Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Sun, August 10, 2014 - Poor in Spirit

Psalm 87:8-13
Ruth 1
Matthew 5:3-9
Advent Lutheran, Calgary

Isn’t it nice to hear Jesus’ words in the Gospel today? After weeks of truly terrible news–war between Gaza and Israel, and Russia and the Ukraine, planes getting shot out of the sky, the Ebola virus in Africa, even the hailstorm in Airdrie on Thursday–it’s nice to hear something positive, isn’t it? The Beatitudes, these “blessings” that we hear so often, describe a world that stands in stark contrast to the world we’re living in right now. They describe a world that we hope for, but that we don’t often see, in which the misfortunes that people experience are overturned and reversed. We have those who mourn, who are suffering from loss, whether a family member has died, or a relationship has gone sour, or they have lost a job, or a pet, or anything meaningful to them. For those who mourn, Jesus utters God’s promise of comfort. Those who mourn will be blessed as their grief and loss is overturned into God’s comfort. And then we have those who are meek, which means those who are powerless. Meek here doesn’t mean those who hold their tongue, or who refrain from saying nasty things. Meek here means those who are truly powerless - children who are prevented from standing up for themselves, seniors who don’t have the strength to care for themselves, families who can’t stop rockets dropping on their houses, workers whose shifts are entirely at the whims of their bosses. Those who are meek will be blessed by inheriting the earth - receiving the earth as a gift. The meek will not have to earn justice or deserve justice or work for justice - they will receive it as a gift. And then there are those who are ‘poor in spirit.’ It’s such an interesting phrase - poor in spirit. A lot of times it’s interpreted to mean humble, or lacking in pride, or literally poor, but what it really means is depressed. The poor in spirit are those who have no reason to hope in this world. They may be literally poor, but they may also be emotionally impoverished because of depression or anxiety, they may be spiritually poor because the church has alienated them. The poor in spirit are people who are lonely and depressed and who have no hope. But, again, Jesus proclaims that the poor in spirit will receive the blessing of the kingdom of heaven. That is, the blessing of a place of hope: where mercy reigns, where God is present, where peace is the rule. The poor in spirit, and the meek, and those who mourn, and those who need righteousness and justice, all of these people - the whole world, in fact - will be blessed because the kingdom of heaven belongs to them - justice and mercy and peace belong to them. To us.

What Jesus is talking about is truly wonderful. But... it doesn’t always seem like the world really works that way, does it? Where is the gift of the earth for those meek and oppressed whose houses have been destroyed by rockets? Where is the gift of the earth for those meek and powerless who suffer under the hand of abusers? Where is the comfort for those who mourn because they have lost family members to a violent murder? Where is the comfort for those who mourn who have had to leave behind friends to move to a new land? Where is the kingdom of heaven for those poor in spirit who are living in refugee camps in South Sudan? Where is the kingdom of heaven for those poor in spirit who are in the deepest clutches of clinical depression and mental illness? 

As lovely as these Beatitudes are, when we really stop to think about them, they can cause some cognitive despair. When we really think, we realize that there is actually a huge gap between the world that we hear promised in the Bible and the world that we see around us. And the tough part is that it seems as if there is nothing to be done about it. As much as we hear the promises, it seems hard to believe in them when the world is such a mess - when people are starving, dying from war, watching their land and water being taken away, suffering from untreated illness, being abused by the people charged to take care of them - and nothing seems to change. 

There is a huge gap between our ideal and reality, and for me, at least, what seems to be the worst is that there is no way to change it. In many ways, it seems as if we are too insignificant to make any difference on any scale that matters.  We have no control over the price of gas or the decisions of policy makers, we have no influence in the peace negotiations among world leaders and we can’t change where the hailstorms might deliver their next rounds. Even in our own lives, it often seems as if we live at the hands of fate. We can’t control whether or not we will get cancer, we don’t have a say in how long we live or how we die. Even if we try, it seems as if there are factors outside of our control that change everything. Take Naomi, from our reading from Ruth. Her husband, Elimelech, whose name means God is my King, tried to take control of the life of his family by moving them from Bethlehem, which was experiencing a devastating famine, to Moab. He thought he was making his family’s life better, but in fact, he died, and ten years later his sons died, and his wife was left alone. He could not stop death from coming. So, try as we might, no matter how we try to move the reality of our world to the ideal of the kingdom of justice and mercy and safety, it doesn’t seem to work.

