This is a version of the sermon I preached on Sunday, February 11.
Today the topic is the Beatitudes, one of them most loved, most known, and most puzzling passages of scripture. It is loved for talking about how people who are having a really rough time—the poor, the hungry, the hated—are blessed by God. It is puzzling, though, because most people don’t exactly think of being hungry, or poor, or hated as blessings.
There are two versions of this scripture. One is in Matthew, and is known as the Sermon on the Mount, and the other, the one we heard today, is in Luke, and takes place on a plain. This one, the one that is less familiar, is a little different from the Matthew version. In that version, Jesus doesn’t say, “poor” but instead says “poor in spirit.” By this he doesn’t mean “sad” or “dispirited,” but rather “those who have the same spirit as the poor.” And in this version, it goes on to tell what Jesus said about those in the opposite conditions—the rich, the full, those who are well spoken of—"Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. "Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. "Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets."
I can see why the other version of the Beatitudes is more popular—because it focuses on the blessings and leaves out the negative sayings. Why the two versions? It is possible that Jesus had similar things to say on many occasions, since his ministry was, in part, sort of like a tour, and the gospels are sort of like live albums, recording slightly different versions of the same sayings.
Anyway, I don’t think Jesus is trying to exactly curse those who have been more lucky in life—those who have full stomachs and riches and are respected in their communities. Jesus is just observing that over time, everyone experiences plenty and want, experiences good times and bad times, and over the course of history different people have been on the top of the heap in different time. There is often an element of justice in these reversals of fortune. There is a saying that goes something like this—you meet the same people on your way down as you met on your way up. In other words, try to be a good, kind person when you are riding high, because sooner or later you are likely to be laid low and you want people to give you a hand and help you back up.
But where is the blessing in being hungry, or being persecuted for your beliefs? This is a complicated and potentially dangerous idea. In 1998 I took a mission trip to Nicaragua. I had never seen such poverty, people living on the streets and in shacks. It blew my experiences in Appalachia away. Through translators we met some of these very poor people and heard their stories. At the end of each day our facilitator and leader helped the group reflect on our circumstances. The participants were very comfortable, upper-middle-class college students. They had never known hunger or want, and had never seen such poverty either. I spent the trip feeling appalled to live in a world where the world’s resources are so unevenly distributed. The college students, on the other hand, had a different take. “The people seem happy,” they all said, over and over again. It was clear that they felt that the lives of these people were okay. They had no sense of guilt and shame for having easier, more plush lives. They had no sense that something ought to be done to change the world to make poverty like this go away. The facilitator, a native Nicaraguan woman educated partly in the US, tried to push them out of this. “All of these people have problems,” she said, but I’m not sure these young people ever quite got what she was trying to show them. They didn’t see this as unfair, but merely as how things are. It never occurred to them that these circumstances needed to be changed, and not just by some Americans cleaning and painting one clinic in one poor neighborhood for one week. These young women were all to ready to dismiss the real needs of these real people simply by thinking that there is a special blessing in being poor.
On the other hand, many poor people listen to Jesus say “blessed are the poor,” and they do not attack him. Why? Probably because they see Jesus as a person who has known poverty, and who lives a very simple lifestyle himself. They understand that he knows the challenges and the pain of poverty, and that he also knows that there are blessings to be found in every experience. And Jesus wants to make it clear to them that God does not see things the way people see things—that God loves and cares for those who are in difficult circumstances, and those who stick their necks out for just causes, even if the people around them desert them.
Last week on Oprah there was a show about a movie that is supposed to be life-changing
. This movie, The Secret, was made by Australian Rhonda Byrne, and she says that if you follow its philosophy, you can create the life you want.Rhonda defines The Secret as the law of attraction, which is the principle that "like attracts like." Rhonda calls it "the most powerful law in the universe," and says it is working all the time. "What we do is we attract into our lives the things we want, and that is based on what we're thinking and feeling," Rhonda says. The principle explains that we create our own circumstances by the choices we make in life. And the choices we make are fueled by our thoughts—which means our thoughts are the most powerful things we have here on earth.
This idea is simple, but of course it is not easy. Lisa Nichols, a proponent of this viewpoint, describes it this way: "If you were at a restaurant and you ordered something, you fully expect it to come served that way. That's how the universe is. You're putting out orders—consciously and unconsciously," Lisa says. "So if you say, 'I'll never have a great relationship,' you just placed an order."
In the Beatitudes, Jesus suggests that true blessings do not come from chasing after riches and popular acclaim. True blessings, spiritual blessings, come out of difficulty and challenges. Jesus is suggesting that people look at their own lives, regardless of their current circumstances and history, and understand that God loves and blesses them.
Rev. Dr. Michael Beckwith says that thoughts—which turn into experience, speech and behavior—become the "feeling tone of your life."
"An individual can actually begin to generate a certain feeling of gratitude, of love, of peace and of harmony, and the universe will begin to match that feeling tone—and what will flow into your life will match the feeling that you're holding," he says. "It means that everyone…can release themselves from being a victim and begin to take control of their life's destiny." Gratitude is one example of the magnetic force of the universe. "Basically, nothing new can come into your life unless you open yourself up to being grateful [for what you already have]," he says.
Instead of looking at their lives and saying, “I’m poor, I’m nothing, I’m nobody, everyone hates me,” Jesus is inviting those who suffer, especially those who suffer most, to focus their energy towards thinking the one and only God, the glorious creator of the Universe, loves me. I am blessed in the eyes of God.
Sometimes that which we see as a curse, maybe even a curse by God, leads us down the path that we need to go. Some of the finest people I have ever known are among the most modest—modest in circumstance and modest in demeanor. Every worshipping community I have ever been part of has someone whose faith and spirituality humble me, and for the most part these are people who have known many difficulties and are quite humble. In one parish it was an older, widowed woman who coordinated the food pantry donations. She would get up in church and gently explain that while they were lovely, cake mixes were not good donations because most people who visited our pantry lived in their cars. In Bible study class she spoke of a strong, constant sense of the presence of God, and joy in serving him. I suppose you could say she was not exactly setting the world on fire, but that would be missing the point. She certainly set my heart on fire when she spoke very quietly from her own deep conviction. She felt blessed. She was blessed. And for me to understand that has been a blessing.
May we all come to understand that this is the nature of blessing—that it doesn’t come from a fancy house or job or car. Those things, though nice to have, can just become a burden, a distraction that separates us from God. When we become concerned about having nice things and happy times, we lose sight of the need to find meaning and purpose in life, and a sense of meaning and purpose leads to true happiness.In a recent New York Times magazine article about the academic study of happiness
, a class at George Mason University learned that there is a difference between feeling good, "which according to positive psychologists only creates a hunger for more pleasure — they call this syndrome the hedonic treadmill — and doing good, which can lead to lasting happiness." This is the nature of true blessings, and true happiness.
True blessings come from God, and lead us back to God again and again. May you be truly blessed.
Labels: " Oprah, "The Secret, Beatitudes, Epiphany 6 Year C, Luke, mission trips, Nicaragua, poor, sermon