Monday, November 4, 2013

Sermon: Beatitudes, Not Platitudes

“Beatitudes, Not Platitudes”
The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade, Ph.D.
Text:  Luke 6:20-28
Nov. 3, 2013

[The video from this sermon can be found at this link:]
These teachings from Jesus about blessedness are some of the most famous and well-loved.  But what I’ve noticed is how easy it is to handle them as trite clichés.  For every one of these beatitudes there are corresponding platitudes.  For example:

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

To which some people respond – “Ah yes, money can’t buy happiness” and “The best things in life aren’t things.”  How easy it is to say to those in financial poverty:  “Don’t worry about being poor now, God is going to bless you in heaven!” 

Doesn’t quite cover the rent, does it?

The same with:  “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.” 

How easy to say to those who suffer from malnutrition and food poverty:  “Just wait.  Your time is coming.  The trickle-down effect will find its way into your hungry mouths eventually.”

Doesn’t quite pay the grocery bill, does it?

And on this All Saints Sunday when we remember those who have passed into eternal life, our eyes filled with tears and our hearts choking with grief, we hear these words:  “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”

In our culture that fears death and cannot tolerate deep mourning, this teaching is often reduced to:  “Oh, you’ll get over it.”

I don’t know about you, but I need something more.  I’m not content to just gloss over these words and skip out to brunch.  I need a deeper understanding of what Jesus’ teachings really mean for me, for our society, and for our church.  I would guess that you, too, are longing to know what Jesus’ teaching means for yourself, for our congregation, and, most importantly – for our future.

So let’s go a little deeper into this text to understand the words, to wrap our heads and hearts around Jesus’ profound teaching, and to listen carefully to what they are speaking to us across the centuries.
The poor.  The hungry.  The grieving.  Let’s take a moment with each of them.

The poor.  The word in Greek is ptochoi (p-toe-koy). It literally means “poor people.” Religion scholar Richard Swenson points out that the word contains a verb: “ptuo,” (p-tu-oh) which is Greek for “I am spitting.” The English cartoon sound, “ptooey,” comes directly from this verb.[1] In other words:  Blessed are the spat-upon.

Some of you may be familiar with the superstitious practice of spitting to ward off evil spirits or outcomes.  Swenson tells of a Jewish mother who, whenever she heard that misfortune had befallen someone, would ritually spit three times, acting automatically to protect her children and her world from the danger and evil that stalk us all.

In other words:  Blessed are the people who are made into warning signs of the possibility of catastrophic collapse, of abject failure, people who are weary of the phrase, “There but for the grace of God….”
What does it look like for a church to welcome the spat-upon?  If theirs is “the Kingdom of God,” what does that look like?

I’ll tell you what it looks like.  It looks like the passing of the peace in this church on a Sunday morning.  We have people in this church who for various reasons have felt spat-upon by the world.  Either because of their lack of income, or the mistakes they’ve made in the past, or because of their sexual orientation, or their race, or because of their age or health.  But in this space all of them are claiming their rightful place in the sanctuary of God’s house.  Welcoming the spat-upon sounds like their voices singing and making joyful noises unto the Lord.  It feels like hugs with people who are normally looked down on in our society.  It looks like relief and joy on their faces, knowing there is at least one place, one church, where they are welcomed, valued, and treated as a full-fledged member of the church of God. 

In other words, a Beatitude Church is a church that welcomes all people.  United in Christ is a Beatitude church!

How about the hungry?  The Greek word is peinao (pay-na-oh).  It’s not just feeling hungry because you skipped lunch.  This is the kind of hunger that causes suffering, and the kind of suffering that causes hunger.  It points to a deeply broken system that allows certain members of society to be so financially destitute that they cannot provide for their own basic needs – food, housing, clothing, and access to resources such as clean water and medical care. 

