Having started the climb on the stairway to heaven last Sunday, we continue today. We learned that Step #1 is "the poor in spirit (not the proud in spirit) will receive the Kingdom of Heaven." Step #2 is that those who are "mighty" mourners will be strengthened." Meekness, hungering for righteousness and being merciful are steps 3, 4, and 5. Let us climb together...
"Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth . . . " (Matthew 5:5). In English, "meek" has come to mean "weak," "harmless," "spiritless," a timid person who lives in constant fear of offending his fellow human beings. I have yet to hear a parent say, "One day I hope my son (my daughter) grows up to be meek." It is ashamed that our English does an injustice to this great Hebrew and Greek word. If we knew the true meaning of the word, we would all wish for our sons and our daughters to grow into meekness. The word best interprets into English as "Humble." Even as "humble," humility is still the greatest hidden virtue of life lived in Christ. It means "one who surrenders his or her will to God so fully, that God's will becomes his or her will."
Moses was meek. Numbers 12:3 says of Moses, "Now Moses was a very meek (read "humble") more so than any other man on earth." Jesus was meek. In Matthew 11:29, Jesus says, "Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and meek ( read humble) in heart, and you will find rest for your souls." Meek Moses and meek Jesus. One of them defied the might of Egypt and led an entire nation out of slavery into freedom. The other one could not be cowed by the power of the Roman empire and his followers ultimately turned the Roman world upside down. Neither one of them showed the slightest sign of being weak or harmless or spiritless. Both of them were fearless in the face of men and empires because each of them completely surrendered their will to God. Should we call them "meek?" Absolutely! (Drawn from Clarence Jordan's Sermon on the Mount, p. 24).
Again, the "blessed Meek" are those who surrender their will to God's will. When human beings tell them to cower or retreat, they only retreat and bow down to God, in prayer. They do not cower to the force of men. They listen to the still small voice of God saying what to do in difficult times.
Peter was meek, too. When faced with questions and persecution in the Book of Acts 5:29, Peter says, "It is our duty to obey God rather than men." Shortly after this declaration, Gameliel, the leader of the Sanhedrin says, "Stay away from these fellows and leaves them alone. Because if what they are doing is man's will it will fail. But, if it is God's will we won't be able to stop them. In fact, we will be fighting against God" (Acts 5:38-39). From Acts we learn: The meek cannot be stopped. They are "the mighty meek." To fight the meek is to fight God. Since they are God's humble workhorses on earth, they inherit the earth.
When Jesus says, "Blessed are the meek," he declares that those who live fully in the spirit of God will possess the land. In God's view, the earth ultimately belongs to the meek, not to the mighty. You and I would be wise to teach our children to become meek as we are becoming meek as well. After all, we quote them often enough: Moses, Jesus, Peter, St. Francis, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Einstein. Let us follow in their footsteps, gently placed in the sand of time.
Humility and Meekness are deeply rooted in our Judaeo-Christian faith. Growing out of the richness of Judaism, these two examples speak of those who surrender to God's will completely. The Talmud proclaims:
When you humble yourself, God exalts you.
When you pursue greatness, greatness flies away.
When you fly from greatness, greatness seeks you out.
When you force the moment, the moment drives you back.
When you give way, the moment is yours.
In Hasidic writings, we read of the dialogue between Rabbi Hurwitz and the Seer of Lublin. Rabbi Hurwitz, an opponent of the Seer of Lublin, once asked the Seer: "How is it that so many flock to you? I am much more learned than you, yet they do not throng to me." The Tzaddik answered: "I too am astounded that so many should come to one as insignificant as I, to hear God's word, instead of looking for it to you whose learning moves mountains. Perhaps this is one reason: they come to me because I am astonished that they come, and they do not come to you, because you are astonished that they do not come." (Found in Rabbi Chaim Stern's Day by Day, pp. 359-360).
In our congregation's Open and Affirming Statement, we end with a question pointing toward the humble path after having made many statements about who we are and where we stand. From Micah 6:8, "What does the Lord require, but to justice, love with tender love, and to walk humbly with God?" Perhaps we should read it this way with a slightly different twist: If we walk humbly, our God will walk with us. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
The next step on the stairway to heaven is so significant that Jesus brings us to it twice in the Sermon on the Mount - here and again in he expounds upon it in Matthew 6:1-18. "Blessed are they that hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled" (Matthew 5:6). Although most texts interpret this as hunger and thirsting for righteousness, the actual Greek word is "Justice." Take note: half way through the beatitudes, "justice" appears. Jesus calls people to recognize this: to live a just life in this world is to have lived life as one who identifies with those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, and those who are meek. Having done this, we need to feel the unsettling depth of emptiness until the world is set right. These beatitudes, especially this Beatitude, are both spiritual and social. Jesus' message is clear: make sure you are not satisfied with yourself or the conditions of the world around you until the world is in balance. In prayer and in action, listen to the voice of God calling when God speaks to you of dis-ease, of dis-satisfaction.
Let me give you a real life example. Upon visiting a friend recently, I commented upon how beautiful his home was. He responded, "those to whom much has been given, much is expected in return." Exactly! This is Holy Dissatisfaction! Jesus is not saying, "be unhappy." Neither am I. Instead, what is being said is - as long as you have the poor with you, you must be hunger and thirst in your soul to set the world right. In Judaism, this is called "Tikkun Olam"- a desire to heal a broken world.
