Blessed?!?!

Feb 2, 2020 by

Sermon by Bob Bond

We are in Year A of the lectionary cycle; Matthew is the Gospel account we’ll pretty consistently be focused upon; so today we’ve heard the Beatitudes (the blessings) from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount.  This text’s main parallel is Luke’s Sermon on the Plain.  Remembering that both accounts were penned some 2 generations after Jesus:  in our listening for what Jesus taught, it is imperative to hold the accounts up together.  Now, scholars agree with what we know from everyday experience: a story-teller influences their story, and one who wants to make their story more palatable will tweak it that way.  So the first line spoken by Jesus in this amazing block of teaching is most likely closer to the more difficult statement Luke puts forward:  “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven!” … Matthew has made it ‘softer’ / ‘more acceptable’ to rich listeners, by his “Blessed are the poor in spirit”.

Let’s remind ourselves, then, of Luke’s entire set of Jesus’ astonishing, difficult, cutting statements:  After ‘blessing the poor’ comes,

21 ‘Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.  ‘Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

22 ‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.”

 

I start us off by this ‘focusing in’ on the sharp edge of Jesus’ cutting words because, as I read and reflected in preparation for this morning, I found myself struggling with standing up publicly to say these things.

Let me explain:  I have spoken before, from this pulpit, about several pivotal “awakening”-experiences in my spiritual life.  One is that beginning at age twelve I had persistent night-dreams that were quite disturbing, and that I prayed God would take away from me.  They were not taken away.

Only when I was introduced to the works of Carl Jung in Divinity School did I start to be able to wrestle with these dreams in a very different way … a spiritual and religious way that squarely considered their meaning.  They came, through season after season of further reflection, to be fundamental to my understanding of, and care for myself; in the first instance guiding me to finally grieve my father’s death back when I was twelve.  Eventually, then, I could say, “Blessed am I, and anyone else, who dreams such dreams!”  Now if someone on the outside of me had said this to me, particularly during the years of uncomfortable floundering, I would have wanted to scream at them.

Another “spiritual awakening” occurred in my penultimate year as Pastor of Selkirk Baptist Church.  I was sick in my throat and neck almost constantly, with trips to our Family Physician after each successive prescription ran out.  Then came a feverish night when I awoke, all sweaty but inside the epiphany that my throat and neck were fully representing me in (they were metaphors of, and symbols for) my current living-out-of-my-vocation.  I got it!! (in a flash of insight!!); and with that discovery the infections and muscle tensions essentially came to an end.  Within days my thought was, “Blessed was I by those months of sickness”.  And – again – if someone had said this to me before that night-of-revelation, I would have wanted to slap them silly!

So then – can you see what I mean? – put, in front of me, anyone in anguish over grievous loss, and how dare I (from outside their experience) think to say to them, “Blessed are you!”?  Put in front of me any of the world’s millions without enough food, and how dare I (from outside their experience) state, “Blessed are you”?  Put in front of me someone working multiple mind-numbing minimum wage jobs without benefits, at wits’ end to care for their autistic child who is about to turn eighteen; how would I dare utter to their face, “Blessed are you!”?  In short, how dare I – first-world white Anglo-Saxon middle class cis-gendered male me, not poor, not hungry, without current personal cause to weep – [how dare I] stand in public and say such things aloud?

Well, here’s how I might dare:

Consider, with me, how Jesus speaks a fourth category, in his beatitudes, one where all Christians in the Western World actually have “skin in the game”.  Matthew’s Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” and Luke’s Jesus says, “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man”.  Obviously we in Canada are not excluded, reviled or persecuted like Christians in other places-and-times imprisoned or killed for their faith.  But let me tell you a story.

When I was hired as a hospital chaplain in 1990, I was a pastor with the five years’ ordained congregational leadership the BCOQ required at that time in order to put someone forward into chaplaincy.  Very early on at the Welland County General Hospital, as I was still setting up the many-year pathway whereby I’d complete the three-more Supervised Pastoral Education Units I needed and fulfil the certification processes to be a Specialist, I was caring for a Psych patient who – I learned from close listening – had suffered a lifetime of abuse, first from her parents, then from her husband, now even from her two young boys.  Her psychiatrist had put her into a Behaviour Modification treatment plan:  rewarding desired conduct and punishing what was undesirable.  This treatment only managed to reinforce what she had always been told about herself; namely, “You are a bad person; you therefore deserve the punishment you receive.”  I was beside myself; I asked to meet with the psychiatrist but he would not see me (mere chaplain me!); I thereupon made a chart entry noting the patient’s conflicted predicament.  Now that incensed the psychiatrist, who went to my boss (the hospital’s clinical director) and pretty much wanted my head on a platter.  My boss told me to write up my position, let her review it, then take it to a meeting she had set up between me and the psychiatrist.

