Sunday, February 2, 2014

The First Word


Beatitude Series - part 1

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

So begins the most memorable sermon of all time, that has shaped countless people and cultures and orators, the kind of speech the analysts sit around their news desks and continue to rave about and pick apart long after the cameras stop rolling, the one that people keep referring back to throughout time, holding up as a standard, memorizing lines from and weaving into their songs generations later without knowing where the words came from. 
The sermon on the mount is Jesus’ greatest hits album, it’s got:
You are the salt of the earth.
You are the light of the world. Let your light shine. 
If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off.
Let your yes be yes and your no be no.
Turn the other cheek. 
Love your enemies and pray for those that persecute you. 
Pray this way, ‘our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…’
Where your heart is, there your treasure will be also.
You cannot serve two masters – you cannot serve God and wealth.
Consider the lilies of the field who neither toil nor spin…. 
Seek first the kingdom of God.
Don’t worry about tomorrow -Today has enough trouble of its own. 
Do not judge lest you be judged. 
Before you tell someone they’ve got a splinter in their eye pull the log out of your own.
Ask and it shall be given, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened. 
Do unto others what you would have them do unto you. 
Enter through the narrow gate.  
‘Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock…
You will know them by their fruit.
You get the picture.
It’s like Shakespeare’s top monologues and one-liners all together in a single play.
And it’s also like the ten commandments, fleshed out.

In Matthew Jesus heads on up a mountain – like Moses - to deliver the new reality from God.  And the first time this happened God gave the people the law, freeing them from slavery and showing them reality with God in charge of them instead.  For this mountain speech, Godwithus fleshes it out, describing what reality with God in charge- the kingdom of God- is like.  Here is what life looks like when you’re living in God’s community and promise for the world. 

It’s a direct and at times harsh, and it’s also comforting and compelling, with lots of imperative commands – It calls people to respond and to act and tells people how to live.  And the beatitudes before us today are where the epic sermon begins.  The first preached words of Jesus’ ministry in Matthew begin with these.  Someone once said, “If the sermon on the mount is the constitution, the beatitudes are the preamble.”

First word?  Blessed.  As Happy, but not surface or cheery, more nuanced than that, more like, contented, grounded and grateful. Centered and awake, in touch with joy, honored. Blessed.
Blessed, it says, are those who are destitute in crushing spiritual poverty.  For the reality of God’s rule belongs to them.

OK, let’s just get one thing straight right out of the gate, Jesus says, this is not going to be what you thought it was.
So before I school you on the kingdom of God, before I spell out what’s what and give you some guidance on how to live in this reality, I want to tell you whom I especially came for. Whom I especially meet, who’s got the edge and is sitting pretty, and it’s these.  The miserable and the meek, the broken and the heartbroken.  They are the blessed ones.

This is so wildly uncomfortable for us that we’ve conveniently and ironically, turned the beatitudes into exactly what they are not – commands to be a certain way or feel a certain thing in order to achieve blessing- strive to be meek, make sure to hunger thirst for righteousness and be peacemaking mourners. 
The part of the epic sermon without a single command in it at all, the intro that is just a statement of fact, we’ve made into a list of things to strive for to get God’s blessing and approval. We want so badly to be strong, to be sure. We think religion or faith or God is supposed to make us more secure, and certainly everything else in life honors security and strength and prosperity and power. So this must just be God’s own way to get those things, right? And for our own sense of order and balance, we’ve turned the preamble into prerequisites.  “Be like this so you will be blessed.”
But that is not what they are at all.

Instead Jesus is saying the strangest thing.  Secure are the insecure.  Strong are the weak.  Grateful are the grievers. The reality I bring into the world belongs to them. They will see God.   “… nobody gets what they deserve but infinitely more.” as Buechner says, “Blessed is the one who gets the joke, who sees that miracle.”

What is this reign of God, this reality of the world with God in charge of it – what is the kingdom of God that has come among us and unfolds between us?  It is one of blessing. Of lifting up and honoring and breath catching in your chest gratitude and joy because you’re in on it. 
God is doing something in the world and God is doing something in you.  And the glimpse of that happens, the feeling of blessing comes, when we are most ready to receive it, when we are most in touch with reality as it really is.

Comparing can be a horrible poison.  So, when I hear, “poor in spirit,” I figure, it must mean somebody else who has it way worse than me, someone who is flattened by guilt and shame in a cycle of addiction, say, or completely incapable of kindness, shut down and hardened, or maybe someone utterly morally bankrupt and corrupt, or someone chronically selfish and ignorant who says hurtful things and constantly belittles others.  So I get to feel both morally superior – for not being as poor in spirit as that sorry schmuck, while also feeling slightly slighted: too bad this blessing doesn’t apply to me because I’m not in such a bad state.

But here’s the rub, I am sometimes so impoverished in spirit there’s nothing there but parched rage and hot shame.  Yesterday, for instance, I behaved terribly, and felt myself completely off the rails, letting my pride and disappointment, sadness and fury run loose and spill all over my kid.  And the momentary satisfaction of letting my anger run the show meant a whole day of feeling dirty and mortified and sad.  And I wanted to take it all back and couldn’t.   And all day the beatitudes are bouncing around inside me and blessed are the poor in spirit! rings out and I want to say, yeah right.  I do feel poor in spirit and I don’t deserve to be blessed. 
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven! 
Whatever.
Blessed are the poor in spirit.
Yup that’s me.
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
I don’t deserve that.
Blessed are the poor in spirit. 
I feel awful.
Blessed are the poor in spirit.  Blessed are the poor in spirit.
Stop. Hear it.
Blessed are the poor in spirit.
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the miserable, For Life as God means it to be belongs to them!
And suddenly I do hear it. And it feels like utter gift.

Life as God means for it to be shared belongs to those who can’t get it together. To those who are trapped in guilt and shame and addiction and are incapable of kindness and are utterly morally bankrupt and corrupt and are selfish and petty and who rage out at their kids and who feel trapped in cycles of disappointment and who suffer over what they can’t take back and who feel hopeless to keep it all together or seek God or practice faith or do good in the midst of their own failures and fallings. 
Blessed are they!
Life as God means for it to be shared belongs especially to them!

I want so badly to share life as God means for it to be with my kids. I want them to know they are loved, and to know that I know I am loved, and for all of us to live that way – in ourselves, with each other, in the world.  This promise, this is for me.  And it’s for you.

Henri Nouwen says, “Claiming your own blessedness always leads to a deep desire to bless others.”  Claiming our own blessedness makes us want to help others claim theirs.  
When I am poor in spirit I want the kingdom of God: love and patience, forgiveness and openness, kindness and hope.  I want to live in that and share it, and I feel impossibly, hopelessly far from it and piercingly aware that I can’t conjure it up on my own and I am utterly incapable of faking it at the moment.

Jesus goes up a mountain to tell the world what reality is like with God in charge, and he starts off the whole thing by saying, Blessed are you, then, when you feel the depths of your poverty and brokenness.  When it’s just emptiness and you. For you, is life as God means it to be shared, for you, is the community of people who get the joke, who are in on the miracle.  Honored are you indeed, for you are free to welcome life as God means it to be.


Amen.

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