What do you expect it to be like when you meet Jesus?
And then: what is it like when you actually meet Jesus?
We are early on the Gospel of Mark. Mark is the shortest Gospel, it is probably the oldest, and it is the one that tells the story of Jesus with the most urgency. It has this driving, and then, and then, and then quality to it. Mark does not give us a nativity, he does not give us a genealogy, he does not give us the cosmic preamble that we have in John.
What Mark gives us is John the Baptist foretelling Jesus and then baptising Jesus; Jesus being driven by the Spirit into the wilderness; Jesus calling Simon and Andrew and James and John; and then the scene that we witness today. (We’re still in the first Chapter!) This is a scene that offers a possible answer to our opening questions: What do we expect it to be like when we meet Jesus? And what is it like when we actually meet Jesus?
Jesus is teaching in the synagogue. If we feel like imagining this scene in the present day, maybe we can picture him standing at the front of our church. He is teaching. And people are amazed – because, the text says, he has authority. There is something about his words, his stories, just who he is, that tells people that he is telling the truth.
And no sooner has Mark set up this scene than conflict or crisis shoots into the middle of it like a lightning bolt. Someone with an unclean spirit shows up. Unclean spirit is a category that we don’t know much about in 2021. It assumes a fundamentally different worldview than I have and, I’m guessing, than you have. If you haven’t seen the person who lives next to you for a while and you ask another neighbour what happened to them, you’d probably be surprised and confused if your neighbour said, “Oh, Doug has an unclean spirit.”
Even if we don’t have a common vocabulary, however, we do know what it is like when someone is in distress. And this man person shows up all of a sudden in this scene is in profound distress. They are hurting in a big way.
Something fascinating happens then, something that will repeat throughout Jesus’ ministry: the hurting person or, to use the language of Mark, the unclean spirit within the hurting person recognises Jesus right away. Sometimes the disciples are slow to figure out who Jesus is and what he must do. And someone like Pilate never figures out who Jesus is. But this unclean person, this hurting person has no question:
I know who you are,
You are the Holy One of God.
And maybe this makes sense. Because it is often in our distress, in our pain, in our loneliness, in our lostness that God shows up to us most clearly. When I speak with people in hospital or hospice beds, they will regularly tell me that their prayer life, that their conversation with God, has a clarity that it never had before. I don’t think that’s because God is any more present when we are suffering than when we are washing the dishes or when we are in a moment of jubilation. But I do suspect that, in our suffering, it’s sometimes easier for us to notice God.
Now, pay attention to what else this hurting person says next:
Have you come to destroy us?
While being possessed by an unclean spirit may be outside of our experience, I want to suggest that this next part is not, that these words are not. Many of us have inherited this idea that, when we stand before God, what we will encounter from God is disappointment, condemnation, rejection, and the harshest kind of judgment. Many of us suspect that when we arrive at the gates of heaven, Saint Peter won’t have a room ready for us. We wonder, we fear, in other words, that what we can expect from God is violence.
We ask Jesus:
Have you come to destroy us?
But what Jesus offers is healing.
Come out of him! Jesus says to the unclean spirit. And the man is healed, he is set free. And maybe – I don’t know if this is a weird idea – the unclean spirit is also healed and set free. The two are no longer bound together in pain.
If your answer to the question, What do you expect it to be like when you meet Jesus? Is I expect pain and rejection and violence then this story is for you.
There is an old and beloved hymn called There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy. The words were written by a guy by the name of Frederick Faber. And one of the verses goes like this:
There is no place where earth’s sorrows Are more felt than up in Heaven; There is no place where earth’s failings Have such kindly judgment given.
That hymn is about the whole earth. And it is about you in particular. We all fail. I sure do. And what we can expect from Jesus, what Jesus promises, is kindly judgment. Again, Alleluia.
What do you expect it to be like when you meet Jesus?
And then: what is it like when you actually meet Jesus?
Whatever you may expect from Jesus, know that meeting him is always, always a joy that is more than we can ask or imagine. Know that when you meet him you will find kindly judgment, you will find freedom, you will find love.
