On Tuesday of this week, I remembered what’s most important.
I was getting ready to leave the church – rushing home to pick up Jack for basketball practice – when I heard that a woman had come to our front desk, asking if anyone had seen a little boy. A 2-yr-old had wandered off his porch right here in our Westerwood neighborhood, and his mother couldn’t find him anywhere, he wasn’t responding to his name, and no one knew what to do.
Now, take a breath, I won’t make this a dramatic story, I want you to know up front that the little boy was found. But at that moment, we just didn’t know, and it would be getting dark soon.
Well, what would you do? When you hear something like that, you don’t just go home and pick up your own child for basketball practice. The lost child becomes your child. So we emptied out of the church to help with the search. Police were everywhere, clearly prioritizing the situation. I began to circle the neighborhood as part of a large net along with nearly everyone else that had heard the news: the family on their way to the park, whose children had dropped their scooters and now ran throughout the neighborhood looking… the woman out walking her dog, who now walked furiously and frenzied through her neighbors’ backyards looking for any trace… the people down at the tavern, who set down their happy hour drinks – or most of them did, at least – to fan out and help… and the staff of First Baptist that had not yet gone home, driving in circles, this small squadron of mid-sized SUVs… everyone looking, bending and stretching to see every angle, going to where they thought others might not have thought to look. Throughout the neighborhood, everyone cupping their hands and shouting his name.
After a while I remembered it was an Upward basketball practice night, so I pulled up to an officer and said, “Sir, I don’t know if it would help, but we have a whole gym full of people that would empty out and help, just say the word…” and that’s when the officer told me they thought he’d been found. So we waited around to confirm, finally able to celebrate that this little boy was now home.
And it struck me as I left how long it had been since I was a part of anything so large and important and clear. We all knew what we were supposed to do, regardless of other plans we had made, or priorities we might have had. Officers and community, people whose houses had different political yard signs, some from different faiths and some with no faith at all. All of us knew what we were supposed to do, because a child was lost.
When you discover what is most important – when you find what is of ultimate concern – you set all else aside and you give it your all.
That’s what Jesus invites us to do in this section of the gospel of Matthew. He is describing that which is of ultimate concern, and inviting us to order our lives – and the life of the community formed in his name – according to this most important teaching.
At this point in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus has issued his compelling call to the disciples to follow him and they have joined him in his work throughout Galilee, teaching in synagogues and proclaiming good news of the kingdom, healing those who come to him until his fame spreads and the crowds swell. With such a great audience, Jesus begins his extended teaching, telling them in unfolding detail just what it means to be a disciple. To make sure the message has its widest reach, Matthew says Jesus “went up the mountain.” We’ve seen this action before. It’s an echo of Moses, who ascended high and returned with the Law – a cue to us that what Jesus is about to say will be of ultimate concern.
There are several such mounts in Israel. In 1993, I visited one with my father and a tour group from my home church. It’s one of several traditional sites for this sermon, where a church building named the Church of the Beatitudes is built. Open countryside slopes down from the hill, wide open and expansive. I remember as I stood there struggling to listen to our tour guide in the wind and wondering, “How did people hear him?”
How did the sermon reach the audience? Was his voice that resonant? Was there some sort of ethereal amplification? How did all those poor in spirit, meek, and mourning gathered on that hillside come to know the word of Jesus to them?
We might have a contemporary corollary in what’s known as the human microphone – or the “people’s mic “– a method used for rallies, marches and protests where amplification is inadequate, or not permitted. I experienced this in New York, where amplification is not allowed, and you might have seen it in coverage of rallies, like the airport protests just this weekend. With a human microphone, persons gathered around the speaker repeat what the speaker says, thus “amplifying” the voice of the speaker without the need for amplification equipment. The speaker says a short phrase – something like, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” for instance. Those that can hear what the speaker has said repeat the phrase in unison, so those behind them can hear, with each section repeating it for the next until the speech is complete, the crowd cupping their hands and shouting it out, passing the words around. You can imagine these words just rolling through the crowd until all have heard the echo of “Blessed are you.”
