I continued our Unfinished sermon series this by taking a look at the Beatitudes in Matthew 5.1-14, specifically ‘Blessed are the poor.’ If there’s a danger in romanticizing the poor, I think there’s an equally grave danger in always seeing them as objects of our blessing.
You can listen to it here below, in the sidebar to the right or download it in iTunes here.
Here it is:
Often when you serve the poor hands-on or go to someplace like Guatemala to work on a mission project, you hear people say things like ‘It really makes you appreciate all your blessings.’
It’s always struck me as an odd turn of phrase, even though I’m guilty of using it myself, and I thought it was an idea worth puzzling over.
Now, whenever Jesus wanted to look at something upside-down and possibly leave his listeners confused and PO’d, he’d tell a parable.
Once upon a time-
In a small mountain village atop the Guatemalan Highlands, in the thin air where coffee grows and cornstalks grow short and the cirrus and cumulus mingle with pines, a church mission team from Anywhere, USA threw their 3 figure North Face luggage onto the roof and climbed into their well-appointed rental van, their white skin chapped and burnt from the nearby sun.
Sitting down in the first comfortable seat they’d had in a week, the baker’s dozen of them wiped their faces of the grime that still lingered after days of cold, quick showers.
They stretched their legs feeling, if not clean, refreshed, wearing the clothes they’d saved for this final day at the bottom of their duffle bags, their dirty work clothes left behind to be discovered like orphans by whichever needy woman cleaned up after them.
As the diesel van pulled away from the village, a cloud of dust and scampering, waving children in its wake, the mood in the van turned reflective. The van shifted into second while the pastor of the group pulled from his bag not his bible or his Barth but his iPhone.
Seeing the half-eaten apple come alive in the (Otterbox-protected) glass screen, secretly the pastor was proud of himself for going so long without it. Jesus in the desert still had 3 weeks on him, the Pastor mused, but surely this must be what the Savior himself felt when he stumbled from the wilderness and took his first bite of bread.
Gary, a hospital administrator, leaned his head back again the cushion and daydreamed about the hot, sandal-less, mouth-wide-open shower he was going to take when he got home, one that would go on for as long as he was willing to pay the city for it.
In the row in front of him, Jessica, a high school senior, spoke of looking forward to sleeping in her bed- a real bed- made warm from the vents in the floor and not a mountain of blankets piled on top of it.
And food, she said, McDonalds. She couldn’t eat any more rice and beans, she confessed, unless of course it was from Chipotle.
Gene, a retired engineer sitting in the passenger seat, asked no one in particular, what they were going to do to take this ‘high’ they’d felt all week into the ‘real’ world.
Meanwhile, the pastor presented to listen as he thought about how he would celebrate this week past on the only altar that really, truly matters: social media.
As if hearing the pastor’s thoughts, Mike, a government contractor, activated his international phone and set about updating his Facebook profile picture, to a shot of him kneeling beside a little village girl who smiled despite having nothing in her life.
Nancy, a middle-aged mom, who’d sort of become the mom of the group for the week, tried to frame their experience, point out the big picture, like a mom would do:
When you see people like this who have absolutely nothing, it makes you realize how blessed you really are.
And everyone in the air-conditioned van nodded at what seemed the Gospel truth of it.
When they could no longer see the visitors waving goodbye in the window from the back of the van, normal returned as quickly as it had gone for a while. The little children went to go play. The school-aged kids went to school and everyone 14 and older went to work.
A 4 year old boy named Diego stood, along with his 3 friends, near the carpet of tin siding his parents had laid on the grass, on which lay harvested ears of corn drying in the sun.
Diego and his friends stared down, next to the corn, at all the bright, colorful toys their visitors had left behind, toys with strange-sounding names like ‘Frisbee’ and even strange scents that none of their olfactory memories could identify as ‘packaging.’
Diego stared at all the stuff- he’d heard their visitors use that word more than once, stuff- and then he grabbed the hard, plastic ball, about the size of a softball (though he didn’t know what a softball was), a ball his brother had had before him, and he and his friends started to play soccer like they had a million times before in their few years.
