Daring, Humbled Ones {a hillside sermon}

Blessings on the meek. {Jesus}

We live in a university town, home to a historic and prestigious academic institution that has traded titles (Best Public University) with UC Berkley the last 11 or 12 years. There’s a lot of smart people here. A lot. I love it, truly do. Important ideas. Fascinating discussions. Intriguing people. But stick around long enough, and you will notice the temptation to sound smarter than you actually are, to drop names of esoteric philosophers you don’t really understand and use words you haven’t exactly figured out yet. Not that I’ve ever done this, mind you – but I know people who have.

I’m a pastor. And you might find this hard to believe (or not), but pastors feel the compulsion to climb the totem pole just like everyone else. We have our matrix for success, though these days it’s often unspoken because someone finally realized how crass it is to actually say you’re measuring the Kingdom of God by seats filled and dollars gathered. We see other churches grow and other pastors become the superstars while we dawdle along — and we awake in the middle of the night, ravaged by the fear that we are failures. Not that I’ve ever done this, mind you – but I know pastors who have.

I’m a writer. I don’t even need to go into it. The cliches are true; we are tortured souls. You put your words to paper, sending them out into the wide world with fingers crossed that they’ll be received, if not (dare we admit) cherished. And months later, the resounding silence has squashed all that. Now, you’re just begging the great publishing gods to not let it go out of print before its first birthday. And then you see the blogosphere blow up with some schmuck’s flash of brilliance. He said something revolutionary like “Be nice to people” – and he offered his sagacity with all the artfulness of a South of the Border billboard. Overnight, he’s got 4 buzillion twitter followers and blog commenters – and you know this because you’ve counted. Everything turns green. Not that I’ve ever done this…

We exhaust ourselves with all these wranglings because we do not believe that when we are humbled (and this is the meaning of meek) that the mercy of God will be enough for us. To be meek is to be gentle. A gentle man. A gentle woman. We are free to be gentle with others because we recognize God is gentle with us. We have nothing to prove. We are whoever and whatever God has given us to be. And we offer the same freedom to others.

When we release the demand to get what’s ours, when we drop our shoulders and lower our guard and simply live the truth of who we are – we can trust that the God of all kindness will hold us together. We don’t have to pry our life out of other’s scattered opinions and perceptions of us. We are free to be tamed by God, to surrender to God’s good care.

Peterson’s rendering of this beatitude invites us to take a risk – and to breathe easy: You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are – no more, no less.

For Those Who Mourn {a hillside sermon}

Blessings on the mourners. {Jesus}

I live with a woman who’s made friends with tears. And I tell you, Miska’s tears are one of the most powerful and beautiful things about her. When Miska and I first married, she rarely cried. I do remember that night during our first month in our first apartment, when we were still sleeping on a twenty-year-old hand-me-down mattress and box springs plopped on the floor. So many emotions, so raw. The tears came, but that was rare.

A couple years later, Miska began her grad program in counseling. She started to pay attention to her story; and she learned to pay attention to other’s stories. Miska is one of those rare people who truly listens, who hears you. Her tears signal strength, not frailty. A courageous woman, this wife of mine. She bears other’s sorrows and has become well acquainted with grief. She takes in other’s joy and weeps for all the beauty she sees. If you’ve never told your story to another and felt the sheer presence of someone’s tears over you, with you – well, I pray someday you receive that gift.

Of course, tears aren’t the only way to mourn (or express gratitude for beauty). But however one mourns, the mourner is not one we’d think of as blessed. The mourner is the one who knows the weight of things, the one who’s mistakes have brought him low, the one who can’t get over the loss, the one who carries another’s pain. The mourner lives with acute awareness of all the things we’ve lost in our world, all the places where we’ve gone wrong.

Some might call the mourners sentimental. Some might hurry them along the “stages of grief.” The mourners are the people we learn to work around, to acknowledge but keep on the edges where they won’t bother anyone.

But when Jesus announces the kingdom of God, he throws his arms open wide and speaks these words. BlessedBlessings on you who mourn, on you who know the sting of grief. To you who can never escape the tears, for you or for others. God is here. And you are blessed.

Ridiculous Blessings {a hillside sermon}

Blessed are the poor. {Jesus}

Blessed are the sat upon, spat upon, ratted on. {Paul Simon}

No matter the continent or century, we agree: the destitute and impoverished among us are the oppressed, not the privileged. The poor are beaten down by the man, undone by their addictions or overwhelmed by unjust systems. However we might describe the downtrodden, they are most certainly not blessed.

Yet Jesus leads off his litany of blessing in his sermon on the hill, the sermon launching revolutions and befuddling readers, with these strange words: blessed are the poor. Is Jesus glossing human sorrow with sentimentality? Has Jesus surrendered to an inner, “spiritualized” idealism, making a clean break from reality, from the poverty staring him in the face? Has Jesus lost his ever-loving mind?

Some have wondered if Jesus’ words minimize the plight of the poor, as if those under the heels of economic strain should stop bitching and thank their lucky stars they have received such an odd mercy. It hurts, but it builds character says the cliche. Of course, few of us want to get in line for this brand of mercy. Odd, isn’t it, how we can twist words so that the one who came (as the old prophet Isaiah said) to “bring good news to the poor” sounds darn close to a callous robber baron.

Jesus has no idyllic vision of poverty. Jesus is not suggesting that the hungry boy trapped in the slums simply surrender to squaller because – doesn’t he know?? — he’s blessed. Rather, Jesus announces the presence and power of God’s Kingdom, that reality that unseats and overturns every other reality, by proclaiming that the very ones gathered round him (the sick, the diseased, the outcast) who were in every way poor were welcomed, were desired and would by God’s grace be blessed, made well. As Glenn Stassen said, “The poor are blessed, not because their virtue is perfect but because God especially does want to rescue the poor.”

Matthew casts a wider net, telling us that all who are “poor in spirit” are blessed. Poverty makes it round to all of us. The poor in spirit includes all of us who are humbled. All of us who think we have nothing, are nothing. All of us who have slammed up against our limitations or another’s ridicule. All of us who feel small and insignificant. All of us who have been crushed by disappointment or shame. All of us who have been ignored or dismissed.

In one way or the other, at some point or another — and if we possess the courage to be honest — each of us will discover ourselves situated firmly in the company of the poor. We will be among those whom no one mistakes for an expert, who have no wide following, who fail to make the list marked elite. We are the silly ones, the bumbling ones. No one would come to us for an endorsement or to raise cash. We have little power. We are a poor fool.

And strangest of truths, Jesus announces to us in our impoverished place, the Kingdom is yours. Welcome. Blessed.