Impractically Practical: a sermon on “blessed are the humble”

Some of you know that I am spending my summer doing a field education internship with the Vanderbilt University Hospital chaplains. I have been spending time visiting patients and sitting with families and praying with countless people with a variety of ailments since May, and, though I am new to this, I have been deeply humbled to do this work…and the other day, I received a blessing.

I was going on rounds on the trauma wing, and it was time for me to visit a man I shall call Larry. Earlier that morning I had seen Larry lying in the ICU hooked up to several machines, looking quite forlorn. But now, here he was in front of me, sitting up in his hospital chair with his son at his side, looking pretty chipper and announcing to me that “It was almost time to go home!” Of course, not all chaplain visits go like this, but sometimes they do, and that is what I call a miracle.  Larry and his son and I chatted for awhile about Larry’s time in the hospital, about the wonderful trauma team at Vanderbilt, and about what Larry was looking forward to doing when he returned home several states away. After a bit of this chitchat, Larry asked me to pray, and the three of us prayed together. As I exited the room, I shared my usual “I will keep you in my prayers and may God bless you in your healing.” My body was halfway out the door when Larry stretched out his hand towards me and said, “May God bless you and keep you and give you peace.” He said some other things, but I was too surprised in the moment to remember the words.

See, I was under the impression that I was the chaplain, that I was in the business of doing the blessing. Well–oops. I forgot that annoying tendency of humans to surprise us, and found myself in that moment wondering what to do. What could I do? I nodded and bowed my head and thanked Larry graciously. I was humbled to receive a blessing from a patient.

Sometimes the words “meek” and “humble” make me feel…weird. The dictionary says they mean things like “Overly submissive or compliant; spiritless; tame. Having a feeling of insignificance, inferiority, subservience, lowly.” And “Happy are the humble,” as our Scripture for today reads,  sounds to me like the kind of thing that someone might say to a woman who was acting “out of her place,” to a laborer who was asking for fair wages, to a soldier questioning the morality of orders. “Happy are the humble,” so you better get back to feeling “low in rank, subservient, insignificant,” as our Dictionary supplies. When I think about being meek or humble, I look for where power shows up in these situations: if someone can be “made humble” or “made meek” by a person with power over them, it opens the door to exploitation and abuse. The Beatitudes have historically been used almost as bludgeoning tools against groups of people whom Christians have tried to make subservient, like Jews and slaves. “Humble” does not always have good connotations, and we need to be aware of these.

But then there are times, like with Larry in the hospital, when the tables turn. When the one who we expect to be humble (wearing a hospital gown, attached to machines, unable to leave on his own volition) blesses the one who makes a new friend of humility. I was wearing my professional clothes, had a badge identifying me as staff, and was relatively in control of my time and location. Perhaps this blessing is like the kin-dom of God, unexpected, impractical and surprising. Perhaps this is what Jesus is talking about by saying, “happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth.” Perhaps he is talking about Larry.

Some people have talked about the beatitudes as imperative, or as prescriptive, providing a recipe for good Christian living. But this does not make sense for Jesus to say that it is only when we are meek/mourning/poor in spirit, that only then can we receive God’s blessing. Despite the powerful exhortations to welcome and move through grief with grace we sometimes hear, we have to admit that we don’t really want to grieve, so why adopt that as a prelude to blessing? No, we affirm a God whose blessings and grace are not conditional. So let’s tuck away that idea for now, and instead look at the beatitudes as indicative, or descriptive. They are not an outline for how to gain a blessing, but they are describing who is/has been/will be blessed. In this teaching, Jesus is telling us how the  kin-dom will be. Like most of Jesus’ teachings, the beatitudes can be a wake up call to the kin-dom.

Charles James Cook writes in Feasting on the Word, “Whenever we hear the Beatitudes, we are struck with their poetic beauty and, at the same time, overwhelmed by their perceived impracticality for the world in which we live. We admire the instruction, but we fear the implications of putting the words into actual practice. We live in a time when the blessings given are to those who succeed, often at the expense of others. To be poor in spirit, peaceful, merciful, and meek will get you nowhere in a culture grounded in competition and fear. Perhaps this is why most references to the Beatitudes imply that in giving this instruction, Jesus was literally turning the values of the world upside down. Who can survive in attempting to live into the spirit of the Beatitudes?”

He goes on to say, “The answer resides not in their impracticality but in their practicality.” Perhaps Jesus meant for the words of the beatitudes to be lived everyday by ordinary people like you and me. Cook says that often we hold up the giants of faith like Martin Luther King or Mother Teresa and the world-renowned peacemakers like Gandhi and Desmond Tutu as role models. We should look to these legacies and learn from them, but we must be careful not to construct them as models of unattainable perfection in our mind such that we would limit ourselves from even trying to participate in the work of justice, for fear we will fall short. Cook challenges us to think about the ways that the beatitudes can be lived, because they are so practical they appear impractical to our world as it is now. The words “blessed are the meek” and “happy are the humble” seem impractical because they do not line up with our understandings of power.

