A Meditation on Jesus' Beatitiudes
Matthew 5:1-12 and Ayisha Siddiqa's Poem ("On Another Climate Panel")
Sunday, January 29, 2023
Stu Dias tells me that one of his dearest friends was out shoveling this week, when a huge branch snapped off a massive tree and fell on her. Directly. Breaking both of her hands, another bone in her neck, and necessitating as many as three surgeries to repair the damage. Impossible to see it coming. The back end of a winter storm. Disrupting everything about her life, and shattering her family’s routine in more ways than you or I can even imagine.
How can that be? That the same world that dazzles us sometimes shatters us? It was, as you know, a stunningly beautiful series of storms, last week, waves of winter brushing fields and forests with ice and snow; inspiring even the great trees themselves to bow before the Creator in praise and gratitude. It was one of those weeks that reminded me of still another poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and how she wrote that ‘earth is crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with the glory of God.’
And yet, or maybe also—all the beauty, all the wonder, all the stardust doesn’t protect us from the falling branch. It doesn’t save us from the fragility of our own bones or the vulnerability of our own hearts. The same storm that moves us to tears—because it’s all so mystically, so wondrously lovely—shatters the life of a friend we love, and a family we cherish. (And, by the way, let’s hold dear Melissa, Stu’s friend, in our boldest, kindest prayers this morning. She’s got a long road to recovery. And prayer channels divine energy and light. So pray for Melissa and her family this morning.)
“Been born from so many apocalypses, what’s one more?” There’s a line, right? “Been born from so many apocalypses, what’s one more?” And I wonder if this is why Ayisha’s poem hit so many of us so hard last week: there’s a sweetness to it, to be sure, this radically generous intention with which she “follows love into extinction.” But there’s a disquieting context too, what some might even call an “apocalyptic” context—that extinction itself is on the table at all, a possibility for the human family, and so many other creatures, siblings all, on the earth we love. It’s rare, in my experience at least, that a piece of poetry (or scripture, for that matter) agitates and inspires a community as Ayisha’s poem did last week. Words still matter. Sacred texts.
And the stunning verses in conclusion! Just reading them this morning, the hairs on the back of my neck jump up. “For what it’s worth,” she says. “For what it’s worth, I’d do this again. / Gamble on humanity one hundred times over. / Commit to life unto life, as the trees fall and take us with them. / I’d follow love into extinction.” So I think Jesus would like this poem. What do you think? I think Jesus would couple it with his own Beatitudes, with his own Sermon on the Mount. Not because Ayisha Siddiqa promises that everything will work out right, because she doesn’t. And not because she reassures us that God will fix all the broken pieces, and resolve all the conflicts and wars. Because she doesn’t do that either.
But isn’t it exactly Jesus’ way to “follow love into extinction”? Isn’t it exactly Jesus’ way to celebrate God’s redeeming touch, God’s sanctifying succor in the ordinary patterns of ordinary days, in the ordinary rhythms of our ordinary loves? Eternity isn’t an expanse of generations, or a calendar of millennia—not for Jesus, it isn’t. Eternity is our communion with God, with Jesus, with one another—in the loving and blessing and sharing that unfolds among us and between us in real time. Ordinary time. “For what it’s worth, I’d do this again. / Gamble on humanity one hundred times over.” That’s eternity. That’s the gospel. And that’s love.
Happy are those destitute in the life-breath, he says, because theirs is the kingdom of the skies. And—happy are those who mourn, he says, because they will be comforted. And—happy are the gentle and the parched for justice and those who show mercy and the makers of peace. Grow giddy with joy, he says. Grow giddy with joy, because your wages in the skies will be generous.
Now, to be honest, this is not a particularly balanced way of living and caring. And I say this with a modicum of self-awareness and hopefully a deeper sense of humility. The Sermon on the Mount isn’t driven by conventional wisdom and a commitment to traditional notions of self-care. It’s not emboldened by easy answers, either, or hard and fast dualities. Black and white, good and evil, saved and unsaved. If you’re looking for certainty, if you’re happy when everything makes sense, the Beatitudes may well disappoint. Happy are the broken spirits who grieve, and the parched for justice, and the makers of peace. It’s not unlike “following love into extinction.” Finding life in losing it, as Jesus might say. Taking up the cross, as Jesus might say. Emptying one’s spirit to discover the ever-flowing stream of grace within. No easy answers, but a tsunami of amazing grace!
So it strikes me this morning that Jesus isn’t drawing up a recipe for individual satisfaction, spiritual stability, or even enlightenment. What he’s offering us is a communal practice, a church in motion, an apocalyptic discipline nurtured in mission and small group life, fed by deepening friendships, sustained in risky worship.
I’m thinking again about you, Stu, and the way you rearranged a busy week to move in with your friends and hang out with their young son—while his mom gets prepped for surgeries and recovery and the long road ahead. And I’m thinking of so many others here this morning, risking discomfort and even despair, but offering love to a friend whose inner world is now in disarray. Sitting in the darkness of depression with a dear one who’s fighting her way out of it. Or trying to. And I’m thinking about RowVaughn Wells—the mother of Tyre Nichols, murdered by police in Memphis—and how she bravely stepped up this week to express her unimaginable grief, and then with her next breath called on protesters around the country to love one another, to seek meaningful change, and to act with peace toward all parties on all sides. How do you do that? When you’re shattered like she is? How do you speak of peace in that moment?
