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The First Congregational Church, Columbus Ohio
Sunday, August 13, 2006
A sermon delivered by The Rev. Timothy Ahrens

Dedicated to Sophia Grace Polo on her baptismal day and always to the glory of God!
Blessed are you when . . . Your spirit is poor and you mourn
Part I of IV in sermon series, "Blessed Are You, When . . . "
Ephesians 4:1-16; Matthew 5:1-12
Crowds always moved Jesus. Sometimes he was moved to great compassion by the crowds. At other times, their disbelief aroused his pity. Sometimes their selfishness caused him to wonder if they were following him only for loaves and fishes. Their sickness and illness gnawed at his heart. And their lostness and confusion filled him with a desire to show them the way to a true way of life" (Clarence Jordan, Sermon on the Mount, A Koinonia Publication from Judson Press, Valley Forge, PA, fourth printing, 1973, p. 20).

One day, as he looked on the crowd, Jesus saw that something was different. They were ordinary people but it wasn't an ordinary crowd. They were all aware that the world was crashing down upon them. They were aware that their civilization was sick unto death. They had reached the end of their rope. Following the example of John the Baptizer, they had climbed down from a muddy Jordan River bank into the stream of living water, and there admitted their wrongdoing and failings, they had repented of their sins. They rose refreshed and ready for a new way of life. With the Romans breathing down their neck the stale air of oppression, the crowd turned to face the rabbi of Nazareth - a wonder-worker, a healer, a teacher.

Seeing them before him, knowing the moment was at hand, Jesus ascended Mt. Sinai, as Moses had before him. He did so with his closest disciples. Like a baker, Jesus would kneed the dough of deliverance and pass it onto the twelve who would in turn pass it onto the crowds. The pedagogy of this preacher was in place. There on a high and holy mountain, with the air of liberation pregnant with possibilities for new life and a new way to God's presence, Jesus sat down. Seated as a rabbi illuminating the texts of Torah, Jesus opened his mouth and taught them the steps they needed to ascend the pathway to the kingdom if heaven. These teachings, known now as the Sermon on the Mount, were about a total way of life faithfully lived out in God's realm- built on the law of Moses - than they were lessons about good ideas to think about, ponder and passively step around. To follow this path would lead to life eternal.
Often called the preamble of the sermon, the first twelve verses are known to us as the Beatitudes. Called the "Be-Attitudes" by some, the "Happy Attitudes" by others, the "Blessings by most, these "Congratulations" (true translation of the word) are eight teachings which set the virtuous course for the rest of the sermon - the stairway to heaven - if you will. In the next four weeks, I will unpack these eight teachings. I will do so based mostly on Matthew's Gospel, although Luke 6:17-26 also contains the beatitudes - split into four blessings and four woes.

In Latin, the word for happy is"Beatus," thus the word "Beatitudes." The happiness of which Jesus speaks is neither lesson nor lecture. In what follows, Jesus offers a concrete response to the needs of people, springing from his unshakable faith in the people of Israel. He begins with the poor in spirit.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (vs. 3). The poor in spirit are those who suffer. The poor in spirit may be hungry, homeless, destitute, and marginal in society. Luke calls it as he sees these on the margins of life. He says, "Blessed are the poor," thus naming economic poverty and hopelessness in the face of life's challenges. Matthew broadens his understanding by adding naming them as "poor in spirit." With this, he exposes those who are powerless over the shadow side of their lives.

Although lack of money or economic resources may define the poor in spirit, it may not, as well. The poor in spirit are opposite of the proud in spirit. Whether economically or spiritually poor, Jesus clearly points out that the poor in spirit are those aware of their need for spiritual resources from above and as such, they welcome the kingdom of heaven. They know they need God! They know they need what Jesus is offering! The poor inspirit want to go to the kingdom of heaven. Let me rephrase that- the poor in spirit NEED to go to the kingdom of heaven.

In Luke 18:10-14 tells the story of one who is proud in spirit and one who is poor in spirit. Here we read of the Pharisee and the publican. It doesn't say that the Pharisee was rich. It's quite probable that he was rather poor, since he thanked God, that he was not an extortioner, like other people. At the time, "extortion" was about the only respectable means of gaining a fortune - so "extortion" and "rich man" were practically one in the same. It also doesn't say that the publican was poor. If he was a sample publican, he was rich, for publicans were notorious "extortioners."

Anyway, regardless of outward circumstances, the Pharisee expressed an inner need for nothing - and that is what he got. The publican admitted his sin, expressed a deep need for God's forgiveness and mercy - and that's what he got. Each received what he felt he needed. The Pharisee got nothing. The Publican was granted the kingdom of heaven!

Revelation 3:15,17-18 expresses this a different way. The church in Laodicea is warned in John's revelation that they are about to be ejected because "they are rich and prosperous and don't have any need for a thing." God sees this and proclaims, "you don't know that you are a miserable wretch, a blind, naked beggar." They are rich and in trouble because they are NOT poor but PROUD in spirit. They think that their power and money will get them into heaven. But, in the words of the Beatles song, "money can't buy you love!" (Drawn from C. Jordan's Sermon on the Mount, p. 21-22).

