God at Work Where We Least Expect
9 February 2014
Fifth Sunday After Epiphany Year A
Homily preached at 8 a.m. Said, and 10:00 a.m. Sung Holy Eucharist
Parish Church of Trinity Ashland (Oregon)
Isaiah 58:1-9a; Psalm 112:1-9; 1 Corinthians 2:1-12; Matthew 5:1-12*,13-20
(*These verses are from Epiphany IV’s lectionary, superseded last week by the Candlemas readings.)
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall 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 so people persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
God, give us hearts to feel and love. Take away our hearts of stone,
and give us hearts of flesh. Amen
What would the Beatitudes look like if they were written to reflect the values we see in the popular culture around us?
Blessed are the wealthy; whoever dies with the most toys wins.
Blessed are the young; dying young beats rusting and growing old.
Blessed are the fashionable, for they can look down on others.
Blessed are celebrities; they are the beautiful people.
Blessed are the hip; they can be ironic without the unhip getting the joke.
Blessed are the thin; they are never the butt of fat jokes,
Blessed are the powerful, for they can have their own their way.
Blessed are the well armed, for they can stand their ground.
Blessed are the violent, because no one messes with them.
Jesus’ beatitudes suffer from our familiarity with them. We hear their first words and quickly lapse into a warm feeling of devotion and stop listening. Like the people at the back of the crowd in the Monty Python film, we hear only bits and pieces, and at the end smile and say, “oh, that’s nice … blessed are the cheesemakers. Good chaps, they.”
We think the beatitudes are moral targets, the way Jesus wants us to be: be-attitudes. Not so! Beatus in Latin means “blessed.” A beatitude is just a phrase that starts with the word “blessed.” Another word is macarism, because in Greek they begin with the word makarios, happy.
Jesus’ society, like ours, praised certain things, and called certain people happy or blessed. But Jesus turns these on their head. “It’s a good thing to be hungry, it’s a good thing to be poor, it’s a good thing to mourn, to be excluded.” Really?
The Gospel of Luke gives its own beatitudes, less familiar. As a result, they jump out more clearly:
“Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied.
Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
… because that’s how they treated the prophets…
But woe to you rich, for you have already received your consolation.
Woe to you that are full now, for you shall go hungry.
Woe to you that laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.”
Obviously, whatever it was that the historical Jesus said, it troubled his followers. Both Matthew and Luke interpret these sayings in very different ways.
Matthew “spiritualizes” them, turning “hungry” into “hungry for righteousness,” and “poor” to “poor in spirit.” Jesus just can’t be talking about the literally poor or hungry can he? The sayings become a series of moral prescriptions, part of a New Law announced by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount: a New Moses coming down from Sinai.
In contrast, Luke adds a “now” to each misfortune marked as “blessed,” and adds a “then” phrase of how God will turn it around in the future. These are not moral nostrums, but affirmations of how God will straighten things out. Luke also adds woes to counterbalance the macarisms. He puts all in the second person, “blessed are (or woe to) you,” aiming them at us, part of Luke’s story of faith and grace in everyday life. Appropriately, they are not part of a Sermon on the Mount (of God), but of a Sermon on the Plain (of ordinary life).
This is more than a simple “Happy are they who,” or “How blessed are they who…” The idea is more like “How favored by God (or honored) are the ones who.” “Woe to those who” is more like “Shame on those who,” or “How outside God’s grace are those who…”
Jesus turns conventional views on their head. Some things, let’s admit it, are just bad: starvation, hardship, sorrow at a loved one’s death, social exclusion. Some things are just good: having enough food and money to provide for yourself and family, being well. But Jesus is not so sure.
It’s easy to think that God blesses good people with good things and punishes bad people with bad things. But Jesus knows that bad things can happen to the good and that the evil can prosper. He says, “You misunderstand what a blessing or a curse is. Things are not as they appear.”
Announcing the coming of God’s reign, Jesus sees God at work exactly where we expect not to find him: hunger, yearning, dependence, and vulnerability are all signs of God’s active presence and saving work, not marks of God’s curse or punishment.
It is important, profound theology. He is not making light of suffering, or saying, “it’s not all that bad.” He knows that hunger, grinding poverty, misery, deprivation, grief, and deadly exclusion inflicted on marginalized people are all truly intolerable and not what God wants. He is not trivializing suffering, but magnifying grace. God is the answer to, not the source, of horror.
