When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
The spiritual illness of our age is a poverty of spirit.
The Beatitudes, as with most biblical passages from which we preach, are not spoken in a vacuum but rather, are spoken to a specific people at a specific time and situation. These beatitudes, for example, are being preached to the people Israel. Jesus’ ascent to the mountain is a harkening back to Moses and Mount Sinai so that Jesus here is the New Moses. Israel has returned from exile but is still being oppressed by a government and social situation which inclines the hearers of Jesus’ sermon to experience and connect with the first “BLESSED” perhaps most profoundly:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
What does that mean?
The question for today’s hearers of this gospel is this: In what poverty do we modern listeners find ourselves? Where is our poverty of spirit, our mourning and our hunger? Into what peaceful kingdom are we being invited?
Each age has had its crises. The preacher in a London pulpit in the late 1660’s for example was preaching in the context of plague and fire. If he (it was a he then) did not address issues of loss and grief, then he was simply not doing his job. Today, a preacher in the United States mounting a pulpit in the early 21st century is preaching in the context of a crisis as well. Our modern wilderness seems to be the wilderness of greed, envy, workaholism, exhaustion and noise. And similarly, cautious preachers who seek to speak around these issues are not only cowards, but are leaving their flock to be buffeted about by every wind of the media and mercantilism.
One of the most delightful experiences in life is being snowed in at my farm in New Hampshire. There are three wood stoves – on one of which sits a tea pot. In the silence I find my way home to myself. Home to my center where God waits for me to remind me of who I really am. With the day-timer and cell phone in the car, I am cut off from the whirl of to-do-lists and so I make ginger cookies – the old kind – dark and stormy with candied ginger and molasses- best with Blue Saga cheese.
Of course, winter has its dark side. In the New England countryside of the 1800’s a farmer knew that if a blizzard looked likely, it was best to tie a rope from the barn door to the house. There were too many stories told of farmers caught in a whiteout – freezing to death while walking in circles in their own back yards. It is easy to be home and yet still feel lost.
As much as the beatitudes have to say, it is the silence between each beatitude which is the loudest voice in this gospel. These sayings are not run together. They are staccato. They stand alone and they ring into eternity punctuated by the silences in between. It is in silence that we so often are able to find our way back to who we really are and what we really believe. It is in the silence that we can feel our spiritual poverty and see the absurdity of our greed. As we live through the “stewardship of finances” work we do in the church to raise money for mission, giving will not happen with just pledge cards, letters and brochures. Giving our money to God’s work in the church happens when people, lost in a blizzard of noise, debt, work, and caffeinated exhaustion find the rope to lead them back to God – back to themselves.
As a parish priest, corporate fund-raiser and ex-monk, I am often asked for counsel on how to get a congregation to loosen their death-grip on their money. But this Gospel and this season of Epiphany remind me that pledge cards are not the issue. The issue is that we are lost in the blizzard of our busy lives.
- We are over-caffeinated.
- We are over stimulated.
- We are under-rested.
- We are under-silenced.
- We are under-prayed.
We have forgotten that what we are given is to be given away – not spent on the tawdry stage sets of our lives.
I think that the issue is that we are scared. Scared that our money and what it brings us will still not be enough to protect us. So we keep the lights on – keep the TV on – keep the schedules going – whatever it takes not to feel the fear. And then, we tip God – more of a membership fee than a returned gift. Something of an offering to a celestial butler – like a good luck charm.
We are not greedy people, we are scared people, and our greed is just our scream. But in that silence – deep in it – God is whispering “I love you. I like you. I delight in you. You are my beloved.”
The word “disaster” was developed in the middle ages around the Bethlehem star of the Epiphany. To be in disaster – that is poor in spirit, mourning, starving, imbedded in war or persecuted by ridiculous standards of living – to be in disaster was to be in dis-astron. “Dis” meant to be “without” and “astron” meant “star.” So to be in dis-astron was to be without a star. People who wandered in the desert or on the seas knew well how important it was to be able to see the stars, moon and sun for navigation. The notion of Epiphany was the notion that the star over the manger was leading us home to the One who came to save us – the Saviour. It was that light which drew us home.
Today there are so many competing lights – television screens, computer screens, billboards, neon – all demanding that we be rich in estates while we become poor in spirit. The guiding star of Bethlehem burns through these clouds and storms to call us home. And when we come home to that awareness of how desperately God loves all of us, we will also come home to gratitude. And then there will be no more stewardship campaigns and no more pledge cards. People will give to the mission of the church out of their love; giving stewardship leaders the chance to find new things to do with their time. And until then, we preach not how to give money, but rather how to feel love.