David A. Davis
February 2, 2020
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Before Jesus went up the mountain, before he gathered the disciples in a bit closer, before he sat down as a rabbi, as a teacher, in a Moses-like fashion of giving out the ways of God, before Jesus launched into the Beatitudes, “Jesus went throughout Galilee teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people….They brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them.” The gospel writer seems to be telling us they brought it all to him. They brought all there was that tore at the fabric of humanity’s health and well-being; all there was that defined human suffering. From Galilee, Syria, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan. The crowds came from every direction. They came from everywhere. Humanity was surrounding Jesus and they brought with them more than enough evidence of their suffering in body and in soul.
“When Jesus saw the crowds” is how the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew starts. But the crowds would not have been a surprise to him, they were following him everywhere. It’s not a new crowd. It’s the same crowd. In the 9th chapter, Matthew tells that “When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (9:36). In chapter 14 just before the feeding of the five thousand, Matthew reports that Jesus set out on the Sea of Galilee to find a deserted place for himself. But the crowds followed him along the shore. “When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick” (14:14). Here as Jesus heads up the mountain to begin the Sermon on the Mount, it must not be the size of the crowd that motivated him. No, when Jesus saw the crowds, when Jesus found himself full immersed not in the Jordan River but in the human condition, in humanity’s plight, when Jesus found himself up to his eyeballs in all that it meant to be human, when Jesus was so surrounded by the flesh, he went up the mountain and sat down. “His disciples came to him. Then he began to speak and taught them.
Blessed. Blessed. Jesus sat down with everything of what it means to be human spread at his feet and he said “blessed”. I have been thinking about “blessed” for a few weeks now. Last week during the Time with the Children, I borrowed the refrain from the children’s book “Guess How Much I Love You”. I shared with the kids that theses Beatitudes were like Jesus saying over and over again “I love you to the moon and back”. Jesus saying to the poor in spirit, to those who mourn, to the meek, to those who hunger and thirst for what is right, to the merciful, to the pure in heart, to those who work for peace, to those who get in trouble for doing the right thing, Jesus saying “I love you to the moon and back”. Jesus proclaiming a love that goes with them. A love that has a future. A never-ending love. But I started thinking about “blessed” back a few weeks ago when Toure Marshall preached his sermon from this pulpit on “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” His sermon inspired me to preach each week in February on each of the first four Beatitudes.
Blessed. Blessed. Blessed. Blessed. I found another preacher to be really helpful on the question of “blessed”. Nadia Bolz Weber puts it this way; “What if the beatitudes aren’t about a list of conditions we should try to meet to be blessed. What if these are not virtues we should aspire to. What if Jesus saying blessed are the meek is not instructive- what if it’s performative?… meaning the pronouncement of blessing is actually what confers the blessing itself? Maybe the sermon on the mount is all about Jesus ‘ seemingly lavishing blessing on the world around him especially that which society doesn’t seem to have much time for, people in pain, people who work for peace instead of profit, people who exercise mercy instead of vengeance. So maybe Jesus is actually just blessing people, especially the people who never seem to receive blessings otherwise. I mean, come on, doesn’t that sound like something Jesus would do?” the preacher asks. “Extravagantly throwing around blessings as though they grow on trees”
Blessed in the performative. Because in that very moment, the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, something of the presence of God poured out on humanity. The wind of the Spirit blew. The breath of God wafted over that crowd. Yes, the Sermon on the Mount is the Great Instruction. Yes, the new Moses is speaking the Law with all of that mountaintop authority that Matthew can muster. Yes, Matthew’s Jesus is the Rabbi who embodies the breadth and depth of the tradition of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob. But here is Jesus, God’s son, our Savior, as in “She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins”, as in “This is my beloved Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased”, as in “I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here for he has been raised.” Here is Jesus, God’s Son, our Savior being surrounded by the breadth of our humanity and the very depth of our humanity, and he breathes blessedness. He speaks grace.
