Sunday, January 30, 2011

Choosing a Favorite Beatitude

Matthew 5:1-12
Ordinary 4
January 30, 2011
William G. Carter

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..."

I have been living with these words for a long time. I grew up in a church that believed third graders should memorize important passages from the Bible. This was one of those passages. That was forty-three years ago. These nine blessings of Jesus have haunted me in all that time. Our Sunday School teacher insisted that we memorize them, along with the Lord’s Prayer, the 23rd Psalm, and 100th Psalm.

The Lord’s Prayer came easily since my parents taught it to me, and we prayed it on our knees every night. The 23rd Psalm is beautiful, moving from the Shepherd’s green pastures to God’s banquet hall. You might not recall the 100th Psalm until you hear the opening line: “Make a joyful noise to the Lord!” Those words continue to shape my life.

But the Beatitudes are different. Nine different “blesseds.” Jesus identifies God’s values by naming those people God blesses. They are not the rich or the powerful. They are not the successful or the strong. And they can be difficult to understand.

Our third grade Sunday School teacher knew this, I think. When somebody complained, “These are hard,” I remember her saying, “Pick one, and make it your favorite.” That’s still a pretty good exercise, and I’m not sure which one I would choose.

How about this one? Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. It sounds like a positive statement: we receive what we give. If we show mercy, we get it back. If we cut others a break, they will show mercy to us. It has a reciprocal nature, much like the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do to us.”

That makes a certain kind of sense, as long as it works. And you know it doesn’t always work. A bit later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches us to “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.” We are to love them whether or not they love us in return. Perhaps in the long run, we show mercy in order to receive God’s mercy. We can hope for that kind of logical sequence: be kind and discover that God is kind.

Except that Jesus will say God is kind to everybody, regardless of how they are: “God sends the sun on the evil and the good,” he says, “and the refreshing rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Well, that’s not how I would rule the world. I would be merciful only to those who were merciful to me, and ignore those who ignore me. But not God; I am certainly not as generous as God.

So this beatitude raises a few questions. There is more mercy in God than there is in any of us.

Another beatitude is confusing to me: Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. That sounds like a quick promise. Given all the funerals that I’ve done lately, it would be a blessing if everybody who mourns would be comforted. We do our part to comfort: we send cards, make phone calls, deliver casseroles, sit and listen.

But the first part of it sticks my throat: “Blessed are those who mourn…” That’s hard to swallow. Sometimes I have said to people, “You grieve because you loved,” and I believe it. If you love somebody a lot, you are going to miss them when they are gone. I can’t imagine ever losing the people who are dearest to me, but some day I will. It happens. It happens to all of us. And we cannot yet see the blessing.

So if it’s OK with you, in terms of favorites, I would rather put this beatitude on the shelf, forget about it, and maybe someday it will come true. That brings me to another one. I like it, for it’s a promise:

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

Meek means docile, submissive, spiritless, and tame. In an aggressive age, meek means “weak.”

When I think of “meek,” I think of the 1962 New York Mets. Anybody remember them? They won 40 games, lost 120. It was one of the worst record in modern baseball. The ’62 Mets were a brand new team, created from the cast-offs from other teams. Their first baseman was Marvelous Marv Throneberry. He had a hole in his glove, but he could hit. One day, he hit a long triple in a game against the Cubs, but the umpire called him out for not touching second base. The manager Casey Stengel climbed out of the dugout to dispute the call, and the ump said, “Don’t bother arguing Casey, he missed first base too.”

The 1962 Mets were pathetic. Talk about meek! But in 1969, they won the World Series, which is to say they inherited the earth!

We love a good rag-to-riches story. The ’62 Mets became the ’69 Mets. Cinderella sweeps the ashes and marries the prince. We like these stories. The kid grows up in a small town and makes it big in the city. Jesus is born in the barn and becomes the Savior of the world.

The only problem is that the beatitude never says that the meek ever change. They don’t grow stronger. They don’t increase their self-confidence. They don’t become more aggressive. If anything, the meek stay meek. The aggressive ones can finish one another off, leaving the meek behind to inherit the earth. Perhaps that is what this means.

I don’t know. It’s a strange beatitude. Let’s leave it alone. How about this one:

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

This is another promise, and I can believe it. It is logical. It allows no distractions. It pushes us to get clear about what we most desire. It was the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard who famously said, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” It is to decide on one thing. I take that to refer to God: if all we want is God, we will see God. If all we care about is God, our eyes will be opened to God. For Jesus will say a couple of chapters later, “Seek first the kingdom of God, and then everything else will be added.” It’s that single-minded pursuit that opens us to the Almighty.

The problem, of course, is that I’m not single-minded about anything. I reach in the refrigerator for ketchup and pull out barbecue sauce, too. I would love to see God, and trust that some day I will, but I have compromised allegiances and a very scattered heart. If I could only be pure in heart, I would make this my favorite beatitude.

But I’m not, so this can’t be. So let’s try another:

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Certainly this is a favorite beatitude. It is one of the most immediately remembered. We celebrate the peacemakers. We affirm those people who have an irenic spirit, those who sort through conflicted points of view and establish common ground.

But peacemaking is not a latent value of the world. We are so accustomed to violence that we are tempted to think it is a real solution. The rulers of the world claim to make peace when they are usually looking to start a war. Some will even lie to create a battle. They tell us that the way to make peace is to blast away all our enemies . . . never mind if they make a few more enemies along the way.

What’s going on in Egypt? The president faces an uprising, so he shuts down the internet in his country and turns off the cell phone towers. He doesn’t want his people to talk to one another, and he seems to think that’s going to make for peace. Meanwhile Cairo is on fire and people are screaming to “get rid of Pharoah!”

