Blessed Are You!
Blessed are you, Jesus says—again and again—blessed are you. Those words can be hard to hear. Hard to really let them sink in and believe in our innate blessedness. I almost think it’s easier to take in the words of judgment – and we come away from this gospel with “woe to you” ringing in our ears.
The Sermon on the Mount is a prayer for the community of saints – a description of those most human experiences where we find God. The ways in which we connect with those things – tangible, intangible– realities where we come to see what really matters. I certainly do not mean or want to idealize poverty or grief – those aren’t states of being we should want for ourselves or anyone else. However, as Jesus displayed – arms stretched wide - at the end of his life – it is when we have let everything go – that we grasp the answer to a very important question – as the poet Mary Oliver frames it –
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” (Summer Day)
Every life is precious. And everyone is a saint.
This is something I’ve shared before – but I think its worth repeating on All Saints Day – when we are to lift up and remember our capacity for holiness (which something much bigger than just doing good – our divinity within). Thomas Merton – contemplative monk, author, peace activist – started off as Episcopalian but, switched teams. Before he became a monk and priest he was living in New York City trying to figure out what to do with his one wild and precious life – and walking with his friend (Thomas Merton Seven Storey Mountain)
His friend asked, “What do you want to be anyway?”
Thomas replied, I want to be Thomas Merton, well-known author - I don’t know – I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic.”
“What do you mean a good Catholic? What you should say, Thomas, what you should say is that you want to be a saint.”
A saint! Thomas replied, “How do you expect me to become a saint!”
“By wanting to. All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. Don’t you believe that God will make you what God created you to be, if you will consent to let God do it? All you have to do is desire it.”
That sounds too good to be true - that all we need is desire, all God needs is our consent? Those blessings we hear Jesus proclaim this morning –they do not sound easy – nor do they sound like ways of being we would want to consent to. We hear Jesus say that the kingdom of heaven is in all we want to avoid – poverty, sorrow, hunger, persecution. And we hear those “woe to you” and we can relate to that. It’s easier to feel unworthy - like we’re not doing enough – and the benchmarks are to high. Easier than having the crazy and courageous audacity to believe we are saints?
Well, Jesus isn’t telling us the answers to an entrance exam. He is describing the kingdom of God that exists then and right now. Even though we often hear them this way, his phrases are not conditional clauses. Jesus does not say “whoever is pure in heart, then they will know the kingdom.” Or, “If, one is merciful, then they will be blessed.” Jesus pronounces blessing on what already is. Those hard things are already there – outside our world – and inside this world (point). Once again it’s a way of seeing – seeing around us – and seeing ourselves.
Jesus is giving us permission to acknowledge our brokenness – the ways in which we cannot be perfect (for only God has that wholeness). Last week we heard Jesus say – I came to seek the lost. It is only in recognizing where we are lost that we let God in. And letting God in – is really all a saint has to do.
It’s so great we have baptisms today. At a baptism we grow the community of saints by naming the blessedness of these children. And for us adults – children remind us of who we are. As the writer of 1st John says - See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. Beloved, we are God's children now. (1 John 3).
Children don’t shun their dependence like we adults do. Of course as get older there are responsibilities we take on – there are others who depend on us. But the minute we believe we have ultimate control over our lives – and can orchestrate the world around us – we have replaced God. Woe is me, in those moments, indeed.
When I was doing my chaplaincy at Beth Israel in New York city – this is when you are assigned floors of a hospital, different wings – and you wander randomly into stranger’s rooms to see if they want to talk or pray – and then you spend the bulk of your time reflecting on how all your own stuff – gets in the way of just being present to other people. I will confess to you – on more than one occasion I hid out in the medical library.
So one afternoon – I wandered into a young woman’s room. She wasn’t a child – but she was barely a young adult – around 18. She was very ill. She was very used to being in hospitals. She had just been accepted into a veterinary program at UCLA and she was thrilled – and she knew she was never going to go. She had 6 brothers and sisters. She was a Christian. We talked for a long time. I don’t remember anything either one of us said. What I do remember was that – she radiated something beautiful. I remember never before feeling like I was in the presence of such genuine hospitality. I remember leaving her room – thinking I’ve just been given some amazing gift, but what?
And I remember leaving the hospital a little later – and here’s the part where I hope you don’t think I’m crazy – onto a crowded city sidewalk at the end of the day – and seeing that quality in everyone around me. Seeing beauty in humanity – dare I say – seeing the community of saints and how we are inextricably interconnected with one another – and that somehow – is of God.
And then a few years later – reading Thomas Merton – he talked about a very similar experience. Thirty years after that conversation with his friend - now that he’d been a monk – but realizing solitude wasn’t the be all, end all of a holy life – that the holiness is all around us – all the time. And standing on a street corner – Fourth and Walnut in Kentucky, having just run an errand – he wrote –
“Suddenly I saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” (Thomas Merton Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander)
I don’t share the story of my encounter with this woman to compare myself to a named saint in the church – I share it because I know many of you have those moments too. When you – as Paul writes this morning – are able to see with the eyes of your heart enlightened. Maybe it was when you were gazing at your child. Maybe it was when you were in conversation with a stranger – or with the friend you could never live without. Maybe it was when you were serving – or being served – or weeping – or laughing. Or doing what you have been called to do with your one, wild and precious life! All of us have these divine moments of holiness where we see a glimpse of ultimate reality. When we are able to see the saints among us – walking around – shining like the sun.
God brings us into relationship with saints all the time. In our children – in our families – with those we love – and with those we don’t even really know. If we believe God blessed all humanity through Christ – then all we need to do is consent to God – desire to see with the eyes of our hearts enlightened.
For we prayed our belief this morning that God knit this community together – so it can only be a shining, miraculous and marvelous work in God’s eyes. God will help us see – the saints among us – and the saints we are.
So may we all consent to letting Jesus Christ’s words sink in this morning - Blessed are you – blessed are you – blessed are you. Amen.