Have you heard of the psychological phenomenon called Impostor Syndrome? Impostor Syndrome – and I mentioned this in passing a few weeks back on the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus, I’d like to go a little deeper this morning – is the fear, sometimes mild and fleeting, sometimes profound and debilitating, that sooner or later I will be exposed as an utter fraud. It is the nagging doubt that, notwithstanding my best efforts to hide my incompetence, folks will discover that I am not qualified to be a parent, to be a citizen, to be an adult, whatever.
In small doses, Impostor Syndrome might be okay. A certain amount of discontent is not a bad thing. There is some fascinating research that suggests that we may make better decisions when we are feeling a little sad or little irritated, that we may become more motivated and apply better critical thinking skills to the world around us. If that research is right, then the mild unhappiness that comes with small-dose Impostor Syndrome, kind of like small-dose physical pain, may give us a nudge be lifelong learners, to approach situations with curiosity and openness, to assume that life requires our best effort, to ask big questions.
That’s not a bad way of encountering life.
The problem shows up when we encounter Impostor Syndrome in higher doses, when it becomes our prevailing lens for encountering reality. When we are constantly living with a narrative that says that we are unworthy, unqualified, that we are faking it, that we are going to be exposed, what happens? We can end up as perfectionists, constantly trying to meet an impossible standard, and living with the emotion that inevitably comes with perfectionism, which is shame. We can end up stuck, unable to take a risk, maybe even unable to hear when God calls us to take a risk. And we can end up being kind of unpleasant to be around.
I am a reformed self-deprecator. Self-deprecation, tearing myself down, was a particularly big part of my life when I was an adolescent and a young adult. It was the primary ways that Impostor Syndrome manifested for me. (I think our teens and twenties is an age time a lot of us struggle to hold ourselves in esteem, to imagine that we are worthy or good or loveable.)
One of the ways that my self-deprecation manifested in a way that I particularly regret, for which I am sorry, was that I argued with people when they offered me praise and encouragement. I was in a lot of shows in high school, theatre is what let me survive high school, and so I got a fair bit of positive feedback. Folks would say, “I loved your performance in the play.” And often, I would respond:
Oh no, I was no good.
My guess is that, if you had asked me at 16 why I argued with affirmation, I would’ve told you that I was being humble. I no longer see it that way at all. I have come to understand arguing with praise and encouragement as an act of arrogance. When someone says, That thing you did or said was a big deal and we start refuting them, we are calling their experience into question, we are announcing that they are not experts in their own lives, that we know better than them what is important to them and what isn’t.
Sometimes people will thank you for the most unexpected or unlikely things. If you have ever visited someone, for instance, after a big loss, after a seismic grief or trauma, you may have been surprised when that person thanked you in apparent sincerity, when they told you that your visit mattered a lot. That’s a moment when someone wired like me, and maybe someone wired like you, is sorely tempted to argue. I mean, what could you possibly have said or done that would be equal to that kind of hurt?
I implore you – and I am preaching as much to myself as anyone else right now – to resist that temptation. When the urge rises up to say, I don’t see how I helped at all, push that down and instead, say:
If you absolutely must argue with praise, push that down until you have left the person in grief and then share your unworthiness with a trusted friend or a therapist.
Today, we hear about the young Jeremiah called by God. God comes to Jeremiah and he speaks these staggeringly beautiful words:
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.
And hearing this, Jeremiah’s Impostor Syndrome kicks in right away. He starts arguing with God. He says:
You must be mistaken, God. I’m just a boy. I don’t know how to be a prophet. I barely even know how to tie my shoes.
But God is having none of it. God says: Cut that out right now. This may surprise you, Jeremiah, but I, the Lord your God, do not make very many mistakes. Do not say, “I am only a boy.”
you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you,
And then God offers those words of reassurance that recur across the Bible: Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.
Jeremiah knows enough to stop arguing at this point.
And then God says:
Now I have put my words in your mouth.
And so Jeremiah joins the long list of folks in scripture who insist that they are underqualified to serve God and who, with God’s help, end up changing the world anyway. He joins with Moses, who says that he doesn’t know how to talk; with Sarah who says that she is too old; with Jonah who hears God’s call and just starts running. (Have any of you done that?)