In a world like this, how can anybody make peace? We are such a warlike species. “Blessed are the peacemakers” – that’s a beatitude we know, but rarely actually see. It reminds me of a similar one:

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

This is the promise of Jesus. Many of these beatitudes offer promises. They begin in the present tense and end up in the future. If you hunger for righteousness, your appetite will be filled. If you thirst for justice, you will see it.

It’s as if Jesus is standing, not on a mountain, but at the end of time. He knows that everything that belongs to God will turn out well. God will accomplish his purposes on earth as in heaven. The hungry will be fed, the naked will be clothed, the broken shall be healed. This is God’s plan. It will happen.

I like this beatitude. It pushes me to live for God and God’s ways. It encourages us to organize, to work together for justice, and to do what we can to make the world ready for God’s Kingdom. It is one of my favorites, although not the favorite. For this beatitude needs to be matched with another one, which offers a warning:

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

This beatitude is in the category of “no good deed goes unpunished.” Church history is full of stories of people who do the right thing and suffer for it. Whether saints or sinners, they pursue the righteous path – and pay dearly.

Maybe you saw the piece in Wednesday’s New York Times. It was called “Tussling Over Jesus.” A nun in a Phoenix hospital was excommunicated by her bishop. It seems she approved the termination of a risky pregnancy to save the life of a 27-year-old mother of four. The mother would have certainly died if the nun would not have approved the procedure. The bishop threw her out of the church. When the Catholic hospital did not fire her, the bishop cut all ties with the hospital, effectively excommunicating the hospital.

The writer says, “What keeps nagging at me is this: the one who emulates the life of Jesus, the one who shows compassion, is not the bishop, who has spent much of his adult life as a Vatican bureaucrat climbing the career ladder. It’s Sister Margaret, who like so many nuns has toiled for decades on behalf of the neediest and sickest among us . . . along comes the bishop to excommunicate the Christ-like figure in our story. If Jesus were around today, he might sue the bishop for defamation.”

Was it a risky ethical situation? Of course. But what is the Christ-like thing to do? That’s the question we must embrace, even if means that we get treated as Jesus was treated.

That’s a troubling beatitude. It is probably not our favorite, unless we are looking for trouble. And it sets up the one that follows it, which is even more severe:

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on 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.

Now this is the only beatitude that says “blessed are you.” Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you. Blessed are you. Rejoice and be glad!

Is Jesus serious? Blessed are you when people beat up on you?!? Is he giving us some kind of autobiographical glimpse? Is there really a blessing in being hated?

When my friend Terry served on the Abington Heights school board years ago, he offered his expertise to improve our local schools. The high school was split in two halves, a mile apart. He thought that was terribly inefficient, and said so. The hate mail started pouring in. One guy repeatedly drove his pickup past Terry’s driveway and glared at his kids. Somebody else screamed at him at a public meeting. They called him names for trying to improve the schools.

And when he considered taking another job out of state, he first gave up his chair on the school board. He wondered out loud if he was going to miss it. His very wise wife said, “Are you kidding? How about, on the first and third Wednesdays of the month, I take a hammer and hit you on the head so you remember what it felt like?”

Public service makes you a target, not only if you do something bad, but if you do something good. Especially if you do something for the sake of God’s kingdom in a world that resists God’s love. It happened to Jesus. It can happen to us. I am guessing this is not our favorite beatitude, even if it rings true.

Well, that’s the list, mostly. Only one remains. In all the other beatitudes, we are warned or we are encouraged. We are affirmed in the middle of our limitations, and blessed in our greatest vulnerability. It seems to me, then, that the greatest of the beatitudes is the one that begins with our deepest weakness. It is the first one, and it unlocks all the others. It says:

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

What is “poor in spirit”? It is to have nothing. To be empty. It is to reach that humble point where we rely on God for everything. The peacemaker needs God. The mourner is missing God. Those hungering for justice are really hungering for God. Those who are kicked around for doing the right thing can be blessed only by God, because everything else is taken away.

This is the starting point for the spiritual life. It is the cradle of Christian wisdom. What we need most of all is God. And when we know that, we are spiritually poor – and we are blessed. God can do very little with those who don’t need him. But those who come with their hands open to receive, with stone hearts cracked open so that the light to get in, God will give them the kingdom. In the words of poet T.S. Eliot, “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire / Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.” (“East Coker”)

What we need most, we do not have, until God gives us himself. And in the mystery of grace, the dominion of heaven establishes a colony in our hearts. It’s stated pretty well by writer Frederick Buechner:

If we only had eyes to see and ears to hear and wits to understand, we would know that the Kingdom of God in the sense of holiness, goodness, beauty is as close as breathing and is crying out to be born both within ourselves and within the world; we would know that the Kingdom of God is what we all of us hunger for above all other things even when we don’t know its name or realize that it’s what we’re starving to death for. The Kingdom of God is where our best dreams come from and our truest prayers. We glimpse it at those moments when we find ourselves being better than we are and wiser than we know. We catch sight of it when at some moment of crisis a strength seems to come to us that is greater than our own strength. The Kingdom of God is where we belong. It is home, and whether we realize it or not, I think all of us are homesick for it. (The Clown in the Belfry, p. 152)

This is the blessing of the first and greatest beatitude: we come before God, ready to be filled. We pray for God to finish what we cannot. We announce how we depend on God for all things. We see how little we have within ourselves.

And then the moment comes when we discover that everything we need has been given to us as a gift.

Blessing, blessing.


(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

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