How about you? Are you poor in spirit or proud in spirit? I can tell you right now, that every single time my spirit gets puffed-up with pride, God comes along and punches me in my spiritual gut. I get my proud wind knocked out of me. Let me tell you about a young man who was proud in spirit. God had something to say to him which brought him down to earth.
Twenty-one years ago, I couldn't sleep on the eve of my ordination. I lay in bed all night long thinking how glorious it would be to be ordained into Christ's church. A graduate of Yale Divinity School - with honors - I knew that my home congregation was coming together for my ordination in just less than 12 hours. Tired but puffed-up with pride, I got left the house and walked six blocks to Dunkin' Donuts. It was a little past 5:00am when I walked in and sat at the counter with a couple of truck drivers. One was looking at the Saturday paper - with a big picture of me - announcing my ordination. The story spoke of all my accomplishments and my dreams for the ministry. I was so happy they were reading about me. Then one said to the other, "Look at this story about this pompous fool. That's all the world needs is one more ______ minister!" After my initial dismay, I laughed and said to myself, "Thank you, Lord!" I went back to my parents' home and got a few hours of sleep - with a new attitude - feeling the spirit of the Lord had come to me through two truck drivers at Dunkin Donuts.

Are you in search of God's peace which passes understanding? Jesus offers step one as this: don't play games. Realize that no matter how rich you are (or poor you are), no matter how good you think you are, how smart, how clever, how wise, how perfect in pitch or process, no matter how tops you are in your field or how far you have fallen from the top spot, what really matters is how it is with your soul. To attain the kingdom of heaven, you must be poor in spirit.

When one's pride is gone, one's trust in self and intellect and possessions gone, one is now ready to take step two in the kingdom. Jesus says, "Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted" (vs. 4). As beautiful as this blessing is, I like Clarence Jordan's interpretation, "The mourners are partakers of the divine blessing for they are the ones who shall be strengthened." As a rabbi and as the son of the living God, Jesus deeply understood the significance and the place of mourning. In each service of worship in Judaism, The Mourner's Kaddesh is an essential part of worship. In this prayer, those who are mourning the loss of loved ones stand in the midst of the community and pray aloud. They do this every day for one month in synagogue worship. Then, throughout the year, and on the anniversaries of the deaths, they stand to pray again. They come to worship so they are not alone. They stand in the heart of the community surrounded by the love of all present. Their prayer does not speak of death. Rather, it lifts up the greatness of God and magnifies God's holiness in the Universe! God reigns over the living and dead, to God be the glory in heaven and on earth.
Jesus had buried Joseph when he was a boy. Jesus had wept at the bedside of the dying and at the tomb of Lazarus. Jesus knew all about mourning. But, as a religious Jew, as a rabbi, as the son of the Living God, Jesus knew that to mourn is not necessarily to shed tears - although weeping is usually a part of mourning. To mourn is to feel deep concern - and to express this concern in prayer. To mourn in a community of faith is to acknowledge that those around us have also felt the pain of loss. They know what it feels like to mourn. Mourners come to know that they are loved. They are embraced by prayer. They are not alone. They are strengthened in their loss.

Mourning is always about death, but it is not always about the dying of a person. You can mourn when a relationship ends - or when you never find the love you had hoped for - all your life. You can mourn when a job ends. You can mourn the loss of physical strength and ability or the loss of your mental aptitude and agility. You can mourn the loss of a dream - for marriage, for faith, for vocation, for family.

But, the one who mourns in the kingdom of heaven is one whose deep concern leads to a point of action. This explains why - on the stairway to heaven - a mourner is "comforted" - or better yet, "strengthened" or "encouraged." Nothing is harder to stop than a mourner with a full head of steam - resolved to turn things around. The mourner gets his jaw set. He is getting ready to "mourn" big time. From his grief, he is determined not to let indecision or injustice be the final word on suffering and death. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) are a great example of Mourners in Action! In Argentina, in the 1980's the Mother's of the Disappeared - whose children had been abducted and tortured (many unto death) - toppled their government's dictatorship by praying and protesting for their children every week in front of the Presidential Palace.

How about you? As you mourn, and feel deep concern about losses in your life, how is your concern leading you to the point of action? How have your tears been turned into dancing? A dear friend of mine, having battled alcoholism in his own life and daily battling for sobriety, has turned his tears to dancing. Having lost years of life to drinking, he now rises each day to glorify God and serve others - family members and those seeking recovery from the dread disease of alcoholism. In the words of the Psalmist, "his tears have been turned into dancing."
You need to know that as mourners are comforted, they make those who have caused them pain uncomfortable. Recovery from grief may do that. Deep concern is essential to mourning. Blessed are you, when you express your deep concern through action.

Next week we will continue with a look meekness (meek like Moses), thirsting for what is right (read - justice and peace), and being merciful (to yourself and to others). Amen.

Copyright 2006, The First Congregational Church