Jesus contrasts this with the word chortazo which means “to be filled.”  What does it look like for a church to bless and fill those who are in desperate need?  What does it look like to be a Chortazo Church?
It looks like the front of our narthex with baskets filled with items for local food pantries.  It looks like people taking grocery bags to be filled with Thanksgiving items to give to local families in need this holiday.  It looks like a crowd of people walking through the streets of Milton to raise awareness and funds for the hungry through the CROP Walk.  It looks like folks volunteering to help serve and make dessert items for the monthly meal at St. Andrew’s in Milton.  In other words, a Chortazo church is a church with lots of opportunities to bless and fill the ones who are hungry.  United in Christ is that congregation – a Chortazo church!

And that leaves us with the grieving.  Klaio (clie-oh) in Greek.  What do we do with loss?  How do we as a church handle sorrow?  You’re seeing it today.  We are lighting candles, reading the names of those who have died in the last year.  It’s these kinds of rituals that help us to remember the ones who made us who we are.  You can take a walk up through the cemetery after church today and remember the saints who founded this church, who looked at this field in the 1800s and saw a vision of ecclesia plantanda – the church planted. 

Not one of those original founders remains.  Every one of them was mourned as they passed into eternal life.  But the church held that grief, comforted those who mourn, honored those lives, and sustained the work of this congregation to this very day.  What does it sound like to have the weeping of those who are in deep sorrow transformed into gelao [hard “g” ge-lah-oh]:  laughter? 

It sounds like a gaggle of teens gathered for a youth lock-in in September, the smoke from their bonfire wafting over those grave stones in the distance.  It sounds like a baby’s cries or a 6-year-old forgetting to use his inside voice, interrupting the quietness of our worship service as if to say, Here I am!  I am a little saint of God that needs all the love and understanding of the grown-ups around me, even if I get on their nerves sometimes. Later this month it will look like our youth buying presents for children in need with money from the Rich Huff Fund. In a few weeks gelao will sound like children raising their voice in song for our Christmas pageant, and playing silly giggling games at the New Year’s lock-in.  Their laughter peals out across the centuries, greeting the sounds of the weeping of their ancestors as if to say:

“Take heart!  Your grief is not in vain.  Look at what your life has meant.  Look at what your faithful ministry has planted!  Those who go out weeping with their seeds will return rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves!”  We are the harvest!  United in Christ, we are the Gelao Church!

The poor, the hungry, the mourning – all of them are welcomed and transformed in the Beatitude Church.
And there is one other blessing we don’t want to forget:  “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.”

These two verses encompass all the previous verses we just discussed.  The poor, the hungry, the grieving: they have all experienced being excluded, reviled, defamed, and yes, even hated.  And yet, impossibly, Jesus proclaims that when you find yourself among those excluded and hated, you are to rejoice and leap for joy.  How can this be?  Is Jesus really so naïve?  How can he make such an imperative command to “Rejoice!”

The key is in the reason Jesus gives for the ability to rejoice – misthos, which means “reward.”  Jesus says, “For surely your reward is great in heaven.”  Sometimes that verse is translated, “Your reward will be great in heaven.”  But Jesus is not talking about pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by.  No, he’s talking about right now, right here, heaven is giving you - equipping you - with what you need. 

At this very moment: God is working on your heart and your mind, moving you through the process of grief so that you can metabolize the loss and find your way in the world.
At this very moment: God is working on your heart and mind, moving you to not only feed those who are hungry and provide for their immediate needs, but also to confront the very system that sets up these injustices in the first place.

At this very moment:  God is working on your heart and mind, moving you to not only embrace the ones who are spat upon and avoided in this world, but to stand with them in solidarity to say, “This is a beloved Child of God who has much to teach us about what it means to come into God’s presence with gladness.”

At this very moment: God is equipping this church to reach out to the hated, the despised, the lonely, the grieving, the hungry, the poor, the shamed, and the shunned.  In this very place, God is creating and equipping the Beatitude Church.  Brothers and sisters of United in Christ – you are the Beatitude Church.

Blessed are you!  Blessed are you for your witness of Jesus’ love in this world.  Blessed are you for the church universal.  And blessed are you for the Kingdom of God!  Right here, right now, at this very moment! Amen!

[1] [Swenson, Richard, “Commentary on Luke 6:20-31”;]

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