I think we’ve all met folks, maybe we’ve all been folks, who kept on arguing with God until the moment of call, the moment of possibility, passed us by. God doesn’t insist. God doesn’t make us do anything. God loves us too much, God respects our freedom far too much to do that. And so, if we argue long enough and hard enough, God will say to you or to me:
Thy will be done.
One of the saddest conversations of my life was with a childhood friend with whom I stayed in contact come adulthood. My friend, unlike me, had some athletic gifts. When we played football at the field near our houses, he was far and away the best of us. He had this long, glorious stride. I would play quarterback sometimes, and watching him go get a deep ball, fast and effortless, was beautiful.
A few years into adulthood I asked him: Given your talent, why did you never try out for a high school football team?
And in one of those moments of raw candour that sometimes show up, when the artifice falls away and we are able to tell the truth to one another, my friend said to me:
I was afraid.
I was afraid. Football was the one thing that I was really good at. And I was afraid that if I tried out and didn’t make the team, then that too would be taken away from me.
For my friend, his sense of impostorship was so pervasive, so corrosive, that it stopped him from taking a risk. Maybe he would’ve tried out for the team, maybe he wouldn’t have made it, maybe his fears would’ve been realised and he would’ve had to live with that disappointment and that grief. We can’t know. But I want to suggest that even that worst-case scenario would have been miles better than the hollowness that he lived with instead, the nagging awful sense that he was forgetting to live his life.
How do you and I keep from arguing with God? How do we keep from arguing when God offers us praise and encouragement, when God calls us? How do we prevent Impostor Syndrome from leaving us with an unlived life?
Today we hear that passage from Paul that everybody reads at their wedding. Love is patient, love is kind, love believes all things, bears all things. The greatest of these three is love. And maybe repetition has dulled these words a little, made them invisible or obvious. But I want to see if we can listen to these words with new ears. I want to suggest that we reach for these words on a big deal occasion such as a wedding with good reason. Because they tell us an awesome truth about life and about God. They tell us that, as our Presiding Bishop never tires of proclaiming, that love is the way.
And maybe they offer us an answer to, an antidote for, Impostor Syndrome.
When Phoebe and I were first dating, I remember her vividly telling me that a penny had dropped for a while back, that she had realised that Jesus’ command to love your neighbour as yourself by necessity requires you to love yourself. Now, for many of us, that command is hard. Loving others might actually be substantially easier than loving ourselves. But I want to suggest that doing our very best to keep this part of the commandment is actually a vital act of reverence. Because when we love ourselves we are declaring that God does not make junk. We are declaring that scripture is telling the truth when it says that we are made in God’s image. We are declaring that Paul is telling the truth when he says that you and I are the Body of Christ.
May you and I stop arguing when God praises us, when God encourages us, when God calls us. May we know, deep in our bones, that we are not impostors. May we know, instead, that we are made in God’s image, that we are the Body of Christ, that our bodies are covered with the holy fingerprints of God. May we know that we, just like our neighbours, are loved beyond limit. And may we live accordingly.
It’s the Sabbath, Jesus has gone to the Synagogue (as is his habit), and there he is teaching. And the people who are listening to him, Mark tells us in his tantalising brevity, are astonished because he teaches asone having authority. Something about his words, his manner, the content of his teaching, just who he I, says that he knows what he is talking about.
As Jesus teaches with authority, abruptly, a man with an unclean spirit enters the scene. Today, our mental picture of what this man might look like is heavily shaped by medieval paintings and by Hollywood movies. It is not hard to imagine the man’s head rotating 360 degrees, him body levitating, his eyes burning red and his skin a cadaverous grey. That may or may not have been what Mark’s audience imagined when they gathered around the campfire and Mark first told this story to them. We don’t know.
While we don’t know much about his appearance, we do know that the man has an aggressive, yelling manner. He yells at everyone, he yells at Jesus:
What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?