A psychologist once asked me what "happiness" would look like to me. I paused for a long time and answered, "I will be happy when every child of God in this world is fed, when they are adequately clothed, when they have health care, when they have equal educational opportunities, when adults are paid a fair wage for the labor they offer their employers, when people go to sleep at night in a shelter they call `my home' - then I will smile and say, `now I am happy.'" Do not believe, because the world suffers so, that I am miserable. I am not. I simply hunger and thirst for justice and righteousness such as this. As St. Augustine said, "My heart is restless until it finds rest in thee, O Lord."
Ten months ago, God planted the seeds for We Believe Ohio in my restless soul. I awoke on an October Saturday morning to read in the paper that one Central Ohio pastor had stood on our statehouse steps and declared to a crowd of 1,000 people that he and they were "locking, loading and firing on Ohio." He was ready to lead the charge to defeat "the hordes of Hell" (meaning you and me and everyone who didn't think like him). This upset me deeply. I asked my colleagues if they felt that reflected the faith and values they held in Christ? The answer was "NO."
What has happened since then has grown out of a hungering and thirsting for justice which is deep within the souls of more than 300 pastors, priests, rabbis, imams, and religious leaders across Ohio. It is a simple movement growing from a deep hunger and thirst for justice. These men and women, and thousands of others in their congregations, believe that God has called us to heal the world, not destroy everything in our path "in the name of Jesus, Yahweh or Allah." Some of you may wonder what I am doing as your pastor with We Believe Ohio. Why have I invested my time and energy in this movement of faith? I can only say, "I feel God's spirit calling me, in this time and in this place, to say "No" to a constant and growing perversion of our faith and our social values and to say "Yes" to shaping a just society in which education, housing, health care, and jobs are the central focus of faith communities and governments. Poverty is not, nor will it ever be, a family value. I hunger and I thirst to be one of God's agents who is healing this world. Truthfully, it drives me forward in faith every day.
Everyone feels a hungering and thirsting for what is right - at some time in their lives. For what do you hunger and thirst? Think about this. Feel the depth of this question. In the words of the Shaker Hymn, if the world was to "Come round right" what would it look like and feel like? Susan has placed a bumper sticker on own van which reads - "JBN - Just be Nice." As she says, "That sums it up. If people were nice to each other, the world would be a better place." Who among us can disagree with JBN? The tone of our voice, our inflections, our body language, our words, we need to turn them from varying degrees of nasty to nice. JBN would certainly aid in healing the world. "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (and justice)."
"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy" (Matthew 5:7). Now we come to the fifth step, the step of "Mercy" on the stairway to heaven. Mercy is like the mystery of forgiveness. By definition, mercy and forgiveness are unearned, undeserved, and not owned. If you don't experience all three, then it is not the experience of mercy. If you think people have to be merciful or try to earn mercy then you have lost the mystery of mercy and forgiveness. Mercy and forgiveness are the gospel in a nutshell. (Found in Richard Rohr, Jesus' Plan for a New World, St. Anthony Press, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1996, p. 136). Our God is a God of mercy and forgiveness. Thus, this Beatitude means exactly what is says. Those who are merciful, obtain the blessing of mercy in their lives as well.
You don't know mercy until you have really needed it. Thomas Merton, Trappist Monk and mystic once said, "Mercy within mercy, within mercy . . . " Mercy is experienced as if it is collapsing into deeper nets of being enclosed by grace, after grace, after grace. I like Franciscan Priest, Fr. Richard Rohr's writing on Mercy. He says:
I once saw God's mercy as patient, benevolent tolerance, a kind of grudging forgiveness. But now mercy has become for me God's very self-understanding, a loving allowing, a willing breaking of the rules by the One who made the rules - a wink and a smile, a firm and joyful taking of our hand while we clutch at our sins and gaze at God in desire and disbelief (Ibid.).
Reinhold Neibuhr once said, "when I get to heaven, I pray that God will be more merciful to me than just." In other words, we pray that the Ruler Maker will look with kindness on us when we have been the rule breakers. Granting mercy is always ultimate entry into powerlessness. I say this because once we have been truly merciful, there is no retreat to judgment. Forgiveness can never be a half way covenant. Look at yourself. "Look at times you have withheld forgiveness. When you have done this is your final attempt to hold a claim over the one you won't forgive. It's the way we finally hold on to power, to seek the moral high ground over another person. I will hold onto unforgiveness and you will know it just by my coldness, by my not looking over there, by my refusal to smile, or whatever. Oh, we do it so subtly to maintain our sense of superiority. Non-forgiveness is a form of power over another person, a way to manipulate, shame, control, and diminish another. God in Jesus refuses to use such power" (Ibid., p. 137).
If Jesus is the revelation of what is going on inside of the eternal God (as we say he is), then we are forced to conclude from this beatitude that God is humble and merciful. The God who can wipe us out, exhibits holy powerlessness by being merciful. Be merciful as God is merciful. Whatever you are hanging onto against whomever you are Lording it over, let it go. Surrender your will to God - as one who is meek and humble. Then, it the bountiful mercy of God, move on.
When you have reached this step - then you are ready to ascend to the pure in heart. Until next week . . . so be it. Amen.
Copyright 2006, The First Congregational Church