Three months ago I decided to preach through the Beatitudes this summer. I would start in June with “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” But once June arrived, it did not seem like the time to recommend being “poor in spirit.” Victims of racism do not feel blessed right now.
“When racial conflict erupts, people like me want to think of ourselves as enlightened.”
If Jesus had said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for someday they will get the kingdom of heaven,” we could get behind that. We want people who have been mistreated to be compensated for what they have been through.
But Jesus is not talking about the future. My suspicion is that Jesus says what he means – that God’s people suffer with those who are suffering, hurt with those who are hurting, and pray until they cry. It does not sound like heaven. It is not the way we would run a kingdom.
The hearts of the poor in spirit have been broken by a long list of sinful, violent acts against people of color. Eight years ago, the nation’s attention was drawn to the death of Trayvon Martin. A year later it was Eric Garner, then Michael Brown, then Freddie Gray, Ezell Ford, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Botham Jean, Dominique Clayton, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and now George Floyd. We know there are many others whose names did not make it into the news.
African Americans are in danger when they drive their car, take a walk or watch birds in Central Park. It does not feel like we are making progress.
James Baldwin said:
“You’ve always told me ‘It takes time.’ It’s taken my father’s time, my mother’s time, my uncle’s time, my brothers’ and my sisters’ time, my nieces’ and my nephews’ time. How much time do you want for your progress?”
When racial conflict erupts, people like me want to think of ourselves as enlightened. We are the good (white) people. We try to get our cousin to change his language around us, so our cousin avoids us. We vote for politicians who support equal rights and opportunities. We are nice people who do not consider ourselves racist at all, and yet we seldom pay a price for the racism that surrounds us.
Jesus took his place with the victims of prejudice. Those who had the authorities on their side felt no need for Christ’s help. The status quo was working for them. They thought the blessed ones are the ones who do not face prejudice.
“The hearts of the poor in spirit have been broken by a long list of sinful, violent acts against people of color.”
The congregation for the Sermon on the Mount is made up of victims of bigotry. Jesus shares the sadness and pain with which they deal. Jesus looks at this crowd that knows all about suffering and says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit. God is on the side of the broken-hearted.”
Jesus does not say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit because it’s good to have hard lives.” Jesus understands that impoverishment is evil, intolerance is sinful, and bigotry is horrible. Being blessed is not about having no problems. Being blessed is about being loved.
The great Christian monk Thomas Merton went to the dentist one day and ended up writing about a life-changing experience:
“Yesterday, in Louisville, at the corner of 4th and Walnut, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness. I have the immense joy of being human, a member of the human race in which God became incarnate. If only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There’s no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
Merton spends the rest of his life with compassion for the victims of prejudice. He writes about the connections between love and suffering. He works for justice.
I was one of the thousands who attended the memorial service for George Floyd in Brooklyn on June 4. I could imagine what Merton would feel if he was there, because if we open our hearts, God will overwhelm us with the understanding that we have sisters and brothers who are the victims of prejudice, that they are ours and we are theirs, and that we should not be alien to one another even though we are total strangers.
We need to wake from the dream of separateness. We need the immense joy of being human, members of the human race in which God became incarnate.
I preached on the poor in spirit, because when I listened carefully it sounded like God saying we have to do better – as the church, as communities and as a nation. You and I have to do better.