So there is fear and recognition is the man’s voice. And then something fascinating happens. Did you notice it? From one sentence to the next, the man switches from the first person plural – from “us” – to the first person singular. He says:
I know who you are, the Holy One of God.
Jesus responds: Be silent. Come out of him!
And the unclean spirit does come out.
The people watching are amazed. Their mouths hang open in wonder, their eyes bulge wide, they gasp. They say – as you and I might say in the same circumstances:
What is this?
The people are like an audience watching a magic trick, asking the question: How did he do that? Except that Jesus’ magic trick is not an illusion. It’s real: the man is transformed. And then, like the man with the unclean spirit, what they say next is fascinating and, at least to my ears, unexpected.
They answer their own question – What is this? – by saying:
It’s a new teaching – with authority.
So Jesus casting out the unclean spirit is not just gift to the man whom the spirit plagued, but it is also a lesson. A lesson for those watching and, across time thanks to Mark, a lesson for you and me. It is a lesson about who Jesus is and maybe, as his followers, who you and I are called to be. The Christian movement, after all, has long affirmed that one of the goals of discipleship, maybe the whole goal of discipleship, is to become Christ-like ourselves. In the famous words of Thomas à Kempis, we are called to The Imitation of Christ.
If the crowd gathered at the synagogue is right, if this is a lesson, then what is the lesson that Jesus has to teach us?
This morning, I’d like to wonder with you about that question by looking at the shift from the plural to the singular in the man’s speech.
Living in 2018 in Portland, the notion of an unclean spirit, of demonic possession, is not a common one. There may be some of our neighbours for whom this is a concept that is coherent or consistent within their worldview, but for most of us this is unfamiliar language. I often visit with folks who are struggling in some way or who have a family member who is struggling in some way, and exactly never has someone said to me, “Oh, Dave has an unclean spirit. He’s been possessed since the late nineties.”
(My apologies to anyone here this morning named Dave.)
Because the language of unclean spirits doesn’t dovetail into the stories and assumptions that most of us in Portland have about the world, a lot of Pacific Northwest Christians – particularly those of us who worship in what we might call progressive parishes – respond to a story like the one we hear today from Mark with embarrassment. One of our go-to strategies is to ignore these stories. You often hear Christians in parishes such as Grace talking about Jesus as an author of parables, as a healer, as a sharer or meals. But pretty rarely will you hear us acknowledging Jesus as someone who casts out demons.
Another strategy that we employ is to try to shoehorn these tales into our own, pre-existing worldview. So we will say: an unclean spirit is just how people in the first century understood epilepsy or mental illness. And I guess that could be true. We don’t know.
I’m wondering about another way, however. I’m wondering about a scenario in which, whether or not we think that there are literal unclean spirits or demons at work in our world, we allow that the idea of a demon remains a useful one. Could this be an idea, a lens for reality, that invites us into compassion for ourselves and for others and that deepens our commitment to justice?
This is where I want to suggest that the man’s shift in language holds a key lesson, that the shift is a big part of what Jesus wants us to know through this teaching. When the man first says, “us,” we may deduce that he and his unclean spirit are speaking as one. They are, in this sentence, a team or a single unit or a family, they are indivisible. But as Jesus confronts the unclean spirit, the spirit begins to speak on its own, independently of the man.
What this shift proclaims is that the man is not his demon. And across 2000 years, it proclaims that we aren’t our demons. We may have demons – but they aren’t who we are, they aren’t how God made us, they aren’t want God plans for and wants us to be. We are not our addictions. We are not the crime that we committed when we were young. We are not the cruel thing that we said or did to the one whom we loved. There is no escaping that there are things that we have done or left undone. And we are called to name those things and repent for them.
But those things aren’t us.
Now, I want to be careful here, because I don’t intend in any way to argue that the notion of a demon represents an excuse for bad or immoral behaviour. If I cheat on my taxes, I don’t get to say, “Oh, that was my demon,” at which point the IRS gives me a mulligan. To the contrary, the lens of the demon insists that, if I am participating or I have participated in something immoral, then I am in profound need of healing, profound need of repentance, profound need to turn back to Jesus, to ask Jesus to help restore me to being the person whom Jesus wants and expects me to be.
