“A Place Beyond Fear and Hope”
Sermon by Rev. Don Ludwig, March 15, 2020
Psalm109:21-25; Matthew 5:1-12 and Thomas Merton, Theme Reading
One of my favorite movie-making troupes of all time is Monty Python. I have almost as many lines memorized from Python flicks as the Bible. Like from The Holy Grail: “Come back here, I’ll bite your knees off”!” But my favorite movie is “The Life of Brian”; a whimsical parody of the times in which Jesus lived. A favorite scene in the movie occurs when Jesus is giving the famous Sermon on the Mount. The thousands of people crowded on the hill—with no amplification system—actually can’t really hear Jesus’ sermon…not clearly anyway…which gives the following famous “misquotes”. Someone says: “I can’t hear…what did Jesus say?” Others chime in: “I think he said blessed are the cheesemakers.” “Cheesemakers?? What’s so special about the cheesemakers?” “Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.” (Permission to groan or laugh.)
A lot has been said about Jesus’ words—misquoted or otherwise—often referred to in the “sermon on the mount”. Thomas Sheehan reminded us at a Jesus Seminar, that Jesus’ entire message is captured in this one sermon. It is about blessings but not the kind of blessings that we usually think of. Jesus was for the underdog to be sure, he was always defending the poor, but there is much more to his words. We learn that Jesus did not come to save souls, but to transform people’s lives.
Today I want to simply focus on one blessing of Jesus’: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…”. In our COVID-19 reality and with a wavering economy as a result, in a nation where the poverty rate is the highest since the Great Depression, where homelessness among children and youth in Oregon is considerably rising, when we have a President that is fickle at best, we are finding a trend that sociologists and futurists note as a time when “the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer” more sharply than ever before.
A couple of years ago, I asked our middle school youth a range of questions to which they needed to stand on one side of the room if they agreed and the other side if they disagreed. One of the questions was if they felt America would be a better place when they grew up – 6 out of 8 did not think so. Years ago, the optimism and hope for the future was so much more than it seems to be now.
Poverty of Spirit
Has our hope turned into fear and anxiety? Can we find meaning in Jesus’ words “blessed are the poor in spirit”? The Greek word that is translated “poor” is ptochos (p-to-chos) and it means true or abject poverty. What is interesting, however, is that this Greek word is not only referring to economic poverty, it has to do with political and emotional poverty as well. In other words, Jesus is referring to the kind of poverty of spirit that breaks people. The kind that brings suffering. When the stresses in your life drive you to be empty of energy or the current social landscape of America fills you with uncertainty or fear. Then you are “poor in spirit”.
We all experience times when we feel our spirits being crushed or weighted to the point of deep exhaustion or despair. It is in these times, that Jesus says, “blessed are you”. “Blessed are you when you feel great poverty, great PTOCHOS of spirit.”
But how can being poor of spirit be a blessing?
It’s kind of a funny story
Several years ago, Kathy and I saw the movie, “It’s Kind of A Funny Story” based on a 2006 novel by American author Ned Vizzini. The story is about Craig, a teenager living with his family in upper-middle class Brooklyn. He attends a prestigious prep school, where there is constant academic pressure. The pressure to succeed in school and life plunges Craig further into a state of depression.
The movie opens with Craig feeling so overwhelmed with “life” and thoughts of suicide that he decides to check himself into a nearby psychiatric ward for the weekend. In the ward, he meets other patients–each with their own story of what has become so unmanageable in life that they could not cope. As predicted, Craig discovers a form of “community” among the patients. As he listens to each of their life stories, he slowly begins to reflect on his own life and the sources of his fear and anxiety.
What makes the movie so relatable is the reality that this could be the very backdrop to our own lives. We all teeter close to the edges of disillusionment, apathy, profound grief or utter despair. We dare to become hopeful about the prospects of the world changing for the better, only to be let down by reality or overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem. Hope can quickly turn into fear – fear into anger or denial – and we are left wondering whether our efforts are worth it. Are we making a difference?
