November 2, 2014
Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37 Matthew 5:1-12
How differently would we know ourselves if we had first hand access to our birth and death stories?
What if we knew, first hand, whether we were pushed easily out, bursting into the world with some pizzazz, I am here! Do you know children like that? Or whether we were so reluctant to take the first breath on our own, putting our birth mother through hours of strenuous labor, even thinking now that we can slide away and no one will notice.
And our death stories, will we die peacefully in our sleep, with our family and friends around us? Will we remain lucid until the last moment? Will the people around us have to make tough decisions about our care?
And then the moment when we meet the mystery of what is beyond—what does it look like, who greets us, where do we go? Even though books like this exist: “Heaven is For Real: A little Boy’s Astounding A Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back,” and, “Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife.” I rather like that what lies beyond, remains a mystery.
In Psalm 107 the writer is facing the mystery, and thanks God for God’s steadfast love and blessing, that endures forever. He locates himself topographically central, while things are happening from all four corners, God’s love is drawing in and near to him. He is facing the mystery.
Some can’t swallow mystery, and go beyond the quest for certainty and even have the fantasy of not dying. On NPR this Thursday I heard a scientist, doctor and historian interviewed- each of having dedicated their research to defying death, to the question of immortality.
The rather outlandish doctor said, “Aging is killing 2/3rds of people, we should be outraged,” I would have stared at him blankly. There are much better things it be outraged about. But maybe I am being closed minded. The doctor believes firmly that science can find a cure death. Strangers were interviewed at random, asked “What would be the biggest advantage and disadvantage to living forever?” The advantages were things like, accumulation of knowledge, being able to watch the centuries pass, but the disadvantages were most compelling; aside from missing loved ones, particularly this- that we would lose our sense of urgency. There is something precious about time. There are things we want to accomplish in THIS life time, that if we lived forever, would get lost.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he sat down his disciples came to him. With the ability to look down from the mountain, to be removed some from the rush of things, a moment above it all, Jesus delivers simple, profound and beautiful words. The Sermon on the Mount, or the Beatitudes, coming from the Latin word for “blessings.”
These blessings are in a sense, unexpected, the meek, the mourning are blessed. If makarios, the Greek for blessings, means simply happy, fortunate, to be enlivened, we wonder what is happening in this culture to say, these people, have not experienced blessing or happiness or fortune?
There are eight blessings, so this text reminds me of those articles that I am sure you have seen if you troll facebook, “10 reasons almonds can save your life.” “7 reasons coffee is great for you,” “10 reasons to send your child to private school,” “5 foods that prevent Alzheimer’s,” But these eight blessings, really, may be the only ones we need.
Gregory of Nyssa, alive in the 4th century, interpreted these 8 blessings as the 8 stages in the ascent of the soul, addressed to the students or disciples of logos, of Jesus, with the aim of taking these pupils from lowly thoughts to a spiritual mountain of higher contemplation. A sort of 12 step pattern, each stage building of the last. And like the 12 step program, these are work of the soul, that can only be accomplished in community.
We are disciples, so let’s see if it works. Follow along with me, as we interpret these blessings as an evolution of the soul.
Disciples of Logos, of the word, of Jesus, can begin poor in spirit, defeated, feeling lost in the world, but something clicks in when they become aware that, although the rule of the empire denies their humanity/them a seat at the table, the realm of God is theirs.
So then, they must reorder their lives- and in Jesus time, leave their family, the disciples mourn the life they thought they would have, mourn the disappointments the pain the suffering in the world, of the empire, they weep, cry, grieve, and they are comforted.
Seeing suffering in the world, the disciples hunger and thirst no longer for themselves, but for righteousness, for justice in the world, and they will be filled.
Although working hard to bring about justice in the world, these disciples can forgive when people fall short, and are merciful, and in turn, they are shown mercy.
Becoming merciful, while seeking justice, allows the disciples to become pure in heart, and through the lens of this clean, unstained heart, they will see God.
Seeing God will give the disciples the opportunity to become peace makers, and they will be called children of God or, son’s of God, like Jesus. Blessing designates a state of being that pertains to the gods and can be awarded to humans postmortem. But Jesus calls us back to THIS lifetime, to the urgency of now, to live into the path of blessing.
And this is when disciple hood becomes dangerous. Jesus warns that living into this, the disciples will be persecuted the way the prophets were.
Every step of the way is another stage of blessing, and seems to lead disciples into a countercultural peace making that is anything but rewarded by the world.
Jesus isn’t saying here, everything happens for a reason, you can shake a blessing out of suffering, or that there is a silver lining in bad situations.
He is saying that when we the disciples work for the reign of God in this world, in these particular ways, the world may despise you and cause you suffering, but you are still blessed, in the eyes of the holy one, in the eyes of the only one for whom it matters the most, the one we have to answer to in the next life.
Our death stories would be useful to us, because in facing death, we are shown how we have lived. How would you live differently, if you knew you had one year to live?
Stephen Levine, a Buddhist practitioner, and author of “A Year to Live,” Claims that in dying well, we complete our birth. He says, “Most people live with one foot in the womb, hopping around the world, never quite coming out. Completing our birth is a process of becoming grounded, putting both feet on the ground. It is taking responsibility for being born, we are responsible to our incarnation.” The fact of our death is an unexpected blessing.
Regina Spektor has a lyric, “leaves become most beautiful when they’re about to die.” Sometimes, before a person dies, they radiate pure love, and wonder, “how did I miss out on being this way, my whole life?” Their family sometimes wonders this too.
This day and weekend, people around the world celebrate the day of the dead, All Saints or All souls day, where the veil between the living and the dead grows thin, and we more readily, knowing it or not, walk side by side the ones we have loved and lost. As the leaves are becoming more beautiful in their death, let us find ways to live together with the wisdom of the dead, coming face to face with the beauty and potential of THIS human life, and the great gift of living now. Let us follow the path of discipleship collectively, because it is what we are called to do. We have great potential in this community to live and serve together to bring God’s realm of love into the earthly realm.
Let this text be the only “8 Ways to Become a Blessing to the World,” article that you need. Hang it on your fridge.
Our deeds, our discipleship follows us into death, into the next life, so why don’t we follow Jesus in this life, taking the path of Blessing. Amen.