Sermon for October 17, 2021 Twenty-first after Pentecost “Blessed are you poor in Spirit”
Jesus mission was to show people God. The God who formed all that is out of nothing, the God that calls us to continually re-visit and re-new the nature of our relationship with God. Jesus is not interested in supporting or maintaining the status-quo and appeasing long held and by time skewed views or God. Nor is Jesus interested in laws and rules that enable a few and oppress most. Jesus is starting a revolution toward a new understanding of what it means to believe in God and after his resurrection, believe in Jesus. Under Constantine in the 4th century the church came under Roman rule, the church was perceived to be a tool so people would tow-the-line. Slowly a mandate for the poor (in spirit), healing, relief for widows and orphans was replaced by a preference for wealth. Clergy began wearing fancy dress and hats, the message was to look to the rich and there see those who you should try to emulate. And over the centuries the church has just gotten better at these traits and it has become normal. The message of the beatitudes is to aid us in refocusing and recalibrating.
In the TV series on the live and times of Jesus titled ‘The Chosen’ there is an entire episode (season 2 episode 8) dedicated to the struggle of Jesus to compose and get this Beatitude message correct. I am still planning to do a study on this series when COVID rules permit and folks feels some measure of safety. For this series I am primarily using the work of Mark Scandrette and Richard Rohr though the wisdom of many teachers is woven into the words.
Part of the intention of the beatitudes is to push us to think differently, to move past primitive stereo types and look beyond first impressions. The word Jesus uses for ‘blessed’ is Makarios and means incredibly fortunate, favored or God-like. Words that most would use to describe the rich, famous and gifted of the world. What follows caused the first listeners and those who hear today to do a dramatic double-take. The words tip our understandings on their head and leave us exposed. And that is exactly where Jesus needs us so that we can be open to new ideas.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God”
Most people spend their entire lives living up to the mental self-images of who they think they are, instead of living in the primal “I” that is already good in God’s eyes. But all I can “pay back” to God or others or myself is who I really am. It’s a place of utter simplicity. Perhaps we don’t want to go back there because it is too simple and almost too natural. It feels utterly unadorned. There’s nothing to congratulate myself for. I can’t prove any worth, much less superiority. There I am naked and poor. After years of posturing and projecting, it will at first feel like nothing.
But when we are nothing, we are in a fine position to receive everything from God. As Thomas Merton says, our point of nothingness is “the pure glory of God in us.” If we look at the great religious traditions, we see they all use similar words to point in the same direction. The Franciscan word is “poverty.” The Carmelite word is nada or “nothingness.” The Buddhists speak of “emptiness.” Jesus speaks of being “poor in spirit” in his very first beatitude. It from this place of ‘poor in spirit’ that we can receive everything from God.
“Poor in spirit” means an inner emptiness and humility, a beginner’s mind, and to live without a need for personal righteousness or reputation. It is the “powerlessness” of Alcoholics Anonymous’ First Step. The Greek word Matthew uses for “poor” is ptochoi, which literally means, “the very empty ones, those who are crouching.” They are the bent-over beggars, the little nobodies of this world who have nothing left, who aren’t self-preoccupied or full of themselves in any way. Jesus is saying: “Happy are you, you’re the freest of all.”
Our success-driven culture scorns failure, powerlessness, and any form of poverty. Yet Jesus begins his Sermon on the Mount by praising “the poor in spirit”! Just that should tell us how thoroughly we have missed the point of the Gospel. Nonviolence, weakness, and simplicity are also part of the shadow self. We avoid the very things that Jesus praises, and we try to project a strong, secure, successful image to ourselves and the world. We reject vulnerability and seek dominance instead, and we elect leaders who falsely promise us the same. It is no wonder the counter culture Jesus proclaims as the path to life and life in abundance is sequestered to sealed vaults. How can we possibly have great, meaningful lives when we advocate for nonviolence, weakness and simplicity?
The “poor in spirit” don’t have to play any competitive games; they are not preoccupied with winning, which is the primary philosophy of most of the world today. Jesus is recommending a social reordering, quite different from common practice. Notice also how he uses present tense: “the Kingdom of God is theirs.” He doesn’t say “will be theirs.” That tells us that God’s Reign isn’t later; it’s now. You are only free when you have nothing to protect and nothing you need to prove or defend. Trapped people have to do what they want to do. Free people want to do what they know they have to do.
Eknath Easwaran writes that “the joy we experience in these moments of self-forgetting is our true nature, our native state. To regain it, we have simply to empty ourselves of what hides this joy: that is, to stop dwelling on ourselves.” As we forget our false, floating self, we rediscover our substantial and anchored self—which is not very needy at all.
The truly poor in spirit are rare in the world. But I expect we all know people who live into this way of being and we feel it when in their presence. I also know that we are all capable of being this way from time to time and that is enough. Jesus was not saying that we have to live all the beatitudes all the time but use them to model our daily lives. Yes we naturally gravitate to one or two but living means we also nurture them all from time to time. Our default position of comfort is to have our glass full. Jesus teaching is to; empty our glass and it will be filled to overflowing.