Today, I’d like to start out with a poem written by Emily Dickinson.
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
I think that Jesus understood the wisdom behind this poem. It’s a wisdom that is hard for us to understand until we’ve been burned a few times. In the words of Jack Nicholson’s character in the movie, “A Few Good Men,” there are times when we “can’t handle the truth”. Our minds are too small or our way of thinking is too narrow, and so, when we hear the truth plainly spoken, we are so astounded by it that we can’t wrap our minds around it, or we are offended by it because the truth goes against everything we think we know or everything we think we believe. That’s why, when the prophet Nathan went to confront King David over his sin with Bathsheba, he didn’t just come out and say, “Hey, David, God knows what you did and he’s really upset with you.” Instead, he told David a story about a poor man with one lamb and a rich man with many who stole the poor man’s lamb, so that David would hear the injustice and end up condemning himself. The fact that we can’t always hear the straight truth is why Jesus spoke in parables that, 2000 years later, still have us scratching our heads trying to figure out what he was trying to tell us. And, I believe this inability on our parts to hear the truth in a straight manner is why Jesus began his Sermon on the Mount with the blessings that we have before us today. They are blessings that have us scratching our heads still 2000 years later, saying, “What did he mean by that, really?” Well, in the words of the apostle Paul in our lesson from 1 Corinthians today, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” So, I’m going to try and tell some stories today to get at the truth behind the Beatitudes in a sideways manner.
A single woman in Powell loses her job. It is a job that pays just enough for her to afford rent and the basic necessities of life. She is now unable to pay her rent, and the landlord evicts her. She begins to live out of her car, and with the help of churches and Loaves & Fishes, she is able to be fed. But she doesn’t know how much longer she can keep living like this, especially with the winter and cold weather getting close. Blessed are the poor in spirit—or, as another translation would have it, “those who have the breath knocked out of them,”—for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
A family of four is doing okay. The father has a good job, and the mother is staying home with the kids. But then the father loses his job. Even with unemployment, they are no longer able to afford the mortgage on their home. The kids must leave everything they have known, and the family now has no place to live. Too embarrassed to let their friends know what is going on, the parents are grateful for the invitations their kids get to sleep over at friends’ homes, while they themselves sleep in their car most of the time. But the father is still unable to find work, and the mother can only get part-time work to help out. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Last spring, prompted by someone who was homeless setting up camp in her backyard, the Lutheran pastor in town preaches a sermon and writes a newspaper article calling out the town of Powell for believing the myth that “there are no homeless in Powell; they all go up to Billings”. The response is minimal; those who do respond say, “Yes, we should do something, but what can we do?” Last Friday, the same Lutheran pastor hears a story from the Episcopal priest about how a homeless woman living out of her car came to the Episcopal congregation looking for help, and how that congregation did their best to get the woman back on her feet again. The Lutheran pastor and the Episcopal priest lament the fact that there is no homeless shelter either in Powell or in Cody, and they want to do something, but know that neither one of them have the skill set to get something rolling. And they pray for someone to come along who has the energy, the drive, and the skills to help band the churches together and start working on this project. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
I can keep going, but I think you’re starting to get the picture. For too long, these beatitudes of Jesus have been preached as if these groups of people whom Jesus is blessing is something that the rest of us should aspire to. And while yes, it is good for us to aspire to be peacemakers, for example, who really wants to do that? Peacemakers can have it really rough: if you’ve ever tried to make peace between two people who are fighting, you know that you will hear many bitter things said by both sides. And that you have to discern where the truth lies—usually somewhere right in the middle—and then work on getting the two parties to compromise and to admit that maybe each one of them had been in the wrong. That’s no picnic. So none of us really aspires to be peacemakers. None of us wants to be persecuted. And I think that we can all agree that none of us wants to mourn.
But Jesus is not telling us that these are things that we should want to do or to be. Rather, he is telling us that, in the life of both the individual Christian and the community of faith, these things are going to happen to us. We are going to lose someone or something dear to us, and we will mourn. There will be a time when we are called to be peacemakers. There will be a time when we see injustice in our community and we will hunger and thirst for righteousness. And yes, there may come a time when we will endure persecution for righteousness’ sake—I can imagine that if we were to propose building a homeless shelter, there would be protests and misunderstandings all throughout Park County. But these states of being or doing that Jesus names in today’s Gospel are blessed—we are to be happy when these things come upon us. Even more than that, we are to rejoice and be glad, because it means we are doing something right as we seek to follow Jesus and his teachings. And we know that Jesus is God with us, Immanuel, pronouncing his blessing and his love upon us.
And so, there is another thing that Jesus implies when he teaches us about these blessings. If these things aren’t happening to us, then we may need to examine what we are and are not doing and see if we are truly following Jesus, or if we’re just giving our faith lip service. Again, it’s not that we are to deliberately seek out sorrow and mourning, as an example. Instead it is that, in the course of truly living out our faith, these circumstances will happen to us, and we will know God’s blessing upon us as we experience Jesus in our midst during these times. And so, this may be a time for us to reflect, as a congregation, on where we are in our faith journey with Jesus, and whether Jesus may be calling us to a more difficult vocation than that which we have already walked.
I know that I’ve been speaking a lot lately about poverty here in Powell and about those who are homeless. It may seem foolish that I’m doing so. After all, we as a congregation are already doing a lot to help out. We’re good at contributing food, money, and time to Loaves and Fishes. We have contributed regularly to Backpack Blessings in order to help children who live in poverty eat over the weekends. And I’m really proud of how we have all stepped up to contribute to the Good Samaritan Fund, which makes it easier for me to help people in need as they come to the door of this church. But over the four years that I have been here with you, I have seen this little congregation do some pretty amazing things. And I think that we are capable of doing more to participate in the coming of the kingdom of heaven.
And the fact is that there are homeless people here in Powell, and throughout Park County. Meg Nickles, the Episcopal priest, did tell me that her congregation helped a woman living out of her car to get back on her feet. A counselor at Yellowstone Behavioral Health has told me stories of homeless people in the area sleeping on the floor of a local laundromat and hanging out in the Walmart in Cody to stay warm. And I have heard stories of homeless people being sent to Billings and then turning right around and coming back to the area, which seems counterproductive until we remember that, even if they have to live out of cars or camp out in someone’s back yard, that still might feel safer for them than being in a big city where they have no connections. And I believe that this congregation has the gifts to begin tackling this issue. We have the gift of making good food and of generosity, for example. We could start by hosting a meal once a month for those who are homeless and who are living in poverty. And the movement could go forward from this simple start. All we need is someone to take leadership and get the ball rolling.
Jesus’ beatitudes are more than just blessings, they are a call to action. And they are also a promise that God will always be with us when we move forward into the life that the Holy Spirit is calling us towards. And so, as further food for thought, I’d like to end with this story that I think Jesus, being part of the Jewish tradition, would have liked:
Some followers go to the rabbi and ask him, “What is heaven like?”
“In heaven,” answers the rabbi, “they sit at a table with delicacies and sumptuous treats of every kind. The only problem is their arms do not bend.”
“And what is hell like?”
“In hell they sit at a table with all sorts of treats and sumptuous delicacies. The only problem is their arms do not bend.”
“Then, Rebbe, what is the difference between heaven and hell?”
“Ah, my children,” said the rabbi, “in heaven they feed each other.”
Let us help people to see the kingdom of heaven by feeding one another. Amen.