Dr. David D. Young
March 30, 2008
Genesis 32: 1-13
Luke 14: 1-11
"The Art of Spiritual Displacement"
Blessed are the poor in spirit. Today we begin our Spring Seminar Series, "Seeds of the Kingdom: Beatitudes for Blossoming." It is appropriate that we should welcome such seeds as we gather on this first Sunday after Easter. For it is in the glow of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ that we find new life and growth possible.
Author John Underwood Stephens, in his book, A Simple Guide to Prayer, tells a modern day parable.
……a grain of wheat, taken from an Egyptian tomb that had been closed for three thousand years, has grown in this latter day. Surrounded at last by warmth and moisture, the little germ of life, apparently extinct for three millenniums, has revived and put forth a shoot. Upon first thought, the wonder of such persistence of life may overshadow another fact no less significant. This further fact is that growth, when finally it does occur, is not an original action. It is a motion of response.
Well, here we are in 2008 nearly 2000 years since those beatitudinal beginnings shared by our Lord – and we are offered such new life and growth all these years later – life and growth in the spirit.
Past General-Secretary of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjold, expressed his particular need this way, "If only I may grow: firmer, simpler, quieter, warmer." And that is the hope for all of us during this beautiful spring, Easter-tide season now breaking forth – that we may grow by exploring the beatitudes of Jesus. Hear them now as we begin our exploration as recorded in Matthew’s gospel – the 5th chapter.
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
New Testament scholar and author of the book, Ethical Teachings of Jesus, E.F. Scott, shares this insight,
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."
"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth."
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled."
"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy."
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God."
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God."
"In the Beatitudes Jesus portrays the new type of person who will find entrance into the Kingdom. Just as this age produces the character which is fitted to thrive in it – the self-centered, aggressive, worldly minded person – so the coming age will require persons of a temper altogether different. Such persons alone will find themselves at home in the new conditions."
We’re not going to focus on the tendency in our society toward self-centeredness. But we do need to recognize it is present. The baseball season is beginning again. And here’s good ol’ Charlie Brown standing on the pitcher’s mound on the opening day of the season, and he says, "Okay team, this is our first game…let’s hear some chatter out there…Let’s show ‘em what kind of spirit we have… And Lucy is standing in the outfield – paying no attention to the game and only admiring her fingernails – and says, "Just wait ‘til next year!" That’s not the kind of spiritual displacement we’re talking about today.
"Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Like that seed found in the Egyptian tomb, growth is a motion of response to something outside itself rather than a self-centered focus. If we look to our text for this morning we find Jesus involved in such responding. Beginning at Luke 14 verse 1, "One Sabbath when he went to dine at the house of a ruler who belonged to the Pharisees." A side note here, the Sabbath was probably not violated in this case because the meal more than likely was prepared on the day before and kept warm – so as not to have worked on the Sabbath.
"One Sabbath day he went into the house of one of the leading Pharisees for a meal, and they were all watching him closely. Right in front of him was a man afflicted with dropsy. So Jesus spoke to the scribes and Pharisees and said,
The key here is that Jesus not only knew the importance of responding to the needs of others – he actually did it – even if one technically wasn’t supposed to work on the Sabbath. Jesus knew the preciousness of life and surely he must have known that healing on the Sabbath would give glory to God – not take it away. (Which is what worship is all about.)
"Well, is it right to heal on the Sabbath day or not?"
But there was no reply. So Jesus took the man and healed him and let him go. Then he said to them,
"If a child or an ass or a cow belonging to one of you fell into a well, wouldn’t you rescue it without the slightest hesitation even though it were the Sabbath?"
And this again left them quite unable to reply.
Henri Nouwen, the Dutch-born theologian, in his book, Compassion, writes, "One of the most tragic events of our time is that we know more than ever before about the pains and sufferings of the world and yet are less and less able to respond to them." If that commentary is true – as I dare say it is – then we as Christians have our work cut out for us – more than ever before.
I trust that many of you are familiar with the widow in the scriptures who responded with her last coin – as a real statement of her faith. Today, I want to share with you the story of another widow from the last century, who lived alone in the mountains of Tennessee during the financial depression of the Thirties. A government agent was sent to visit the impoverished farmers of the region to make small loans and allotments for seed, stock, and improvements, or, subsistence aid. Coming to this widow the agent found her barely eking out a living on two acres of land, tilled with primitive methods. "If the government should allot you a sum of money," he asked her, "what would you do with it?" Her cabin had no floor, its windows were covered with paper, light came through the broken walls…but she looked up and said, "I think I would give it to the poor."
"Blessed are the poor," said Jesus, (in Luke) and "Blessed are the poor in spirit," (in Matthew.)
The key here is not that we all live a life of poverty – but that no matter what our condition in life – we need to press beyond our own orbit of self – out to the places where we can respond to the needs of others.