And furthermore let’s be clear, this story says that there is nothing simple or easy or asking for Jesus to rid us of a demon. When Jesus cast out the man’s unclean spirit, the man convulses and cries in a loud voice. In a funny way, in a terrible way, there is a comfort in our demons. We know them, they are kind of predictable, we have learned how to make them fit into our lives, more or less. Saying goodbye to them hurts.
I guess that what I want to argue is that the lens for reality via which we speak of unclean spirits or demons is two things. First, it is an invitation into compassion: for ourselves and for our neighbours when we fail. We live in a age (maybe every age is like this – I don’t know) when we are heavily drawn into a binary way of subdividing the world, so that there are good guys and bad guys, people in Category “A,” whom we can safely admire, and people in Category “B,” whom we can safely hold in contempt. We become confused and frustrated and fearful when someone moves from one category to another or when it is ambiguous as to which category they properly belong. We become even more confused and frustrated and fearful when it becomes ambiguous as to which category we ourselves properly belong.
The lens of the demon or the unclean spirit says that everyone, everyone belongs to Category “A” and that all of us, at least to some extent, have demons which belong in Category “B.” Our Category “B,” our demon, is asserting itself when we call the humanity of another person into question, when we engage in destructive gossip, when our own comfort becomes more important than someone else’s suffering. When our demon arises, we are called to be patient with ourselves – struggling with the darkness is a universal part of being alive. We are called to repent. And we are called to extend the same patience and the same invitation to repentance to our fellow human beings, including the ones that we like least and respect least.
And that leads me to, second, the lens of the demon calls us as Christians to function prophetically, to name demons when we see them. That includes the hard work of naming the demons in our own lives. And it includes the maybe even harder work of naming our culture’s shared demons.
Consider the demon that is consumerism, the way of being in the world that says that the test for something being right or wrong is whether or not we have enough room on our MasterCard to pay for it, not whether this purchase will hurt the earth or the person who manufactures it for us. Consider the demon that is nationalism, the way of being that says that migrants and refugees from outside of our borders are, in a real sense, less human than us, less worthy of safety and stability. Consider – and we just passed Martin Luther King Jr. Day, so let’s name one of the demons that he talked about – that of militarism, the demon that celebrates state-sanctioned violence. This is not even close to a complete list: let’s think about the demons of racism and sexism and homophobia and Islamophobia.
Here, it is as a culture that we are called to repent.
Here is the lesson that Jesus has to teach us. In the move from “us” to “I” and the subsequent casting out from the demon, we learn that while God could destroy you and me because of the demons that we carry, God won’t do that. What God will do – if we allow God, because God never makes us do anything, God respects our free will too much for that – is to heal us and restore. Come to Jesus, this story says, with your own demons, with the demons of our shared culture. Come to Jesus, the one with authority, and he will set you free.
Today and over the next three Sundays we will listen as Jesus shares with us what the late Leonard Cohen called, “the staggering account of the Sermon on the Mount – which I don’t pretend to understand at all.”
I love that line. Leonard Cohen was about sixty when he wrote it and just soaked in life and love and wisdom and grief and God. Cohen had experienced enough of the beautiful sad mystery of this life to know that sometimes the closest that a human being can come to enlightenment is to say, “I don’t understand.”
And there is a lot not to understand about the Sermon on the Mount.
The Sermon begins with these series of statements or aphorisms or proverbs that we call the Beatitudes, a Latin word that means something like “happiness.” Here are nine rapid-fire blessings, the first eight so rhythmic and regular in nature that you could imagine a percussionist keeping time with them, the heavy beats landing on:
Or, perhaps, we could imagine the gathered crowd so in sync with Jesus that they breathe in time with him, inhaling with each blessed and exhaling with each for.
