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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." (Matthew 5:1-3)
The altar table is an amazing piece of furniture. It's massive, and yet, delicate. It supports the candles—which remind us that the "light of the world," Jesus Christ, is present with us when we worship. It cradles the Bible, the Living Word of the Living Lord. In fact, it serves the same function today that the Ark of the Covenant did for the wandering Hebrew people thousands of years before the coming of Jesus Christ. The Ark was a large wooden box that contained the Tablets, the Word of the Lord that Moses brought down from his encounter with God on Mount Sinai. God's preserved word is right here, right now, too.
Preparing for our worship time together, I considered moving the table. However, moving the altar is definitely not a job to be done alone; it takes at least two people! True enough, I could struggle and move one side of the altar forward slightly—and then move the other side an inch or two ahead, until it's in just the right position. The task would be much easier, however, if someone else would grab the other end and slide the table forward. That's the point of what we're suggesting.
It's okay to be dependent. It's much healthier to be dependent. It's much more fulfilling to be a part of a community where you can reach out to someone else rather than go it alone.
This notion of the "okayness" of dependency is the key to the Beatitudes. It's like an old video game titled SHAMUS The leading character is an electronic detective who enters a room, moves through a maze—and so on. Each player's goal is to get the little key that unlocks the next level. Opening the lock permits the crime fighter to move on—and when that happens, the point tally skyrockets!
The key to opening the lock of the Beatitudes is to understand the first one: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." These words are found in the Sermon on the Mount, recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, which contains the largest collection of Jesus' teachings. Between each of the five major sections of instruction are historical narratives. Matthew offers us one of the first "how-to" guides of scriptural enlightenment for personal fulfillment and complete happiness.
"How blest are those who know their need of God; the kingdom of Heaven is theirs. (Matthew 5:3 NEB)
The New English Bible translates the beginning of each of the eight Beatitudes with the words, "How blest are those...." Other versions read, "Blessed are those...." and "Happy are those...." I suspect that if we really want to get to the heart of this, we wouldn't settle for the first feeling tingled by "Happy are those." A conventional definition of happy suggests a very comfortable emotion. We need to know that Jesus is saying something much more profound. He is observing how fulfilled it's possible to become, how complete, how close to God we can move when we live up to the calling of the Beatitudes. Jesus' notion of happy, of being blessed, suggests the full scope of the God-human relationship.
Jesus is encouraging us to realize that God, first and foremost, is the main actor in the drama of life.
The Beatitudes are a series of if/then statements, much like a computer program would contain. To be sure, these statements are more complex than either you or I might want to make them to be, however. We would prefer to read something that is obvious, clear, and sensible. But Jesus has turned conventional understanding and wisdom on its head. And so, when he offers the invitation of this first Beatitude, "If you want to know the kingdom you must be poor in spirit," Jesus engages in more than a conversation about the lack of loose change. Rather, Jesus is encouraging us to realize that God, first and foremost, is the main actor in the drama of life. Were it not for God, we wouldn't be! Were it not for God, we would have nothing! And then, when we understand the greatness of God and the majesty of God's great gifts to us, we will inherit the splendor of the kingdom! In other words, Jesus is saying, "Blessed are those who admit that they can't do it all, for then they will begin to know the blessings and joy of the kingdom of God."
Let's go back to moving the altar table for a minute. Imagine that I'm struggling to move it. You ask, "May I help you?" I respond by saying, "No." A brick wall would be built up between us. You wouldn't be able to help me move something that is more than I can easily manage alone. Likewise, I can't help you if you won't let me.
Independence. It's hard to make an admission of dependence. We would rather proclaim, "I'm in charge. I'm in control." We want to feel self-reliant. We want to think that we're self-sufficient.
We were never asked to do if all ourselves. God has said, "I'll be there to help!" What a freeing realization!
Jesus responds to this false ideal with a word of caution. "Hold on a minute. In community, in dependence there's strength! Blessed are you when you've reached the absolute bottom point of the reservoir of your fiercely independent spirit, for then you will really be able to get to know God. Then you will be blessed. Then you will start to become complete. Then you will begin to be fulfilled."
All that God wants us to do is acknowledge that God is in the picture, that God is a key part of creation, that God is a part of our lives. When we can say, "I need help. I'm dependent. I'm depending on you, Lord," we become stronger. We were never asked to do it all ourselves. God has said, "I'll be there to help!" What a freeing realization! We don't have to rely only upon ourselves, with our limited spheres of mind, body, and strength. We can rely upon others!