Isaiah 45:15 says “Truly you are a God who hides himself, the God and Savior of Israel.” St. Thomas Aquinas draws from this to develop his doctrine of Deus Absconditus, the Hidden God. God by definition is hidden, but if you have faith in God, it is God whom you must wholly trust. Martin Luther later places this in the context of a larger doctrine of Grace. The basic idea is “God’s nature is to be at loving work where we least expect.”
Horror, Evil, in the world is not evidence that God does not exist. Rather, the fact that we revolt against it and find it intolerable is one of the strongest evidences of God. Our idea of justice and right cannot grow merely from this messed up world we live in. Rather, it comes from God himself, imprinted in the creation of God bearing God’s image, written in our hearts. Immanuel Kant expresses this when he says that he finds evidence for God not just in how the stars are moved above, but also in how our hearts and minds are moved.
Buddhism teaches that all suffering comes from attachment; getting rid of all desire will end suffering. Christianity teaches that while we must learn acceptance and patience, it is all right to feel the discomfort and pain caused by need and dissatisfaction with wrong. In fact, it is essential because God is at work in such need and discomfort.
Each of the macarisms includes dissatisfaction: hunger, grief, need. Mourning is unhappiness at the loss of a loved one, not a state of acceptance. Neediness and hunger do not describe satisfaction, but desire for something different that what we now have.
Reinhold Niebuhr’s great “Serenity Prayer” is misnamed. It is not a prayer only for serenity to accept the things we cannot change. It also prays for courage to change the things we can. It also asks for wisdom to know to distinguish between the two.
God at work in the day-to-day things of life, even its horrors, is a key idea in Jesus’ preaching, his announcement that “God’s Reign is in your midst”.
If we put the idea into modern words and references, we see the point. It should shock us into recognition of God at work in all sorts of situations where we normally only see horror:
God favors those with AIDS; he is at their bedside and in their prayers.
God favors outcasts, because he at least includes them.
God favors the abused, because he himself was abused.
God favors the powerless, because he empowers them.
God favors the homeless, because he gives them shelter.
God favors “losers” because he turns tables on everyone.
God favors the addicted, because he relieves them of cravings and obsessions.
God favors the solitary, because he brings them into community and family.
God favors “nobodies,” because he knows them each by name.
God favors women, because she knows what they go through.
Shame on you who have big houses, because you mistake them for your true home.
Shame on you celebrities, because you are already being forgotten.
Shame on you powerful, because you must struggle to maintain power, and your fall will be great.
Shame on you Empires, because you are going bankrupt fighting your wars.
Shame on you righteous, because everyone know your secret sins.
Shame on you fashion plates, because you will have to go naked.
Shame on you brilliant minds, because senility awaits us all.
Shame on you beautiful people, because you will grow ugly and die like everyone else.
Chaplain Mike Spencer before his death from cancer in 2010, wrote in his popular blog Internet Monk his version of what the beatitudes as proclamation mean:
“Even if you are spiritually bankrupt (poor in spirit),
Even if you are overwhelmed by the sadness of life in this world (those who mourn),
Even if you are the kind of person who doesn’t stand up for yourself or assert your rights (meek),
Even if you are fed up with and broken by injustice (those who hunger and thirst for righteousness),
Even if your heart is soft, you are always giving to others, and easily taken advantage of by needy people (merciful),
Even if you are so concerned with having a clear conscience that others think you a prude (pure in heart),
Even if you are always trying to pacify others and care more about diffusing conflict than any other objective (peacemakers),
Even if your convictions and actions get you in constant trouble with those who set the rules (persecuted),
God’s blessings [are yours! …] No human condition, no matter how hopeless …, no matter how despised …, [or] ‘unsuccessful’ or insignificant others may deem it, disqualifies [you] from God’s grace … The last shall be first.”
So what applies here to us? First, God expects us to be dissatisfied with things that are just plain wrong. We should be part of the social and moral conscience of our peer group, our colleagues, and our age. Next, God expects us to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. God’s grace must work through us. Third, in our prayer life and meditation, we must more fully empathize with those suffering, and redouble our efforts at the corporeal acts of mercy and organizing for social justice to alleviate hunger, poverty, persecution, and disease.
“You think I’ve gotten things upside down?” Jesus says. “Look around you and tell me who is getting things backward.” If we love God and trust God, we too must actively engage with evil, in order that grace more fully abound.
In the name of Christ, Amen.