Luke’s beatitudes 2019
When I first saw that I was given Luke’s beatitudes as the text for today’s sermon, I got all excited. It’s about blessings, and I’d gotten to preach about blessings back in Advent in connection with Mary’s song. The fact that, in these beatitudes, Jesus connects blessings with poverty and discrimination seemed fitting, since I’d spoken about the woundedness that can come with being blessed.
But as I spent more time with the text, it became increasing complicated, and harder. Jesus clearly and unequivocally says that the poor, the hungry, those who grieve, those who are discriminated against and reviled are beloved of God, and thereby blessed. And being blessed, as I said last time, allows one to become a blessing to others. So because of their wounded blessedness, the people we might normally discount or discredit, the ones we might choose to ignore or avoid, are the very ones who can become a blessing to us.
As Ron Rolheiser puts it, pretty bluntly: “Like [St.] Francis, we need to get off our own horses and kiss the leper. If we do, something will snap, we will see our pampered lives for what they are, and God and love will break into our lives in such a way that we will never be the same again …. God’s preferential option for the poor is the cure for our mediocre and dying faith. We must kiss the leper.”
It’s not what a lot of folks want to hear. To be honest, I’d rather be among those that God especially blesses, but Jesus says otherwise. Jesus says that I need their blessing.
Back in the late 1980’s, my college classmate Rachel Hadas ran a poetry workshop in Manhattan for men dying of AIDS. Most had been abandoned by their families and were facing their death alone. She hoped that writing poetry might help them articulate what they were going through. “Calling things by their true names seems to me to be one of the functions of poetry,” she said. One of her participants wrote:
In the midst of soaping my body
to start the day, automatically
I turn and catch a view of me
in the mirror—
a look of death
that lies around the eyes
in pale taut skin
against the bones.
He ends his poem:I want to reach out and soothe
the anger and sadness of the man
there in the mirror.
When the workshop was over, Rachel talked of being “indebted to” the men who so honestly shared their stories, aware she had gained more than she had given. She used the language of indebtedness, but I would say she had been blessed.
I know that the incarcerated men and women I’ve shared workshops with over the years have blessed me by sharing their experiences in ways that knocked me off my horse and helped me, as Ron Rolheiser says, to see my pampered life for what it is. When I first began at the prison 10 years ago, I still carried the wound of lost years with my children, and I’d just retired from a job of 23 years among colleagues I loved but now rarely saw, but as I sat that first semester among a dozen guilty, lonely men and listened to their losses — their children, their partners, friends, jobs, dreams, homes, freedom, identities – their litany of loss made me realize how light a burden I actually carried.
Blessed are the poor, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned, the stranger, the despised.
As I thought about all this, I realized how important Jesus’ words are today, not just for me to hear, but for all of us, now, in the midst of national turmoil when hatred and discrimination have been set loose, the sick are being denied, the poor ignored, and the asylum-seeker blocked, incarcerated, or sent away. The very people that Jesus says God blesses are the ones being mistreated. Yet they hold our blessing in their hands.
Just this past week our presiding bishop Michael Curry joined 22 other church elders in issuing a pastoral letter for Lent, in which they write: “We pray with those who suffered during the unconscionable government shutdown and with those who face poverty and hunger every day. [Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the hungry] We pray for those who live in fear of deportation and family separation. [Blessed are those who weep] We pray for those who face violence—especially parents who fear for their children of color—and those who endure language of racial divisiveness. [Blessed are the reviled and excluded] We pray for the soul of the nation and the resilience of our government’s processes.”
Here at St. Paul’s there are prayer warriors out there who offer intercessions faithfully and fiercely for God’s vulnerable beloved, just as these church elders do. And many others of you walk alongside them through your work at Oasis, the Gathering Place, Tedford, the soup kitchen, through visiting the homebound and hospitalized, in caring for the vulnerable loved ones in your own lives. Many others of you write letters, attend marches and protests, sign petitions on behalf of those beloved by God but ignored by the government. And all this work on their behalf blesses you.
This community of St. Paul’s is blessed because you come bearing the blessings of the people among whom and for whom you advocate. I don’t mean that anyone overtly says to you, “Bless you for this work” or “thank you for your prayers” but it is the fact of it, the reality that you have been out there looking after Jesus in the guise of the poor, the hungry, and the hurting that enlightens this place and makes all of us better followers of Jesus.
May God bless the work of our hands and our hearts as we go out and kiss the leper God puts in front of us each day.