In a way, their highly rhythmic structure makes the beatitudes even stranger. Most of the rhythms that we encounter are pretty predictable in nature. Unless you are listening to experimental jazz, you will likely find in music a groove that you can drop into really easily. When we encounter Abba’s Dancing Queen or Lady Gaga’s Poker Face or (if this is more of musical theatre crowd) the Gershwins’ Nice Work if You Can Get It, we say to ourselves: I know this. I can do this. I can follow this. I can dance to this. With the exception of the occasional drunken uncle on the dance floor at a wedding, whose gyrations bear no relationship to what the band is playing, most of us have a pretty natural relationship with rhythm.
But Jesus’ words. They just don’t follow predictability of his rhythm.
I read a whimsical article a few years back in which the author invited a child – maybe even the author’s own child, I don’t remember – to complete popular sayings or proverbs. For instance, the author gave the child the prompt:
A bird in the hand
and the child replied:
People in glass houses…
and the child replied:
It’s all fun and games until… Darth Vader comes.
Or, perhaps my favourite of them all
Don’t count your chickens… because your chickens need their privacy.
I wonder what it would be like if we invited people – not necessarily children, not even necessarily people who are unfamiliar with the Bible – to do that same exercise, to play “complete this sentence,” except beginning with the words:
What comes next when I say, “Blessed are?”
Well, think about how you and I use that word, “blessed.” Think about how our neighbours use it. I know a number of folks who, when speaking of the healthy number of zeroes in their bank statements or the generous size of their real estate holdings, will say, “I’ve been really blessed.” I know a number of folks who, when speaking about their health, about how they are pretty vigorous at age sixty or seventy or eighty or ninety while many of their peers are sick or hurting or have already died, will say, “I’ve been really blessed.” I know a number of folks who, when speaking of a marriage that has endured across the decades, will say, “I’ve been really blessed.” (I know that last one because, more than two decades into my time with Phoebe, I say that same thing.)
What comes next when I say, “Blessed are”? How do we complete than sentence? Well:
Blessed are the wealthy.
Blessed are those who manage to dodge loss and grief.
Blessed are the mighty, those who succeed in this harsh and competitive world.
Blessed are those who bury their emotions, who mask their fear, who show no one their pain, who stay strong.
Blessed are the white men. Especially the ones who grew up in the middle class. Especially the ones who went to college. Especially the ones who chose a sensible career. Especially the one who are straight or, at least, have successfully stayed hidden in the closet.
Blessed are those who look out for themselves, for their family, for their tribe.
Blessed are those who love their country, those who say, “America First.”
Blessed and the winners.
But that isn’t where Jesus goes at all.
Picture him, standing on the mountainside, the crowd pressing near, the slope of the ground and the hard rock around him making a kind of amphitheatre, making a kind of natural PA system that picks up his voice and projects it into the gathered people.
Jesus says, “Microphone check.” And the mountainside hums with his voice.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
And then, as sometimes happens at the end of a song or a poem or a rap number, Jesus breaks the rhythm:
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Jesus is like a pitcher standing on the mound. The catcher signals to him: curve ball, fastball, slider. But Jesus just keeps on shaking his head. No. Today, he says, I am throwing nothing but wild pitches. Today, I am going to aim at the dirt. I am going to aim at the crowd behind the umpire. I am going to aim right at the batter.
St. Paul is in the broadcast booth, leaning forward in his chair, breathing excitedly. Paul understands that, somehow, this is the greatest baseball game that he has ever attended. Paul is wearing a headset. And he says to the audience at home, “The pitching of Jesus is foolishness to the world.”
For nine innings, for nine beatitudes, wild pitches are all that Jesus will throw. There are rules that Jesus is playing by. But they aren’t the rules that we know.
And you and me sit in the bleachers and we ask ourselves: is this what we came to see? Is this why paid money, why we bought a ticket? We heard that Jesus was the greatest pitcher in the world.
But Jesus’ pitching sure looks like losing.
And so we sit in the bleachers, we stand on the mountainside, we watch Jesus and we listen. And we think, we feel, we say…
Well, maybe I shouldn’t speak for you. Maybe I should just speak for myself. I say:
I don’t understand at all.
But I want to understand.
Sometimes, every now and again, I catch a glimpse. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of where Jesus’ strange blessings come from and where they are going.