Our text does not stop with the motion of responding, for in the 7th verse we read that Jesus told a
parable to those who were invited, when he marked how they chose the places of honor saying,
"When you are invited to a wedding reception, don’t sit down in the best seat. It might happen that a more distinguished person than you has also been invited. Then your host might say, ‘I am afraid you must give up your seat for this person.’ And then, with considerable embarrassment, you will have to sit in the humblest place. No, when you are invited, go and take your set in an inconspicuous place."
Jesus is well aware of the elbowing and positioning that comes with social ambition. Here in these verses he has described an all too human scene of petty conceit. How many of you know people whose feathers get all ruffled when their dignity is hurt? From the devotional guide "The Daily Walk," comes this quip,
"People who sing their own praises usually do so without accompaniment."
Which is to say, it can be pretty lonely and embarrassing when people are constantly patting themselves on the back. Even if we try to be humble we often end up being proud of it.
A member of a certain religious sect was asked what his order stood for. "Humility," he answered briefly. Then he added "At humility we beat the world." I imagine we all know people who have said such things in jest – when responding to a compliment – as – "Oh yes, I’m a very sensitive, caring, charming and wonderful person – and modest! (too)"
The fact of the matter is that as soon as humility becomes self-conscious, it becomes pride instead. Humility is losing oneself – throwing oneself away in complete concentration on something or someone else. It was Jesus who also said, "She who would find herself, will lose herself. And she who would lose herself, for my sake, will find herself."
Humility is reflecting that the source of who we are and what we contribute to life is God and not us. But how often do we want status? And how often do we try to work our way to the top – or at least to a place of importance? As with most parables, this one of the banquet would suggest that God is like the host. It is clear then that God does not want us to seek status – for through his love God has already done that – to each of us the same.
I suspect God doesn’t want us to prove ourselves, only to express ourselves as God has created us to be. Recall with me this passage found in the latter part of Luke’s gospel,
Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others: "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like others, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his heart, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!" I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted."
Theologian, Paul Tillich writes that,
“It is the greatness of Christianity that it can see how small it is. It keeps itself humble, in proper perspective. We are little lower than angels, but we are also flowers that fade so fast they are immediately forgotten. It is God who is great; any importance we have is a reflection of God in our mortal human stuff."
When we take on the life of responding in service and accepting the place of lowliness – we are reflecting that God is the source. And, when we know that God is in control and in this morning’s case, like the host, - it takes the pressure off of us from having to orchestrate ourselves into a position of prominence - otherwise, we don’t trust the host to give us our due place. Well, responding beyond self and reflecting the source of all life as God and not us, leads to receiving.
Let’s return to this morning’s lesson once more, picking it up at verse 10, "Now when you are invited," said Jesus, "go and take your seat in an inconspicuous place, so that when your host comes in he may say to you, ‘Come on, my dear friend, we have a much better seat than this for you.’ That is the way to be important in the eyes of all your fellow guests! For everyone who makes himself important will become insignificant, while the one who makes himself insignificant will find himself important."
Whatever blessings we receive in the life of faith, we acknowledge that they are gifts from God. When we don’t try to play the game of being God’s best buddy – but know that we are among many we can trust that God does have a place for us.
Our text does say that we will be exalted – but it doesn’t say how high – and that’s not the big issue in the text anyway. It is as though God is saying don’t fritter your time and energy away trying to position yourself (in the pecking order) – just know that you are special and loved – let go of the illusion that you can control everything.
In the last few months of his life, Joyce Carey, the writer, was so crippled with paralysis that he could no longer speak. He was unable to dictate, and the only means of communicating that was left to him was laborious writing with a pen tied to his hand. One day he wrote, "I look upon life as a gift from God. I did nothing to earn it. Now that the time is coming to give it up, I have no right to complain."
Wow! If anyone should have a right to complain – surely this man did. And yet we hear ringing in the background those words of Jesus.
"Blessed are the poor in spirit – for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
We have been juxtaposing that beatitude with our New Testament text this morning in an attempt to learn "The Art of Spiritual Displacement."
Responding beyond self! Reflecting God as the source – not us – which is real humility! Receiving God’s blessing in gratitude!
When we push beyond the bounds of self, the possibility is present of responding to the needs of others, and reflecting that the source of all life giving energy is from God, which leads to our receiving whatever gifts come from God with joy and gratitude!
In closing, I share with you a poem by Madeleine L’Engle,
Pride is heavy.
May the light of Christ’s glorious resurrection give blossoming growth to this beatitude seed in us today and during the days ahead!
It is a fatness of spirit.
an overindulgence in self.
This gluttony is earthbound,
cannot be lifted up.
Help me to fast,
to lose this weight.
Otherwise, O Light one,
how can I rejoice in your
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."