Posts Tagged Blessing
This sermon reflects on the intersection of the Beatitudes and Liberation Theology.
All this month we are reflecting on what it would mean to be a people of blessing. Last week we celebrated the blessing of our youth, as they discerned their own sense of faith through their year of coming of age, and where we recognized our oldest youth joining our ranks as adults. We very much are blessed by their presence and their insights.
Blessing, or being blessed, is a word that means different things to different people. From the most mundane greeting after a sneeze, to the curt “bless your heart” after someone is less than their best selves – we casually use it in every day language. Sometimes, it’s a prayer for another in times of hardship, and it’s the spiritual response or emotion in the face of Grace realized in our lives. In the common American Christian sense, it’s all of these things. Jesus leaned toward a meaning closer to a sense of Grace than the others, but he did so in a way that our modern ear doesn’t always register. Blessing wasn’t a cutesy thing for Jesus. And his sermon on the mount, the Beatitudes, were a series of very serious teachings about blessing.
We’ve heard two contemporary versions of the Beatitudes today – one a poem by a UU clergy colleague, Rev. Robin Tanner, an active leader in the Moral Mondays movement, following the national leadership of Rev. William Barber. And one a video clip of Rev. Nadia Booz-Weber, a Lutheran minister and founding pastor of the House for All Sinners and Saints. Both women having a calling in the ministry that seeks to serve those who are not always well served, who are judged, who are held back and held down. Our quartet sang a beautiful rendition of the traditional words just now as well.
Let’s hear them again as they were written in scripture:
“The Beatitudes (NSRV)
When Jesus[a] saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“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.
“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.”
The last line is the one that many of us hear that gets us to think all this is about heavenly rewards. Jesus does preach salvation; and he also preaches that the “Kingdom of Heaven will be known in [our] midst.” He’s talking both about a spiritual reality and he’s talking about salvation while we’re alive – building a community that is heaven on earth – in our midst.
Jesus’ sermon on the mount, is a sermon on blessing, and a teaching on how we might understand the spiritual message more deeply. Blessing is a gift of sorts, and it is also a teaching for all of us. Jesus is telling us where God resides. God blesses the poor in spirit (the downtrodden, the exhausted, the oppressed) and God is with them; God blesses those who mourn, they are not alone in spirit. God blesses the meek and tells us the earth is their true inheritance. Mercy, peacemakers, and those who are wrongly persecuted, all find God’s blessing. Blessing isn’t about a feel-good feeling in the Beautitudes.
Like most of Jesus’ teachings, some of this doesn’t seem to logically follow. Most of those blessed, are choosing the harder path – or have the harder path chosen for them. Little of the Beatitudes point to anyone going through anything we would easily call a gift; but Jesus says they are blessed. We shouldn’t understand it as a reward, but a natural outcome of being in right relations with our neighbor. Grace, peace, and mercy are the outcomes of living a path of grace, peace and mercy.
This is core to the Christian message. Power, and privilege, are not the way of Jesus. God is with the least of us, the exhausted, the meek. Dr. James Cone, the most influential Christian theologian of the past 50 years, and whose life was recently celebrated and mourned at his funeral at Riverside Church in NYC, would change Christian theology – or rather I believe, course correct it – by teaching that God was on the side of oppressed. His theology was a large part of what helped save Christianity for me. He was the founder of Black Liberation theology in the US, and Liberation theology globally. Dr. Cone would famously state, like Jesus ending on the Cross, God was on the lynching tree. Each generation is guilty of crying “crucify him” or “them” again and again. And those guilty are certainly not the heroes of the parable or the heroes in the news today. In seminary, Professor Cone would ask us where we kept ourselves, where we positioned ourselves, amidst all the horrors of the world. It would be no stretch to say today, as we hear the horrors of children being stripped from their parents at border detention centers, that God is lying in those cages today with those children. And we can hear the echos of the crowds crying crucify them in our tragic politics of xenophobia and isolationism…. Where are we? And Jesus teaches, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the meek.
