Like many of you, I am a Great Depression baby – born right in the midst of the worst economic catastrophe of the 20th century. There have been countless recessions in our life times, and we have just dug out of the Great Recession. There have been seven major wars in our life times. We are just winding down one of them – a 10-year war. There have been countless natural disasters. My wife was born right before the hurricane of ’38 and remembers many hurricanes that touched Old Saybrook, where her grandfather built a summer cottage. You and I weathered hurricane Irene and hurricane Sandy. How many of you can remember other major disasters – if not here, then in your country of origin? For me the first really big disaster was the flooding of Kansas City in 1950 when half of the city was wiped out.
Mankind is resilient and endures, as the author, John Steinbeck, pointed out. Oddly enough, our society has always had a civic religion that is formed by optimism and the common heritage of the Judeo-Christian tradition. When things have been tough, troubadours and songsters have tried to lift our hearts. This past weekend out of the reservoir of my memory the song by Vincent Youmans keeps ringing in my head.
“When you’re down and out, lift up your head and shout, there’s going to be a great day. Angels in the sky promise that by and by there’s going to be a great day.” I thought of those lyrics, when I read the Beatitudes from St. Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount. It is strange how we make connections.
The Beatitudes really are an outrageous statement of faith and hope. They also carry serious ethical implications. In the Beatitudes, Jesus presents a timeless message to a timely audience: the poor, the hungry, the grieving, and the outcast, as well as to the rich, the satisfied, and the admired. The Gospel of Matthew moves from the literal perspective of the Gospel of Mark. Mark speaks of literal poverty. Matthew broadens the meaning of poverty, “poor in spirit,” and places our lives in the experience of the Church. Even so Matthew is never far from the literal meaning of “poor”, “hunger”, and “mourning.”
To be a priest is to confront and receive pain. For years I have been confronted by the poor, the homeless, the grief stricken, and the outcast. Their plight cuts me to the quick. My discretionary fund is always empty. Affordable housing is scarce; unemployment is high; the vagrants are ashamed; the bereaved hurt. Last year in Connecticut 16,000 people lost their homes and had to stay in shelters. Thousands more were forced to sleep outside or in their cars. Last year in Connecticut 3,000 children were homeless. What can I possibly say to people? “You should have planned better?” “You didn’t try hard enough?” "That's life?" "Things are tough all over?"
Now, I want to tell you a story of faith of one of "those who mourn". Mary was elderly, arthritic, bird-like, fiercely independent, proud of her $2 a week pledge. Poor, she was in the shadows of the congregation of the faithful. For years Mary cared for her husband, tending him as she had her children who died years before. When her husband died, I put my arms around Mary and told her how very sorry I was for her. She knew that Joe was with God and with her children. She could recite, "Blessed are the poor; blessed are those who mourn." Mary was spent and heart broken. She certainly did not feel blessed, but within time she accepted Joe’s death and rejoiced in the Lord. Mary's faith was deep and a lamp by which she found her way and warmed her self.
At her funeral I quoted a passage from Ecclesiastes. I am sure you know it.
"For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven; a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace." (3:1-19)
This passage speaks of the rhythms of life and is somewhat comforting. It assures us that there is some balance, some order, and that life goes on. Whereas Prophetic literature tells us that God is known through dramatic revelations, Wisdom literature, such as Ecclesiastes, reminds us that God is also known through reason, understanding, and the order we see in nature and the universe.
Although Wisdom literature is very old, it probably articulates the faith of most believers and nonbelievers today. We say, "Life goes on." "These things happen." "You still got your health."
This view of life was familiar to the poor, the homeless, the grieving and the despised who came to Jesus to hear Him preach and to be healed. They were familiar with the Torah, the law, rewards and punishments, and the common sense aphorisms of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.
So what did Jesus say? Did he say, "Tomorrow’s another day." "One day at a time". "Wait until next year". NO! He said: "Blessed are you who are poor, who are hungry, who weep, who are despised."
Jesus is saying, “You have a special closeness to God. God is not far from you. You have value. You are not forgotten. You are appreciated right now -- in bad times and in good. You do not have to wait for the rhythms of nature and of history. You do not have to depend on the winds of change, nor on a series of reincarnations. God, the essence of all being, moans and groans with you in your travail. God offers His creative being, His presence, His love in the midst of your life.” This is the healing message of Jesus. Jesus speaks of the love of God, of His bounteous mercy and generosity, of the abundant joy and reward there is when one participates in God's presence, the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven.