There on the mountain above the sea with the timeless sea of humanity spread before him as far as any eye could see, Jesus speaks first of the poor in spirit. It is not a reference to those who lack the Holy Spirit. Nor is it intended to point to any who may be underperforming in the spiritual disciplines and practices of the faith. The poor in spirit. It is not about those who forget to fit prayer into the craziness of the day and the weariness of the night, or those who wear a false sense of piety that is as obvious as a fake suntan in February. The poor in spirit. It is also not Jesus in Matthew trying to help all of us who have so much feel better about Luke’s version of these blessings where Jesus just flat out says “blessed are the poor”, period.
Poor in spirit. You know when the Rabbi goes up the mountain, he is going to draw on the language of the law, the psalmist and the prophets. “For you have no delight in sacrifice, O God; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17) The prophet Isaiah, the very last part of the reading offered in your hearing earlier, from the 66th chapter: “But this is the one to whom I will look, to the humble and contrite in spirit, who trembles at my word.” (v2) A broken, humble, contrite spirit. Those who tremble at God’s word. Poor in spirit.
Poor in spirit. Far from being those who live in fear of the divine or who become obsessed with invoking God’s wrath or who pursue a major in God’s judgement or find themselves motivated by the avoidance of some concept of eternal damnation, the poor in spirit have come face to face with the frailty of life. They have no words to describe the overwhelming contrast between elected officials working so hard to show little more than their bitter partisanship, their loyalty to one another and themselves and the heartbreaking deaths of nine people including three children killed in a helicopter crash next to a Presbyterian Church in California. All of them gone in what the Apostle Paul called “the twinkling of an eye”. The poor in spirit are those who have learned along the way to affirm with the psalmist that “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” (Ps. 46) They have found themselves praying along with the psalmist “For God alone my soul waits in silence… God alone is my rock and my salvation” (Ps. 62) Or “Hope in God; for I shall again praise God, my help and my God.” (Ps. 42).
Poor in spirit. Yearning to hear again of God’s grace. Desperate for God’s comfort. Crying out for God’s strength. Watching one’s own visions of independence and strength and power be shattered over and over again. Learning to heave a heavy sigh when someone else tries to tell of pulling up your own bootstraps or brags about looking out for number one or goes on and on about being a self-made woman or man. Learning the hard way that when it comes to faith and purpose and meaning, you can’t buy it. You can’t earn it. You can’t acquire it. You can’t conquer it. And you certainly don’t deserve it. Discovering over and over again that salvation doesn’t come by birthright, or by might, or by the power of a nation, or the accumulation of wealth. It comes only by the hand of God.
It is, as Nadia Bolz Weber puts it, “being all too aware that it’s not your strength and virtue that qualify you to be called a saint, but your need for a God who makes beautiful things out of dust.” It is wrestling with the thought once shared by George Buttrick, “that if God stopped breathing, we would all vanish.” It is coming to understand what Paul Tillich meant by being “struck by grace” after the “longed for perfection of life does not appear.” It is agreeing with Peter Gomes who once preached “every Pilgrim knows that our best days are ahead of us and not behind us…and it is indeed the case that the Lord has not brought us this far to abandon us in the wilderness of our despair and disappointment.” It is knowing in your heart that Reinhold Niebuhr was spot on when he wrote that “privilege and power tend to corrupt the simple Christian heart”.
The poor in spirit. It is those who have been knocked down a peg or two when it comes to what you know and what you think and that innate urge to be right all the time. It is those who have learned that term “surrender” speaks volumes when it comes to your place before God, your place there on that mountain, your place in that crowd, your place at the feet of the One who sits upon the throne and breathes grace into the world…still.
The poor in spirit have come to know they have a place at this table. They crave a place at this table. For on that night when Jesus found himself once again immersed in the mystery of our salvation, when he found himself up to his eyeballs in all that it means to be human, when he was so surrounded by the flesh and confronted by even his own humanity, Jesus took bread and he broke it and he gave it to them and he said, “Take, eat, this is my body broken for you.”
At table with the Word made flesh. The poor in spirit are those who sit at table in the kingdom of heaven surrounded by such a great cloud of witness, preparing to share in the body of Christ broken for you and the blood of Christ shed for you, and all you can say, all you can really say is “Lord have mercy on me”.
And all you can hear in the response of the Savior, all you can really hear is…
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”