There’s a tendency to try to strip Jesus’ teachings of their punch. To think the Beatitudes and blessings are sugary coated truisms. Jesus was never sugar-coated. Jesus was teaching what right living was about, and where we should find ourselves. If we are full of judgement more than mercy, if we are building up cages and walls more than we are making peace and aiding the poor and hungry, we are assuredly not blessed. Where we give room for no mercy, we will know no mercy ourselves. You can hear that as a message about the afterlife; you can also hear that as a warning for the state of our own humanity as we live into our days.
To tie the earlier Navajo (or Dine) teaching into Jesus’ message of flipping the story of power – beauty is all around us.When we walk in such a way as to honor the beauty around us, move with meekness in the face of reverence, rather than with power over all before us, we flip the story of power, and the blessing in return is our inheritance. For those that lord over the earth, who rule over things, and treat people as things, are themselves living as things. In the clutch and grab of greed and avarice, in the callousness of mercilessness …we have things… but we have no spiritual inheritance. We fail to know the beauty of creation, to appreciate the gift of life, and we abandon the deeper comfort of the spirit, the true value of this earth, and we know no mercy in the relentless hunger of the ego. And create hell on earth for those around us.
That’s the core of the Christian message. We should not live as kings over things, but as equal citizens of the kingdom of Heaven on earth. That’s what he meant when he spoke of the kingdom of heaven would be known in our midst. We build it, and God’s blessings point us on the right path. That is the inheritance Jesus speaks of when he teaches the meek will inherit the earth. It’s the early meaning of righteousness that gets lost to our contemporary ear. I’ve said this recently, but I’ll say it again, because misunderstanding this word causes so much harm in our world – righteousness. Misunderstanding it pushes so many people away from religion. The early Hebrew meaning of righteousness implies a sense of solidarity with the wider community. It’s justice with the implication of community. We all come ahead together, or there is no righteousness. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. That sounds very different when you think righteousness is about right belief, than when you know it means justlycaring for all the people as one community.
I’ll end with some actions in the world. The Poor People’s Campaign, a resurgence of Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy, now led by the Rev. William Barber, is deeply theologically rooted in Jesus’ teaching of blessings. It may intersect with our political world, but it is a purely theologically grounded prayerful action. I know some of our members are taking part in public witness with this work up in Albany (check with Social Justice, or Susan K to learn more about how you can take part.) This coming Thursday, Greta will be taking part in public witness with an event our Fellowship is cosponsoring in Huntington Village- a prayer vigil drawing attention to the 1500 children who are missing after our government separated children from their parents at the Border. I don’t mean the kids that are kept in cages at the border, I mean the 1500 children we took from parents and lost track of. And this practice predates our current administration – going back from some news reports as early as 2014. Parents and kids are separted when both parents are taken into custody for criminal action. Typically, they are fostered out for the duration of the criminal custody of the parents. Associated Press reported recently that with this practice, our Government typically doesn’t get more than an 85% response rate from the households where kids are fostered – when they try to check up on them. This whole crisis is exaberated now, as our current administration chooses to prosecute parents as criminals for trying to seek saftey within our borders. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
I know so much of what we hear feels like a daily firehouse of horror. We each can’t attend to everything. And it’s still important to pause and remember all the things that we should not think are normal – and make sure they remain understood as the horrors they are in the public mind. If we mindfully keep that truth in our awareness, we can continue to act where we need to act. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
This call to worship is based upon the hymn # 126 “Come, Thou Font of Every Blessing”
In our gathering this hour,
may we tune our hearts to gladness,
lift our eyes to what may come,
being open once more to the promise of this day.
This sermon was first preached at the First UU Congregation of Brooklyn, NY on 11/18/12.
In this season of Thanksgiving we hear so many competing stories of gratitude and self-interest; of plentitude and scarcity. My home back in Manhattan, hard hit by the Hurricane, is completely back to normal while neighbors in the Rockaways and Staten Island are still without gas, heat, or power – or even a home. The makers of Twinkies is going bankrupt, and chief executives are blaming Union pay as the reason – even though they gave senior managers and executives 300% pay increases while simultaneously declaring bankruptcy. We’re rapidly coming up to Black Friday – the day where Americans go crazy buying things we don’t have after spending 24 hours expressing gratitude for the things we already do have. Petitions have been sent to the White House from almost every state (including New York) seeking to secede from the Union in response to the re-election of President Obama — not getting what we want, some of us want to take our cookies and go home. Whereas, prior to the election, many a liberal considered moving to Canada should things go differently. (mmm hmm.. that’s right.. I heard you…).
