Blessed Are . . . 1
This is the first of two sermons on the beatitudes - the first four this week, and next week the second four.
In Matthew, these Beatitudes are the first moment where we get to hear some specifics of what Jesus actually taught...up 'till now in the Gospel we hear that Jesus picked up John's mantle, calling people to 'repent for the kingdom of heaven is near'. He gathers some disciples, proclaims 'good news' and heals the sick. Then, seeing the crowds pressing in, he withdraws up a mountain to teach his disciples. These beatitudes are the opening words of this teaching.
It could be argued that these beatitudes are the first indication of, and are perhaps a summary, of what Jesus wanted people to become, and what he himself practised. It is to them that we should look for a picture of authentic Christianity. The writer of the Gospel obviously saw them as the beginning and the cornerstone of Jesus' message. If we want to follow in Jesus' footsteps, then it's to these teachings, as much as anything else in scripture, that we should look to understand the vision and ideas that drove him, the 'good news' that underpinned his life and sacrifice.
The beatitudes remind us to reject any spiritual practice that relies on accumulation rather than stripping away, or any guru that promises to increase our personal prestige. We need constantly to come back to these teachings of Jesus to realign our expectations of what the Christian life should look like, and to remind ourselves how at odds it is with much of the modern world's values - including the values of many in the modern Western spirituality movement.
I also think that it's a mistake to see the beatitudes as just comfort for people for whom life is hard, or acknowledgement of the few people who happen to already possess the attributes the beatitudes encourage. It's not: 'some people are meek and some aren't and for those of you that are...good on you, God likes it, and for those of you that aren't never mind, just remember that God likes the meek.' This teaching of Jesus is meant to lead all his hearers toward transformation, and therefore the beatitudes are ways of being that we can all grow into and express more fully as we walk with Jesus. Some people by nature, or by life circumstance are closer to them than others - in particular those who suffer and struggle, and I think it is helpful to see this teaching as a reminder that God's perspective on these people is kinder than the judgements our society would make. We need to let those whose lives exemplify these beatitudes be our teachers.
'Blessed' means favoured or rewarded - but not necessarily in an outward sense. I tend to think of it as kind of 'God-affirmed' - to be blessed is to be in the best place you can be - your life is declared good and is made good, and is somehow attuned to the experience and grace of God. To be blessed is to be on the path to wholeness. It means that you're really okay, even if life is hard.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
To be poor in spirit is to acknowledge our emptiness, and not to seek to fill it with anything but God. We can only reach the kingdom of heaven if we are not preoccupied with reaching after earthly kingdoms. When we do not strive to have high places in this world, we are actually given access to another world - one where we are permanently present to God.
James K Baxter described people poor in spirit as nga raukore - trees that have been stripped of their leaves and branches. In his community, nga roukore were 'the sick, the unemployable, the habitually vagrant, and all those who are preoccupied with the science of being and not the science of doing.'
To be poor in spirit does not require self-abasement, or humiliation. But it does require a kind of simplicity, an attitude of letting things go rather than hoarding things up, a willingness to identify with the forgotten places and people in the world, including the forgotten and rejected parts of ourselves.
In our world there are many ways of distracting ourselves from the glaring truth of our spiritual poverty. Much of what passes for spirituality today is actually spiritual materialism - accessorising, accumulating, drawing from a smorgasbord of this and that belief and practice in order to build an interesting spiritual life that suits our needs as consumers. To be poor in spirit is not to consume, but to be open, humble, letting God come to us rather than pushing toward the fulfilment of our wants.
The kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor in spirit - this is not a place or a state where power or certainty or prowess achieve anything. The kingdom of heaven cannot be bought, conquered, or entered by force. Those who enter the kingdom do so by being stripped down - I think of Eustace in the Voyage of the Dawntreader, who needed to have his dragon skin peeled off him. We are attached to many things, and those things are not necessarily objects outside of us. Sometimes what we need to have stripped away are our certainties, our sense of superior knowledge, our cherished notions, our beliefs and thoughts and stories about life and our self, without which it may seem like we can't survive. Poverty of spirit means detaching from these inner commitments and a willingness to accept that we are not the measure of all things.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
In many respects, mourning is something we cannot choose for ourselves - it is the consequence of something that happens to us or around us. But it is a response to the pain of life that demonstrates a capacity to feel, a capacity that life often batters out of us.
Mourning, tears, have long been considered in the church as a gift from God, a grace, that puts us in touch with the suffering God endures on our behalf. The gift of 'compunction' is something that was treasured by early saints - the ability to cry for the world and ourselves because of a glimpse of the reality of how things are and the pain God experiences because of God's great love for us.
When we grieve, it means that we have loved. We only mourn the loss of that we have loved. And those who allow themselves truly to love will at some stage face great grief, because all in this life is mortal. So this teaching of Jesus about mourning is a teaching about a life that has room for genuine compassion.
It is tempting, in this life, with its challenges and its busyness, to cultivate hardness. A tough skin that means that we don't get hurt so easily, and that allows us just to get on with things without being immobilised by situations that we can't change. But this beatitude tells us that this is not a response to the world that God affirms. Instead, Jesus teaches us to cultivate softness - the capacity to be moved, and to go on being moved, by the fact that this world is not what God wants it to be, and people - including ourselves - are both harmed and harmful.