It doesn’t take a lot of sleuth-work to figure out that our Western USAmerican culture does not value humility.  No, with its capitalism and white supremacy and nationalism, how could it? The USA boasts of our independence, not interdependence; our freedom, not our justice; our pride, not our respect for all life. The meek and humble are not the ones who make it to the top in our world. They do not hold power in the form of money, land, personnel and respect. The world does not treat them as blessed. So how should we understand Jesus’ words that are so impractical for our time?

The beatitudes confront this issue of time directly. Jesus is blessing and naming as “happy” those who are humble right now, whose lives may not be seen as worthwhile by the current society, those who have been made humble by unfortunate situations and circumstances of life like economic hardship, illness, addiction and exploitation. But Jesus is saying that their lives do matter now, that they are blessed now.  And not just now, but within the kin-dom that is expressed in visions of a nearby time: “they WILL inherit the earth,” there WILL be a time when their lives are seen as worthwhile. Just as God spoke the words “let there be light” and there was light/ “let there be day and night”/ “let there be land and waters”/ “let there be creatures that crawl/swim/slither/dance/walk the earth” and it was so—just as God created with these words and the whole creation trembled as it burst into life–just like this, Jesus’ words “The meek SHALL inherit the earth” made it so, put these words that indicate the coming of the kin-dom among us into motion. This WILL come to pass. Those who are weak, who have been made humble, who have been mistreated, who don’t know the value of their own life, whose bodies have been taken for granted and violated, those people–will inherit the Earth. Jesus, by sharing his vision for the kin-dom that is yet-to-be, declares that another world IS possible… (and author Arundhati Roy says, “on some days I can hear her breathing”).

Do we believe that this is possible? That the beatitudes are “for real”? How can other world come to be?

Rev. Nadia Bolz Weber, famous pastor of the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, agrees that the Beatitudes are descriptive, but suggests that they are also performative. Maybe, she says, “the pronouncement of the blessing is actually what confers the blessing itself.” Therefore she offers an expanded version of Matthew 5 verse 5:

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who no one else notices. The kids who sit alone at middle-school lunch tables. The laundry guys at the hospital. The sex-workers and the night shift street sweepers. Blessed are the losers and the babies and the parts of ourselves that are so small. The parts of ourselves that don’t want to make eye contact with a world that only loves the winners. Blessed are the forgotten. Blessed are the closeted. Blessed are the unemployed, the unimpressive, the underrepresented. Blessed are the teens who have to figure out ways to hide the new cuts on their arms. [And I would add, blessed are the hospital patients] Blessed are the meek. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.”

The Sermon on the Mountain was spoken by Jesus to teach his disciples. As we strive to be faithful students, are we learning what Jesus is teaching us? Are we greeting his words with an attentive posture, though we are separated by time and space from the mountaintop where these words first were spoken? Friends, we must humble ourselves as Jesus humbled himself–by recognizing that we cannot do life alone, that none of us is as good as many of us joined together. As we open our hearts to the teachings of Jesus–as we work on our own discipleship–we are tasked with participating in the reality that Jesus was working and living and loving to create. We are tasked with taking up the beatitudes for ourselves and our community, so that they are not just random words to us in the 5th chapter of Matthew’s gospel. We are to go about our lives blessing the meek, the mourning, those who labor right here, right now. We don’t need to wait for someone else to do it because we are scared that we won’t do it right; we don’t need to wait for someone else to do it because we don’t have enough time. Jesus’ words to us bid us to go and do likewise. We are to go about living the beatitudes so that they become truly descriptors of the world in which we live, move and have our being.

Friends, today let us dedicate ourselves to participating in the Beatitudes. In this world, it is impractically practical to share love, to build community, to forgive those who hurt us, to acknowledge when we have done wrong, to accept the progress of time, to practice awe and wonder. Let not our rank, status, race, class, ego get in the way of receiving blessings from impractical places. Let not our tendency to sell ourselves short, to underestimate ourselves, to hide our gifts, to cut ourselves down; let these not get in the way of our deep knowing that we, ordinary people though we are, are called to live the beatitudes by receiving Jesus’ blessing of the humble. Let us accompany each other in our journeys, giving and receiving in mutual love and care, pushing back against the world that sells isolation and individualism. May we always retain the capacity for surprise as others–as we–extend our hands in blessings that seem impractical, but that make all the sense in the world.

May it ever be so.
Sermon originally preached July 9, 2017 at Glendale Baptist Church in Nashville, TN. 
(photo: http://www.crosskeysvillage.org/blessing-the-hands/)

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