Monday, January 31, 2011

...and He began to teach them

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and He began to teach them. He said: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn...
Matthew 5:1-4a
OK. Let's hold it right there. We'll never know how many in the crowds heard Jesus' words. Was it a real mountainside, or was it simply up a little hill where only his closest followers got their first instructions from the rabbi who had newly called them to follow him?
It was probably quick, on-the-fly instruction, not a nice spiritual retreat in which the new students got spiritual enlightenment in splendid isolation, far from the pressing crowds with their needs, the obvious afflictions, and their endless hopes for something better in life.
Jesus talks about being blessed. Blessed in times that don't look like blessing. Blessed in situations that are precisely the ones we are trying to pry ourselves out of or feel hopelessly trapped in. Trapped by poverty, by circumstances, by events way beyond our control, by afflictions and conditions and diseases. By the undying opinions and judgments made about us by those who have their hands on the levers of real power in society.
Hands that finally grab those levers seem as rigid as the steel in the levers themselves.
Under all these weights, how is it that people feel blessed?
Jesus' disciples would have to wrestle with these questions themselves. These would be the questions on the faces and on the hearts of the people they had not yet met, people whom they would be called to serve.
Blessed are the poor in spirit. For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. If the kingdom of heaven is of God, how can Jesus say it will be something akin to feeling poor in spirit? Shouldn't it leave us leaping like a deer in fresh spring grass after a dismal and hungry winter? Shouldn't we literally be dancing with the stars?
There are 10 statements in the Beatitudes, the "blessed are" statements. Like the 10 words, 10 commandments that Moses came down the mountain with. These weren't all dumped on the whole population of Israel enroute from bondage to freedom. They came to Moses first. His was the task of giving them to the people in ways that were truly blessings of God, not more of the whips and rods of Pharaoh's labor bosses.
There is room for a lifetime of exploration in the Beatitudes of Matthew. They culminate in the example set by the prophets. We may not ever come to envy the life of a single prophet. Prophets' tasks were difficult, costly, filled with hardships. Life threatening. Yet nobody in their right minds would look back and regard the prophets as anything but priceless treasures.
Prophets, it seems, fit the description Andy Kerr once coined for environmentalists: hell to live with but they make great ancestors.
Maybe because the work of the prophets extended far beyond them as God's priceless and necessary work in the world.
Our lives of being blessed, of knowing that we are blessed, do extend beyond us in ways we cannot and will not see in this life. The promise from Jesus is that life in him and because of him is life that involves blessedness. The disciples cannot ever describe or exemplify this blessing to anyone unless they first know it and live it themselves. Neither can we.
As one of my very astute professors once said, "A word from the prophet must first of all be a word to the prophet." That's worth a great deal of thought.
A little story: On the night of October 6, 2008, I put Jean to bed, tucked her in, kissed her and said, "Good night, best wife in the world." We got about four hours' sleep that night after putting the house in order, taking care of dishes and laundry and all those mundane things.
We awoke somewhere around 4 AM in order to get to OHSU to check in for neurosurgery. Jean had a large brain tumor that an incredibly brave team of surgeons were willing to tackle. It was a grueling day. First the surgery got delayed by about two hours so that an earlier and more pressing one could be completed. Then the expected four-hour surgery for Jean dragged on. And on.
All they would say at the four-hour point was that things were progressing. They promised hourly updates.
An hour came and passed with no word. Then a second hour came and passed with no word. We knew the tumor was right up against the left carotid artery. Had something gone wrong? Would Jean live? Would she come out of surgery a brain damaged vegetable, aware but unable to see or walk? What?
By the time the day of the surgery came, our energy was at an ebb. We had already been all over the emotional map on this and now simply walked ahead to face whatever was there. I prayed with Jean and Hilary before they took her away. At that point, I said, "We are in God's hands, and that's all we know. It's all we need."
Empty. Emotionally flat-lined. Nothing. Dead. That's how it was up in the surgery waiting room with no word and no end in sight. If that's poor in spirit, then I know it. I was so poor I felt as lifeless as crushed rock. Like I was not only dead but had never lived. I knew that God was attending to things. That's all I knew.
It was the kingdom of heaven. It was enough. It was the silence of death which must come before resurrection. The "resurrection" finally came at 6 hours, 35 minutes, in a phone call from the assisting surgeon: "Normal resection. We're now actively trying to wake her up."
The kingdom of heaven.
Jesus was right. He knew what he was talking about.
In this whole process we had been blessed all along. We were blessed when we had nothing give. We continue to be blessed by what we have received. And we can't even see most of it.
Jesus was right. He still is. We have living proof. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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