It is such an outrageous statement! To the poor Jesus says, "You are blessed". To the hungry, "You are blessed". To the grieving and to the despised, "You are blessed". This message is a reversal of our values; it flies in the face of contemporary wisdom. This message is an affront! And yet it is the message for which Jesus died. It is the message of healing then and now. It is a message we tend to deprecate, depreciate, and discount. It is a message that for 2,000 years has fed the soul and brought joy to the heart.
It is the message I repeated to Mary in her grief. “You are not alone. You are not abandoned. God is close to you. God knows and feels and shares your pain. God holds you close. God cares. You count. You are supported. You are loved. You have value.”
And isn't this the real fear and agony of the hungry, the homeless, the shunned, the bereaved -- the fact that they feel despair, abandoned, devalued, depreciated, that their lives are meaningless, that they are insignificant and don’t count?
Who among us is in one sense or another hungry? Raise a finger. Who feels a physical, emotional, or spiritual hunger? Who among us is to an extent poor? Raise another finger. Who feels a poverty of money, of talent, of love, of hope? Who mourns? Raise yet another finger. Who among us feels a profound sense of loss or grief for a loved one, a career, a dream, a series of missed opportunities? Who among us suffers disapproval, scorn, censure? Raise a finger. Who from time to time feels an outsider, insignificant, unappreciated, forgotten, overlooked, unimportant?
By now, you like me, have all your fingers raised. And when they are raised you and I have hands that are open and reaching out to one another and to God.
In our poverty, hunger, grief, outcast state, you and I are affirmed. For to be blessed is just another way of saying that we are affirmed. God in Christ counts you and me to be of value, proclaims His love, and reaches out for our hands so that we can walk with Him. That walking, that taking of God's hand is called faith. Its products are hope and charity.
This outrageous message of blessedness, of faith and hope, in the Beatitudes does not trash the importance of material necessities, hardships, or rewards. Jesus is not a transcendental Gnostic new age spiritualist. He heals. He goes to weddings. He parties. He feeds the hungry. But above all He reverses the high priority of the values of the world, with its materialism, stoicism, and hedonism. This is the ethical side to the Beatitudes, and it makes us cringe. You and I are warm and dry and live better than many in Calcutta, Haiti, or Africa. You and I laugh while others weep. You and I are full in relation to those who suffer malnutrition. You and I appreciate our status and kudos of approval. The Beatitudes censor our urge to trust in ourselves, to feel entitled, to be self-centered, to hide our poverty, our hunger, our grief, our worthlessness.
Yes, the Beatitudes are outrageous. They do not magically give money to the poor, food to the hungry, home to the homeless, life to the dead, nor honor to the shunned. Rather, the cutting edge of the guilt they induce remind us that it is our job to deal with those literal, basic, righteous, human needs.
The Beatitudes proclaim the outrageous message that in our weaknesses -- at our most vulnerable points - God is present. God reaches out and takes each of our fingers of poverty, of hunger, of grief, of insignificance, of desperate need into His loving and sustaining hand. The Beatitudes lead you and me to the triumph of the cross, the triumph of good over evil, hope over despair, eternal life over death, a heavenly banquet over our hunger for love and righteousness. They point to “a great day,” to Gabriel and his trumpet, to our blessed life with God in Christ.
I suspect each of you knows all this in your own secret way. That is why you come to church Sunday after Sunday to share the bread and wine in the Eucharist of Christ's body and blood. As I stand at the altar and hold up the pain and sorrow, hunger and hopes of us all, you and I sense the gift of God's nearness, God's blessedness. We reach out our hands to be fed and blessed in the heavenly banquet at the altar.
It is the Gospel’s message of faith, hope and love that you and I affirm each Sunday here at St. Andrew’s and that we should share through our presence and actions with one another, and with the world. So, maybe we can be a little outrageous today and with a smile and a little humor, sing, “When you’re down and out, lift up your head and shout, there’s going to be a great day. Angels in the sky promise that by and by, there’s going to be a great day. Gabriel will warn you, some early morn you will hear his horn. It’s not far away, lift up your heads and say, it’s going to be a great day.”* Hallelujah and Amen. –Fr. Gage-
*Lyrics words and music by Edward Eliscu, Billy Rose and Vincent Youmans.