So what ought we to do when there is this promised kingdom of heaven on one hand, and this dismal reality on the other? How are we to live in this gap without giving in to despair? It seems to me that there are three responses. The first, the one advocated the most often in the history of the church, is to be patient and, as we hear so often, trust in the Lord. The first response is to do nothing, as it were. To live, like Job, trusting in God despite all the hardships and to just accept what comes and to hope that God will make a way out of no way, that God will make all things for good. To acknowledge that taking our lives into our own hands is a move of foolishness, given how little we really know about how our lives will turn out and how small we are against the entire history of the world. To trust God and to do nothing, as it were.

The second response, less encouraged by churches but more popularly heard in the world in general, is to take charge. To stop leaving our lives up to fate and to get out there and actually make a difference. To get involved, to act, to believe that we can make a difference and to engage in positive thinking and goal visioning, and to make things better. To acknowledge that leaving our lives up to fate is a different kind of foolishness, given how ingrained people are to taking advantage of others and how everyone tends to grab as much power as they can. To put our faith only into our own actions and do something, as it were.
The third is a combination of both of these - to trust in the Lord and to do something. To bring the kingdom of heaven to earth by making it. To trust the Lord when it comes to the big things like life and death, but to do something and act when it comes to the small things, like making the lives of others easier. To bring the kingdom of heaven to those individuals around us who are poor in spirit, rather than waiting it for to appear somewhere on the horizon. To comfort those near us who mourn, rather than waiting for time to heal all wounds. To bring power and the earth to those we meet who are meek, rather than waiting for the great circle of life to right all wrongs. This third response is one of trusting that God’s promise is true - that there is actually a kingdom of heaven, and then working to make it happen. We see this third kind of response in the book of Ruth, actually. In Ruth, which we only heard the beginning of, we see Naomi both trusting that the Lord will take care of God’s people and returning to Bethlehem, but then advising Ruth to take action and attract Boaz’s attention so that he marries her and provides security for Ruth and Naomi. And we see Ruth also trusting in the Lord, but then taking steps to put herself in Boaz’s path so that she can change her and Naomi’s life for the better. Rather than lamenting the famine, or trying to fight the patriarchal system that makes widows vulnerable, she works as an individual to make a difference in the lives of those around her. 

This third response - trust in God but act in the world -  is, I believe, the one that God is calling us to take in this day and age. You see, one of the facts of this world, and I think this is an intentional design feature on God’s part, is that we live in this world with others. Both the story of Ruth and the Gospel of Matthew tell us this, although they do it in subtle ways. Ruth refuses to leave Naomi, and this turns out to be the comfort for Naomi’s mourning and the blessing of her loss, as Ruth bears a son, Obed, who Naomi adopts as her own. It is a story of the comfort that comes from acting within relationships, and from acting on a small, individual scale. In the gospel Beatitudes, the kingdom of heaven that Jesus describes is built on mercy, and peace, and justice - things that only come when individuals act to bring them to other individuals.

I do think that God uses those moments of cognitive despair, those gaps between our ideals and our reality, to prompt us to action and to this third response. I believe that when we feel these things, it is God’s Spirit at work in us. We are supposed to despair that the world is not what we have been told it should be. We are supposed to be concerned that the promised kingdom of heaven is so far from being real for so many people around the world. But then we are supposed to do something about it. We are supposed to look around us, and to see those small, individual instances of disjunct in the people around us, and to step into that gap. To be merciful, to make peace, to show the love of God. It is not that we are taking over God’s work, and that we are attempting to bring about our own version of the kingdom of heaven. Rather, it is that we are enacting God’s work. That we are bringing about the kingdom of heaven on God’s behalf. That we are allowing God’s Spirit to use us to fulfill God’s promises for peace, and justice, and mercy.

This God-given ability to act is, I think, where we find blessing and hope. God does not condemn us to watch the world fall apart and to believe that we are just along for a doomed ride. God does not open our eyes to suffering in the world and to the gap between the ideal and reality and then leave us powerless to do anything about it. The blessing of God is that God gives us the power to make changes. God blesses us to bring the kingdom of heaven to those around us. God empowers us to carry out those small acts of peace and justice and mercy, so that person by person, the kingdom of heaven comes to earth. Jesus’ proclamation of the blessing of the kingdom of heaven is, after all, fulfilled for us. We will receive it, and so will those around us, as we act to make it real, through the power of the Holy Spirit, and in the name of Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God, Amen.

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