Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Beatitudes: Open Hands, Open Hearts

J. Barry Vaughn. Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Vestavia Hills, Alabama. Epiphany 6C (Feb 11, 2007)

In the spring of 1990 I was part of a group of Jews and Christians from Alabama who visited Israel and Palestine under the auspices of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. We visited the usual holy places – the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Church of the Loaves and Fishes. But one of the loveliest shrines is the Mount of the Beatitudes overlooking the Sea of Galilee. While I was taking in the vista, our Israeli guide came up to me, and knowing that I was an assistant professor of religion at Samford University in Birmingham, he asked if I would say a few words to the group about the Beatitudes. Imagine how I felt – I was standing in the very place said to be the location of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and I had about five or ten minutes to come up with something appropriate to say about the Beatitudes to a group of some 20 or 30 Jews and Christians.

Somehow I managed to come up with a pretty good spur of the moment lecture. I pointed out that to understand the Beatitudes we must keep in mind that Jesus was a Jew, and the Beatitude is a classically Jewish literary form. Today’s readings give us excellent examples of this.

The Psalmist writes:

Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, *…

Their delight is in the law of the LORD, *and they meditate on his law day and night.

They are like trees planted by streams of water,bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; *everything they do shall prosper.

It is not so with the wicked; *they are like chaff which the wind blows away.

Jeremiah also gives us a beatitude but being the gloomy sort of prophet he was, begins not with a blessing but a curse. I guess you could say that Jeremiah gives us as much attitude as beatitude.

Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals
and make mere flesh their strength,

They shall be like a shrub in the desert,
and shall not see when relief comes.

Blessed are those who trust in the LORD,
whose trust is the LORD.
They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream.

And finally Jesus:

"Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.

"Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.

"Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
"Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
"But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.

"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.

Notice that in each case blessedness is contrasted with its opposite: the Psalmist contrasts those who keep the Law, the Torah, with those who do not. Jeremiah contrasts those who trust God with those who do not. So far, so good. We can understand that. It makes sense to us to imagine that those who work hard, play by the rules, go to church on Sunday, and eat their vegetables will flourish. That’s what we’ve always been told. We’ve also been told that those who flout the rules, call in sick when they’re really going fishing, never darken the door of a church, and prefer cake and ice cream to broccoli and Brussels sprouts will (as the Psalmist says) “be like chaff which the wind drives away.”

Then along comes Jesus and stands conventional wisdom on its head. Like the Psalmist and Jeremiah, Jesus, too, draws a line between those who are blessed and those who are not. But he draws the line in a completely different place. Jesus draws the line not between those who play by the rules and those who do not but between those who are successful in the world’s eyes and those who are failures. Even more surprising, he tells us that it is the failures who are the objects of God’s blessing.

Blessed, esteemed, honored, he says, are the poor, the hungry, those who weep, and above all those who are reviled and scorned because of the Son of Man. Alternatively, shame will come down on the rich, those whose bellies are full, who laugh, and those who are held in high regard and “spoken well of”.

The Beatitudes (as they are given in both Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels) are some of Jesus’ hardest words. We hear them read in church; perhaps we have memorized them in Sunday School; we may even have sung them. But these are words that should trouble our sleep and haunt us.

We do not esteem the poor; we do not honor the hungry; we long to be spoken well of and to have our mouths filled with laughter. The Beatitudes outline the way of the Cross. “Take up your cross and follow me,” Jesus said. If we would learn how to take up our cross, we would do well to study the beatitudes. The way of the cross is to rely on God’s abundance and not our bank accounts; to feed the beggar on the street before we pull up to the takeout window at McDonald’s; to weep for those for whom the everyday comforts we take for granted – a roof over our heads, three meals a day, a good job – are an impossible dream.

Before I go any further, I want to say something as clearly as possible. The beatitudes are not a recipe for guilt. We need not feel guilty because we are happy and successful. Rather, the beatitudes are an invitation -- an invitation to put our trust not in our bank accounts, careers, degrees, and well-stocked pantries. The beatitudes invite us to put our trust in God.

Blessed, honored, and esteemed are the poor, the hungry, those who weep, and those who are reviled and scorned because they may be more open than the rest of us to trusting God. The beatitudes tell us that we must come to God with empty hands and open hearts. They tell us that if we come to God with hands full of possessions and accomplishments that God will have no place to put the blessings that God wants to give us. The beatitudes tell us that if we come to God with our heads and hearts full of a sense of our own importance that we may not be able to hear God telling us that how much we are loved and that our worth is derived from divine love alone.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner tells the story of a colleague who said to a member of his congregation, “Whenever I see you, you’re always in a hurry. Tell me, where are you running all the time?” The man answered, “I’m running after success, I’m running after fulfillment, I’m running after the reward for all my hard work.” And Kushner’s colleague replied, “That’s a good answer if you assume that all those blessings are somewhere ahead of you, trying to elude you and if you run fast enough, you may catch up with them. But isn’t it possible that those blessings are behind you, that they are looking for you, and the more you run, the harder you make it for them to find you?” Kushner observed that God may have all kinds of blessing in store for us – “good food and beautiful sunsets and flowers budding in the spring and leaves turning in the fall – but we in our pursuit of happiness are so constantly on the go that God can’t find us at home to deliver them”! (Lawrence Kushner, When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough (New York, 1986), pp. 146-147)

Our response to the beatitudes need not be to rush out and liquidate our bank accounts, sell our cars and houses, empty our refrigerators and give everything we have to the poor and hungry. Rather, the message is to stop running after success and fulfillment and to realize that God is ready to fill us with all good things if only we will open our hands and hearts to receive them. Amen.