The more that we withdraw and hold things in, the more desperate and frantic we become. It's a vicious cycle that goes 'round and 'round and 'round, until something breaks in to bring our world to a screeching halt.
"How blest are those who know their need of God; the kingdom of Heaven is theirs."
Somewhere around second grade my parents gave me a little bicycle that had training wheels. You know what that's like! When you ride your bike down the sidewalk you can tilt from side to side and never fall down! You have two supports with wheels that let you continue to go merrily along. My bike was a nice little bike. It was maroon and brown, with ivory-colored handle grips. I think it even had those streamers that catch the wind when you get going. I was all set!
My best friend, Eddie, liked to ride his bike too. But Eddie was a little bit more advanced than I was. His training wheels were already off! What a goal to aspire to! I can still remember the day that Eddie, his sister, and his father decided to go for a ride to the neighborhood high school. What a fun outing it was to be—maybe a mile adventure, 'round trip. But I couldn't go because my training wheels were still on, and you can't get very far very fast with training wheels. I watched the three of them head off, practically counting the pedal strokes until they disappeared from sight and then I headed back up my driveway, feeling very alone!
I hadn't really been motivated to want to get rid of those training wheels until that day! I hadn't wanted to ask, "Pop, please take me down to the high school parking lot so I can learn to ride my bike." It was a lot easier just to ride around with them on feeling oh so very independent.
One Saturday, very soon after that, Pop and I went to that great big, empty paved lot for my pivotal rite of passage. I rode around with my training wheels on for a few minutes. Then Pop took out his wrench and pliers and took them off. He said, "Okay I'm going to hold on to the back of the seat and run along with you as you pedal." Remember what that's like? The child goes and goes and goes and shouts, "Let's keep going!" The dad runs along exhausted and out of breath.
After a little of Pop's huffing and puffing I was heading off great guns! When I turned to look at Pop, I noticed that he was back where we had started. I said to myself, "Uh Oh!" but kept going circling back around to him. What a liberating day! I didn't need my training wheels anymore! I couldn't wait until Monday morning when I could ride my bike to school! Wow! What a great experience!
Yet, it wasn't until I was able to swallow my pride and ask, "Pop, would you help me learn to ride without the training wheels?" that I could be free of them. It wasn't until I learned how restricted I was that I could make some changes and be set really free.
"How blest are those who know their need of God; the kingdom of Heaven is theirs."
All that we need to sincerely say is, "Lord, you are in my life. I am dependent upon you. I am dependent upon others." But, that's a very difficult admission to make. We hear and see the words of the Scripture, but often choose to go on suffering and thinking, "I'll somehow struggle through. I'll somehow find the resource, the right book, the right audiotape, the right seminar that will make it all right. I'll somehow find the inner strength to make it on my own." And when we travel down that lost highway we get bitter. We ask the answerless "why" questions. We have a hard time admitting that we don't understand, that we don't know!
When we can admit the benefits of dependence we can understand the message of the story of the prodigal son. The younger of two brothers went to his father and demanded his share of his inheritance. Amazingly, his father agreed to give it to him right then, rather than make the son wait until his father's death. The young man went off, independently, living what he smugly thought was a rather fulfilling life. But, all too quickly, the money ran out and he found himself in a mess!
Jesus invites us to value ourselves by first valuing the caring, compassionate, loving God of all life, and encourages us to then reengineer our living according to that precious model.
Swallowing his pride the young man turned to a farmer pleading, "I have no money. Even your pigs eat better than I do. Isn't there something I can do for you so that I can survive?" To fully appreciate the anguish of that question, it's essential to remember that it was a tragically intense humiliation for aJew to tend to pigs.
Soon after that desperate experience, the young man humbly decided to go back home. He reasoned, "I'll be one of my father's servants; for they are far better off than I am!" All the way home he rehearsed his confession. Yet, before the son could say, "Father, let me be as one of your servants," the father flung wide his arms, welcomed his son home, and restored the young man to full relationship in the family.
Jesus invites us to value ourselves by first valuing the caring, compassionate, loving God of all life, and encourages us to then reengineer our living according to that precious model. By such an acknowledgment, in a private moment of reconciliation and forgiveness, we will receive blessed assurance!
