Not only is the clash in this evening’s Super Bowl between the Seattle Seahawks and the Denver Broncos; there also couldn’t be a more clear clash of values between the Super Bowl and the Beatitudes, which happen to be the reading from Matthew’s gospel this morning.
Consider this: I read that the average ticket price at today’s game in the Meadowlands is $4,084. The average weekly salary in the U.S. is $831. The current going rate for a level 3 suite @ the Metlife Stadium is $800,270. The average cost of a new home in the U.S. is $340,300. Last year, an estimated 3.9 million people bought new furniture for Super Bowl parties. Over 3.5 million people experienced homelessness. A 30-sec. Ad spot for the Super Bowl goes for an average of $4 million, for a total ad revenue of $300 million. $300 million could educate 272,727 kids for a year. As one commentator wrote, “Enjoy the Super Bowl. Be suspicious of its values.” (Matthew Skinner, Odyssey Networks, 2/2/14)
“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.”
This sounds more like the Super Bowl of Losers. “Christianity for Dummies,” somebody has called these beatitudes, after the series of books that “make intimidating subjects approachable.” (David Sellery, This Week’s Focus, Epiphany, Year A) And, I don’t know about you, but there are times when I’m trying to live out this way laid out for Jesus, that I feel like a loser or a dummy. I remember reflecting on a situation I’d been in when I said to myself (I thought): “I feel like a chump.” And then the words came to me, “Yes, but you’re my chump.”
Blessed are all these people, Jesus said, and yet we can hardly imagine a less blessed group of people–the poor (as Luke has it) or poor in spirit? Those who mourn? The meek? Those who are persecuted and reviled? In our Super Bowl culture, these are the least blessed. The word translated as “blessed” here is the Greek word makarios, which means blessed, or happy, as our pew Bibles translate it. The Rev. Robert Schuller famously called these the “Be Happy Attitudes.” To be blessed means to be “fortunate,” or “well-off.” Another source says it also means to have special favor, unique standing, empowerment, endowment. That’s what it means, maybe, but what does being “blessed” feel like?
Lutheran preacher David Lose suggests, “To be blessed feels like you have someone’s unconditional regard…like you are not and will not be alone…like you will be accompanied wherever you go… Being blessed feels like you have the capacity to rise above the present circumstances, like you are more than the sum of your parts or past experiences. Being blessed feels like you have worth–not because of something you did or might do, but simply because of who you are…” (Working Preacher, 1/26/14)
Another writer defines “beatitude” as an “enduring, existential state of serenity found only in harmony with the will of God.” (David Sellery, This Week’s Focus, Epiph. Yr. A) Being blessed then isn’t the adrenaline rush of a victory lap. It doesn’t necessarily produce celebrity or adulation. In a culture of honor and shame, Jesus offered blessing. Someone has suggested that we live in a culture of affirmation and blame[Lose, op cit.] , of empty praise in service of “self-esteem,” or of blame–it’s always someone else’s fault, as the current state of our politics demonstrates. These beatitudes of Jesus come to those considered least blessed by our culture, and they may be the ones most open to the blessing. There is nothing we can do to be blessed like this. Blessing is sheer gift and grace.
Several years ago, Fred Rogers, the Presbyterian minister known to most of us as “Mr. Rogers,” was invited to Hollywood to receive a special Emmy honoring his lifetime of work.
When Fred Rogers stood up to speak, he said that he knew the room was filled with so many stars and celebrities
, men and women who had achieved much. [people whom our culture would consider “blessed.”] Rogers then took out a pocket watch and announced that he was going to keep thirty seconds of silence, and he invited everybody in the room to remember people in their past–parents, teachers, coaches, friends, and others–who had helped them along the way, who had paid the price for their success, who had made them into the people they were today. It was a call to a particular testimony of steadfast love. And then Mister Rogers stood there looking at his watch and saying nothing. The room grew quiet as the seconds ticked away, and before Fred Rogers tucked away his watch, one could hear all around the room people sniffling as they were moved by the memories of those who had made sacrifices on their behalf and who had given each of them many gifts. [ that is, all the people who had blessed them]. [cited by Mark Ramsey in Journal for Preachers, Lent 2014, p. 36]
Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who are persecuted for Christ’s sake, who are reviled falsely.
“The Beatitudes draw our hearts out of themselves into a new way of understanding our lives,” writes Brendan Freeman, a Trappist monk from Iowa. “They are deliberately incomplete [he says. Who are these people? The poor in spirit…the meek…the pure in heart…those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…? and when do they receive the blessing?]. They await the inclusion of our lives. Each person fills in the blank space with the details of his or her own life situation.” (Cited by Patricia Farris, Christian Century, 1/26/05) Where do we fit into these verses? Do we even want to fit in, other than feeling blessed? Who of us wants to mourn or to be poor, in spirit or otherwise? Who of us wants to be persecuted or reviled? This is not necessarily a call to seek out persecution or pain or sorrow, but it does assure us that when we find ourselves in these situations, and when we are in relationship to people who are in these situations, that the steadfast love of God will be with us, and we will experience that blessing, if we are able to be open to it.
“What of us,” asks Bruce’s and my seminary classmate the Rev. Patricia Farris, “What of us, we who would be disciples of Jesus Christ and servants of the kingdom in this time of war and violence, of hunger and homelessness and greed, of death in war abroad and in our streets at home?…What gestures are we to make now to accompany these words? What commitments? What risks? What dreams?”
She turns to a prayer of the late William Sloan Coffin for answer–
Because we love the world, we pray now, O [God], for grace to quarrel with it, O thou whose lover’s quarrel with the world is the history of the world…Lord, grant us grace to quarrel with the worship of success and power…to quarrel with all that profanes and trivializes [people] and separates them…Number us, we beseech Thee, in the ranks of those who went forth from this place longing only for those things for which Thou dost make us long, ‘those for whom the complexity of the issues only served to renew their zeal to deal with them, [those] who alleviated pain by sharing it, and [those] who were always willing to risk something big for something good…O God, take our minds and think through them, take our lips and speak through them. Take our hearts and set them on fire.
[Farris, op cit.]
May this be our prayer as we come to the table, as lovers of the world and yet who are engaged in a lover’s quarrel with the world. May this be our prayer as we come to the table to share the Bread of Life and the Cup of Blessing. And so may we be blessed.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark