Rev. Erika Marksbury preached this powerful sermon at SACC yesterday. I love how she reframes the beatitudes in terms of ‘holiness’ rather than ‘happiness.’ These texts are not prescriptive, she tells us. They don’t give us instructions. They just tell us how it is… Read and be blessed, on this cold Monday.
These past few weeks we’ve been hanging out around the outskirts of Jesus’ community – we’ve seen him baptized, we’ve heard his cousin, and teacher, John the Baptist, tell the story of who Jesus might be, we’ve seen Jesus gather disciples so that they might begin a ministry together. And today, the lectionary verses show us a crowd – really, they show us Jesus, who sees a crowd and moves away from it; he climbs a mountain. And his disciples follow him up, and when he sits down we can imagine they do, too, they tuck their legs under themselves and make a circle around him and lean in so they don’t miss a word. And in this move that’s contrary to everything their everyday experience tells them, he says,
“You are blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and God’s rule.
And you are blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
And you are blessed when you’re content with just who you are – no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.
And you are blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. God is food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.
And you are blessed when you care. At the moment of being care-full, you find yourselves cared for.
And you are blessed when you get your inside world – your mind and heart – put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.
And you are blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.
And you are blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.”[i]
Translators would come along centuries later and render all these “blessings” as “happy” – happy are those who are pure in heart; happy are those who are poor; in the strangest, happy are those who mourn. But to be blessed is not to be happy. It is to be holy. And so his hearers wouldn’t be confused about this, Jesus pulled out this other book, this slight collection of poetry – I mean, not really, it wasn’t actually published until last year, but Jesus knows the future, so we can imagine he had an advance copy of Cynthia Rylant’s work in the pocket of his tunic and he motioned to the disciples to lean in once more and when they did he began to read, “God Went to India.”
God Went to India – he told them –
To see the elephants.
God adores elephants.
He thinks they are
the best thing
He ever made.
They do everything
He hoped for:
They love their children,
they don’t kill,
they mourn their dead.
This last thing is
Elephants visit the graves
of those they loved.
They spend hours there.
They fondle the dry bones.
God understands mourning
better than any other emotion,
better even than love.
Because He has lost
everything He has
You make life,
you make death.
The things God makes
always turn into
something else and
He does find this good.
But He can’t help missing all the originals.[ii]
You hear that? Not happy. Holy.
And these verses are not prescriptive. They do not tell us how to be, with the promise that it’ll be worth it. Losing all that matters to you, facing scorn and worse for what you deeply believe to be true, spending your life’s energy working for justice and peace only to see your efforts thwarted by people more powerful than you – there is no promise of reward that could make these things ok. That’s not the equation being set up here.
These verses do not tell us how to be; they tell us how it is. Those who are poor, or meek, or merciful, or pure in heart; those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst, those who make peace, or are persecuted; they are not models or mentors for us. They are windows. Jesus is not telling his hearers to be like them. He is telling his hearers that if they want to know God, if they are curious about the heart of the divine, they could do worse than to get to know those around them who have struggled mightily. Those who have risked their hearts and their lives and those who never had much to risk losing anyway.
They are blessed. They are not happy, or not necessarily so. But they are holy. They are holy because their hearts and God’s heart share a beat. They live and move and have their being in the one who holds them in their sorrow and fear and shame and hope. They mourn and they desire and they seek and they cry out and all of that is holy.
See these verses are only sort of about people. They are really about the heart of God.
-God loves so deeply that that love shows up as mercy, and as mourning.
-And God is so hungry for justice, so thirsty for righteousness that the prophet Amos calls for these to roll down in an “ever-flowing stream.”
-And God is meek: the Holy One is all the power we can fathom wrapped in all the gentleness and vulnerability we don’t dare risk ourselves.
So these verses are sort of about people. But maybe only to the extent that people who mourn, or show mercy, or hunger, or thirst – those people’s lives are enfolded in God’s life. Those people share in God’s holiness and so they can show us God’s heart.
See, Jesus has gathered his disciples here, and it’s early in their time with him. They have been fishermen, and tax collectors, and they’ve left those lives to follow him, and what if here, in this moment that we only get to eavesdrop on – because they’ve escaped the crowd, right? It’s just the disciples and Jesus on the top of this mountain – what if they’ve been hounding him, like, “hey, what do we do? What will our work look like? What’s this all about?”