Recall this takes place before my 2nd, 3rd and 4th Units of supervised pastoral education, so while I was theologically pretty grounded I was not yet very psychotherapeutically advanced.  I wrote up my position: multiple pages of theological reflection utilizing several diverse approaches and arguments.  It was solid material … in fact I still use parts of it when teaching new learners how to do theological reflection.  I showed it to my boss.  A well-formed Roman Catholic, she easily understood what I had written.  And her reaction was:  “Bob, you cannot take this into that meeting; it would mean nothing there!”

My boss’s counsel was Sophia (Wisdom) speaking.  Not that what I had written wasn’t bang-on good and true.  But that it would be received by Psychiatry (by Medicine) just like that Doctor in 1991 would undoubtedly have received an Aboriginal Healer’s input, or suggestions put to him from Traditional Chinese Medicine, or Jamaican voodoo.  (Today I could go, present my case and debate the man on the basis and in the language of psychology and psychotherapy; but then I hadn’t yet learned and integrated such equipment … though let me add that the critically formulated theological reflection is still – to me – the more compelling argument!)

This story, people, is one about having carefully laid out an integrated product – arising from thousands of years of human soul-searching in the presence of God – concerning what righteousness (the fulfillment of the demands of relationships) would look like towards the healing of this patient.  Here was an exposé on how the Christian Tradition actively received, assessed, diagnosed and so would treat this patient.  And this material could not be put on the table because there it would only be reviled, excluded, and Chaplaincy itself further hung out to dry.

I’ve zeroed in on my professional realm-of-practice to tell you this story; but now let’s broaden it, because mine is but one case-in-point of what weall of us!live in our worldChristianity has such significant things to say and do, and live, about Economy, about Politics, about Health Care, about education, about environmental stewardship, … the list goes on and on.  We are – in fact – aware that what we have to say and do and live, on account of our following in the Way of the Son of Man, is world-saving.  But it is not deliverable in the categories of evidenced-based statistics and argument that our world is fixated upon.  So the statements and actions we make and the living we do in these various realms, on the basis of our faith in Christ, are disqualified because this ‘way of knowing’ is deemed – to use Paul’s word this morning – “foolish”.

Meanwhile, here on the inside where we are, anyone who has “done the work” – which is to say “done the study” (the self-criticism and the textual criticism and the historical criticism and the cultural anthropology and the theological inquiry required adequately-to-do-exegesis) – [any such person] recognizes the blessed truth, the wisdom (“wisdom” not just ‘of the ages’, but ‘of the Creator’!) that is placed by faith into our hands.  Any such person appreciates “the pearl of great value” here:  the prophetic challenge that is correct and needed for our age.  A person in this position is knowingly blessed, at the same time as they feel the world’s “disdain” for so-being.

Paul’s words to the Corinthians bear repeating at this point:

… the message [what you, here ‘on the inside’, have] … is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.  For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”  Where is the one who is wise? … Where is the debater of this age?  Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?  For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.  For some demand signs and others desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to sign-seekers and foolishness to the philosophers, but to those who are the called, … Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

People, we cannot but in-this-light affirm:  “Blessed are we who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake”; “Blessed are we when people … exclude us, revile us, and defame us on account of the Son of Man”.  Because we know the value of what we’ve got (or, rather, the great value of what-it-is that has gotten us!).

Speaking from the inside of it, the beatitude is true.

And the same goes the rest of them.  From inside great grief comes the discovery

  • of having been made into who-we-are, in significant measure, by the gifts of the relationship (the precious relationship!) that is now lost; and
  • [comes the discovery] that this new, terrible separation we are experiencing does not lessen that lost-one’s contribution to, impact on, and formation of who we now are; and
  • [comes the discovery] that we necessarily now move on in a world still poised to provide for us, and we move on carrying with us all that we have gained from the lost-one; and
  • [comes the discovery … hard-won fresh clarity] about the truth of human mortality, the fact of our finitude, and – in the face of these – the significance of our power to decide what to do with our lives.

So, yes, blessed are those who mourn.

I’ll leave for you to explore and consider just how it is equally true that, from the inside, those who are poor and those who hunger actually hold the answers, they are the answers to what are among our world’s most pressing questions and needs.  “Blessed are they!”.

Now allow me to close with the rest of those words-of-Paul to the Corinthians:

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 chooses what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chooses what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chooses 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. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’

Blessed be, good people!

Amen.

 

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