The Great Reversal: Blessed are the Powerless

The Great Reversal: Blessed are the Powerless

Matthew 5:1-2, 5-6

1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Let us pray. Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

When I lived in Atlanta, I attended Trinity Presbyterian Church where a pastor named Joanna Adams dazzled people with her sermons like a theological Olympian. Her sermons were in preaching textbooks. Every Sunday, I would scribble notes on my bulletin. Once I waited in the receiving line and finally greeted her with the nervous energy of a child finally greeting Santa at the Mall. I said, “I truly appreciated that message. See, I wrote notes all over my bulletin.” My voice trailed off. And she said, “Oh, I am so glad to hear that… But are you are going to walk out with the hymnal too?” I went flush. There it was, under my scribbled bulletin. I was caught red hymnal handed. “No, I, um.” I laughed meekly. “I used it to bear down on…” She blinked. Then I said something very parochial like, “Peace be with you” and went back in the church to return the hot hymnal. 

In today’s text Jesus continues his sermon on the mount with two more surprising blessings. Blessed are the meek. The Greek word is proatesIt’s a word we don’t use too often in English, but it also means humbled, gentle, those with the right blend of force and reserve. Here are some definitions I would add: The meek are not the ones who will argue until they are blue in the face. Nor the ones who write in all caps. Nor the ones who always direct the conversation back to themselves. Nor the ones who trick out their car so that it can be heard from a mile away nor those who interrupt every sentence. No, blessed are the meek, the ones who think it through, who take a beat to process, who would prefer to get something right more than to be right, and perhaps those who felt the warm wash of humility, while singing from a hymnal or nearly making off with one.

Then, Jesus continues in that spirit so that we don’t miss the point. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for a better way for everyone than to appear better than everyone. Blessed are those who can feel in their bones what is righteous and fair and yet who do not spend a lot of time wanting credit it for their own virtue. Blessed are those who don’t try to leave a long shadow. But instead shine a bright light.  After the dust settles, Jesus says the meek will inherit the earth. Even after the attention shifts, Jesus says those whose souls grumble for righteousness find themselves filled. 

Today we are ordaining new church officers. And usually an event like this is paired with one of the robust stories of windswept fishermen pushing out to the deep. Or the call of Isaiah to speak even when the words are as hot as a burning coal. We often want muscular texts for ordinations. Chuck Norris texts for ordinations. The ones that make ministry out to be a white water romp down the rivers of righteousness. Maybe that is our inclination because the culture in which we live blesses almost the opposite of what Jesus blesses. Our culture might say: “Blessed are those who take down their foe with a roundhouse kick to the face. Blessed are those who destroy that person’s argument on Twitter. Blessed are those with the largest arsenal, the largest rings on their fingers, the largest following. Blessed are those willing to burn it all down because righteousness and repair take too long.” On its face, it seems like Jesus is blessing the very ones who have the least cultural power or tactics or bravado to enact the vision he has for the world. But the more we listen, we realize Jesus is upending the whole premise that might makes right, challenging the whole assumption that the one who has the gold makes the rules. He is confronting the entire attention economy. 

Now I am not usually one for pithy rhyming sayings. But today, I hear Jesus saying, “Meekness is not weakness.” That is why I think these are ideal blessings for today’s church officers. Jesus acknowledges that it takes a lot more strength to hold people together than to divide them. It takes a lot more vigor to be repairers of the breach, as Isaiah called it, than it does to dominate people. It takes more courage to offer a solution and craft a fledgling budget and build an imperfect team than to decry what has or might fail us. It takes more stamina to hang in there after the excitement has worn off than to build something lasting. But that is the Jesus way. The way of gardens and vineyard that require tending. The way of oddball teams who learn to work past their annoyance with each other and inherit something that is better than they expected. That is why meekness, this same word, is considered a fruit of the Spirit in Galatians. It is a posture of maturity, not timidity or avoidance. 

Meakness is not weakness. There are actually a few key Biblical characters who are described as meek. Meekly raise your hand if you think you know who they are. First, Moses. In Numbers 12:3, Moses is described the as meekest man ever to live. I bet that is not the superlative he wanted in high school. But all those things that seemed to be disqualifiers became part of his great strength. Think about it. It wasn’t the Egyptian palace life that made him impressive. It was when he stared down all that he had been trying to avoid… a traumatic childhood, a criminal record, a season of making ends meet while in the equivalent of his in-laws basement in Midian… at his meekest moment, he was called. When he quit trying to fill his hunger with quick fixes, he was called to his life’s work which freed thousands of others.