To love like this shines light into the caves of our human hearts. To love like this is an act of profound faith and prophetic imagination. To love like this signals your commitment to agape, not anger; to discipleship, not destruction; to the way of redemptive suffering, not the way of retribution and violence. This is the path we’re on. This is the life we nurture in one another. Nothing less than this. “What if we stun existence one more time?’’ That, that right there, is the point of Jesus’ Beatitudes, right? That’s really the mission statement for the beloved community in every generation. “What if we stun existence one more time?”
To put this Sermon on the Mount in context, we should note that Jesus has inherited—from the prophets and poets before him, and probably from his dear cousin John—he’s inherited a lively and apocalyptic imagination. That word “apocalyptic,” meaning the un-covering of truth. And conjuring up an unveiling of the Spirit’s movement, or an unmasking of the power of Love. Which can seem quite hidden a good bit of the time. Which can seem obscured by a thousand fears and the storm clouds of war. Quite basically, an “apocalypse” is a revelation. An un-covering of mystery and meaning.
Now among Jesus’ contemporaries, “apocalypse” came to describe hope in a better future, and confidence in a world redeemed. Jesus surely encountered visionaries (was maybe even instructed by them) who imagined the end of Roman rule, the end of empire’s greedy grip on families and communities. And the inauguration of justice and equity, abundance for all, and shalom across God’s beloved creation. Apocalypse. Where the lions lay down with the lambs. And the nations lay down their weapons, and the whole lot of them study war no more.
But Jesus takes all this and offers a radically constructive, powerfully human and spiritually transformative twist. Yes, every generation faces its own series of endings and beginnings. And yes, every generation is at some point shaken (and shaken hard) by the unknown, and the unforeseen, and the shattered foundations of conventional wisdom. But the gospel church watches for the unveiling of love in the midst of it all. And the gospel church reaches for the hands of God in the hands of neighbors and strangers, friend and foe.
So the apocalypse Jesus imagines isn’t a catastrophic ending, or a violent clash of armies and empires; nor is it a devastating and demoralizing once-and-for-all repudiation of creation. Jesus is no nihilist. Instead, Jesus knows that God is already at play in the world; that God is the breath of creation itself; that God is passionately present in human hope and human hurt; that God’s Love (unguarded and nonviolent), God’s love is the one lasting and redeeming power, and the only power that can reconcile broken hearts, divided peoples and disillusioned spirits.
So he sits us down on a hillside in the Galilee. And he motions for us to lean in close, to listen with our hearts. And with these stirring Beatitudes, Jesus calls on you and on me, to participate in the unveiling of God’s love. This is his most stunning stroke, the radical heart of Jesus’ faith in us. He calls on us to participate in the unveiling of God’s love in the worlds we call home, in the church we cherish, and the third rock from the sun. Dare to be destitute, he says. Dare to be destitute in the life-breath. Dare to grieve, he says. Dare to grieve and mourn and weep for the losses that break your hearts. Dare to hunger and thirst for the common good, he says. Dare to be a parched soul for justice and peace.
The apocalypse isn’t out there somewhere, a catastrophe cooked up in the mind of an angry god. The apocalypse is at play in you and me. It’s the power of divine love unveiled in us, in our hope, and in our tenderness.
Over these next months, we’re going to have a sustained conversation about this building, this campus, and the spaces we inhabit and love on Main Street. Friends, I challenge us to imagine this campus as a thriving, shining center of spiritual growth—where an apocalyptic people inspire in one another an apocalyptic practice, and learn to love as Jesus loves, and to serve as Jesus serves, and to bless as Jesus blesses. The progressive 21st century church cannot take faith and spirit for granted—but must creatively and delightfully and bravely raise up poets and prophets, disciples and dreamers, activists and advocates. Through transformed people, the church will transform the world.
So these are the questions that should guide us and inspire us: How will we encourage in one another spiritual delight and Christian tenderness? How will we cultivate—through worship and friendship—a willingness to be hounded for the sake of justice? And how will we raise up generations of humble and curious disciples—who love Jesus with all their hearts, but find in that same love a deeper well of blessing and affirmation for all kinds of tradition and faith? And how will we offer a full range of resources and support to every young person, to every dear elder, to every soul who steps through these doors wanting to change the world? What might this place look like? And where do we begin in making it so?
Richard Rohr has written: “I have often wondered why people never want to put a stone monument of the Eight Beatitudes on a courthouse lawn.” Which is an interesting thought, right? Given the ways Christians like to memorialize certain parts of the tradition, but are often given to ignoring the real juice. “I have often wondered why people never want to put a stone monument of the Eight Beatitudes on a courthouse lawn. Then I realize,” this is Richard Rohr, “that the Eight Beatitudes of Jesus would probably not be very good for any war, any macho worldview, the wealthy, or our consumer economy either.”
Friends, it’s our privilege and calling to build our community around these Beatitudes and then to watch for the redeeming work of Love in our midst. In this is the true apocalypse, the only apocalypse we’ll ever need. The apocalypse of a gospel people, in love with God, dedicated to the blessing of life. After all, “love is still the only revenge. [And] it grows each time the earth is set on fire.”
Amen and Ashe.