Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Citizens of the Kingdom--A Sermon

Citizens of the Kingdom
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

Walt Whitman, Selections from "Song of Myself"
Luke 6:20-21
Matthew 5:3-4, 6
Thomas 54; 69:2

Congratulations, you poor!
God’s domain belongs to you.
Congratulations, you hungry!
You will have a feast.
Congratulations, you who weep now!
You will laugh.
--Scholars' Version

When the Jesus Seminar translated the gospels they used the word “congratulations” in place of the more traditional word, "blessed” when Jesus pronounced his so-called Beattitudes.

“Blessed” sounds churchy. Blessed is a nice word, though. I on occasion close a note with “Blessings” or “Blessed Be.” There is a bit of slight formality to it. We say a blessing for a wedding or for confirmation or at a dinner party. At the end of the worship service today, I will offer a benediction or a blessing. Something sacred is being conveyed.

Yet in this context, if we are not careful, “Blessed are you poor,” could offer a hint of pity to it, almost condescension. “Bless your heart.” The world sucks and you have a miserable life, but “bless you.”

The Good News translation uses the word “happy.” That sounds a little chatty. Happy are the poor. It is hard to say that the poor, hungry, and mourning are happy. Put on a happy face!

It is not easy to find the correct word because the word you use depends upon what you think the text means as a whole as well as the meanings of the original word in Greek and the connotations in modern English.

I don’t think “Congratulations!” does it either. It sounds a little too clever actually. It is as though scholars want to use this word to teach us something. That is, of course, the case. The Jesus Seminar wanted to convey the sense of surprise of favor on the unsuspecting.

The word in Greek is makarios and my Greek English lexicon defines it as “blessed, fortunate, happy.” It is used in the sense for a “privileged recipient of divine favor.”
A privileged recipient of divine favor.
That is what needs to be captured.
You, my friend: poor, hungry, in mourning, are a privileged recipient of divine favor. You are royalty. You are a rock star.
Or as Walt Whitman said,
“Divine I am inside and out!...

And I or you pocketless of a dime may purchase the pick
of the earth,”
You are divine inside and out.

The reason that is so scandalous and well, crazy, is that in the default world of the normality of civilization, poverty, hunger, and mourning are signs of failure not of divine blessing. When we read Deuteronomy through Kings, one of the main voices of the Hebrew scriptures, we find that wealth is a sign of God’s favor and blessing. Poverty, hunger, and suffering are signs of God’s neglect or punishment.

Those we consider fortunate are so because they have a fortune. Fortune personified as a deity has smiled upon them and given them great riches.

So when Jesus says, presumably to those around him that they are fortunate, favored of God, and blessed, it doesn’t make much sense in the default world. In the default world of the normalcy of civilization, those who have the stuff are considered favored by God. God bless America.

Those who don’t have the stuff are considered to be, well…probably sinners. They need to get right with God and then God will bless them. In the default world, if you are poor, hungry, and depressed, you probably deserve it.

And that is a great theology for those who have stuff. Civilization channels stuff from the many to the few. The king, considered God’s viceroy, gets the most stuff because God has blessed him. This is royal theology. In Jesus’ time this would have been the theology of Rome, Roman Imperial theology. It would have been the theology of David and Solomon in Old Testament times.
Every civilization has a theology or philosophy that justifies and rationalizes who gets the stuff.
God bless America. City on the hill. A Christian nation. A new Jerusalem. How do we justify consuming 20 million barrels of oil every day when we only produce 8 million barrels per day? We deserve it. We are blessed. We are entitled. We are accustomed.

Richard Heinberg who writes a lot about issues of energy, population, and stuff said that anthropologists have identified 15,000 human cultures but only 25 civilizations. Civilizations are energy hoarders. To survive they must constantly grow and take from outside of themselves until they eventually implode.

When humans moved from hunter-gatherer to agriculture, civilization came into being. With the growing of crops comes surpluses and those who control them. You eventually have a wealthy elite controlling the many.

You need priests and bureaucrats and economists to justify that inequality as normal. The “invisible hand” (is that not a theological phrase?) of the economy will guide us we are told. In Imperial theology the wealthy are the blessed. The mythical vehicle for getting blessed is to “work hard” and get right with God. This means that those who are poor or hungry did not work hard enough or they are sinners.

When Jesus goes around pronouncing blessedness on the poor, the hungry, and the suffering, he is messing up the system. It is heresy. He is reversing imperial theology. He is putting on its head the way the world works.

The danger is that the poor, the hungry, and the suffering will believe him. If they do believe him, if they do realize that they are divine inside and out, that they are blessed of God, that there is nothing wrong with them, that in fact God is on their side, you got problems.

People begin to question the “normalcy of civilization.” People might actually organize. Then you have to make sure you have constructed enough crosses and publicly execute radicals like Jesus who spout heretical nonsense that God blesses the poor.

Then what you do is you don’t badmouth Jesus. Instead you turn him into a god. You take what he said and add a few prepositional phrases here and there. So instead of “Blessed are you poor,” Matthew has Jesus say, “Blessed are you poor in spirit.” And you can convince folks that Jesus did love the poor and promised them a spot in heaven especially if they are humble and don’t get above their raisin’.

Imperial theology and inequities of the normalcy of civilization go hand in hand and they still do today.

Every now and then, people do discover the radical Jesus who has been buried under centuries of dogma, superstition, and greed. Sometimes even the clergy get it.

Roman Catholic archbishop, Helder Camara of Brazil, understood the radical teachings of Jesus and he understood the power and dominance of imperial theology. This is his famous quote:
“"When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist."
When Jesus said:
Congratulations, you poor!
God’s domain belongs to you.
Congratulations, you hungry!
You will have a feast.
Congratulations, you who weep now!
You will laugh.
I have to think that he meant it. That he meant it literally. That he meant it in this world.

He was offering to those who often didn’t hear it because they didn’t think they deserved to hear it, that they are valued.

“Divine I am inside and out!” Shouts Walt Whitman.

Yes. It is the via positiva. It is the way of recognizing our own royalty. We are all kings and queens and not because of anything we have or don’t have, but because we are.

When for whatever reason, people are devalued and beaten down for so long, it takes an act of divinity to turn it around. That is what we need to be to one another. We need to be for one another that divine promise.

This goes for everyone caught in the web of inequality and consumerism.

When I was serving my first church in New York state I was asked to serve on the mental health board. I remember when they had changed the name of the people they were serving from clients to consumers. Rather than patient, or client, a consumer was more dignified, so went the rationale.

I thought it odd that the best term we could come up with to describe a human being's dignity was consumer. Consumers? Is that what we are? Is that who we are?

No, we are royalty, divine inside and out.

We need to pronounce to ourselves and to one another, the way of awe and wonder, beauty, and royalty. We need to be to and for one another and for all earthlings, divine messengers.

This is a poem from Mary Oliver that I think comments on these sayings of Jesus:

Messenger

My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird —
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be
astonished.
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all ingredients are here,

which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.

How important it is to know that we are royalty as we are. That we don’t have to fit into some prescribed stereotyped plastic mold. That we don’t have to wait to be congratulated until we achieve some goal that our society sets for us as normal.

Divine you are, inside and out.
Congratulations!
You are beloved.
You are a blessing.
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