Losers, Fools, and Dreamers

A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Claire Nevin-Field on the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany.

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This last week has been difficult—really difficult-the world feels quite upside down. Our nation seems to be going down a pathway to increasing division, to hunkering down in a fearful crouch—turning our national back on the weak, the poor, the vulnerable, the refugee and immigrant. As a Christian, I am alarmed that we are heading down a path that ignores Jesus’ commandment to love God, self, and neighbor. While good people can have differences of opinion about scriptural interpretation, there is little wiggle room on this one—Jesus was consistently clear about the commandment to love and serve our neighbor. And, of course, when people wanted to pin him down to exactly who our neighbor is, who we need to worry about and who we can safely ignore, Jesus’ response is the parable of the Good Samaritan with its clear “there is no one who is not your neighbor” message.

And yes, what Jesus commands is hard. And Lord knows I fall far short on a daily basis.  So much of what Jesus tells us to do, demonstrates how we are to live, either makes us squirm or, at the very least do a double take. So much of what he says flies in the face of everything we know about life.

Like this morning’s Gospel—with Jesus’ pronouncement of the beatitudes: “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, or who are poor in spirit”. What?

Now, Jesus was not making up a new genre of saying—beatitudes had been around a long time, though up until Jesus were always pronouncements about the Good Life. Things like blessed are the wealthy, for they shall be comfortable. Blessed are the wise for they shall never be fooled. Another translation of the word blessed is happy—happy are the strong, for they shall never be taken advantage of. Happy are those who protect all they have for they shall never be harmed. Happy are those who chose the right balance of investments for their 401K for they shall be secure all through their lives. The twist Jesus adds to this genre, and there always is a twist with Jesus, is that his blessings are upside down and inside out. Jesus shocking, scandalous blessings were, are all wrong. Blessed are the poor, the hungry, the mournful? Really? There is nothing happy or good about struggling to find shelter and food. Nothing happy or good about being trampled underfoot by the strong. And what the heck is so happy about being cursed and reviled—for anyone’s sake?

While I have not practiced yoga in a while, and I need to get back to it, Jesus’ view of the world is apparently best understood as the view you get when doing a headstand—upside down.

In 9 short sentences Jesus redefines the Good Life and presents life seen through God’s eyes, life upside down—9 portraits of kingdom people, those formerly known as losers, dreamers, victims, pushovers and fools. Instead of these names however, they are called chosen, happy, those who see God face to face. The ones who will be satisfied not because they played hard and won the game but because winning was the furthest thing from their minds. God seems to have a soft spot for those who give away everything in their bank account, who walk unarmed right into the middle of a fight and end up getting pounded from all sides. Evidently God favors not those who have it all together and are successful, but those who don’t have a leg to stand on, can’t compete and wouldn’t know success if someone walked right up and pinned a blue ribbon on their chest. Yep, those who would insist that what they have is due to others, that there was some mistake and would turn and pin the blue ribbon on someone else’s chest—someone who needed it more. The losers of the world evidently hold a special place in God’s heart.

So, many of us, many of the successful, aren’t quite sure what to do with the Beatitudes, or with Micah’s recounting of what God requires of us; do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God. We say, “oh, isn’t that nice”, maybe embroider the words on a pillow or hang them on the wall and leave it at that. Or we hear them as a list of reproaches. A chance to get all worked up about how inadequate we are and wallow paralyzed in guilt-we hear them as a list of shoulds and should-nots, oughts and ought nots. We aren’t humble enough, pure enough, poor enough. But that is not the point-notice there are no shoulds or oughts in Jesus’ list, and the words, of course, are pronounced by the One who loves all outrageously and freely, including those on top. God’s love isn’t the finish line in a contest it is the starting point of life for all people. Jesus in this passage is not prescribing at all, he is describing the way life is for those who see the world through God’s eyes—who see life upside down. Yes, right now those who are poor in spirit and hungry for righteousness are not on top of the world, not valued, but, Jesus says, that is not the way it will always be, not the way it will be when the kingdom is complete. Jesus blessings are declarations of hope and a promise that the way things are is not God’s dream for the world, is not permanent.

I believe the beatitudes are heard as judgment or blessing not in the way they are constructed or pronounced, but in the way they are heard. I can guarantee you that people in a refugee camp or stranded in detention at Philadelphia Airport hear the beatitudes differently than we do, than an all-black congregation in Mississippi or west Philadelphia hears them. They sound differently from on top than from underneath.

On top with the religiously satisfied and self-assured they sound like something of a threat. Where is your hunger for justice, your thirst for mercy, your poverty? Why aren’t you weeping with those who weep? But on the bottom, where the victims, fools, dreamers and losers are, people are grabbing Kleenex by the case and wiping away tears. See, things won’t always be the way they are now for us. See, God holds us in holy hands. See, those who think they own the world, those who hold power over us now, they are going to be surprised when it turns out this is all temporary. Through kingdom eyes, people can see the transience and futility of the powers of this world and that is indeed a blessing.

The beauty, the meaning of the beatitudes is in the ear of the hearer. And we can do with them what we want; ignore them, sentimentalize them, admire them, use them as a measure to let us know how fabulously meek we are, or, as a few have done, as Mary fore-sang, hear them as a call to revolution. A call to change the world into an upside down world, best seen on your head because it is just plain harder to perceive from that angle who the winners and losers are.

Upside down you begin to see that the poor and the meek are not projects for us to generously help but people who can actually help us, if we will get close enough to let them change us. Help us see that a huge hunger for God, for God’s justice and mercy, a hunger that leads to willingness to sacrifice just about anything to further that justice and mercy is an amazingly good hunger to have. Upside down we see that peacemakers aren’t flower children who don’t realize the 60s are over but are the only ones who can see what God’s healing can do for the world. We see that those who are merciful are merely handing on the abundance of what they know they have received. We see the pure in heart as those who never quite got the knack of tearing down others and those who are reviled for righteousness’ sake as those to be envied because they have found something of such value they are willing to suffer for it.

How blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and those who are persecuted for righteousness sake. How blessed are you when you see the world through the eyes of the only one who really knows which way is up.

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The Rev. Claire Nevin-Field

The Rev. Claire Nevin-Field is the rector of St. Peter's Church.

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