Monday, January 30, 2023

Beatitudes and Bricklayers: A Sermon For the Fourth Sunday After Epiphany

 Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany [Proper 4] - Sunday, January 29th, 2023 

Readings - Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12


“Blessed are the meek/gentle, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5.3)

Twenty years ago, when I was in seminary, I went to attend a lecture by a theologian who was in town.     The lecturer was someone only known to me by reputation, Stanley Hauerwas.   I knew that this guy was a big deal in theology circles, a member of the divinity faculty of Duke University who the year before had been mentioned in Time Magazine as “America’s Best Theologian”

I got to the lecture hall early, and there were only a few people there, including one small, wiry old man with a bald head and a short silver beard.   He was wearing jeans, a denim shirt, and a tie that was adorned with a cartoon character (I think it was Daffy Duck but I wouldn’t swear to it).   I honestly thought it was maybe the college janitor who was still hanging around, or maybe one of those odd culture vulture seniors who like to come to academic lectures.  

Well, you can probably see where this is going, but please, bear in mind that this was before the days of smart phones, when anyone can google anything, or I would have soon be the wiser.  I only learned my mistake when the funny old guy was invited to the podium after a fulsome introduction.  During that lecture, I had ample time to reflect on how wrong and even patronizing my first impression of him had been.

Twenty years later I have a long row of Hauerwas’ books on my shelf, and he’s taught m a lot about being a Christian.   I could talk about him all day, but perhaps the most important thing to know about Stanley Hauerwas is that his father was a Christian man and a bricklayer who taught his son to be both.  

In his memoir, he describes how his father started him as a bricklayer’s helper, a labourer working mostly with black men because that’s how segregated Texas worked.  It was demanding, skilled work:  “every task associated with labouring for brick layers is a skill you must learn” (Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir 28).  The work taught him to appreciate skill, hard work, and the company of hard, rough men who took pride in work that nobody else could do or would want to do.

Years later, Hauerwas preached at his father’s funeral, choosing today’s gospel, Matthew 5:1-12, as one of his texts.  He began by describing his father as “kind and gentle, possessing each virtue with a simplicity that comes only to those who are good through and through” (Hannah’s Child 38).  

The reason why I’m telling you all this is because Hauerwas in his eulogy sermon said that his father’s “gentleness … helps us to understand better Jesus’ beatitudes” (Hannah’s Child 38).   While he doesn’t say so in the sermon, I’m quite sure that in talking of his father’s “gentleness” he was thinking of the beatitude “blessed are the meek”, which is a word that can be variously translated as “soft”, “submissive”, “obedient”, or “gentle”, though in the original Greek it means something like “self control” or “strength that shows in restraint”.

Now as soon as I start talking about things like “self control” we get to the heart of the difficulty of speaking about the Beatitudes, because these oh-so familiar words from the gospel also seem terribly intimidating, because they have an ethical dimension.  It’s thus easy to see the Beatitudes as things we should do in order to be better people.  I’m sure you’ve heard sermons (mea culpa!) where you’ve been told to be more pure, be more peaceable, or be more merciful.  The difficulty of such an approach is that the Beatitudes become lofty demands that intimidate us.  

To be sure, there are such ethical demands in scripture, and today’s readings are rich with them.  The prophet Micah, in one of the most well known verses of the Hebrew scriptures, calls on us to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [our] God” (Mi 6:8).  But then we hear the psalmist say that only the blameless can dwell with God (Ps 15:1-2), and we wonder how we could ever be counted among the blameless.

Here in this dilemma is where Hauerwas as a theologian is helpful.  In his eulogy sermon for his father, he said that the Beatitudes are not “ideals we must strive to attain” nor are they “general recommendations for anyone”; rather, they “describe those who have been washed by the blood of the Lamb, [for] it is they who will hunger and thirst no more, having had their lives transformed by Christ’s cross and resurrection” (38).  In other words, the Beatitudes only make sense because they come from Jesus.   They are spoken as gift (and what is a blessing if not a gift?) to those who wish to know and be part of the kingdom of God.

Like they say, context is key.   The Beatitudes are Jesus’ opening act.  Prior to this, Matthew hasn’t told us much about Jesus’ preaching, which is summed up so far in one line: “From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’” (Mt 4.17).  Matthew also tells us that Jesus traveled widely, “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people”, to the point where his fame spreads and “great crowds followed him” (Mt 4.23-25).

So that’s all important because these are the same crowds that Jesus preaches the Sermon on the Mount to (in Mt 5).  If these people are there because they have not yet been healed, then this is just the waiting room of a walk in clinic, but I think there’s far more to it.  Matthew seems to be saying that many in these crowds are there because of the healings, that they’ve seen something of the kingdom of God and they want to know more about what it means to live in that kingdom. 

So these folks in the crowds, they’re the same as us, really.  We gather because we’ve been touched touched by Jesus, maybe even experienced Jesus’ love and forgiveness, but we are also here because we’ve felt the call of the kingdom of heaven.  And because we’ve felt the call of the kingdom of heaven, and as we start to understand how it works, we learn to see and want the things and the people that Jesus sees.  We become hungrier for justice to be done, our desire for mercy, kindness and peace increases.

In his sermon for his father, Stanley Hauerwas said that “We cannot try to be meek or gentle in order to become a disciple of this gentle Jesus, but in learning to be his disciple some of us will discover that we have been gentled” (Hannah’s Child 39).  I think Hauerwas is surely right here.  He reminds us that the kingdom of heaven comes to us as a gift, and in accepting the beatitudes, we find that we’re at a starting point, with further to go and much that might be required of us.

In our book study last week, we were reminded by Canon Martha Tatarnic that the church can be a difficult place.   We aren’t all saints …  well, not yet.   Church people can be awful, sometimes, we can lash out, gossip, be spiteful.   Tatarnic writes she and people she loves have been deeply hurt by others in their communities of faith.  And yet, she writes, the fact is that we have nowhere better to go.  

“We need one another.  We need one another to know and love Jesus.   We need the community of faith and the stories of how God has been at work in actual, real lives - not just our own, but others too - in order to love and serve God” (Why Gather 40).”

Maybe this is why we need the church.  The church exists to make the kingdom of God visible to the world, and the kingdom of God is lived out by people who accept the beatitudes, both as gifts, but also as skills that we must practice at.   Just as Hauerwas’ daddy learned gentleness from following Christ, so did the son learn to be a bricklayer from his father through long days of hard labour under the Texas sun. 

Meekness can be gentleness, but meekness (or humility) can also be a willingness to submit to a teacher.    Meekness can be honesty about our needs, it can be the willingness to receive a blessing because we know that without it our souls would be impoverished.   Meekness can be the willingness to be in community with those who lack in kindness, because we want the same healing for them that we want for ourselves.   

Church is the place where we learn to receive these gifts and slowly, imperfectly, practice them.  It’s also the place where we learn to see each other as who we truly are, all of us - from the humbest bricklayer and to the most brilliant theologian — all blessed, all loved, all gentled and transformed in Christ.  Maybe that’s why we come to church, to see one another as we truly are.  Amen.

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Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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