In order to love in this way, we need to move more slowly through the world - listening to people, getting to know them, to hear their stories of how life is for them. And learning to listen empathically - 'feeling with' people rather than listening to others only to come at them with our pre-determined solution to their problem.
Those who mourn, according to this beatitude, will be comforted. When we deny the mourning that is an appropriate response to many of life's events, we deny ourselves the opportunity to be comforted. Grief needs to be experienced and seen through, in order to be healed. Grief denied is grief that goes on and on, leaking out in all sorts of ways into the rest of our lives. Grief that is allowed, will be hard to bear, but there is comfort in accepting it, because God is in the midst of it.
And one last note about this beatitude is that there is a political element to it. Often those whose mourning is most acute are those families and communities who have lost everything that is dear to them through war, famine, disease, or the imposition of one group's political will or military force on another. Jesus here is, I believe, explicitly siding with those who suffer the consequences of the power plays of the big people. The ones whom God loves and comes near to comfort are those who are the casualties of injustice and misused might. These should also be the ones that we seek to comfort as God's people in the world.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Meekness as a virtue has suffered some bad press in our world. It has come to mean a weakness, a state of permanent craven compromise, an inability to give voice to anything, a failure of inner strength. These are not descriptions of how Jesus lived, and therefore we need to find a way of defining 'meek' that reflects what we know of Jesus. Last Sunday, as part of our reflective stations we considered how 'meek' could be re-framed as a strength. Here are some of the things that people wrote as a definition for meekness:
Dying to self
Able to let go - even when you know you can win
Servant with authority
Reactions stemming from a basic position of humility
Not buying into the 'thrill of the fight'
Growing naturally - no need to take
This beatitude has often been quoted to give the impression that at the end of all things, the meek shall rise up and get what they deserve and end up possessing the whole world. I think that the key word in this beatitude is not 'earth', but 'inherit'. That is, there's a way of coming into our own that is receptive, rather than requiring acts of great will or force. Inheritance was a big deal in Jesus' time - being able to pass land on through a family was a way of keeping your descendants out of grinding poverty. Jesus reminds us here that we are part of God's family...whatever we may have given up to follow him, we still have something in this life, an inheritance that is ours, and we don't have to fight for it, and we don't have to take it by cunning. The meek receive all that they need by relational means, rather than by acts of dominance or even merit.
This is connected to poverty of spirit, because rather than trying to fill up our lack by accumulation and achievement, we can relax into growing into our created fullness, knowing that when we relinquish the illusion that we have to fight for everything we need, we will in fact receive everything we need. What we receive in our inheritance is based on who we are...one of God's children. We do not need to live suspiciously or aggressively in fear of being 'done over'. We don't need to obsessively worry at the bones of contention that come our way, or have our feathers ruffled by every perceived slight or criticism. We can afford to live gently and be detached from the meanness of spirit that comes from fear. We don't have to buy into the domination system to get our needs met.
Jesus is our example in this. In life, he spoke and acted strongly. Sometimes he spoke harsh words. He didn't pull his punches. He knew who he was, and who his father was and this gave him enormous authority and calm. He was meek, but not a doormat. In the end, he did not use force to defend his position or even his own life. He did not get caught up in clearing his name or reputation. He didn't lie or deny or betray to evade the suffering that was his to bear. And, as we read in that great hymn of kenosis in Philippians 2, he has inherited everything, including a name that is above all names.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.
Righteousness is a vexed word - it too often has been taken to mean moral uprightness in a narrow, puritan sense. The word 'righteousness' in the Bible often means something more like 'justice' - a holistic way of life that is in accord with God's greatest passion for humanity. In the gospel of John, Jesus says both that he is the living water for us to drink, and that his disciples must eat his flesh and drink his blood. In this way, he's saying 'hunger and thirst after me and my Way' - he's equating himself with Righteousness. He is the Way of right living. So the righteousness that this beatitude encourages us to hunger and thirst after is in fact the life of Jesus - taking that life into ourselves, so that all our attitudes and actions are one with his.
Hungering and thirsting for righteousness is not a passion for getting it right, or a passion for obeying the rules, or for being better, or more correct, but a passion for being inwardly transformed into Christ and living that out in the world. The words hunger and thirst imply that our lives should depend on it - at the level of survival, and also that whatever we take into ourselves is what we will become, so to make sure that we are ingesting the One that we want to become.
For how many of us is our spiritual journey as crucial to us as food for our table? Do these priorities ever come into conflict? Probably for most of us, if we look at how we spend our time, our hunger and thirst for God is much weaker than our hunger and thirst for...almost anything else in our lives, whether this is emotional or material hunger. Where our treasure is, there our hearts are also.
In some respects, what we really want is what we tend to be filled with. Kimberley shared a prayer of confession a while ago suggesting that 'we can have as much of God as we actually want' - it's just that most of us, judging by our practice, don't want that much of God, but we want quite a lot of other things.
Jesus suggests in this beatitude that our spiritual quest really matters, at the level of our deepest need. And that God is there to meet our need, at the point where we acknowledge our hunger and thirst, and seek food and water for the journey by turning to Jesus.
I'm going to stop here. Next week, I'll explore the final four beatitudes, and offer some reflections on how they can help us to shape our church community life here at Cityside, as well as our personal lives.