Last Spring term, I received an email from one of my students. It reads: “Hello Dr. Ludwig. I have been meaning to speak to you after class for some time but I have been too shy to do so. I am struggling in my life right now. I recently lost a job that I love because I could not pass a drug test. I have turned into this person that complains all the time, is upset all of the time, and it is really embarrassing. My life is full of positive things, yet I find myself focusing on the negative…. Can we talk?”
So how can being poor in spirit be a blessing?
The Place beyond Fear and to a Place of Hope
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount provides a response. Jesus suggests that when our need is greatest, when we are exhausted with trying to control outcomes, when we are struggling with a drug addiction or the loss of pay, when we are fearful of the unknown, when our spirits are utterly broken…there we will find God. At deep times of despair, if we pause and listen and open our hearts to others…there we will find comfort and blessing – a place beyond fear and hope.
In an article entitled, “Beyond Hope and Fear”, author Margaret Wheatley wrote: “In difficult times it takes effort to stay grounded in the present, but it is only there, that we will find a place unclouded by hope and fear”. I admit that I am guilty of trying to save the world – of taking on too much– of shouldering the burdens of others and my own, trying to control and manage everything and anything. In this times, I need to remind myself to stay grounded in the present. Breathe. Look and listen for the blessing that may emerge…listen for God.
The Blessing in Relationships
Fourteen years ago, many of you may remember, I walked into this church—actually I dragged myself into this place using a walker—barely able to speak, recently emerging from a cocoon of depression, looking not for outcomes or pity—but craving that very tangible, healing, inexplicable gift of relationships…that was the “God” experience I needed in my life. I was extremely “poor in spirit” – physically, emotionally and spiritually– and received God’s blessing through all of you!
The Emotional Lift that we give each other
You may have seen a video recently that has gone viral rapidly. People are passing it along all over the world. It comes from Italy, a country devastated by the coronavirus, where the entire population has been asked to sequester themselves at home as much as possible to slow the spread of the virus. This has resulted in social isolation and growing feelings of despair without relational contact.
In this context, the Italian Airforce decided to send a message to the country: one of hope. An emotional lift that everyone could pass on to one another and remind each other that they were NOT alone. That they are ONE community, ONE country, share a common experience and be a blessing to each other.
The video shows a dramatic display of a choreographed group of fighter planes bursting through the air, displaying smoke of patriotic colors with a recording of Luciano Pavoratti singing, “Nessum Dorma”, translated “let no one sleep”. After this event, and throughout the following weekend, Italians have been heard singing Pavoratti’s song to each other across balconies.
We can be a source of comfort…an emotional lift to one another especially when we are feeling poor in spirit.
Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit
Jesus and Thomas Merton; the story of my student and the teenager looking for answers; the Italian Airforce providing an aerial message of hope—each of these remind us that it is our relationships that give meaning to our struggles. In the midst of great despair, depression or anxiety…social proximity does not matter…relationships do. If we free ourselves from struggling to control or change or manage outcomes, we discover clarity, patience, newness AND discover that the community around us can be experience in many ways.
In Margaret Wheatley’s book, “Perseverance”, she writes “we’ve learned that no matter how despairing the circumstance, it is our relationships that offer us solace, guidance and joy. As long as we’re together, as long as we feel others supporting us, we can persevere.”
In these times, when we have nothing to offer — it is precisely because of our poverty—our humility—our brokenness–our inability to find help within ourselves—that we become open to receive God’s blessing and the blessing of others. In these times of “social distancing” – we can become cognizant of our deep love and commitment and mutuality with one another.
Friends, we are a community whether we are physically gathered or not. Perhaps, this is a time for new beginnings as a church. This being the season of Lent in the Christian calendar, perhaps we can make a commitment outward – to connect with others in new-found ways. Perhaps you can take the church directory and make three phone calls this week to simply “check in” with others. Or drop a card in the mail. Or leave a note on a doorstep.
I hope that everyone in our midst will continue to make connections and find a way to love each other even during these times when we are not in the midst of one another. My hope is that everyone will find a place that is beyond fear and hope.