Let me start with a confession. I don’t always recognize that the Bible is not a spectator sport. With today’s Scripture reading, I imagine myself on the hillside, perched off at a safe distance, watching Jesus instruct his disciples in his first public discourse. I have a mental picture of what those following Jesus looked like, sitting in small groups, wearing mainly peasant clothing and talking to each other about their expectations of what this itinerate preacher will say. They’ve heard the stories circulating about the healing that people are attributing to him, so there might be an air of anticipation as they wait to hear Jesus preach.
Join me, if you can, in envisioning this scene. There’s a hillside, with Jesus at the bottom of the grassy area, with people gathered around in a horseshoe configuration. You and I are off to stage right, just out of sight and barely within earshot of the others.
But are we REALLY off stage, silent observers of this drama? Didn’t we just hear Robert read the words, “Friends, listen to what the Spirit would say to US today”? I think today’s reading is directed to each of us individually—and to us as a congregation of believers who are embarking on a journey to replace Pastor Nansi and to define our direction for the future of our church.
If I read the descriptions from what we call “The Beatitudes,” can you relate to them or can you think of people in our church family to whom they apply? Jesus says, “Happy are the poor in spirit, the gentle, those who mourn, who hunger and thirst for justice, who are merciful and pure in heart, who are peacemakers.” We at Emmanuel—members and friends alike—are no different from the early disciples gathered on the hillside to hear Jesus’ words. We feel our littleness compared to God, we mourn, we seek justice and peace. And for this, Jesus says we are “HAPPY”! Really? Really.
Yes, the “Good News” says we are “happy,” also described as “blessed,” not for the pain that accompanies our humanness, but because of the blessings that God brings about through these circumstances. The gospel offers us the kingdom of heaven for the poor in spirit and the persecuted, the earth as the heritage of the gentle, comfort for the sorrowful, mercy for the merciful, the sight of God for the pure in heart, the title of “children of God’ for peacemakers.
This might sound fine for people seeking only the kingdom of God. But we live in a pretty secular society, and the values outlined above are not those rewarded in 2020. They were not valued 2,000 years ago, either. In one of the books Pastor Nansi passed on to me, the authors of Understanding the New Testament, describe it this way:
The Beatitudes which open the Sermon show that Matthew does not regard ethics as a matter of mere conformity to legal standards; membership in the People of God cannot be attained by meeting legalistic requirements. Rather, God’s People are those who have received as a gift of his grace all that they have. By this world’s standards they are the poor, the bereaved, the despised, the persecuted; but in the Age to Come, it will be evident that they are the special beneficiaries of divine favor: theirs is the kingdom, they shall inherit the earth, they shall see God (Mt. 5-3-8). They are the salt of the earth, the light of the world: let them perform now their proper functions in doing good works, that [they] may glorify their heavenly Father (Mt. 5:13-16).
So how, dare I ask, can we say that we are happy and blessed when we’re mourning or feeling lost or feeling persecuted by life’s injustices? Can we even say that with a straight face? Yes, I think we can, if we are willing to embrace our humanity and share our vulnerability. Years ago, I had a friend named Bill, and he would infuriate me with one question. He’d always come up and say, “You’re lookin’ good on the outside. How’re you doing on the inside?”
Once I could admit how I was doing on the inside—rather than faking it and trying to look good on the outside—I was so much more alive, even when it hurt. That’s the key for me—being alive, being me, and being vulnerable. When I can do that, I can be of use to God and my fellows.
There’s a story of a psychologist named Jeanne, who struggled with the effects of a serious stroke she had had as a young woman. She would not tell anyone of her condition, feeling damaged and ashamed, and fearing others would not accept her if they knew. Asked what she’d do once she admitted her concerns to a friend, she said, “I think I will just be myself.” Jeanne went on to work exclusively with patients who had suffered strokes and other brain injuries. The description of her transformation said, “All that she needed in order to serve was the courage of her vulnerability.”
It’s our vulnerability—individually and collectively—that God needs to further his kingdom. Our gifts and talents are needed, to be sure, but we find such grace and blessing when we share our weaknesses. As a church community, we are in transition, and it’s okay to be uncertain about where we even want to go. It’s okay to grieve Pastor Nansi’s retirement—to be angry and sad about it at the same time.
In this regard, let’s remember when Jesus was informed that his friend, Lazarus, had died. Jesus—perhaps in a state of denial—waited four days to go to Mary and Martha, and we find the shortest verse of the Bible in this story. It says, “Jesus wept.” Even though Jesus knew what the end of the story would be—that Lazarus would be raised from the dead and would walk out of the tomb—Jesus cried, because even if we know the end of the story, there are still parts of it along the way that are incredibly sad. And we are sharing a sad part of our story here at Emmanuel now. We truly need one another for this faith journey.
If we look around our church, perhaps we can see a gathering such as Jesus saw on the hillside where he first laid out blessings for being children of God. We can sense, perhaps, who is needing comfort, who is needing mercy or gentleness, or an advocate—or just a friend. We can be that to each other. Indeed, we MUST be that for one another. Bill Moyers is credited with having said, “One of the most traditional values of the American way of life—live and let live—can never establish good health for all. Health requires us as individuals and as a people to go a step beyond this. To live and to help live.” In her book Kitchen Table Wisdom, author Rachel Naomi Remen describes it this way, “We have earned the wisdom to heal and the ability to care.”
We who have been so richly blessed and who in turn can richly bless others, are called to bear witness to God’s enduring and infinite mercy. It is in this way that we live out the Beatitudes and fulfill the mission outlined on today’s bulletin cover: “We are all just walking each other home.”
In the name of the one who will never let us go, even Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Kee, Howard Clark, Franklin W. Young, and Karlfried Froehlich (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1973), p. 323.
Remen, Rachel Naomi, My Grandfather’s Blessings (New York, N.Y.: Riverhead Books, 2000), pg. 151.
Remen, Rachel Naomi, Kitchen Table Wisdom, (New York, N.Y.: Riverhead Books, 2006), pg.228.
SCRIPTURE READING FOR FEBRUARY 2, 2020: Matthew 5:1-12
Seeing the crowds, Jesus went up the hill. There he sat down and was joined by his disciples. Then he began to speak. This is what he taught them:
“How happy are the poor in spirit:
theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Happy the gentle:
they shall have the earth for their heritage.
Happy those who mourn:
they shall be comforted.
Happy those who hunger and thirst for what is right:
they shall be satisfied.
Happy the merciful:
they shall have mercy shown to them.
Happy the pure in heart:
they shall see God.
Happy the peacemakers:
they shall be called children of God.
Happy those who are persecuted in the cause of right:
theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Happy are you when people abuse you and persecute you and speak all kinds of calumny against you on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven; this is how they persecuted the prophets before you.”
Friends, listen to what the Spirit would say to us today.