February 9, 2020
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
The challenge and the gift of our religious tradition is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your soul and all your strength,” and to “love our neighbor as ourselves.” What a simple, clean-cut, neat and tidy guide to life. The only problem is, how many of us feel like our lives are simple, clean-cut, neat and tidy? I’ll be honest; as a Pastor, anytime I start to think that I’ve got any part of the mystery of God figured out, I can quickly and easily rid myself of that certainty by opening any one of my favorite theology books, reading just about any story from scripture, or picking up the newspaper. While the Christian life might be able to be summed up easily and succinctly, when we try living it out on our own, life gets weird, messy, and very human, very quickly.
Love is something we do, just as much is it is something we feel, and in a life of faith and doubt, hope and disappointment, it is easy living in the United States to think that it’s all up to us, as rugged individuals, to fix the world. One of the pitfalls of progressive Christian life is that we can hear the call to love God and neighbor, and forget that love comes from relationships. Our call is to love, and to be loved. We’re asked to love God with all of who we are, but also to experience God’s love for all of whom we are, especially the parts of ourselves that we find hard to love, or even like about ourselves. Sometimes, it’s tempting to forget the whole God part of our calling, and just focus on loving others, caring for our neighbors, to live lives of selfless service, with no ability to be loved by those we see as less than us. Along with this not being sustainable for any period of time, it can lead to a fairly unhealthy savior complex. If we only focus on what we have to give, and forget that we are also called to receive, we can think that we are only as good as what we can produce, what we can make happen. As theologian Stanley Hauerwas reminds us, “God does not exist to make love real, but love is real because God exists…Jesus comes not to tell us to love one another, but to establish the condition that makes love possible.” It takes effort to realize it’s not all up to us, that part of loving others, and loving God, requires us to risk opening ourselves up to the truth that we are loved.
As a child, I deeply wanted to be loved. But somehow, I thought I had to be perfect to be cared for. It’s not that my parents were bad parents, it’s just that somewhere along the line I picked up this cultural message that some people aren’t, at their core, good. I wanted to be a good kid. I didn’t know it then, but growing up I was struggling with Dyslexia and ADD, with anxiety thrown into the mix for good measure. I didn’t have words for what I was experiencing, and my parents didn’t have a window into my mind. We were all just trying to do the best we could with what we had. Looking back, I can see that my anxiety was why I had so many sick days where I would leave school with stomach aches. By fifth grade, it was becoming a serious problem. I wanted to escape this deep sense I had of never being good enough, while also knowing somewhere deep within me that another way of life was possible. Because school took up most of my life, I thought that doing well as a student would make me lovable. Looking back at my obsession with my schoolwork, I now can see what was going on in my young mind. I felt like at any moment I was going to be found out, that folks would realize I didn’t really belong, that I wasn’t worthy of love, that I would be found out as an imposter, as a bad kid in good kids clothing. It all felt like too much, and I started spending more and more time trying to escape through reading. I quickly realized I wasn’t the only kid who had felt this way. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, with its adventure and escape from the world, seemed almost like a roadmap to me. I was obsessed with Gary Paulson’s book, The Hatchet, about a young boy who is marooned in the Minnesota wilderness by a plane crash, and has to figure out how to survive. These books gave me an idea, and I started to make plans to run away. My hometown of Sherwood, Oregon had plenty of woods and streams, rivers and farms to escape to, and as a cub scout I figured I could survive on my own. What I didn’t plan for though, was that these thoughts and plans, my drawings and supply lists, would be found by my fifth grade teacher. In retrospect, I didn’t do the best job of hiding my daydreams, writing them in my journal at school that lived in my classroom cubby. My teacher came across it, and was alarmed. She called my parents, worried for my safety. I wanted my life to be different, and thankfully I had a teacher who saw that I needed help.
The Beatitudes, Jesus’ blessings on the very last people anyone would think to call loved by God, is full of the same kind of tension I knew all too well as a child. The situations and experiences that could make us feel farthest from God’s love and presence in our lives, these are the places and experiences we are told where the Holy is claiming us as God’s very own. God doesn’t leave us when it’s hard. Instead we get God’s presence, and people, in our lives to remind us that we are loved. The Beatitudes can be a source of deeply good news for those of us who are going through it. We’re claimed as God’s own Beloved, right where it can be hardest in our lives to feel loved.