Kicking the ball square on his inside left, Diego thought briefly about how blessed he was. Maybe he couldn’t put into words what was running through his 4 year old brain, but all the same he was considering his blessings.
Sure his ball wasn’t a real soccer ball and, yes, it was dimpled and about to break, but Diego couldn’t imagine how poor it would be- sad, really- to have so many toys that you don’t know with which one to play. What would be the fun in that?
Or even worse, Diego thought, how poor would it be to have so many toys you forgot the most obvious thing about toys? That it’s not about with what toy you play; it’s about with whom you play it.
As he watched his pal celebrate a goal, kicked straight through the stacked bags of cement, he felt a twinge of melancholy for those who lacked the blessings he and his friends enjoyed.
After their visitors disappeared down the dirt road, Maria, a 5th grade girl, hurried up the gravel slope to the village church that more often doubled as the village school.
As she walked, Maria remembered how one of their visitors, a teenager, had asked her simple Spanish if she liked school. And when she’d given the true and obvious answer (si), the visitor had reacted with genuine surprise and had asked again as though not trusting her own Spanish (si?!)
It seemed she couldn’t imagine Maria enjoying school, but Maria couldn’t imagine how anyone could not love school, especially when they got to go even after they should be working or starting a family.
As a 5th grader, Maria herself only had a few years left of school so she was determined to savor them. She loved learning; it felt to her like creation was more than willing to yield its secrets to those willing to tug and tease them out- like the way the numbers and fractions on their cracked chalk board revealed themselves on her father’s plumb lines and masonry work.
Maria stamped the dust off her feet as she entered the church, feeling sorry for those who lacked. She couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be without: joy, excitement and curiosity, wonder at God’s world around you.
She sat down in the 5th grade section of pews next to her friend Brenda, who was talking to the girl next to her. Like everyone else that morning, Maria could hear, they were discussing their recent visitors.
Remember when they showed us the pictures on their cameras, Brenda recalled, the pictures of their houses?
So huge, her friend replied, so many rooms!
And thinking about that, Brenda recalled a bible story she’d heard in this same room, where Jesus says to let your light shine and not hide it under a basket.
Brenda thought that when you lived in a house so large, it must easy for your light to get lost in all those rooms.
And suddenly she felt sorry for those visitors. Your light is everything, Brenda knew, and without out it you have nothing. Her parents would be proud, she thought, sitting there and feeling grateful for how blessed she was.
The church bell rang the start of school and the roosters crowed for those who might’ve missed it and, once they’d quieted, almost like the tick-tock of a minute hand, you could hear the sounds of hoes striking soil all around the mountain fields.
Manuel braced himself in the sheer, sloped field and went to digging in the bean field. The familiar rhythm took possession of him. This is what he did, what he’d been taught to do by the fathers who’d done it before him, and Manuel did it with the stern and subtle grace of someone who knows his purpose and life’s meaning, and, for that, he felt blessed.
This was, after all, the land his fathers both heavenly and earthly had bequeathed him.
It fed the children he was charged to protect, the wife he was vowed to care for and the neighbors he was called to love as much as himself.
Life was exceedingly simple when you took such a long view, Manuel thought and, in thinking, thought of their visitors. Manuel couldn’t imagine what life must be like from where they came. To travel so far, so many miles, to find a sense of meaning or purpose in life?
Perhaps, Manuel wondered, they’re what Jesus refers to in Luke’s sermon on the plain as ‘poor in spirit.’
As the leader of their village church (a priest hadn’t been through in years), Manuel was given to such ponderings, his thoughts in time to his work like a metronome, thoughts like the nagging one he had now about the toilets their visitors had so generously provided.
While he and everyone else in their community were sincerely grateful for the gift, Manuel nonetheless pondered what was worse: to be without sanitation or to be without the everyday knowing that so many in the world were without it?
It struck Manuel as a question with no easy answer, the sort of question he’d drop in a sermon and leave to others to sort out.
