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Beatitudes Series 1 -10th Sunday After Pentecost - August 6, 2023

We’re coming upon something…I don’t know if you’ve noticed…you probably have. Surely, I’m not the only one. But we are – all of us – about to stumble into it. At one point it was just a little speck on the horizon – you needed a decent pair of binoculars just to make out its shape. But now…it’s upon us. I’m talking about the end of summer.

I don’t know about you, but I am a creature of summer. I think all of us tend to feel affinities for certain seasons. Some of you are Spring people…love to kick off your shoes and go traipsing around your yards, “when weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush…” as Hopkins penned. Others of you are Fall people…you know these people because they don’t say Fall…they say Autumn…and they want you to know they say Autumn. The first to wear big bulky sweaters – never mind it’s going to be 77 degrees by 3 in the afternoon. But there are Fall people who don’t care about any of that – because Fall means one thing and one thing only: football. Then there are the Winter people. I don’t understand these people. I assume most of them must be Calvinists. I don’t know for sure…But you do find them, and they speak of the cold as if it were an electricity in their veins, permeating their existence. It takes all kinds.

But summer for me feels like a big comfortable bed I never have to make or a shirt I never have to tuck-in; it’s three months of living in such a way I wish I could live the rest of the year. Even when you’re working there’s something about working that feels different. So, now that the end of it is upon us – I’m looking at my calendar, I’m trying to plot out the flow of my days, organize, set goals, and process ways in which to reach those goals. All those things that I have learned to do through my adult life because I like my job and I like being married. But…it’s not easy. Mainly because of my attitude. My perception. A little overwhelmed, a little disappointed, a little frustrated, a little nervous. And it struck me the other day, before crossing this threshold, this change of seasons – I need centering. I need a reminder of who I am and what I’m to be about. Maybe I’m not alone in that – maybe no matter what kind of season-person you are, jumping out of summer and into a new season of life with a changing rhythm – maybe all of us could use a re-centering. SO, for the next few Sundays we’re going to be walking through the Beatitudes together. Or maybe not walking, so much as sitting with them – perhaps a little like the earliest disciples who sat with them on the side of that hill when they first heard them.

And what was it they heard? In a word: wisdom. Jesus’ ministry inaugurated an alternative kingdom, a dominion of God in and for this world – and this is the wisdom teaching of that kingdom. A wisdom that can enrich our relationships with God, with ourselves, and with others. Wisdom that can transform us and the worlds around us. All the way back in the fourth century Gregory of Nyssa said the way a painter might describe the characteristics of their work to open our eyes to beauty, so Christ in this teaching opens our eyes to what is truly beautiful and how we rediscover our beauty in the image and likeness of God.

But it wasn’t a wholly new teaching. It was rooted in Exodus, in the prophetic voices, in the Psalms and wisdom literature of Israel. You might remember the story from the gospel of Luke - when Jesus, before embarking in his public ministry, read aloud in his hometown synagogue? He read from Isaiah 61 and then looked up and said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” And everyone got furious. Well, listen to a little bit more of that same reading…

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor… comfort all who mourn… to (give them) a mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. Instead of their shame my people will receive a double portion,

and instead of disgrace they will rejoice in their inheritance.

That happens, that world happens, when you live like this…and Jesus teaches the Beatitudes.

Through the centuries there have been voices in both scholarship and sermon that reduce these teachings to merely spiritual ideals or merely social constructs. As if one doesn’t influence the other – as if transforming the way we think doesn’t transform what’s occurring around us (and vice-a-vera). Yes, Jesus wanted to change people’s hearts AND yes, Jesus wanted to change the unjust order of things. One of the fundamental ideas of the Hebrew scriptures that Jesus was raised on, was the reversal of social conditions rooted in the reversal of people’s heart conditions. So, these Beatitudes call us to both spiritual and societal transformation.

The very first sentence he utters, which isn’t just meant as an attention grabber so much as the key to enter through the door of the rest of the teaching, which is why it’s going to be the only one we look at this morning. And that sentence is…

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Now, when we see and hear that word “poor” here’s what’s going on. The world that Jesus came from was a world divided into specific classes of people and the word he’s using there isn’t the word for peasant – it’s even lower than that. It’s the word people used to refer to the untouchables, the unclean, the expendables, the nobodies, the absolute lowest – those who existed solely on the receiving from others. Ones who knew they were completely dependent.

Most of us gathered here this morning have never known that kind of dependence. Combined with the fact that all of us were born and raised into a Western culture that is all about independence…making your own way, pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, to be dependent is a sign of failure, of weakness, of irresponsibility.

Which is probably why it’s so hard for us Twenty-first Century Americans to enter into anything that resembles the inner poverty of spirit Jesus is saying must characterize our lives. We are proud, we are self-impressed, and even when we don’t feel either of those things, we’re really adept at all these little tricks and smoke-screens to fool others into thinking we got it all together. Even the Church is really good at providing all these little gold stars and merit badges for proving to others how righteous we are, even if it’s not fashionable to speak of it that way. But it’s there…

In her book, The Wisdom Jesus, Cynthia Bourgeault uses a Zen story that gets at the core of Jesus’ teaching about the poor in spirit. A young seeker, keen to become the student of a certain master, is invited to an interview at the master’s house. The student rambles on about all his spiritual experiences, his past teachers, his insights and skills, and his pet philosophies. The master listens silently and begins to pour a cup of tea. He pours and pours, and when the cup is overflowing, he keeps right on pouring. Eventually the student is so bothered and interrupts his own monologue to say, “Stop pouring! The cup is full!” The teacher says, “Yes, and so are you. How can I possibly teach you?”

As long as we’re so full of ourselves and all the little things that we’re convinced make us worthy, or righteous, or validated – we stay stuck – we can’t go any further out or deeper in. But those who are poor in spirit…they know…they just know…that they can only bring an empty cup to be filled with the grace, mercy, and love of God. They know when all the facades are stripped away, they’re dependent upon God.

You know, I think the main way we embody this kind of poverty of spirit in our lives is when we do this…when we say, “I need help.” Why it’s so hard for me to do that, I’m still trying to understand. But it is. It’s just hard to ask for help. But just try it. This week – ask for help. Maybe there’s something going on in your marriage, maybe with your kids, or with a friendship or relationship in your life, could be something at work, or it might be this struggle you keep running into over and over again in your life. Reach out to someone you trust and ask for help. Now, they may not be able to help you, chances are they’re not going to be able to solve or fix everything – but that’s not what it’s about anyway. It’s about putting ourselves in a space to receive, of being dependent upon God expressed through the love and care of other people.

The French saint and mystic Therese of Lisieux in her commentary on the Beatitudes wrote, when we do that – when we ask for help like that – she wrote - “God will transform us into flames of love.” No matter the season we especially like, leaving, or entering – it’s good to reach out like that. Who would have thought…that when we do, in those moments when we feel most embarrassed, awkward, weak, when we’re poorest in spirit…we burn with the love of God.


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