Year A, All Saints
November 2, 2014
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Rejoice and be glad for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Who remembers last week? What did we talk about?___ The Great Commandment. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as your self.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” Last week we talked about what this means, how this teaching distills all the Law and the Prophets down to their pure essence. But what we did not get to, what we could not fit into 15 minutes is the subject of today’s sermon. How? How do we follow the Greatest Commandment? How do we live as God in Christ intends for us to live?
Lat week I commended to you praying upon today’s Gospel lection over the course of the week. Did anyone have any revelations in the beatitudes of St. Matthew? Did anyone see how they might be another key to the kingdom, a method, a practice to better follow the Great Commandment? _____
There are a couple of very helpful ways to take in the Beatitudes that can become practices. The first is maybe not obvious due to translation issues with the word “Blessed.” One Hebrew word for blessed is barak. Barak ata Adonai Eloheniu… You’ve heard that prayer, right? “Blessed are You, Lord our God…” or from Psalm 103, “Bless the Lord my soul…and bless God’s holy name.” Barak, translated “to bless,” means “to bow or stoop” implying “to honor.” “My soul bows to you, Lord… and bows before God’s holy name.” “We bow to you, Lord our God…” “We bow before,” or, “honor the meek for they will inherit the earth.” That is how I take the Beatitudes at first glance.
There is another Hebrew word for Blessed, ‘ashar. In Psalm 1, it reads “Blessed (‘ashar) are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked…” (It is also translated as “happy,” but that is a whole other story). But what Blessed ‘ashar means literally is “to find the right road or path.” So Psalm 1 could start “You are on the right path when you do not follow the wicked.” Very different, no? And the structure of Psalm 1 follows the structure of Rabbinic sermons and parallels the structure of the whole Sermon on the Mount. It is not a stretch to use this translation. So let’s apply ‘ashar, “you are on the right path” to the Beatitudes.
“You are on the right path when you are poor in spirit…” “You are on the right path when you are merciful…” “You are on the right path when you are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…” In the Beatitudes, we could understand that Jesus Christ is offering a set of specific postures for us to walk through life in. Different ways to be. Practices for the Godly life. Now that is a wholly different thing now isn’t it?
But wait, we are on the right path when we are being persecuted? We are on the right path when we are poor in spirit? Really? Well, when we are aware of it, yes, that is the right path. When we are aware that we are in fact poor in spirit and live in accordance with that knowledge then yes, that is the right path. Awareness of our actual poverty in spirit can lead us home to God. Blaise Pascal once wrote, “It is good to be weary and worn out… so that we may open our arms to the redeemer!” There is merit to that.
You are on the right path when you are merciful, you will receive mercy. You are on the right path when you are meek, for you will inherit the earth. You are on the right path when you are pure in heart, for you will see God! The Beatitudes can be read as a prescription for the good and Godly life. These can be taken as some very specific practices to help us live as we are supposed to, day in, day out practices that help us love God and love neighbor. Because when you are on these paths, mindfully being a peacemaker, intentionally being meek, purposefully culturing a hunger and thirst for righteousness… when we do these things we will in fact be able to love God with all our heart and all our soul and all our minds and our neighbor as our self.
There is another way to look at this text as well. What if the Beatitudes do not so much describe the character of those following God, but rather they describe the character of God? Maybe we are not being told to bless the meek or the peacemakers, but we are being told that God blesses them. Maybe that is what Jesus is telling us: He is describing the activity of God. In particular God blesses the poor in spirit. God comforts those who mourn; God fills those who thirst for righteousness; God gives mercy to the merciful. We’re not the ones doing the blessing, God is doing the blessing, that is just what God does. And through that blessing, God passes the Earth on to the meek; God shows God’s self to the pure in heart; God gives the kingdom of Heaven to those persecuted for righteousness’ sake. That is the economy of God. That is what God does, blesses, and through that blessing great gifts arise. What Jesus is teaching is that this is the way God works and we should go and do likewise.
Of course. This is a straight forward religious teaching: “God does this, so should you.” We should bless the poor in spirit; we should bless the peacemakers… of course we should. And since when did straight up telling someone to do something ever get us to actually do it? How many times has the doctor said, “Get more exercise, be less stressed at work, eat more vegetables drink less wine?” Of course we should. Or how many times have we said to our children, “Don’t hit your sister?” Of course they shouldn’t. But telling someone not to do something, or to do something because you are supposed to, that is not only uncreative pedagogy, it just doesn’t work. That is why there are jails. That is why we have confession. But what Jesus is teaching here is much more complex. What Jesus is teaching us is that we need to adjust our values to be in accord with that which God values. And adjusting our values, adjusting what we know to be important and true… that is a potent practice that will change your life.
This is about values, not morality. We don’t continually fail to bless the poor in spirit or bless the meek or the peacemaker because we are bad people. Our failure to do as God does isn’t related to some moral flabbiness innate to humanity, it is not a moral issue at all, really. The Beatitudes can be read as a way, a path to realign our values with the values of God, and that, my friends, realigning our values, that is purely a matter of faith.
Do you really believe, really grok that God blesses the meek and they will inherit the Earth? Do you really believe that God blesses the pure in heart and they will see God? Do you really believe as Jesus teaches, that you are blessed by God when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on Jesus’ account? What would happen if we had faith that this really was the nature of God, that this really was the way it is, that the meek are the triumphant in God’s economy. That in being merciful God offers mercy. That in mourning, in allowing the pain we all feel at points in our lives, in expressing the grief we all will carry, in doing that comfort will be found. What would it mean if you had faith, if you really believed that God’s blessing really, really, really flows most upon those on the losing side of most earthly equations? That would be a monumental shift in values. Could that change how you see others? Could that change how you act? Could that change how you spend or vote or interact with the stoned kids down in Kesey Square? Having true faith that this is actually how God embraces the world, having true faith that God in Christ blesses the least of these most of all, believing that… it can change things. It can change you.
I see a lot of difficult things as a priest. So do social workers, every sort of health care worker, teachers, police, lawyers, parents. There is so much to see. Brokenness of all kinds. Suffering of all kinds. People consistently making poor choices out of already limited options. It can be heartbreaking; it can be frustrating; it can be maddening. And it is so easy to start to pull your hair out and think/say/shout “What is wrong with you? Stop doing that!” or “What kind of person makes that choice?” or “Are you daft?” Those judging voices aren’t from God. Those judging voices are following the lead of other judging voices, voices of our culture, mostly. And our fundamentalist free-market capitalist culture values individual achievement over all virtues. Meekness is not valued in the Wall Street Journal. Hungering and thirsting for righteousness’ sake isn’t held up by Fox News. Being a peacemaker is not a virtue in our political debate. These judging voices informed by those values are NOT following the lead of God. And when I remember this, that God really came for the broken, came for the least of these, that the last really will be first, that God really does bless the poor in spirit, that the meek really will inherit the earth, that it is Christ’s face that is twisted and crying and full of pain looking up at you behind a cardboard sign incontinently blocking the sidewalk. That will change you. Faith that this is how God works, that this is the true nature of things… now that is a means to an end. Cultivating our faith that really, truly, actually God blesses the least of these… believing that is a shift in our core values. That is huge. That is the goal of religious practice. And this is a practice that can help us love God with everything we have and love our neighbor as our self. Blessed are you that practice that, for the Kingdom of God is at hand. AMEN