Even Jesus, in all of his moments of prayer, admitted, "There is a God, my Father, from whom I receive sanction for what I do. I do not do it on my own. I do all I do in God's name because God has sent me. My strength comes from him." The assurance Jesus received came in the moments of intimate contact with God.
When we become aware of our dependence upon God, we will experience the amazing realization that we can be so much more and do so much more when we are partners with God. By making that admission, we begin to arrive. We receive an assurance of the outcome. We know the destination—the kingdom of heaven.
"How blest are those who know their need of God; the kingdom of Heaven is theirs."
One last way of saying this is: "Blessed are those who are dependent upon God, who can acknowledge their inadequacies, acknowledge their dependencies, for the kingdom of heaven will be theirs!" Amen.CHAPTER 2
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. (Matthew 5:4)
When we look at the Beatitudes we experience perfectly normal and sensible emotions in an entirely new way. Why should Jesus ask, "How blessed are you if you are sorrowful?" We wonder why he would say, "How happy are you when sorrow consumes your life?" We can certainly understand how he could say, "How grand things are when you are filled with joy." We would agree with his opinion, "How marvelous it is when you know what's going on in your life." We would also offer this proclamation, "How excellent it is when you are full, satisfied, and comfortable." But, whet Jesus does say isn't exactly what we would say—at least not right off.
In the first few Beatitudes,Jesus presents emotions, feelings, and basic aspects of life that seem to be contrary to what we would expect to call, "blessed," especially when he announces:
"How blest are the sorrowful; they shall find consolation." (Matthew 5:4 NEB)
Jesus' conversation about sorrow reveals that there are many levels of the emotion. Some are distant and somewhat far off. Others are a little closer and held deep down inside— very intensely personal for you and me.
The first of the faces of sorrow is the grief we feel about the human condition. It was the great evangelist, Paul, who said, "I am the least worthy." His confession may seem to ring true, as we take a quick glance at his life and notice his early persecution of Jesus' followers. As he was on his way to Damascus to continue his vigilante acts, Paul was struck blind by a great light. Later, as Ananias cared for Paul, something like scales fell from his eyes and he gained new vision. Again, Paul proclaimed, "I am the least worthy!"
Prophets, the speakers for God in ancient times, lamented over the behavior of the people of Israel, mourning how the covenant with God had been broken.
Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the stone tablets that contained the very Word of God. Moses had simply requested that the Hebrew people he had led to freedom, "wait patiently and faithfully until I come back." Unfortunately, when he came back down the mountain following his encounter with God, Moses found the people dancing around the golden calf, worshiping and pledging allegiance to the ungodly idol that had robbed them of everything they held to be precious. Moses was filled with such sorrow and anguish that he dashed the tablets to the ground smashing them to bits.
Somehow, in the midst of that sorrow and despair Moses and the people of Israel found a measure of consolation and hope. He went back up the mountain and God gave him the Words of the law again. Moses was able to bring them back down to his people a second time and restore that covenant that had been broken by their actions of infidelity.
A second aspect of sorrow is the sense of shame that we feel when we look around. You might call it a sense of conscience. A variety of painful circumstances exist in society. Our laws and the legal system seem to be out of control. Governmental supports and assistance programs are called entitlements. Supports for persons in need tend more to foster family breakups than strengthen the bonds of love, care, and moral foundation. The Social Security trust funds are ravaged to cover other indebtedness. The mention of God is prohibited in public education forums. Partisan confrontation has become more important to our elected public servants than the privilege of being a servant to the public.
We stand against war. We're filled with sorrow for the victims of such torture and ravage. We oppose the hurt inflicted by narrow-minded people no matter their background or claim to privilege.
"How blest are the sorrowful; they shall find Id consolation, can bring us to the invitation to Come to the tender, yet firm, embrace of God d."
In addition, it's important to shift the focus from general observation and awareness of societal concerns to our own person. When Jesus sat down and said to those gathered around him, "How blest are the sorrowful; for they shall find consolation," he was urging them to understand, "Sorrow doesn't only mean saying, 'Well, that's too bad— that's a shame. I wish it could have been different."' In an effort to further the understanding and the depth of that sorrow, Jesus intensifies the feeling to the sharp edge we feel when the one we love the most has died. How blessed are the sorrowful in the midst of that crushing reality, for they shall find consolation.
Excerpted from Be Filled by Arthur Lee McClanahan. Copyright © 1996 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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