Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Beauty of the Beatitudes

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, June 2, 2002

Was he there, or wasn’t he?
Jesus appeared to me the other night. In a dream or a vision, I can’t tell which. Or, perhaps he appeared merely in the creative recesses of my imagination. Were he to appear, I know this is how it would be:
Not as some great and towering, 300-foot tall Jesus like Oral Roberts might see.
Not like the cosmetized, pale Jesus of the stained glass windows of my boyhood.
Not as Jesus on a white charger, leading four half-crazed horsemen of yet another blood-soaked apocalypse.
No, but as Jesus, the man, a simple human being. As unremarkable as any of us in appearance or manner. A dark and swarthy Jesus, perhaps, looking more like Yasser Arafat than a lily-white Jesus of the movies. But he wore no cartridge belt, no battle fatigues…
Then, he spoke to me. “Hello,” he said, “maybe I should introduce myself. I’m Jesus,” the vision went on. “You know, Jesus of Nazareth, King of King, Lord of Hosts, Messiah, the Christ, all of that. Or perhaps you know me simply as the carpenter’s son…”
“Jesus?” I asked, a little alarmed I will admit. “What do you want with me? What have I done?”
“That’s always the reaction I get!” he responded. “You haven’t done anything. Your name just sort of came up. It’s all kind of random, you know. Some people win the Power Ball; some get audited by the IRS; others get visits from me. Maybe you should count yourself lucky—at least I’m not the IRS!”
I really didn’t know what to say; after all, it isn’t every day that one is visited by such a distinguished visitor. “I’ve read your book,” I stammered. “Well, I mean your biographies. Four of them, actually.”
“Oh yes, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They make for good reading, at least, even if they aren’t entirely what you might call-- historical. I think Matthew’s the most accurate, though John is probably the best written (though he gets a little far out at times, and even I don’t know what he’s talking about). There were others, too, besides those four, you know. One by Thomas—that was the first (and the best, too, if you ask me). Another one by Peter. I even hear that my old friend Mary Magdalene wrote one; now, that would make a great movie! I suppose that if Judas had lived long enough, he would have come up with one as well—a real “kiss and tell” if ever there was one!
Then I asked: “Did you actually say all of those things they said that you said?”
“Well, it’s like this,” Jesus answered. “It’s like the game you might play at parties sometimes. You know, the one where everybody sits around in a circle, and someone whispers something in the ear of the person next to him, and then she whispers what she thinks she heard in the ear of the next person, then to the next, and the next, and so on… And what comes out at the end is never the same as what went in. But sometimes, there’s a similarity; they’re related. There’s some truth, something of the original, left in it. Well, that’s how it was with the gospels. They got some of the main ideas okay—but I sure wouldn’t swear on a stack of Bibles as to the accuracy of every word.” Then, he asked me, “Which part did you like the best?”
I had to think for a minute, mentally flipping through the pages of a New Testament. “I think the Sermon on the Mount is very beautiful,” I said at last.
“Yes, yes,” Jesus replied. “That’s a part they got almost right. I actually said some of those things. Even though it really wasn’t one sermon, you know. They took parts of different sermons and kind of pieced them together. Sort of like ‘The Greatest Hits of Jesus’, I guess. But a lot of my main ideas are in there, that’s for sure.”
Then, with just a tinge of doubt in my voice, I added, “And the Beatitudes are especially beautiful.”
“But you don’t think they’re very practical, do you?” Jesus asked. “That’s what everyone tells me: Great ideas, Jesus, but no way to run a railroad! They won’t work.”
“Well,” I somehow found the courage to reply. “They are great ideals. But people aren’t really like that. I mean: “Blessed are the poor”? How blest are the poor, really? How happy can they be?”
“I’ll let you in on a few things,” Jesus said. And we sat down, and started to talk…
“First of all, let me tell you what I meant by ‘blessed’. Sometimes, the word gets translated as ‘happy’. The ‘Be-Happy Attitudes’, someone even once called them. Well, that doesn’t quite do it. I think ‘blessed’ captures what I meant a little more closely. ‘Happy’ can be pretty superficial and short-lived, like a child at a birthday party looking at all the presents.’ ‘Blessed’ is deeper; it means more. ‘Blessed’ is like the feeling you get when you’re all at peace, deep inside yourself, and one with everything. You know, all at peace, and all of a piece with the whole creation.
‘And I didn’t just say, ‘Blessed are the poor.’ It’s usually those who aren’t very poor who chop off the translation that way. I like the translation ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit,’ better. I wasn’t just talking about material things here. There’s nothing blest about not having enough food, or not having a home, or being without work. That’s something you people could do better around here: helping to provide for those who don’t have enough.