Manuel stood up to straighten his back and wipe his brow and look over his work. Their visitors had worked hard and without complaint while they were here. Still, it was clear that they were not used to such work.
He tried to imagine what it would be like, to be without such knowledge, to not know the labor that goes into the food in your belly and the home over your head, to not know the feeling of slumped shoulders and aching backs and muscles burning like paid-out ropes.
If you didn’t know such a sensation, Manuel the churchman pondered, it seems that it would be easy to become callous about those who did labor and maybe even indifferent about those who exploited them.
Thankfully, he thought, returning to work, Manuel didn’t need to worry about such an impoverished spirit afflicting him. No, it was as tangible as the soil in front of him: he was blessed.
At sundown that day, as the volunteer team from Anywhere, USA ate McDonald’s and waited for their plane to board, Miguel, a stonemason, returned to his cement block home for dinner.
His wife, Isabella, was standing by the brick stove where she’d been all day. Now that their visitors were gone they’d be eating simpler fare. Well, not simple, Isabella thought, humble maybe but not simple. Their food was never simple. After all, they’d sweated into their food out there in the fields, at tilling and planting and harvesting and all the in-between times and sweated into it in here over the fire.
She handed Miguel a stack of fresh tortillas and he received them, as he always did, as though they were the host. Manna.
And maybe they were, she thought, knowing herself, just as well as Moses ever did, the fragile line between scarcity and survival.
A little less rain one day, a mudslide another- that was the thin difference between being filled with good things and being empty.
But knowing that ever so slight balance, she thought, was itself a good thing wasn’t it? And not knowing it, that would be a kind of poverty wouldn’t it?
What must it be like, Isabella wondered, her mind drifting reflexively to their visitors, to say grace at the table and not know just how much the food in front of you is exactly what the language of prayer declares it to be: a not so small miracle, a blessing.
A fact that always made her feel blessed.
She and the kids sat down at the table next to Miguel to eat. The volunteers had sat there this week and after dinner each night they’d sit here and sing and break bread and read scripture.
Not knowing English, Miguel couldn’t make out their conversations but he’d listen anyway, feeling curious and even a little sad.
How would you even hear scripture when you’re them, he wondered, sympathetically, when you’re not the sort of people God wrote it for?
Take Mary’s song, he contemplated, where Mary sings about how Jesus has come to lift up the lowly, fill the hungry, humble the proud and powerful and send the rich away empty.
It’s easy for me to hear that as good news, Miguel regarded, but how does it sound when you’re the proud and the powerful?
It must make a simple story like the Gospel seem confusing and complicating, he decided, suddenly feeling blessed that such a burden was not his to bear.
That evening before she boarded the plane, Nancy typed an email to her husband on her tablet: I want our kids to come here someday. Maybe then they’ll learn to…
But she lost the wifi signal before she could send it.
As she and the rest of her team got on the first leg of their flight, Manuel and Miguel and some others from the village warmed themselves by a stove’s fire, sipping hot chocolate and reflecting on the week gone by.
It’s inspiring how they always seemed to be smiling and happy despite everything they lack, Manuel’s wife observed.
Everyone nodded in agreement.
Having visitors like that come here, Isabella said, it really makes you appreciate your blessings.
Miguel said si and wiped the cocoa from his lip and then speculated: I think they blessed us as much as we blessed them.
His thought provoked nods all around but Manuel, in his churchman’s tone, said: Don’t be ridiculous.
They couldn’t bless us even if they wanted. Jesus says it plainly in the bible.
We’re the ones with God’s blessing not them.
They don’t have it to give. We do.
Silence followed as they all tried to square the clear facts of scripture with what their experience told them.
I guess what I mean is…Miguel explained and then stopped, still sorting it out…that when you spend time with people like them, who lack so much…it reminds you…that God’s blessing isn’t what he gives. It’s that he’s with us.
Some more nods circled around the fire’s glow.
I hope they still come to visit when our kids are older, Isabella said. If they do, maybe it will teach our kids to appreciate all their blessings.