A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on January 30, 2011.
In the Beatitudes in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, when our English Bible says, “Blessed are those …” (as most translations say), a phrase that could have been used instead is, “Happy are those …” Sometimes the ruts of language, even the well-loved language we grow to love in the Bible, become ruts to our thinking freshly about them, blocking us from hearing the “something more” that’s always present in Scripture.
So when Sister Mary Corita was asked to submit a piece of artwork for the Vatican’s exhibit at the New York World’s Fair, she chose this text from the Sermon on the Mount. Sister Mary was a Roman Catholic nun known popularly for her graphic arts merging dramatic splashes of color with a tender, appreciative love of sacred ideas. Sister Mary designed a flowing banner 4-feet tall and 40-feet long painted in vivid colors using her own fresh translation of the Beatitudes. Here is her beautiful vision of those who are happy:
Happy are those who feel their spiritual need
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Happy are the gentle for the whole world belongs to them.
Happy are those who hunger and thirst
for what is right for they will be satisfied.
Happy are those who show mercy
for mercy will be shown to them.
Happy are those who know what sorrow means
for they will be given courage and comfort.
Happy are the single-minded for they will see God.
Happy are those who make peace
for they will be known as the sons of God.
Happy are those who have suffered persecution
for the causes of goodness
for the kingdom of God is theirs.
But like the religious word, “blessed,” happiness needs our help to fully appreciate its depth of meaning. “Things are seldom as they appear,” we might say. Nowhere is that more understood than with the idea of happiness. At the heart of Jesus’ message to his followers and admirers is a meaning indicating all is well and wrapped in goodness and God’s wholeness. God is a part of this happiness because there is a balanced sense in which God is honored and one is not saturated in self-interest, thus tainting the meaning of true happiness itself.
Standing on a hillside overlooking the deep blue Sea of Galilee with a huge crowd of people now following him, Jesus took society’s standards of happiness and turned them upside down. We grow up thinking more will make us happy. We act as if putting ourselves first will get us what we want. We think in competitive terms, thinking that if we can climb to the top of the heap, we will rule the world and it will make us feel significant.
One of my preacher friends re-wrote the Beatitudes by overturning the upside-down statements of Jesus.
Blessed are the rich, for they shall wield power.
Blessed are the hard-hearted, for they shall seldom mourn.
Blessed are the assertive, for they shall rule the world.
Blessed are the satisfied, for they can sleep late on Sundays.
Blessed are the merciless, for they shall climb to the top.
Blessed are the cunning, for they shall manipulate their way to success.
Blessed are the belligerent, for they shall win.
Blessed are the powerful, for they shall never be persecuted.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount was his way of saying something radical about the false premises of those assumptions. He came to tell them that what appeared to be the world’s wisdom was the world’s foolishness. In essence he said to them: “Stop it! You’ve got it all wrong! What you thought was down is up. What you have seen as empty is really full. What you thought was lowly is actually the beginning of exaltation. So stop knocking yourselves out for dreams that can never satisfy your deepest craving for meaning and satisfaction. Listen closely for the real wisdom of God that teaches you how to turn things on their head. Then give yourselves to it!”
The Beatitudes are Jesus’ way of helping us see the world through fresh new eyes allowing us to live in proper relationship with God. This new way of seeing wasn’t meant just for the lucky or the privileged. Instead, hear Jesus describe those people who are “blessed” in the sermon he preached on a hillside overlooking the sea. Such people he called blessed we might insult as a bunch of losers. They were the poor, the hungry, the grieving, the naïve, and the persecuted. Hardly the model of success that drives so much of our thinking! And yet, there’s something so truthful in his words that we are compelled to learn and absorb the wisdom that Jesus describes.
We see the surfaces of things and weigh them to determine whether the whole truth is being told. Good may be depicted as bad and evil may masquerade as good. Some would say the things that hurt us also have the power to make us strong. Or, what first appears to be a crisis can turn into personal good or a new opportunity. It’s all in how you interpret the events that are inflicted upon you.
One of the wisdoms acquired in life is to never assume that first appearances are what they truly are. Wisdom teaches us to be skeptical and to wait and watch until the surfaces of things give way to those things beneath the surface that are more truthful emerge. We learn that with both our friends and with our enemies. And we even learn it about ourselves recognizing that we may feel more at home in our false self rather than living more honestly in our true self.
Call it a loss of naiveté or simply developing a keen ability to recognize reality, in order to fully comprehend how to structure our lives we must come to recognize both the false claims and the truthfulness of the world if we’re to survive in it. To that end, Jesus spoke to all who would listen about the coming kingdom inhabited by those who could recognize the true realities of life.
The sad news of our time is that maybe we don’t even believe him. Worse, maybe we give lip service to the words and ignore them. That kind of insult cuts to the core of our claim to be followers of Jesus but it needs to be admitted if it’s true.
So what is it Jesus meant when he laid a claim to a new way of seeing the world? What does it mean to be blessed? In what ways are we either happy or miserable as we measure our lives on this scale of divine contentment?
The key to understanding this new way of living unlocks a reality based not on our limited, ego-driven way of living. Instead, it is based on what Jesus meant when he called us “blessed.” In so doing, Jesus ups the ante for both our self-esteem and how we relate to God. Jesus told them on that hillside and he tells us the same today, the blessings of God are ours whenever we discover the upside-way of Christ. Whenever we make the changes necessary to live out of a different point of view, we will discover spiritual power like we’ve never experienced before.
Henri Nouwen, the well-known writer on spirituality, taught at such prestigious universities as Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard. But there came a period in his life when he left teaching and the visible importance it gave to his life as an author and speaker to go teach at the Daybreak community near Toronto. It was a community designed to care for mentally handicapped persons.
He said immediately he experienced something of an identity crisis because now he served persons who did not recognize his rather famous name, did not know of his many books, nor did they even care much that he was famous. Writes Nouwen, “This experience was and, in many ways, is still the most important experience of my new life, because it forced me to recognize my true identity. These broken, wounded, and completely unpretentious people forced me to let go of my relevant self … the self that can do things, show things, prove things, build things … and forced me to reclaim that unadorned self in which I am completely vulnerable, open to receive and give love regardless of any accomplishments.”
From this he saw “the great message that we have to carry, as ministers of God’s word and followers of Jesus, is that God loves us not because of what we do or accomplish, but because God has created us and redeemed us in love and has chosen to proclaim that love as the true source of all human life … The long painful history of the church is the history of people ever and again tempted to choose power over love, control over the cross, being a leader over being led.”
Jesus invites us to consider a logic about life that is turned upside down and inside out. We are invited to “a logic of the spirit” that opens up new places in us so we can receive the kind of happiness that thrives within and fills our very being. The Beatitudes point us to a state of mind about life that all of us have somehow lost along the way. Somewhere in our getting lost, we lost the simplicity that the be-attitudes want us to remember.
The state of mind that Jesus points us to is a way of imagination, understanding that we can see life differently, that we can see the Kingdom that Jesus came to build if we look at life through different eyes.
What Jesus wanted us to understand was that God is in the midst of our lives whether they are empty or full. God is with us in pain and in pleasure. God is with us in prosperity or poverty. God is with us and if we open up our lives to that kind of loving presence, it is a new orientation to how the processes of our lives are experienced. Ultimately, it is the path to experiencing grace. And in finding our way to grace, we can finally come to terms with how things really are, not just as they appear.