And what if this teaching is how he’s sending them back out? He’s asked them to repent – like, to turn from their path and to begin to follow a new way – and what if, when they start asking what that new way is like, he answers by inviting them to wake up to the holiness all around them? To recognize the blessedness that marks the lives of so many that they journey alongside, that maybe they never even noticed before?
I’ve seen some of it.
This is what I’ve learned, from being around people who have lost people they love: Those who mourn carry more than their own life with them. Sometimes, they carry their own life more loosely so that they might be able to hold on to these others, too. Look around you now – not for what you can see, but for what you can’t. Who is present here? What saints are still with us? There is a holy community, held together by those who mourn, that enriches us all.
And this is what I’ve learned, from being around people with deep desire for change: Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will spend long days advocating and cold nights rallying for people that our current systems literally endanger. They will sometimes endanger themselves to protect others. Look around you now. How many people can you count whose work makes possible, in big and small ways, other people’s survival? People who are making life possible are all around you. There is a holy resistance, a new world being waged by those who hunger and thirst, and it’s marked by a life-giving justice for all.
And this is what I’ve learned, from being around people who don’t cling to their own power too tightly: Those who are meek make room for more voices to be heard, more people to know their own worth. … I wish you had heard this conversation – I wish I had heard it, I only heard about it, much later, from a friend who witnessed it – but here it is:
There’s a table of teenage girls, a dinner table – they’re talking about school, about crushes, about their weekends – when one of them sort of interrupts the flow of the conversation and announces, “When I rule the world, I’m finally going to be popular.”
And it’s awkward, right? The other girls are a little embarrassed; they’re a little uncomfortable… They’re silent. And then the first girl speaks again, her tone less confident now, and she asks them, “How do I be popular?”
The other girls slowly offer suggestions: You could join a club? You could talk to people you don’t already know? And after the girl has heard of few of these, she nods and closes the conversation circle; with renewed determination, she says, “Well, when I rule the world, I’m going to be popular.”
And maybe it would have been back to that same awkwardness, except another girl picked up the pattern. And she said, “When I rule the world, it will be the end of the patriarchy.”
More silence. And then another girl: “When I rule the world, there will be enough food for everyone.”
And then it went on like this. Like a modern-day, teenage-girl version of the Beatitudes – a different vision for the world – some very personal hopes, some global ones, but altogether, what they articulated was our current experience, upside down.
And it was made possible because one girl was willing to be really vulnerable, and others were not willing to let her stay in that open space alone. Because they heard her first question as doing something other than flattering them, something besides positioning them as the popular girls. They heard it, deep down, as a desire for a new way. And so they let go of whatever power might have been theirs, and they began to dream with her. There was a holy imagination, let loose around that table by those who were meek, that invites us all to new visions.
….Maybe if that dinner table had been a picnic blanket instead, and the floor beneath them a rough mountain footbed, and the girls had found themselves in a mixed-gender crowd, with some boys who still smelled like the sea, they would have heard Jesus saying, “When God rules the world….”
And if we had been there, too… If we could have been part of that crowd, leaned in just enough, we would have recognized that the conversation those girls had followed the pattern that conversations that people of faith have always follow. We would have heard echoes of what they said in what Jesus said.
And after Jesus took his turn, maybe there would have been more silence. Not like the awkward quiet that marked the girls’ earlier conversation. More like the stillness that comes from understanding that all around us – what we would have once called pain or sorrow or weakness or naiveté – all around us what there really is, is holiness. Blessedness. All around.
Rev. Erika Marksbury serves as Associate Pastor of Saint Andrew Christian Church in Olathe, KS. She is also a Graduate Teaching Assistant at the University of Missouri – Kansas City, where she’s pursuing an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Religious Studies and English. She has an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary, where she led the seminary’s Amnesty chapter. More recently, she was a presenter at the Christianity21 gathering in Denver.
Erika and her husband, Rick, have two small boys. In her free time… Lol. I’m kidding. She doesn’t have free time.
[i] Matthew 5:3-10, The Message.
[ii] Cynthia Rylant, God Got a Dog, Beach Lane Books, 2013.