Meekness is not weakness. The other person who is called meek is Jesus. In Matthew 11:29, “Gentle am I,” same word. “Humble in heart.” Then again in Matthew 21:5, on Palm Sunday, Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey when the leaders of the day entered on tricked out war horses. I might now refer the triumphal entry as the Preakness of Meekness. Jesus calls himself meek. He would be barely visible in the attention economy. Think about it: The only words he ever wrote were in the sand. The only meals he attended were in the homes of people who were distasteful for one reason or another. He built no buildings. Raised no money. Won no athletic competitions. Offered people stories and questions and parables rather than think pieces or slogans or studies or rants. He greeted every power of the known world, including death itself, unarmed and exposed. And at his meekest moment, a whisper in a borrowed tomb, he was called to rise. And freed us all. And his inheritance is the earth herself, his hunger leads to a fullness that has outlasted all other powers.

I think the world is longing for leaders like this especially in the noise of unmeeekness. We are tired of leaders who hide their scars with arrogance and aggression and we are weary of those tactics in ourselves. We are weary of trying to white knuckle through a global pandemic and we feel that beatitudes hunger for things to be right, not just for us but for the teen in the lunchroom and the gentleman with Parkinsons in the wheelchair and the people of Afghanistan and Ukraine and Honduras and the woman who fell during the Olympics and the people who cross through our parking lot day after day and lonesome kid in our own mind. We want things to be right in God’s eyes – the word for that kind of righteousness is dikaiosune – we want that for all of them. Deeper than bumper stickers. More lasting than yard signs. And so we need to continually ask ourselves if we are blessing the ones that Jesus is blessing. Are we able to muster the meekness of Moses and Jesus and lead with a sacrificial love? Could we build an attentive economy?

I think of wild popularity of Ted Lasso, a mini-series that featured Jason Sudeikis in his new role as coach of a premier league football club, aka soccer, when his experience was in midwestern American football. It was a show that elevates kindness and celebrates goofiness. He says things like “I shouldn’t bring an umbrella to a brainstorm.” And “I feel like I fell out of the lucky tree, hit every branch on the way down and ended up in a pool full of cash and sour patch kids.” Ted is genuinely humble, and over the course of the show, you find out why that is. His heartaches make him an unusual kind of strong, strong in lifting up other people and a strong radar for the heartaches of other people. At one point he is being mocked, challenged to a game of darts by the philandering former owner of the team, and he responds: “Guys have underestimated me my entire life. And for years, I never understood why. It used to really bother me. But then one day, I was driving my little boy to school, and I saw this quote by Walt Whitman, and it was painted on the wall there. It said, ‘Be curious, not judgmental.’ I like that.” The dart sticks in the triple segment. 

“So I get back in my car and I’m driving to work and all of a sudden in hits me. All them fellas who used to belittle me, not a single one of them was curious. You know, they thought they had everything figured out. So they judged everything and they judged everyone. And I realized that their underestimating me, who I was had nothing to do with it.” Another dart sticks. “Because if they were curious, they would have asked questions. You know. Questions like, have you played a lot of darts, Ted? Which I would have answered. Yes, sir. Every Sunday afternoon at a sports bar with my father from age 10 to 16 when he passed away.” Bulls eye.

And I think of Amanda Gorman, a young African American Catholic woman from South Central Los Angeles, who grew up week in and week out as a child lay reader at St. Brigid’s and became the poet laureate of the United States. She said, “Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true: That even as we grieved, we grew. That even as we hurt, we hoped. That even as we tired, we tried.” 

Let’s all remember that meekness is not weakness. Whether you are a child of this church or feel like one in your faith, I hope you keep asking questions. Your rainbow connections and Godly play wonderings and IMPACT songs and musicals and term as an elder or deacon make a difference on this earth. Like salt and yeast, like candlelight and mustard seeds, like Moses and Jesus Christ, God chose you just as you are. At your meekest moment, God blesses you so that you might bless the world. These blessings are yours to take with you from this church into all the world like a hot hymnal to teach an angry world a new song. A song of peace, and hope, and hunger for righteousness.