Less-ed or Bless-ed?

by David Baer, January 25, 2015

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Text: Matthew 4:23-5:20

Does anyone remember the TV sitcom “My Name Is Earl”? That was one of my favorite shows. On the first episode, Earl J. Hickey is a petty criminal and all-around jerk who wins $100,000 in the lottery. He runs out into the street to celebrate, only to be hit by a car and struck unconscious. Earl loses the winning lottery ticket of course, but the accident convinces him that he needs to find everyone he has wronged and make it up to them. He makes a list of everyone he has defrauded or hurt over the years, and in each episode he visits a new person from the list to see how he can put his wrongs right. Earl may have lost the winning lottery ticket, but his life is immeasurably richer because he does this.

Today’s gospel reading has a lot of familiar words, but I’d like to start with an image I’d like you to consider. Imagine Earl Hickey laid out on the street, just having been hit by the car, the $100,000 lottery ticket lost from his grasp. Jesus walks over to him and whispers in his ear, “Blessed are you, Earl Hickey, for being hit by a car, because your wrongs are going to be set right. Blessed are you for losing $100,000, because you are going to be richer than you could possibly imagine.” How would Earl have heard these words? How would you have heard them? Would you have believed them?

The Beatitudes, the blessings that Jesus offers in our gospel lesson, are kind of like this. The scripture says that “they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics….” These are the people who come to see him, who come to hear a word of hope. And what’s astonishing is that Jesus isn’t saying that these hurting and hungry and hoping people are going to be blessed. He says they are blessed. He says they should count themselves exceptionally fortunate. These are blessings pronounced on people who, if asked to describe themselves, would never use the word “blessed.” They’ve been hit by a car. They’ve lost everything they had. They are grieving—grieving over their broken bodies, grieving over their poverty, grieving over all the ways their life has gone wrong. They’re so desperate for things to be made right that it’s like a physical hunger gnawing them from the inside. They’re mocked and beaten and rejected because they dare to hope that God has something better in mind. They’re all these things and more, and Jesus dares to come and tell them that because of all this, they are blessed. Did they believe him? Would you have believed him?

“You are blessed,” Jesus insists. “The kingdom of God belongs to you. You will be called God’s children. You will receive comfort and mercy. Your hunger for justice, for right, for truth will be satisfied. And when they mock you and beat you and kick you out of your family and your synagogue and your town, jump for joy! That’s exactly what they did to the prophets of old.”

The kingdom of God belongs to them. The kingdom is not a place. It’s not a country with borders that you can walk into or out of. It’s not heaven, either. The kingdom of God is for earth, for the world we live in. It’s a way of living and being. It’s what the whole world would look like if God were king and everybody knew it. It’s what your life would look like if every nerve in your body pulsed joyously in harmony with God’s will, if every nanosecond of your existence were offered up in raucous praise and thanks to God. That’s not what we see, most of the time, when we look at ourselves or the world we live in. But the kingdom of God, Jesus says, is near. It’s so close you can almost touch it, taste it. Sometimes it shines like a bright flame. Other times it’s shrouded and obscured by sin. Sometimes it’s hidden away, but living, growing, secretly twisting here and there like a vine that grapples and in time makes cold and proud stone towers into leafy ruins. That’s the kingdom.

And it’s near. It’s the speeding car racing down the road to hit Earl Hickey and change his life forever. It’s a hidden pool of water under the desert sands stopped up, with the pressure building and building, which will one day send lifegiving water up and out over the thirsty ground. Jesus knows, Jesus has come to tell us, that the kingdom is near. Of that he is certain. He doesn’t know the hour or the day, but he knows that the kingdom is near, close enough that you can touch it, if you stretch out your hands and your spirit.

And so the question is where and how to stretch out, so as to touch the kingdom. An expecting mother cannot see her baby, but she waits for him to kick, and she can feel the contours of his tiny body in her belly. When he moves she knows that he is alive and growing. Where do we feel, where do we place our hands and our spirits to feel for God’s unborn promise to us?