It’s Jesus’ first word to them, “Blessed.” The Greek word is sometimes translated as “honored” or “favored.” Some translations use the word “Happy,” with Jesus seeming cheerful about his promises “Happy are those who mourn.” The French edition of the New Jerusalem Bible includes a favorite translation of the phrase, translating the word for blessed as “debonair” – as though Cary Grant is the model for what it means to be blessed.
My own understanding was enhanced when I saw the interpretation by the Jesuit priest and author, Father Greg Boyle. Boyle is known for his gang-intervention ministry in Los Angeles, and his ministries of compassion that have become models worldwide. He suggests that the Beatitudes not be rendered as “Blessed” – blessed at the peacemakers, the justice seekers, the merciful – but that a more precise translation would be “You’re in the right place.”
Imagine that. To all of those mourning and meek on the hillside – those who have come from far away, inspired by the possibility they have imagined in a life with Christ – the word rolls back to them “You’re in the right place.” Consider how that felt – “you’re in the tight place,” the way a child might feel upon finding their way home. “You’re where you need to be.”
Jesus is telling us where we should be. Where to stand. When we are poor in spirit, meek, merciful or seeking the righteousness of the Lord, we are in the right place.
It’s a vital message, since we hear so many competing messages about where we should be and what we should be about.
The crowd was surely full of people who felt they were in the wrong place – Matthew tells us in chapter 4 it’s full of the sick, those afflicted with diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileiptics, and paralytics seeking a cure. And to these Jesus pronounces blessing.
In his coming sermon, he will use the language of antithesis: “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye…’ but I say to you, ‘do not resist the evildoer…’ Or “You have heard it said, love you neighbor and hate your enemy,” but I say to you, “love your enemies…”
In this form of speech, the thesis is spoken then the antithesis. And the contrast starts right here. Jesus scans the crows and he knows, “You have heard it said that you are impoverished and broken…that God’s favor rests somewhere else…that you’re out on the edges of it all… that you’re in the wrong place to experience the blessing of God.”
But I say to you, “You are more than you imagined. You are more than the things that have oppressed you and choked out your life. God is near to you. You are where you need to be.”
It’s an alternative view of the world and of the blessing of God – inside out and upside down – as it often seems to appear by our standards.
I was reminded of this recently on the basketball court I mentioned earlier. My son, Jack, eventually made it to basketball practice the other night, and has been having a blast this season in our Upward program, where he plays for the mighty Comets with Coaches Cassie and Gracie.
After a recent game, the coaches were passing out the “stars,” as each player receives recognition for they’re contributions and character – a red star for “offense” a green star for “defense,” one for being a good teammate, until the star ceremony concluded with the white star – the “Christlike star.”
“This player looked out for others, always tried to pass, was selfless and encouraged his teammates all game,” Coach Cassie said, “So this week’s Christlike star goes to Jack.”
He collected his star to great applause and promptly walked over to me, and Christlike Jack asked, “Daddy, which star is the best?”
It’s our reflex. Always taking the things we’ve seen and heard in Jesus and attempting to reverse it, to twist it, to turn it to our standards. Jesus, surely you speak of meekness, but surely you meant the powerful will inherit the earth. Jesus you meant the strong, not the week, the first not the last, the power taking not the peace making.
But the blessing is not for the privileged or the elite. It’s not for the political authority of Rome, and not the religious establishment. The Beatitudes are spoken to those groups whom God deems blessed, not by virtue of their own achievements or status in society, but because God chooses to be with them – the weak, the forgotten, the despised, the justice seekers, the peacemakers, and those persecuted because of their beliefs.
How does God accomplish that? How will they know it? How will they hear it?
It will be because those who have heard it first will cup their hands and shout, and then model their lives and carry such a word of blessing broadly through the expanse of this earth.