“I was talking about those times when we’re all poor in spirit: when we’ve emptied ourselves of all of our internal clutter, all of our prejudices, all of our narrowness, all of our issues and ego trips, that’s how your psychologists would describe it, I think.
“We empty ourselves of all of these things, and sometimes, we can make space for ideas that are bigger than we are. We can hear other voices besides our own. We can share in the powers of a greater spirit.
“’Blessed are the poor in spirit’ means that only if the glass is first emptied can it be refilled with an even finer wine.”
Blessed are they who mourn…for they shall be comforted.
Have you read much of the work of Saul of Tarsus (you call him St. Paul now, I guess)? I don’t agree with everything he says, of course. But sometimes, Saul (Paul) makes a good point. In a letter he wrote to the little church in Ephesus, he talks about people who are ‘past all feeling’—people who have become totally callous and hard-hearted and cold. Now, that’s a pretty awful place to be, isn’t it? I think that most of your modern doctors would agree that even worse than feeling pain is not being able to feel anything at all. Let me tell you a story:
“Have you ever heard of a Catholic priest named Father Damien? He was a missionary to Hawaii during the second half of the 19th Century, and for 13 years, he ran a leper colony on Molokai. Terrible place. One morning, Damian was fixing breakfast in the kitchen, and he spilled a pan of boiling hot water on his bare feet. He didn’t feel anything. No pain, nothing. He knew then that he had contracted leprosy and was doomed; he knew that he was going to die before too long, slowly and surely. He would have been so much better off if he had felt that boiling water so very, very painfully. It would have burned terribly at first; but then, in time, the pain would have subsided, and Damien could have felt how blest it is to heal. As it is with our bodies, so with our spirits.
“What do we have next? Oh, yes: ‘Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.’ That’s one a lot of you people have trouble with! Who the heck wants to be meek? Not very ‘macho’, is it? Sounds like a bunch of wimps running around, getting all of our stuff, and inheriting all of our hard won territory. Not on your life, buddy! Make my day, and all that!
“And I’ll admit that I sometimes get a little tired of all the ‘meek and mild’ trip that people keep laying on me, too. I wasn’t really all that mild-mannered back in the old days myself, you know. Remember what I did to the money changers in the Temple? I knocked over their tables and threw them out on their ears—lock, stock, and drachmae! So much for the meek and mild Jesus!
“There’s a big difference, you see, between being meek and being a coward, between being humble and being a bathmat. To be meek means learning, finally, that you just can’t keep on resisting the tides of life, that you just can’t keep resisting the currents of the Great River. That’s not the same as not standing up to injustice and evil.
“People who are ‘meek’ in the way I mean it simply realize that there are things in life which are out of their hands. They don’t rush about constantly trying to control everything. They practice what my Taoist friends call wu wei, ‘not doing’—letting things be—letting them unfold naturally.
“Look at Gandhi. Can you think of a person who fits the ‘meek and mild’ mold better than him? Now, I did some pretty crazy things in my day, but I don’t hold a candle to Gandhi. A little man in a loin cloth with a bamboo walking stick, doing battle with the greatest empire in the world. On the surface of things, isn’t that just absurd? Isn’t it crazy? But within 17 years, the little man had won! India was free! Gandhi’s strength didn’t lie in the fact that he could force Britain to give up control of India. He didn’t try to bludgeon them into submission with his bamboo stick. No, Gandhi’s power lay in the fact that he understood that there was a greater force in history of which he was a part. And he was humble enough to give up control of his life to that force. That’s what it really means to be meek, I think: to realize that we don’t have control and responsibility for everything that happens in life. When we realize that, then we can learn to get on with our lives confidently, doing the best that we can, unafraid of the future, not constantly looking over our shoulders at the mistakes of the past. Then, we inherit the Earth. We make peace with the past and inherit the future. Then, we learn to live our lives to their full potential.”
“Blessed are they who thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.”
“Let me tell you a story about another friend of mine—Buddha:
“Once a young man came to the Buddha seeking enlightenment. The Buddha led him down to a river where Buddha and the young man waded into the water for some distance. Then suddenly, the Buddha grabbed the young man and held his head under water (so much for the “meek and mild” Buddha, too, I guess!). He held his head under water and finally, the young fellow managed to get loose. He struggled free, and then he just stared at the Buddha, horrified, terribly perplexed and confused. Then, quietly, the Buddha asked him, ‘When you thought you were drowning, what did you desire most?’ Still gasping, the young man replied, ‘Air, of course!’ And the Buddha replied, ‘When you want enlightenment as much as you wanted air, then you shall get it.’