The poor in spirit, Jesus says, touch the kingdom of God. They grasp it in their hands. It belongs to them. “Poor in spirit” isn’t one category alongside all the others that Jesus pronounces to be blessed. It describes them all. To be poor in spirit is to know you haven’t got it figured out, to know that your soul’s deepest desire is outside the sweep of your own arms. To be poor in spirit is to reach out in the desperate hope that God’s searching hands will find you and lift you up. Those who mourn are poor in spirit. They reach out, and they will be comforted. Those who show mercy know that there is more to be gained in forgiveness and generosity than there is in tit-for-tat. They repay evil with good. They practice purposeful acts of kindness. And none of this makes any sense unless you can trust that Someone Else is keeping score, Someone who’s going to bless mercy with an even greater Mercy. The merciful have given up looking out for themselves, and all the immediate gains it might have brought, and so they’re poor in spirit.

The peacemakers are poor in spirit. They’ve seen the fighting that comes from a zero-sum view of the world and its goods, the view that says I’ve gotta get mine or no one will do it for me, the view that says I’ve gotta get mine at someone else’s expense, and they’ve rejected it. God made the world rich enough to take care of you and me and everyone, and the peacemakers get this. They look for ways to spread the blessings around. But they get left behind in the free-for-all scramble for money, for land, for stuff, for people’s affections, and so in the here and now they’re losers. They’ve got to trust that God’s going to set things right one day. They’re poor in spirit.

The meek are poor in spirit. Those that hunger and thirst for things to be put right are poor in spirit. Those who get beat up and kicked out because they put their hope in God are poor in spirit. Their hands stretch out and touch the unborn kingdom, they feel it roll and kick. The kingdom is real to the homeless addict who gives his blanket to a shivering friend, more than it is to me. He may not have his life together, but when it comes to showing mercy, he’s got his hand on the kingdom. The confused, the doubting, and the anxious know it doesn’t lie in their power to make their heart’s deepest hope come true, and so they lay their hands on the kingdom in a way that the religiously certain never could. To all appearances the poor in spirit are the least, the lost, the less-ed, but Jesus calls them bless-ed, because God’s kingdom is near enough for them to touch and hold.

And so blessed are you. Blessed are you who are unemployed. Blessed are you who are grieving lost loved ones and lost relationships. Blessed are you who don’t know what your next step is. Blessed are you who are inexplicably kind. Blessed are you who bear up patiently through hard times, confident that there’s another chapter to be written. Blessed is the wailing child who stretches needy hands upward for a hug. Blessed is your weakness, and not your strength. Blessed is your doubt, and not your certainty. Blessed is your poverty of spirit. You may not know it, you may not feel blessed, but your outstretched hands have touched God’s kingdom, and so you know, deep in your bones, that it’s growing, waiting to be born.

Maybe you don’t feel this assurance. Maybe God’s kingdom still seems far off. But I’ll bet anything you know someone who’s poor in spirit. Spend time with someone who’s grieving or confused. Find yourself a peacemaker, or someone who just aches for justice. Don’t speak too much. Don’t offer advice, and don’t offer help beyond what might be needed in the moment. That’s a temptation for people who want to do good. Instead, offer yourself, and look to where this person’s hands stretch out.

Working in a soup kitchen once I met a man named Peter. Peter was difficult. He argued with the staff. He got periodic warnings about his behavior, and I think he got kicked out of the soup kitchen from time to time. But when he came into the room one day, he looked around and said (maybe a little too loudly), “Friends, don’t you feel blessed?” And we did… all of us, guests and volunteers. We had a warm meal, we had one another’s company. It was a blessed moment, and he called our attention to it. Peter didn’t have an easy life. But when he looked around, he saw blessing. Being in his presence, following his outstretched hands, allowed me to touch God’s kingdom, and just for a moment feel that it is real, it is there, it is alive.

Unborn children are growing toward the moment of their birth—they were never meant to stay inside their mothers forever. And in the same way, God’s kingdom won’t be hidden forever. One day those who mourn won’t be blessed any longer in their anticipation of being comforted, but they’ll be blessed in the wiping away of their tears. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness won’t be blessed any longer in their hunger, but they’ll be blessed sitting down to eat their fill at the wedding feast of the Lamb. But here and now Jesus offers hope to the poor in spirit, to those who can already touch God’s coming kingdom. So may you reach out your hands in need, in anticipation, of God’s blessing. And may God’s grace give you blessing enough for today. Amen.