What are we doing? Collectively, I mean? Has the spiritual center of our country fallen away? Or have we just strayed from the path? Where exactly did we give up our identities as Citizens for the role of Consumers? Where did politics shift from differing philosophies to differing identities? I can’t answer all these in the space of a sermon, but combined they resonate with an existential angst that frames the scope of our spiritual short-comings as a people. Whether there’s an actual need – like those in crisis in the Rockaways and Staten Island, or there’s a perceived crisis – “they got the last widget on sale at the store,” there’s a question of a balance that’s off. Collectively, we’ve lost our center, we’ve lost perspective, and we have to find our way back.
There is such a sense of emptiness that many of us experience. Sometimes it’s severe and obvious. Depression, addiction, a break-up, the loss of a loved one. All are ways that we legitimately feel less whole. They’re not easy to fix, and we’re off-kilter to say the very least. Sometimes it’s fickle, and small. ‘I just bought that new iPhone and two weeks later they announce the latest model is about to come out.’ (Not that that’s happened to me before…. twice.)
Our Hunger Communion this morning ritualizes this challenge. Representing the world, some of us get all the bread we want, and others are grabbing a nibble. Taken out of the metaphor, some of us are eating for survival and some of us are eating to excess – and this truth is a spiritual crisis. The goal must be shifted away from survival and excess and to a discipline of eating for fullness.
Our reading by Thich Nhat Hanh this morning prays, “…let us fill our hearts with our own compassion – towards ourselves and towards all living beings.” He asks for us to fill ourselves, not with things, or desires, or excess but with compassion. It can sound like an airy-fairy wish that’s easy to make. But if we go deeper, it’s neither silly nor easy. There are clear, concrete ways in which our excesses cause, directly and indirectly, the strife others must face. Anyone that has lost their home to Hurricane Sandy, appreciates the depth of crisis our planet faces regarding Global Warming. National commuting choices, manufacturing choices, waste disposal choices all have direct and indirect impacts on anyone living near a coast. Our eating habits, and our food transportation systems, impact hunger in the world. We have all the land we need to produce all the food we need to feed all the people in the world. And yet souls go hungry. Some of this is tied the economics of supply, stocks, and transit. Some of this is tied to huge proportions of land being devoted to animal stock – something far more taxing on land usage than fruits and vegetables. What we choose to eat, adding up with all the choices of all the other people around us, impacts world hunger.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s prayer is not easy either. If you’re a huge meat eater, reducing your intake is probably not something you really want to do. If you have a family of 5, taking the subway rather than a car to church in the morning, is probably not convenient. And returning high real estate value coastline to its original use – marshland and swamp – is clearly not going to happen.
But religiously, focusing on filling our hearts with compassion – for ourselves and all living things – is the spiritual answer to the crisis. That mixed with the responsible search for truth. If we know what needs to be done, and compassion is at the heart of our actions, the rest will follow.
Knowing our priorities, however, is a huge challenge in eating for fullness – not eating for excess or for survival. I want to share with you an old story that found its way back as a meme on Facebook this week.
“A professor stood before his philosophy class and had some items in front of him. When the class began, he wordlessly picked up a very large and empty mayonnaise jar and proceeded to fill it with golf balls. He then asked the students if the jar was full. They agreed that it was.
The professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly. The pebbles rolled into the open areas between the golf balls. He then asked the students again if the jar was full. They agreed it was.
The professor next picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. Of course, the sand filled up everything else. He asked once more if the jar was full.. The students responded with a unanimous ‘yes.’
The professor then produced two Beers from under the table and poured the entire contents into the jar effectively filling the empty space between the sand. The students laughed.
‘Now,’ said the professor as the laughter subsided, ‘I want you to recognize that this jar represents your life. The golf balls are the important things—your family, your children, your health, your friends and your favorite passions—and if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full. The pebbles are the other things that matter like your job, your house and your car. The sand is everything else—the small stuff.