“It’s when we really want something with our whole beings that we’ll get it. If we hunger and thirst for righteousness—if we hunger and thirst for integrity and honor and honesty and dedication to the truth—and make those things the priorities in our lives—then our souls will be filled with them. Then, our lives can be meaningful and worthwhile.”
“That’s all well and certainly true,” I said to Jesus, still not completely convinced. “But what about this ‘Blessed are the merciful?’ stuff? I’ve seen too many merciful people taken advantage of in my time. You’ve heard the saying: ‘Nice guys finish last.’”
“Life isn’t ever easy,” Jesus replied, deep furrows crossing his brow. “Sometimes, people do take advantage of those who are kind and unselfish and (maybe) too giving. But you might remember a little song about a flower than came out a few years ago:
    ‘It’s the one who won’t be taken
    who cannot seem to give,
    and the soul afraid of dying
    who never learns to live.’
“Unless we learn to have mercy toward others—especially toward those who have hurt us—then what hope is there? And unless we have hope, what use is living? If we don’t learn to forgive, then we can’t hope to be forgiven. If we can’t learn to be merciful, then how can we ever expect to obtain mercy?
“If we don’t ever let go and forgive, then we get caught in the endless cycle of hurt and revenge, hurt and revenge. Then, history becomes nothing more than one long blood feud, a long tallying-up of unrequited wrongs. What use is a life like that? Is that a blessed life? Hardly.
“The way of the world in the days before I lived was always an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Hatred always led to hatred; wrong always begat wrong; revenge followed revenge. That just couldn’t go on if people were ever to get in touch with the God within themselves. So, as a first step, I tried to break the cycle… Maybe I moved things forward, a little… Maybe I showed, at least, that there could be a better way…
“Some people listened, they really did. Some tried to live out the lessons that I taught, not that these lessons were all that unique or new with me. In spite of all the discord that was going on around them—in spite of the fact that the ‘real’ world seemed to grow harder and harsher with each passing year—there were people even back then (and since then) who had eyes to see, and ears to hear, and hearts to understand. ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.’ The pure in heart: they’ll even be able to see God in a world which isn’t very God-like at times…
“But isn’t that the whole point, really? We’re going to be able to see what we’re looking for. We can look at the world and see great misery and despair or evil. It’s out there, all right; you’ve got to be blind not to see it. But if we really look, we can also see signs of hope, and any number of reasons to be filled with joy.
“What we see depends upon the condition of our hearts. It’s what in our hearts that motivates us, that keeps our lives moving along. If our hearts are cold and hard, then our vision is going to be bleak and dark. We’ll see all the evil and depravity and hopelessness of the situation. But if our hearts are pure—if our hearts are filled with love—then we’ll be able to see God. We’ll see the Holy, the True, glimpses of the Divine Presence all around us.
“And there’s one more Beatitude that you people today, especially, need to take to heart: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.’
“This world wasn’t made for war, you know, and neither were we human ones. Look at the other creatures of Mother Earth, the other children of our Heavenly Father. Do the birds of the air and the beasts of the field go to war with each other? No, only we humans do that. Tell you friends, when I look out at what is happening in a place like Palestine and Israel today, that ‘Jesus weeps.’ Not past tense—‘Jesus wept’—but ‘Jesus weeps’- right now, today. The christ in all of us weeps. The child of God inside all of us weeps. Haven’t we learned anything at all after all these years? If not, then when will we ever learn? When will we ever learn? Before it’s too late, I hope.
“But, of course, it’s always easier to say it than to do it. I never said that my way would be easy. I just said that it could be life-giving and life-sustaining. Life is full of tragedy, and sometimes, those who try to do the most have to bear the greatest burden and pay the highest price.”
’Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…’
“You know, when I said those words, I didn’t realize how painful persecution could be. I was young-- what did I know? But I sensed that it was coming. Sometimes, it seems that the world can only give birth to new ideas with turmoil and pain.
“I wasn’t the only one who suffered, far from it. There were those who followed me, and others, too, throughout history, like Gandhi, and like Martin Luther King in your own country, and Archbishop Romero in El Salvador, and so many others. And there will be too many others, as well, I’m afraid…”
At this point, a look of the deepest, most profound sadness seemed to cross the face of Jesus. Then, we sat there is silence for a few minutes, until finally, out of the sadness upon his face, there arose a smile as bright as a thousand dawning suns. And as he rose from where he was sitting. I rose with him. But before I could say another word, he was gone, and I felt within me a wonder not yet stifled, a sense of questions still to be answered.
Blessed be. Blessed be. Amen.

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