowledge before [we] can fully turn to God. Before [we] change.
According to Jesus, these people are not only blessed but also bear a blessing. People who can weep, who can identify with others who are laid low, who show mercy and work for peace, who find a kind of joy even in the midst of suffering – they bless the world around them. They bless us in a way that preserves us, and heals us. So we see what God’s kingdom is like – not in the future, but right now.” Right here.
God does not require a sacrificial life from us, but for us to strive to be our authentic selves where there is strength in humility, in being kind, in daily caring for one another that leads to justice.
May God bless us in all our interactions and may we be a blessing to all we meet. Amen.
Copyright DMC 2020