‘If you put the sand into the jar first,’ he continued, ‘there is no room for the pebbles or the golf balls. The same goes for life. If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff you will never have room for the things that are important to you. Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness.
Spend time with your children. Spend time with your parents. Visit with grandparents. Take your spouse out to dinner. Play another 18. There will always be time to clean the house and mow the lawn. Take care of the golf balls first—the things that really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just sand. One of the students raised her hand and inquired what the Beer represented. The professor smiled and said, ‘I’m glad you asked.’ The Beer just shows you that no matter how full your life may seem, there’s always room for a couple of Beers with a friend.” Now, I imagine that beer could be replaced with coffee or tea if you’re so inclined, but I know you get the meaning.
When our lives become fixated on the small stuff, the iPhones, the tiny grievances of strangers, the hunger for more, then our jars are filled with dross. They may be filled, but they are not full. All the little things still can find their way, but fullness comes when we craft the space for the more important things in our lives first. When we don’t allow work to take precedence over our family and friends. When we pause to enjoy our home, and not just to use it as nightly hotel. When we set our priorities for religious community, raising our children, making connections with those from other generations and serving the world’s needs from our place of giftedness. These golf balls all make the jar full – first.
For some of us, this will fit hand to glove. For others, family and community are places where we’ve known pain. I have a favorite line from the Marge Piercy poem, “To Have Without Holding.” “Learning to love differently is hard, love with the hands wide open, love with the doors banging on their hinges, the cupboard unlocked, the wind roaring and whimpering in the rooms rustling the sheets and snapping the blinds that thwack like rubber bands in an open palm.” Filling our hearts with compassion, means this too. It sometimes means pain. Living our lives with an openness of reach; with the wind making crazy all through our lives; with the sting of the rubber band – is uncomfortable. And it is necessary. Openness is sometimes a discipline.
The love, the sting, the possibility, the self-restraint, the attention to those we care for, the hands wide open – can all be expressions of eating for fullness. Apathy, scarcity, gluttony, vocational distractions, grasping – can all be expressions of eating for excess. Intuitively, we know how they feel different. And each of us are known for both at different points in our lives.
Let us end this service with where we began. The Hunger Communion bread that we shared this morning was baked by our families at our Fall Retreat at Murray Grove, the birthplace of Universalism in the US. When they started the bread baking they began it with a prayer. The prayer ended with these simple words, “May we treat this blessing as the gift that it is. And may we have fun along the way!”
Fullness is a blessing, a gift, and a cause for joy along the way. Whether we have much, or have little, fullness is just as near to us.
Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, and One Transforming and Abundant Love,
We pause before the end of Summer and the birth of Autumn.
In our city of stone and metal, we sometimes miss the constant little changes that lead us toward the more profound.
Help us to slow our pace long enough to feel the cooling of the air,
To greet the changing colors, and to say goodbye to the robins.
So too in our own stories, we often forget that our lives are not as constant as they seem.
Our children are slowly growing,
our classes will begin and end semester after semester,
our employment will not last forever,
we will find that next job,
we are ageing.
Remind us to honor what is passing before us,
To love what is with us right now, as best we can,
And to keep hope alive in our hearts for what the days ahead have in store.
We are ever able to choose to face the joys and the sorrows with a sense of appreciation:
For the little things that only bring a smile to our own lips,
For the stories we enter for a time,
For the lives we are honored to know – and for those who are blessed to know us.
God of Hope, bless us now with an openness to what’s to come,
Soften our hearts before the everyday compassion we witness,
For the small daily acts of kindness we give freely,
For the warmth we show when the awkward smile is all we can give.
The act of living is a miracle we can never fully explain,
Only a gift we are given,
A gift we are blessed to share as wide as we can.
We hold in our hearts this hour the families who are still awaiting news of their sons and daughters serving abroad. We pray for an end to the unrest in the middle-east, for the safety of all the lives at risk, and a broadening of mutual understanding between the nations. May their land and ours, wracked by years of war, come to find peace.