Thursday, February 9, 2017

Practicing the Beatitudes

Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany, January 29, 2017

Micah 6:1-8
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Matthew 5:1-12
Psalm 15

Today we hear the Beatitudes.  Jesus giving his followers God’s hope by naming their weaknesses and promising God’s blessings.  He reminds them that if they are reviled and persecuted, they should “rejoice and be glad” because their reward will be great in heaven.  And he reminds them that just as the prophets of the Hebrew bible were persecuted by the people, but lifted up and called by God—so they may be persecuted by the crowds and lifted up by God.

It strikes me that naming our weaknesses is a challenging spiritual practice. We are inclined to want to name our strengths.   Why would we want to associate ourselves with weak people?  Why would we want to be a weak person?  What is there to rejoice about when we feel ourselves reviled and persecuted?

If you received Nativity Notes online or in the mail this week, you might have read about my experience at the Women’s March in Washington last weekend.  One of the things that struck me most about the march was that many different issues were raised by the speakers and by the signs that marchers carried.  There were people who were focused on equality for women, on women’s health, on the rights of immigrants, on the rights of LGBTQ people.  There were speakers who focused on freedom of religion, on racial equality.  Some signs proclaimed the need to care for the planet, and responses to global warming.

Even though these issues are very different, and the solutions to these issues are complex, they came together in this one event.  People brought their weaknesses to this march and I think found strength in sharing them with one another.  
I’m sure that most people at the march were not thinking about the beatitudes, they weren’t thinking—let’s do as Jesus did and name all of our weakest people, let’s identify the issues where we are most vulnerable and rejoice because God will lift us up.   Some were focused on blaming the incoming administration for injustice they see coming.  Some were feeling attacked by the divisive and hurtful campaign rhetoric that has dominated our media for the past year and created fear and hatred among peoples.  Since the march, I’ve heard some commentators suggest that it was a meaningless action because there is no policy plan for how to fix all the issues that the marchers raised.

But what if we ask a different question.  Instead of looking for what the march did to the world, we might look at the what the march did to the marchers.   I saw grandmothers and daughters and granddaughters who had come together to the march.  For some I spoke to, this was the first time that the younger people had participated in any public action.   For many this was the first time that they were saying publicly, I want to be counted as a witness to injustice.  Or maybe they were saying,  I want to stand up for other women who don’t have the privileges that I do.   I saw men carrying banners for women’s rights—allies in a fight for equality.  I saw people of every race proclaiming their hopes and complaints. In some way, each person was naming their place in the list of beatitudes. 

Instead of naming the solutions (because a 4 word sign can’t possibly name the policy solution), the marchers were identifying problems in our world. 

Of course, marching isn’t the only way to name our weaknesses.  We can look around us and make a list of the “blessed be” people in our community.  I am thinking about the way that we already do that—Jean Heine might say,  “Blessed be the women who have family members in prison.”  Rev. Rebecca might add,  “Blessed be the prisoner who repents and works on his own attitudinal healing.”  Gail might add,  “Blessed be the senior who comes to the Cathedral for lunch and fellowship.”  Susan and Alex might add,  “Blessed in the un-housed person who shares their thoughts at the Wellness Circle.”  Marion might add,  “Blessed in the one who saves their pennies in the mite box for United Thank Offering.”  Ian might add,  “Blessed in my teacher who gave me a great project to do.”  At our Diocesan convention we named gun violence as an important issue—“Blessed are those live in violent neighborhoods.  Blessed are the parents who mourn the deaths of sons and daughters killed by guns in our communities.”

We name the poor in spirit in our prayers, by our service or outreach work, by marching, or by our worship.  We become the ones who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the peacemakers, the merciful.  Jesus’ message to his disciples was not only about naming those other people who will receive the Kingdom of heaven.  Jesus was helping his disciples to understand who they must be. 

Jesus was opening up to his disciples a lesson about whom God favors.  And Jesus was also offering some practical coaching on how to be disciples.  Jesus was encouraging his disciples to do the work of naming who is blessed. He was encouraging them to know their own weaknesses—knowing themselves as the ones who would be poor in spirit, the ones who would be persecuted.  He was encouraging them not to feel privileged because they were his followers, but instead to recognize their own weakness and identify as an ally with others who are weak.

Jesus showed his disciples that when they made the list of the weakest and putting themselves on that list (as Jesus put himself on the list),  God began to work.   Because God’s promises are specifically for the people on the list.  The people on this list begin to have hope and power through God.  Jesus says that those on the list are the ones who can rejoice because they are the ones that God has promised the Kingdom of heaven.

It is a process of spiritual growth that Jesus is giving to his disciples.  First name the weakest.  Put yourself on this list, really put yourself on the list.  How am I poor?  How am I weak?  In what ways am I the one who is persecuted.  Then name the hope that God provides.  If I am the one who is a peacemaker—recognizing the people among whom I work as brothers and sister rather than enemies, then my hope rests in the knowledge that God is my parent.  If I am the one who is meek one who doesn’t feel confident to take from others (even if I’m not taking what is rightfully mine).  If I am shy and powerless in the face of powerful people in this world, then my hope rests God’s promise that I will inherit from God everything—the whole earth. 

The beatitudes are a practice of finding our weakness and hoping into God’s power.  And in the process, God builds up joy, giving God’s people hope and gladness.  It’s a process that happens in the individual who is practicing as Jesus taught, and it is a process that happens in the community.

Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians emphasized this practice for their community:
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”  Paul tells his community that they were chosen by God because of their weakness, their foolishness.  He tells them that this is the way their faith in Christ works, this is the way that God works—giving righteousness, sanctification and redemption (in that order).  When we know our weakness, then we can know God’s hope.  When we give up our ideas about how important we are in the world, then we can rejoice in the bounty that God has given us and promised us in heaven.  We are made righteous, we are sanctified, we are redeemed.

Today,  after the service, we are going to have our annual meeting.  I am so looking forward to it with all of you.  As Everil and I both mentioned in our reports, the theme for our stewardship committee this year was “Celebrating Abundance”.   As I prayed the Scripture and prepared for the meeting, I was thinking that this is our moment of “Rejoicing and being glad” for our reward is so great in God’s realm.    I think that what we have done over the last year can be considered “practicing the beatitudes”.  Your vestry did some really important work.  At the very beginning of the year, they met to do strategic planning and they named all of our weaknesses.  This strategic planning process identified our small size, our small budget, our part time clergy.  The vestry asked what about children and families?  What about the LGBTQ community?  Who are we, who do we want to name as the people we care about.  The vestry looked out and instead of feeling powerful and good about what we have made over the course of the 60 year history of Nativity, we did some real soul searching and some hard work asking who we really are.    We are a small faithful group.  We are called to serve the homeless here, the prisoners, the neighborhood families, the seniors and shut ins. 

Over the course of the year, what happened to us is that instead of feeling impoverished by naming our weaknesses and the weakness of those we serve, we began to feel God’s power working in us.  God abundance is here—we have everything we need--one another, our land, our brother and sister congregations.  We have enough money, we have enough people, we have hope and energy.  Instead of wishing that we might have been a different church, we have lived into our blessedness. 

This has been a year of practicing the beatitudes.  We know that we are not the most powerful church, but we are blessed, we are the faithful ones to whom God has promised everything.

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