This is a hard piece of scripture to hear. If I’m being honest, it’s a hard passage for me to even like. Maybe that’s why we tend to frame it, to render it beautifully in cross-stitch and hang it on our walls. But I’m not so sure I want to take it to heart. I’m certainly don’t want to test its truth with my life.
That would mean I would be at peace with the possibility of persecution, that I would relish getting reviled. The text suggests that being poor in spirit is not such a bad thing, and neither is being hungry for righteousness or justice. Which I guess is easier to take than Luke’s version of this teaching which says that you’re blessed when you are flat-broke poor and stomach-rumbling hungry. I listen to this and it sounds like being meek gets you places, even though it’s pretty clear in our world that the soft-spoken and merciful get left in the dust. Not to mention that there’s no money in peacemaking. And then there’s that line about being favored by God when you mourn. Sounds nice, but I’ve done a little mourning lately and mostly it just felt like a part of my heart had been cut out.
I guess what I’m wondering is, Are you serious, Jesus? Are you joking? Because if you are you might be better off telling a real joke to warm up the crowd before launching into the rest of this hard-to-hear sermon on that mountain. I mean there’s a reason the Ten Commandments get plastered on little yard signs but you never see one saying This House Trusts the Beatitudes. Who can even imagine a world where these sayings are true? Who is in a position to believe a word of it? Given the choice, I’ll take my chances on finding ways to be hard-boiled, assertive, rich, and fully armed, thank you, very much. I mean, Jesus is offering us some pretty thoughts, but you need to be realistic about these things, especially in times like these.
Only what if Jesus is actually being more realistic than I am? Than we think we are? One theologian I was reading recently said that we should not think of these “blessings” (that’s literally what a beatitude is) as descriptions of some heavenly world to come but reflections of reality changing now through. It’s Jesus teaching us that those who are strong and on top are not always going to be there, while those who are hurting and struggling along at the bottom are going to be lifted up. It’s kind of like God’s ferris wheel (Barbara Brown Taylor), and while God loves every single person on that wheel, no one should expect to stay where they are forever. Those who have never had a good view are going to get one, and those who have long enjoyed the best seats in the house are going to be reminded what relying on grace and the good will of others feels like. Or maybe they’ll be learning that truth for the very first time. By God’s breath, the world is turning, and we’re all in it together.
In the meantime, those of us who are doing pretty well and flying high have a chance to begin getting in touch with our fundamental connectedness to those who are struggling down in the saw dust. That is, we don’t have to wait for the wheel to turn, and our fortunes to change, before we can begin to get a sense of what it’s like to see the world from the perspective of our sisters and brothers who know the weight of sorrow and hunger and rejection. But to do that, it will likely mean learning to listen to them, and this passage of scripture, from some place other than the comfort of our pews. It may mean shifting our location of studying scripture from the quiet privacy of our homes, studies, and sanctuaries, and out into the noise and unpredictability of the streets.
About twenty years ago, two Columbia Seminary professors, Stan Saunders and Chuck Campbell undertook a learning experiment by inviting their students to study the scriptures, not in the usual classroom setting, but in public places in Atlanta where the poor lived and worked: in downtown labor pools, in soup kitchens, on the steps of tall bank buildings, in prisons, and in night shelters. Exposed, the students had to come to terms with their own view of themselves: many were suddenly aware of their race and privilege, not to mention the fact that they found themselves having to explain to complete strangers, like a bank security guard, why they were doing Bible study in the lobby. They also began to understand what it was like to feel out of place and uncomfortable, something that the poor experience on a daily basis. Slowly the stories about hungry crowds looking for a meal and marginalized outcasts being shunned by the elite began to sound different – and more alive. In the words of Stan and Chuck, “As in real estate, so also in the interpretation of Scripture, the most important principles are location, location, location” (The Word on the Street, p.87).
In a way, listening for God’s Word out on the street was not a new idea, but a very, very old one. In fact, it’s what Jesus did for nearly all of his ministry. Very rarely do we find him teaching in traditional settings like synagogues. And frankly, when he did, he usually got in trouble or got kicked out. No, most of the time, Jesus was doing his teaching somewhere along the way, on a road going to, say, Emmaus, or in a field where he could point to flowers and birds as illustrations. Or, as in today’s passage, up on a mountainside somewhere, surrounded by would-be disciples and a multitude of people desperate for hope. For Jesus, what we are able to hear of his word seems to depend on where we are standing – and who we are standing with. It depends on breaking free from our comfortable contexts and stepping into more unfamiliar territory and unlikely relationships. And the closer we are standing to the hurting and hopeless, the closer we are standing to him and the better we are able to hear his message.
I love the way John Pavlovitz put it in one of his recent blog posts where he’s wrestling with the growing hostility being directed by people who identify as Christian toward the vulnerable: “I thought Christians were supposed to care about people,” he writes. “Not necessarily agree with them or believe what they believe or even like them – but see them each as specific and unique image-bearers of the divine, to want and to work for Shalom for them: wholeness, happiness, peace, safety, rest. I grew up believing that one of the markers of a life emulating Jesus was a heart capable of being broken at the distress of other human beings around you: when they are hungry and hurting, when they are homeless and afraid, when they grieve and feel alone, when they believe they are unloved and forgotten, when tragedy befalls them and when injustice assails them. These things are supposed to move the needle within us if Jesus is present.”
Maybe the Beatitudes can only be heard rightly when we are listening from the back of the line, or from outside in the cold, from where the uninvited and unimportant are always waiting. Maybe then these verses will stop sounding like an impossible dream and really start to sound like blessings and absolutely essential good news.
Over the last several weeks, I’ve been so thrilled to see a new listening place for God’s word being born in the sacred space of this community. It’s the front desk in the hallway, only a few steps from “out there,” a spot that can get a little chilly when the door is being opened alot on a windy day. In reality I guess that desk area has long been holy ground since that’s where Eileen Becker used to sit and greet folks walking in. But now it’s where a growing group of volunteers greets neighbors every Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday afternoon. These are neighbors who are looking for help with food and utility bills, but also for the basic blessing of being seen and heard and greeted with respect. And as conversations and stories are shared, no matter how brief, relationships are developed and faces remembered and our connectedness on God’s Ferris wheel is reinforced. Location, location, location. May God give us the grace to move even further from our security zones and out to wherever we need to be in order to get a better hearing of his life-giving Word. Amen.