When I teach kids about Jesus, I start with the bedrock of our faith; God loves you more than you can imagine. You don’t have to be perfect to be loved, you just are. But that can be hard to remember. So we worship God, not because God needs it, but so that we can be reminded of who God is, and that we are loved, in all of our humanity. We practice prayer to be reminded that God loves us, and we are freed by love. This opens us up to love our neighbor. This of course brings up some pretty good questions about God. If we are loved, why is life so hard? When our neighbors are hurting, how do we love them? If the world isn’t fair, and doesn’t reflect God’s love for people, what are we supposed to do? This tension, between the way the world currently is, and the Holy’s desires for our lives, sets us in motion. But the foundation of love and acceptance, it’s vital to the movement. We need to be reminded that we are blessed, not because of what we can do, but because of who loves us. When we forget this love, that’s when all hell typically breaks out. When we’re afraid, when we feel unlovable, that’s when we hurt ourselves, others, our wider community, and our planet.
As a child, I struggled with the idea that I could be loved if I wasn’t perfect. If I didn’t do well in school, could I still be loved? What about when I made mistakes and hurt someone’s feelings, or when I felt lonely, or sad? Could I be loved in those times too? After my plan to run away was found, my parents sat me down. They explained that there was nothing that I could do, or not do, that would ever make them not love me. They wanted to make sure I got the help I needed, and that I could always trust that they would support me. They made sure I realized I didn’t have to earn their love, or God’s love. And my teachers found ways to remind me what I was good at, ways to use my creativity and imagination, to see that I had something to contribute, even if memorizing multiplication tables or where the 50 states were on a map. As a child I really was afraid that I wasn’t good enough. Now as an adult, I see our world through the lens of that child who I still carry around within me, and it makes the uglier parts of human life make sense. Greed, systems of oppression, ecological destruction, fear of those who we perceive as different, at their most fundamental, come from a fear that we are unlovable. When we see others living from a place of security in their worth, we can feel cheated, threatened by their joy, their accomplishments, that others are loving them.
Conversely, it’s amazing what happens when we let go of the idea that we or others have to earn love, and instead start from a place of being worthy, just as we are, our neighbors being worthy of love just as they are, with all our flaws and idiosyncrasies. Our lives can be filled with a deep peace when we no longer think of God as a cosmic grader of souls, but instead as a loving parent, who delights in all of who we are, even the parts of us that we would rather not have anyone know about. It’s called Grace. The fear and anxiety of thinking we are impostors sneaking into the family of God, it can hurt us, and lead us to hurt others unintentionally. Conversely, when we risk letting ourselves experience that we are Blessed by God, claimed as Jesus’ own, and root our actions from experiences of being loved, we can love others, and transform our world, through the work of the Holy Spirit in the world.
Beloved, I wonder what helps you remember that you are loved? For some of us, it might be when we gather around the Lord’s Table. Some of us, it bubbles up when we sing. Still others, it comes through sitting in silence in prayer, walking through creation, reading our Bibles, organizing with others who can be vulnerable about the systems of this world that deny the blessedness of one another. Or maybe, you’re like me, and it comes from being honest about struggling. It’s trusting that it’s ok to ask for help. This week, I’d like to invite you to practice finding yourself knowing you are blessed, you are loved, you are enough. You are a source of delight, to the One who is the source of our delight. Our faith is a reminder that Jesus is with us and those around us, exactly where it is hard, and we don’t have to walk the path alone. We could try to change the world, and forget about God’s love, but I have to tell you, in my experience that’s a recipe for burning out, for feeling like I have to prove that I am worthy. Instead, in the struggle, what if we have moments to be reminded that we are loved? Then our creativity, the power of people working together, the surge of the Holy Spirit inspiring us has space to do the unimaginable.
You are Blessed by God, and God is with you, and me, our children, and our world. Let’s risk living out of that truth, so we may glorify God, and enjoy Her love forever. And when we start to doubt this good news, may we remember the beatitudes. Let us hear anew, Blessed are we. Amen.