I catch a glimpse when I visit with people in my office or in their homes in hospital or hospice rooms. And one person after another will say something similar to me. These folks will describe an experience of big loss or big injustice or big grief. And they will say: I didn’t want that thing to happen, I wish it hadn’t happened. And, in a way that I can’t entirely quantify or name or explain, that loss or that injustice or that grief was a kind of blessing.
Someone will talk about sitting beside her father’s bed during the time of his dying. Someone else will talk about the aftermath of a car accident, how the weeks that she spent in a hospital bed recovering was the first time that she had slowed down in years. Some else will talk about a big disappointment or a big betrayal. And they will explain how these experiences somehow showed them something that they couldn’t learn anywhere else.
I’ve had the same experience in my own life. When my heart has been broken open, I have learned so much about myself, about life, about God. I don’t mean to say that I don’t find God in jubilation or that I don’t find God in the everyday: I do. What I do mean is that is that pain and loss – what Paul calls the Way of the Cross – is necessary to experience the fullness of God.
Blessed are those who mourn.
I catch a glimpse when I participate in working towards a more just world, in working towards what Jesus calls the Kingdom. I’ve spoken several times over the last couple of weeks about the Friday Evening Meal, about how often the people who cook and serve there say, “I sometimes wonder if I am getting more out of this than the people who come to eat.” There is a blessing that comes when we look beyond ourselves.
I experienced something similar when Phoebe and Miriam and I joined a whole bunch of you at last week’s Women’s March. The hundred thousand of us who got together were there for a hard reason: we were there in response to the Inauguration of President who engages in casual misogyny, in his words, in his actions, and now in his legislation. That’s a pretty brutal reason to be gathering. And yet being there, together, was so energizing, it gave me so much courage. My only disappointment was that I didn’t have a Pussy Hat. I came away from that experience of being together, of resisting together, with hope for the weeks and days and months that are to come.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
I catch a glimpse of when I read the Gospel and I realise that, for Jesus, these nine blessings are not an abstraction or a hypothesis, and nor are they something that will happen later on. They are not about following the right rules in order to get into heaven. They are about how we live right now. They are about creating the Kingdom right now.
Notice that Jesus lives each and every one of these beatitudes. He is poor. He mourns. He is meek – or as some scholars argue we should translate the word that we traditionally render as “meek” – he is nonviolent. He hungers and thirst for righteousness. He is merciful. He is pure in heart. He is a peacemaker. He is persecuted. He is reviled for proclaiming the good news, for living the good news.
Jesus does all of this during his earthly ministry. He does all of it right here and right now.
And he calls us, his followers to do likewise.
The cost of discipleship, the joy of discipleship, is that Jesus invites us to take these difficult blessings on for ourselves. And friends, we have an opportunity and a duty to take them on now. We often call America a Christian nation. But there is nothing Christian about scapegoating Muslims. There is nothing Christian about denying health care to the poor and to veterans and to the chronically ill. There is nothing Christian about closing our borders to refugees, to those in desperation.
Those of you who know your history will remember that, in 1939, this nation and Canada and Cuba all turned away the MS St. Louis, a ship carrying 908 Jewish refugees. The St. Louis was forced to return to Europe, where historians estimate that between a quarter and a third of the people on board died in concentration camps. And friends, we’re doing it again.
The Jesuit Priest, James Martin, spoke this week about the appalling irony of America closing its borders to refugees on the same week that that we held the March for Life and Holocaust Remembrance Day, on the same week that we said, Pro-Life” and “Never Forget.”
God help us.
We are Jesus’ hands and feet in this broken world. Jesus calls us to proclaim the beatitudes with our words and our lives.
This is the staggering account of the Sermon on the Mount, which I don’t pretend to understand at all.
But, Lord, I am trying.
I am trying to understand.
I want to say “yes” to these blessings. I want “yes” to you. And I believe that, together as church, we can say “yes,” that we can take on the strange and hard and beautiful promises of the beatitudes. I believe that we can participate in bringing the Kingdom nearer right now. I believe that, with God’s help, we will we say “yes” in word and in action. I believe that, with God’s help, the day will come when Jesus will look upon you and me and say: