Archive for balance

The Grittier, Earthier Version

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 19, 2019 by timtrue

Delivered this past Sunday:

Luke 6:17-26

1.

Ahhh, the beatitudes!

And I’m thinking, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”: familiar words of comfort and affirmation!

But when I listen, something about this version seems a little jarring. This version starts out with, simply, “Blessed are you who are poor.” There’s no “in spirit.” What’s that about?

This version seems grittier, more earthy, less spiritual.

And then, as I continue to listen, Jesus bring in woes. “But woe to you who are rich,” he declares.

And somehow I don’t quite remember hearing this version of the beatitudes before. What Bible version is this anyway?

Well, it’s not the version; it’s the Evangelist.

That other version of the beatitudes, the one where Jesus starts out by blessing the poor in spirit, the one without the woes—and, if you’re like me, the one you remember when you think of the beatitudes—that version is over in the Gospel of Matthew.

In the words of theologian David Ostendorf, Matthew’s is “the watered-down, spiritualized version . . . preferable and more comfortable” than what we hear today: the version according to St. Luke.

And the way Luke tells it—not Matthew—blessings and woes fall upon people in the real world, in their present socioeconomic and political contexts.

Luke is grittier and earthier than Matthew.

But, at the same time, this does not mean that Luke is any less spiritual.

2.

To set the stage then, let’s notice a couple of details.

First, Luke points out that Jesus focuses particularly on his disciples in the midst of a great multitude. Jesus is addressing his disciples specifically here; but it’s a public meeting: the great multitude is invited to listen in.

Today Jesus is talking to the church; and the wide world is eavesdropping! His comments deal with us, Christians, and how we are to behave as citizens of his new realm while simultaneously living as ex-pats in the old realm. But he says them to both disciples and eavesdroppers.

And the second detail, which I find curious, is that here Jesus delivers a sermon on a plain, “a level place”; not a Sermon on the Mount as it is said over in Matthew. Here, in Luke, Jesus speaks to us “on the level.”

So then, what’s the meaning of these grittier, earthier beatitudes?

Four blessings find their counterparts in four woes:

Blessing               Woe

Poor                     Rich

Hungry                Full

Weeping              Laughing

Reviled                 Spoken well of, uplifted

You know, when I read through this list, I don’t know about you but I find myself identifying a lot more with the right side than the left.

I mean, I might feel like next month’s car payment is going to be tight; so what do I do? I determine that I just won’t be able to go out to dinner as much this month. Right?

I might have to cut back now and again, put a temporary crimp in my lifestyle; but in the context of most of the world I’m not exactly poor. No, whether or not I care to admit it, I’m quite rich.

And that’s not on the side of blessing; but the woe counterpart. Huh.

Next, I can’t remember the last time I felt a pang of hunger—unless it was self-imposed because of a diet or whatever. In fact, there’s so much food around me all the time that I have to go on a diet in order to cut back! No, I’m not in the “hungry” category but the “full.”

So, that’s 0 for 2.

As for the third, there are times where I weep, sure. Just turn on the news! Still, my life’s pretty easy. And where it’s not easy, there’s much at my disposal to make it easier—a good book, TV shows, comfort foods, a fire in the hearth at the press of a button. . . .

Like food, various forms of personal levity are seemingly omnipresent. And again, no: if I had to pick between the two, I’d definitely fall more on the laughing side of the spectrum than the weeping.

So that’s strike three.

But maybe I can take a foul tip on that last one; I do weep from time to time, after all. Pitch me another.

And, yes, here we go. I can definitely think of times when people hated me, excluded me, reviled me, and defamed me.

Like that one time in eighth grade when all my so-called friends conspired not to talk to me for the whole day. Or like that one time when those people spread that slanderous rumor about me. How’s it go again? Haters gonn’ hate.

Still, what’s the woe counterpart? Someone speaking well of me. Has that ever happened? If I’m honest with myself, only like every day!

And yet again, whether I care to admit it or not, I fall well over to the right side on this spectrum too.

Guess that makes me 0 for 4. What about you?

3.

What a confrontational passage!

We are Episcopalians in the USA. Most of us are rich, well fed, happy, and included. We like things this way. In fact, we’ve worked hard to make them this way. They are blessings to us—no doubt!

However, according to what Luke tells us today, what we consider our blessings actually are more woeful to us: they tend to work toward our spiritual detriment more than toward our spiritual benefit.

On the other hand, the true blessings work the other way around: being poor, hungry, mournful, or excluded works to our spiritual benefit!

Maybe they’re blessings because they compel us to look away from ourselves to God. Not sure wealth, food, happiness, and a good reputation affect us similarly.

But, really, who wants these things? Would any man willingly enter into poverty? Would any woman intentionally remove herself from every available food source? Would anyone purposefully prefer mourning to happiness; or to live as a societal outcast?

Instead, rightly, we seek wellness, a balanced lifestyle. We even say, “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” not, “Poverty, hunger, and the pursuit of destitution.”

And when we find it, wellness, that balanced sweet spot, we thank God for it; for it is truly a blessing.

So, what is Luke getting at here?

4.

Maybe it will help to keep in mind that Jesus is not speaking in dualities.

These beatitudes and their woe counterparts are not either-or propositions, as if to say you are either poor or rich, either hungry or full, either weeping or laughing, either reviled or spoken well of—one or the other with no middle ground.

Rather, think of each beatitude and its counterpart as the two ends of a spectrum.

So, you might very well fall on the rich side of the poor/rich spectrum. But that doesn’t mean you have to stay there.

And I’m not talking here about giving away all your possessions! I am talking about mindset.

Regardless of where you land on this spectrum, can you put yourself in the shoes of those who have less than you do?

What is it like, for instance, to live paycheck to paycheck and not have good healthcare; and suddenly receive a bill for $25,000 for your child’s “emergency tonsillectomy”? Can you identify with that family when they cry foul? Are you able to empathize with them?

Or what about the hungry/full spectrum?

Have you ever experienced not knowing when or how you will find your next meal? Can you imagine it? The pain? The fears? The desperation?

Once you do begin to imagine it, you’re one step closer to standing in solidarity with that person who is truly hungry.

We could reflect similarly about the weeping/laughing spectrum and the reviled/uplifted spectrum; and I commend that to you as a personal spiritual exercise.

But the point that we must not miss today is the great equalizing effect of Jesus’ new realm; the realm to which we truly belong.

It’s not either poor or rich. Love brings both poor and rich together. Love eradicates socioeconomic differences.

Again, it’s not either hungry or full; either weeping or laughing; either reviled or uplifted—black or white, female or male, gay or straight, trans or cis, old or young, full-bodied or athletic, disabled or able-bodied, or any of the other labels and distinctions we slap on those who are different than we are.

Love reorients relationships and reverses socioeconomic and political injustices; love brings both one and the other together as true equals.

And when that happens, all people—disciples and eavesdroppers!—all are truly blessed.

Compassion a Two-way Street

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on July 20, 2015 by timtrue

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Sometimes we miss important details in the scriptures.

For instance, do you recall the story of the exchange of power between King Saul and King David in Israel’s history?  If you don’t, I commend to your reading 1 Samuel 23 and 24.  You won’t be bored!

To remind you. . . .

And so what we remember is that David righteously spared King Saul’s life; that Saul was cut to the heart and repented of his folly; that waiting on God’s providential hand is what people do who desire to live after God’s own heart; and so on.

But we forget a very pertinent detail: God’s hand of providence works in and through even the most earthy of life’s details—even in and through bodily functions!

In today’s Gospel, then, the architects of the Revised Common Lectionary—the people who decided what passages we read today—didn’t want us to miss some details that are often overlooked.

Did you notice?  They left out a good chunk of narrative.  We hear just 9 verses of a much larger section of scripture, a 27-verse passage: after 5 verses we skip 18 then read the final 4.

Now, these middle, omitted verses are extremely significant.  They relate two very important miracles; namely, feeding the 5,000 and walking on water.  And, just so you don’t come away feeling slighted, it’s okay: there are other Sundays when we contemplate each of these two miracles in the Lectionary.

But today we look at the bookends: the narrative that takes place on either side of these miracles.  And I’m convinced this is the case so that we don’t miss them—so that we don’t miss the important details Jesus wants us all to know—because we’re too distracted by the signs and wonders.

So then, what is it Jesus wants us to know?

It starts with v. 34: “As [Jesus] went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”

It starts with compassion.

A question then: What’s the difference between compassion and pity?

The Gk. pathos can be translated either way: pity; or compassion.  Jesus had pathos for the crowd.

From pathos we get our English words pathetic, sympathetic, sympathy, empathy, pathological—to name but a few.  And we see something of pity and compassion in each word.

But the chief difference in my thinking is this: pity is removed; whereas compassion is involved.

Pity takes on a sort of distinction.  I feel a type of sorrow for my neighbor because his plight is so pitiable—or sad, or tragic, or whatever.  So, out of the goodness of my heart I decide to do something about it—I buy her a pair of shoes; or offer him a ride; or throw some money her way.  And thank heavens I’m not in his position; for then I don’t know what I’d do!

You see, pity has left me feeling sorry for my neighbor, maybe even sorry enough to do something about it.  But at the end of the day I’m still over here dealing with my life and he’s still over there dealing with his: a distance still remains between me and my neighbor.

But compassion means, literally, suffering with, or suffering alongside.  There’s no “me vs. him” mentality here.  Compassion is involved, not one step removed.  Compassion is thus significantly different than pity.

And this is exactly what Jesus does with the desperate, noisy, dirty, smelly, needy crowd.  He comes alongside them and is moved to passion for them—a kind of suffering with them.

And isn’t this a picture of what he did on a much larger scale?  In the Incarnation, he emptied himself of the Godhead; and he took on humanity.

He comes alongside the whole world—the cosmos—and takes on our passion, our suffering.

And it’s exactly what he calls us to do: to be moved by the hurting, desperate, needy people of our day; and not merely to have pity on them, but compassion—to come alongside them.

We are called to live out the Incarnation.

But (earlier) I said it starts with compassion. What other details can we discern from today’s passage?

A few observations:

  1. As followers of Christ (and as already mentioned), we are called to be the Incarnation of Christ.  We are the Church and thus Christ to the world; even if we are merely the fringes of Christ’s cloak, we possess the divine power to heal a hurting, desperate, and needy world.
  2. As followers of Christ, we are called to live out his compassion for the world.  How?
    • Flexibly, knowing that God may change our plans, just as God changed the plans of Jesus and the disciples.  They were withdrawing to an uncrowded place for renewal; yet the crowd follows them and doesn’t allow this renewal to occur.  So what does Jesus do?  He allows his plans to be changed and has compassion for the crowd.  He loves his neighbor.  He exercises selflessness.
    • Untiringly, with the knowledge that the work here is ongoing, around seemingly every corner.
    • Trustingly, knowing that God will give us the strength to sustain us even when “robbed” of planned times of renewal.
  3. But also—and here’s where I want to focus in our remaining time—we are humanity, the disciples, the crowd; we are not Christ.  Look around: in our world, today, who’s flocking to Jesus on Sundays—to be with him, to be healed by him, to commune with him, to touch him—but us?  It’s not that weekend-warrior neighbor of yours; or that other neighbor who sleeps in every Sunday and finds his spiritual refreshment through his bicycle.  No, these aren’t the picture of a flocking crowd, desperate to see Jesus.  If anyone in our culture fits a description of desperation, it’s us!

Okay, so that’s not quite fair.  I realize it.

We are the ones flocking to Jesus on Sundays, yes.  And the world around us can appear not to care much about Jesus, like they’re fine on their own without a Savior and Lord, thank you very much.  But they are nonetheless needy, hurting, even desperate.  As are we.

Our world often shows its desperation in vastly different ways than it did in the days of Jesus.  All too often, today’s world turns to alcohol and drugs—legal and illegal—out of desperation.  So, yes, it’s not really fair to say that we churchgoers are the only desperate ones in the world.

But we are desperate; and it brings up a fair point for us to consider.

We are Christians, disciples of Christ earnestly trying to bring the good news of Christ to the world around us; through teaching, healing, feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked.  This is called outreach.  And it is a very important part of our community life.

And right now, incidentally, (I don’t know if you know this, but) outreach is a kind of fad in churches all over the country (if not the world).  During my job-search process, without exception every single parish profile I looked at placed outreach as one of its top priorities—to the point where I began predicting it; and muttering things to myself like, “Tell me something I don’t know”; and, “Well, that’s original!”

Now, hear me clearly: I’m not downplaying outreach.  It is very important.  As today’s passage demonstrates, the world all around us desperately needs Christ.

But we, the Church, are desperate too.  So, what I want us to ask ourselves is: What about in-reach?

We are just as desperate and needy as the world around us for Christ’s hand of love and selflessness; of joy in all circumstances, whether good or bad; of peace, healing, and reconciliation in our relationships; of patience and large-heartedness; of kindness, giving others the benefit of the doubt; of goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

So, what about in-reach?  Is this a priority for us—as much a priority, anyway, as outreach?

It was for Jesus and his disciples.

We know, as individuals, just how important it is to live balanced lives.  It is important to interact with others, to live in community, in relationship.  And thus it is important to put others first: to practice a form of personal outreach.  We know this!

But, as individuals, we know it is just as important to set aside times for personal rest and refreshment.  Taking time to withdraw for prayer is a practice Jesus himself modeled.  Medical research today touts the values of getting enough sleep and taking regular vacations.  And what of mental health?  We’re learning more and more daily about just how important lifelong learning is.  All these pursuits are simply forms of personal in-reach.

It’s the same with the body of Christ!  As a church, we value outreach immensely.  But let’s not forget in-reach!

In our zeal to be Christ’s hands and feet to the needy world around us, let’s not forget that we are hurting and needy people too; just as desperate in our desires—maybe even more so!—to see Jesus and to experience his compassion.