The Rev’d Kathryn Greene-McCreight
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany (Year A)
January 29, 2017
Give to us peace in our time, O Lord. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I want to try to focus on three things today.
1. What the beatitudes are not.
2. What the beatitudes are.
3. What Jesus as beatitudes means for our “creative maladjustment”
What the beatitudes are not: As I read this passage, the beatitudes are not concepts, ideas, plans for self-improvement. They are not suggestions, commandments, goals. They are not protocols for entering the Kingdom of God, they are not a manifesto for changing the world, they are not prescriptions on how to polish our halos. No, they are not primarily about us. In reality they are primarily about Jesus. They bear his identity. And that is true of all Scripture.
SECOND: What the beatitudes are:
The Beatitudes are blessings. These short blessings open the famous teachings in Matthew 5-7 that we call the Sermon on the Mount. The Lord’s Prayer that we pray in our liturgy is found in the Sermon on the Mount.
I have noticed that, even if people don’t know much about the Bible at all, they might know some of the Sermon on the Mount. It is culturally familiar. But sometimes when you read something that is familiar, you can overlook its details. And there are two such details in our Gospel lesson today.
Look at the very beginning of the passage: Jesus sees the crowd, he goes up the mountain, and he sits down to teach. Simple enough. But we should ask ourselves: why would he sit down? He is outside, on a mountain. If he stood up to speak, maybe his voice would carry farther. But he sits.
Why? One reason might be that sitting is the position of authority for the interpretation of scripture. The preacher would stand to read the scroll, give it back to the attendant, then sit to preach, in the position of authority. In his synagogue in Nazareth, this is just what Jesus does. And at the end of the entire Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is described as teaching with authority. So here at the beginning of the Sermon, Jesus sits, on the mountain.
But notice another detail: Jesus has no scroll. How can he interpret scripture without reading the scroll first? Because he himself is the scroll. And the Sermon on the Mount is his own interpretation of that scroll, of himself. And here, Jesus’ interpretation of himself is blessing, beatitude.
If we had time, which we don’t, I would take the Beatitudes one by one and show you how they are primarily about Jesus. But I will take just the second beatitude to try to show you what I mean that Jesus is the scroll himself. “Blessed are those who mourn.”
1. Jesus mourns over the city of Jerusalem that would not come to him for his motherly love.
2. Jesus weeps over his dead friend Lazarus.
3. Jesus grieves over his dear mother’s pain as she witnesses his own torture, and from the cross he begs his friend John to take care of her.
4. In our day, Jesus weeps over the state of our democracy. Jesus is the one who mourns, who will be comforted. And we also, in our mourning, will be comforted in him.
THIRD: Jesus, His Beatitudes, and our “Creative maladjustment”
This past week I met a beatitude in the flesh. A living beatitude. Her name is Diane Nash. If you do not know the name, she was a colleague of the Rev Dr Martin Luther King, whose life and witness we celebrate this month. She was key to the leadership the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (“Slic” for short) and its counterpart, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (“Snic”). The ground-breaking civil rights laws of the 1960’s owe much to her work.
Ms Nash opened her lecture in Battell Chapel by reminding us of the Rev Dr King’s famous phrase from a speech he gave in 1963, “creative maladjustment”. Here are just some of the important bits and pieces of that speech:
Modern psychology (said King) has a word that is probably used more than any other word in modern psychology. It is the word: ‘maladjusted’ …[King continues] Certainly, we all want to avoid the maladjusted life. But I say to you, my friends, there are certain things in our nation and in the world for which I am proud to be maladjusted… I hope all [people] of good‐will will be maladjusted … [still King] I say very honestly that I never intend to become adjusted to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few...
King suggested, tongue in cheek, that we need a new organization. The title of this new organization was a riff on the title of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). King said what we need is The International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment.
Ms Nash told us how crucial it was to the success of their movement that they maintained in this creative maladjustment the skills and practice of non-violent resistance. She talked about taking the power of hate and redirecting it by the power of love. [Nash’s Christian faith is evident here.] Love, she said, is a power. It is not an inert concept. And it is stronger than evil.
This reminded me of my judo lessons as a little girl, when I was taught how to throw a person charging at me. It is easier in fact to throw someone larger than you than someone your own size. When someone is charging at you, aggressing at you, you don’t aggress back. You redirect their energy to the mat. Love itself is an energy that can redirect hate to the ground. Jesus’ beatitudes tell us as much.
People, Nash said, are never our enemy. Unjust systems are our enemy. Unjust relationships. Unjust attitudes. She said: Never hate a person. Hate their evil thoughts or their actions, but not the person. Now, Ms Nash’s message that love will conquer evil may seem almost pollyanna-ish to us. Especially this month. But this message was not coming from a pollyanna. It coming from a very strong, very courageous woman who had been threatened both verbally and physically with violence. She was imprisoned. She saw very great evil, and she was terrified, and yet persevered. And all in non-violent, creatively maladjusted ways.
It is this non-violent peacemaking that we too must let Jesus work in us, in our day. Jesus’s blessedness will give us the grace to continue even as we struggle. To hate the unjust systems rather than the people who create them and foster them. Even though hating the people is very easy, even alluring, especially this week.
We in our day, in our city, in our parish, must harness that power of peace to redirect the power of evil against itself until, in Jesus’ name, it falls to the floor at our feet. This does not mean quietism for us any more than it did for Diane Nash and her colleagues. Like them, we must be living beatitudes. This may seem overwhelming. It will take work. It will involve sacrifices that we can’t yet imagine. It will take the cleverness of the serpent, the gentleness of the dove, and the creativity of the potter re-forming the maladjusted pot. We have the examples of our foremothers and forefathers in Christ. Let us borrow from their strength and their courage to work for peace in the blessed Name of Jesus.
Thou wilt give peace in our time, O Lord. Amen.