Perseverance – the Beatitudes in a word

Downstairs in the church kitchen just above the sink, hangs this sign with the words: “Blessed are they who clean up.” An encouragement this is, no doubt, to wash up dirty dishes with soap and place in the cupboards when finished.

But are these words more than encouragement?

Indeed, the Beatitudes which form the first part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel[1]are often treated as commandments. We read them as rules for living. And rules demonstrate a reality that we have not yet achieved, a desired reality that is beyond our present circumstances. And a reality that we must work towards by following the rules.

Dirty dishes left in the sink is not the desired reality. A clean kitchen is. So, get to work!

Last week, after Jesus called his first disciples, he went throughout Galilee teaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.[2]In these Beatitudes, now, we encounter precisely what constitutes the kingdom of heaven on earth. And it isn’t about following rules.  

For one thing, the bible isn’t a rule book with lists of commandments and directives for living. Its original writers were not products of our 21st century bias towards a rational logic based on a cause-effect, either-or, legalism. For the most part they didn’t write in order to tell people what to do, but rather to describe the kind of relationship we might have with the God of truth and love.

Besides the laws we read, especially in the Hebrew scriptures, we have to acknowledge the Bible contains other forms of writing: For example, there is rich narrative. There are stories and parables. There is history and sermon. In the bible’s pages we also read beautiful, image-rich poetry and incredible visions of the future.

The Beatitudes fall under the latter categories of the poetic variety. These are not expressed as rules; rather, as a vision of God’s faithfulness to the people of God. They describe what faithfulness between God and human looks like.

In order to understand what these Beatitudes mean, I suggest we consider other images—of the poetic variety—that could convey the meaning of the Beatitudes. In this way, we remain true to the original spirit and style of Jesus’ preaching in the introduction to his lengthy sermon on the mount.

Thomas Merton, born 104 years ago yesterday, and whom many consider the father of contemplative Christianity in the modern era, wrote: “Nothing has ever been said about God that hasn’t already been said better by the wind in the pine trees.” Like Merton, let’s use the metaphor of a tree to describe something that is true about our walk with God.

Twentieth Century African-American author, philosopher, theologian, educator, and civil rights leader, Howard Thurman, in his Meditations on the Heart, describes his journey to the tree line near the arctic circle. There he makes a startling discovery about the trees:

“It was above the timber line. The steady march of the forest had stopped as if some invisible barrier had been erected beyond which no trees dared move in a single file. Beyond was barrenness, sheer rocks, snow patches and strong untrammeled winds. Here and there were short tufts of evergreen bushes that had somehow managed to survive despite the severe pressures under which they had to live. They were not lush, they lacked the kind of grace of the vegetation below the timber line, but they were alive and hardy. 

“Upon close investigation, however, it was found that these were not ordinary shrubs. The formation of the needles, etc., was identical with that of the trees further down. As a matter of fact, they looked like branches of the other trees. When one actually examined them, the astounding revelation was that they were  branches.

“For, hugging the ground, following the shape of the terrain, were trees that could not grow upright, following the pattern of their kind. Instead, they were growing as vines grow along the ground, and what seemed to be patches of stunted shrubs were rows of branches of growing, developing trees. What must have been the torturous frustration and the stubborn battle that had finally resulted in this strange phenomenon! 

“It is as if the tree had said, ‘I will not give up. I will use to the full every resource in me and about me to answer life with life. In so doing I shall affirm that this is the kind of universe that sustains, upon demand, the life that is in it.’”[3]

Thurman’s description captures for me the essence, the feel, of what Jesus’ beatitudes represent. And, one very strong feel about these Beatitudes is the quality of perseverance that marks our relationship with God, and God’s relationship with us.

Our life with God is anything but passive. To stay the course with God requires perseverance, dedication and faithfulness. It is not to give up when the going gets tough. It is not to throw in the towel when the stress of living bears down.

“Blessed are you when people revile you…” Walking the path of Christ will invite scorn and judgement from a culture disinclined to Christ-like living. Yet, we are called to persevere on this simple but difficult path.

Whenever I watch footage of hurricanes slamming Caribbean island coast-lines, I am amazed at the resiliency of those palm trees on the beach. Storm surges wash away and erode shorelines. Untrammelled winds assail and play havoc with anything not bolted down and boarded up. Destruction follows the wake of these tempests.

And yet, the palm tree remains. How? Its capacity to be flexible, to bend, even so the branches on its crown may touch the ground. The strongest of these palms, the ones that have encountered and survived many storms over decades, have learned this art of living well: not to be so rigid so as to snap when the storms first hit; not to be so unyielding when the environment changes. To be able to move when necessary. And, therefore, to live.

Why the Beatitudes present such a challenge for us, is because they suggest a different kind of ‘knowing’ when it comes to God and our relationship with Jesus. In truth, we cannot know God. Ever. No matter how hard we try. Regardless of the number of books we’ve read, the number of bible verses we’ve memorized, the arguments we’ve won, even the number of times we’ve ‘gone to church’. While we walk this earthly path, we can only learn how to love God and one another in Christ. 

To know God this way has already given us all that we need for this path: not rules for living but gifts for the journey. Despite all the suffering, pain and challenge we encounter on the path, the grace of God provides a rich blessedness filled with gladness and joy for all we need.


[1]Matthew 5:1-12

[2]Matthew 4:23

[3]Howard Thurman, Meditations of the Heart (Beacon Press: 1999), 123-124.