Despite our reflex to individualize the blessing, out there on that hill, Jesus addresses these blessings not to individuals, but to an entire crowd and a developing community of believers. It becomes the responsibility of all those hearing to attend to the poor in spirit, the grieving, reviled, hungry and the forgotten. It’s a call for all within earshot to conform our lives more to the values of this kingdom, all of our voices, vision and capacities coming together in a community of blessing that stands close to the poor in spirit, meek, merciful, and thereby stands close to the heart of God.
The Beatitudes, then, are founded on an ethic of compassion. The late Henri Nouwen offers an insightful description: “Compassion grows with the inner recognition that your neighbor shares your humanity with you. This partnership cuts through all walls, which might have kept you separate. Across all barriers of land and language, wealth and poverty, knowledge and ignorance, we are one, created from the same dust, subject to the same standard, and destined for the same end.”
Jesus was just trying to show us where we need to be. With the downtrodden, the outcast, the hurting, the struggling. Go there, be with them, and you’ll find that your spirit will be filled and that you will know blessing. God promises to meet you there.
Maybe asking who we’re called to be as a church and as disciples starts with asking where we are we’re called to go and who we’re called to be with.
For this reason, Greg Boyle has said the Beatitudes and the pronouncement that “you’re in the right place” are ultimately less about spirituality and more about geography. Being where God would have us to be.
We are considering enormous questions today of geography and place, and what binds us together, particularly after our new President’s executive action on refugees, affecting many people we know and love, and many more known and loved by our God. The recent action only exacerbates an ongoing struggle through many administrations to answer the question of just who is blessed, and where the blessing of God extends, and to find our voices and actions echoing those of Jesus.
And yet I see a countryside just full of the meek and the sorrowful. The crowds were composed of all those sick – those who were “afflicted with various diseases and pains,” Matthew writes. “Demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics that he cured.” And did you notice Matthew tells us in chapter 4, that they came to him as his fame spread “throughout Syria.”
The mountain was just full of them.
Their presence today reminds me how little I’ve done to proclaim the blessing of the Lord to these. It reminds me that while we may have new levels of fear and anxiety stirred, even before Friday’s action, our country settled only 18,000 refugees from Syria last year, and has continued to function in our sense of blessing while how many 100s of thousands are forgotten outside of it.
I recalled my friend Jason Coker, and how inspired I am by his work in settling refugees. Jason is the head of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Mississippi. Before that he served for a decade as a pastor of Wilton Baptist Church in the town of Wilton, CT, close to Manhattan. When I was a pastor in New York we would get together from time to time and we built a good and trusting friendship.
Jason has shared how in his work he participated in a group of faith leaders that welcomed, supported, and helped to settle refugees in their small community of Wilton. They had already settled one family – a father, mother, and two children – and they were presented with the opportunity to help another family – a woman (widowed) and her five children.
The group of faith leaders debated, not whether or not they wanted to help, but if they could. Did they have the ability and resources to help this larger family – the woman and her children – when they were directing so much to the family already settled. They had all but decided that it wasn’t feasible; that they couldn’t do it, when one of the representatives of the group spoke up…
“I’m really struggling with this,” he began. “Because my faith tells me I should not only welcome the stranger, but that I have even more of a responsibility to care for widows and orphans, that they might know the blessing of God.”
Ultimately, on the strength of conviction from this man, the group made the decision to support and settle this family.
And it need not be remarkable, but it feels especially important for me to tell you today that this group of faith leaders working in Wilton to settle refugees was an interfaith group. And the man who spoke from his conviction on behalf of this woman and children was Muslim. And the faith he invoked to help him care for her in her need was Islam.
And because of his conviction – his words of blessing – that woman and her children are still living and thriving in Wilton today.
Maybe those places we’ve failed to go are the places where Jesus has been waiting for us all along. So let us take on the mercy, the peace, the justice-seeking that is compelled by our faith. In so doing may we come to know fully the blessing of our Lord, and announce to all so desperate to know it today, “You are in the right place.”