Slave to none, servant to all

Especially at the beginning of a new school year, the gospel story of little children sitting on the lap of Jesus warms my heart. This saccharine image speaks to Jesus’ welcoming the children as we would welcome them to church and the start of a new year of Sunday School programming. 
We tell ourselves, “So should we be towards the children, like Jesus was.” Or, “We should be like the children.” Here perhaps lies the genesis of any motivation and focus of children’s ministry in the church. This act of Jesus witnessed by the bible’s words becomes our authority for action.
Indeed, the Gospel text for this Sunday (Mark 9:30-37) is about God’s view on power and authority. How does authority work, in the kingdom of God? What does it look like?
And it is here, admittedly, we Lutherans get into trouble. We say that authority for a congregation in the Roman Catholic Church is the Pope. We also say that authority for a congregation in the Protestant tradition is the Bible. For Lutherans, it is a former pastor! 🙂
This Gospel story is more about Jesus’ stance vis-a-vis the powers-that-be in society. This is revolutionary and counter-cultural. He makes irrelevant the political-economic-cultural pecking order, as far as the kingdom of God is concerned. The root of the Greek words “servant” and “child”, spoken in the same breath, is virtually the same (pais/paidon); on the basis of vocabulary alone, those who first received this story were principally hearers and not readers. Mark’s Greek-speaking audience would have made the close connection between servant and child. Neither had any real social value.
Therefore, this story describes more a stance towards people in general, an attitude and approach for relating to those who do not have power, who are of particularly low social status. Contrary to what the economic and political powers espouse, Jesus assigns worth and importance to every person (Sharon Ringe in Feasting on the Word Year B Vol 4 eds. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, WJK Press 2009, p.97).
This is no longer a sweet, warm-fuzzy message as much as it is a direct stab at our social hierarchy of values. And the disciples know it, deep down in their hearts. But they are afraid. In their silence, they betray their weakness and fault in not ‘getting’ Jesus nor willing to ‘go there’.
Jesus didn’t come to pander to power. He didn’t come to play the game. He didn’t come to compete in the smorgasbord of religions in the first century Palestine. He didn’t come to prove that he is right and everyone who doesn’t agree with him is wrong. 
He came to show that God loves everyone, including the lowly servants and children.
Jesus came to turn on its head the regular way of thinking about power. He lifted up children and servants as those who receive the grace and love of God, not just those deserving it because they happen to be higher up on the social pecking order. 
We know how Jesus’ earthly story goes. Jesus was a victim of his ministry of unconditional love, compassion and healing. And how did that go, for Jesus? The Cross. To say he was misunderstood is an understatement. Even his closest friends didn’t understand, or were too afraid, to face the truth of their hearts.
Perhaps we may take from this some measure of comfort, in tough times. For example, if you are ‘thrown under the bus’ by your closest friends, when you are misunderstood, when you are derided and put down for trying to do right, maybe you are indeed on the right track?
On the other hand, when you become puffed up in your righteous defence of the status quo of your life, when you engage in defensive, combative and competitive stances against those who differ — then, well, how is this the way of Jesus? It is not. It is a way, to be sure, heralded by the prevailing culture of human achievement, reputation-defending self-righteousness, one-up-man-ship and glory, yes. But far be it from being the Christian way.
We are asked by the Gospel message to examine our relationships with those in society with little economic or social value. How is our relationship with the physically disabled, the mentally ill, the refugees and newcomers to Canada, young people without direction, those who live on the streets, the poor, the Indigenous people of this land? 
I listened recently to how a graduating university student was deciding which job to take. Upon graduation he was offered a high-paying job from two different well-respected companies at the same time, one in Chicago and one in New York. The student sought advice from his pastor.
“Which job should I take?” he asked. “Both offer similar compensation. But I’m torn as to where I should go — Chicago or New York. Both have pros and cons. What do you think, pastor?”
The pastor hesitated, for a moment. Then he said, “It’s wonderful you have been given the privilege of a job offer. Many young people today don’t have one, let alone two. You are very fortunate.”
“Yeah, right,” the student responded. And quickly added: “But where should I go?”
“I really don’t know,” the pastor mused. “Does it matter?” It’s usually at this point in the session that people realize why pastoral counselling is free. 🙂
I think we tend to lose energy, even waste it, on these kinds of first-world problems. After all, the truth is there is no place we can go, no decision we can make that is out of the reach of God’s grace, love and healing (read Psalm 139). Where there is a fork in the road … take it! 
In most, if not all, of our dilemmas do we acknowledge that no matter what we decide, even for less-than-stellar motivations or for high and righteous ones, God will not abandon us? Because God’s grace will not come up short, ever.
In the end, the Gospel story of Jesus welcoming little children comes to us not a word about how we should act. It’s not primarily about us serving others. Rather, the Gospel is about Jesus serving us.
Jesus asks each of us: How can I serve you? Jesus reflects God’s favour towards us, and all people. Jesus will not do what we so regretfully and naturally fall into — a tit for tat food fight with whatever first-world problems we wrestle, about which we complain, and over which we fight for ‘the advantage’. That’s not what Jesus is about. 
At the same time, Jesus will not stop at our human divisions. If you are at the bottom of the ladder, Jesus will come to you. If you are at the top of the world, Jesus will come to you. Jesus will make the ladders of our lives irrelevant. These ladders of success, upward-mobility and power are nonsense in the kingdom of God. Jesus comes to us all, and asks us — “I will welcome you and serve you. What do you need today, in order to follow me?”