The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
Epiphany 6, Year C
Jeremiah 17:5-10; St. Luke 6:17-26
February 17, 2019
On Selective Reading and the Beatitudes
This morning, I hope to approach my sermon in a slightly different way. I want to explore a particular theological reflection with you, a way to engage the text itself that demonstrates the opportunity we have to be transformed by the words we read—the Word we encounter—rather than use our sacred texts either as a shield or a means of protecting any agendas or biases we may hold. So, I encourage you to pick up a copy on your way out and keep reading it. If we run out of copies, I will post it online for you to explore. But above all, let’s keep the reflection going, because these texts are far too important for just a cursory glance.
I hope you noticed that the Gospel reading this morning is St. Luke’s version of The Beatitudes, which are slightly different from St. Matthew’s version. St. Luke’s are a bit more stark, saying, for instance “blessed are the poor” rather than “blessed are the poor in spirit.” While St. Matthew’s version feels more poetic, I value St. Luke’s as well. They are “to the point,” and they don’t let me off the hook. With the reference to poverty, for example, by saying “blessed are the poor” versus “blessed are the poor in spirit,” I feel more convicted to come to terms with actual physical poverty, actual embodied existence, rather than finding a way to remain somewhat removed from the grit of life that I may prefer to ignore.
I must ask myself “how do I make sense of poverty and how does the Gospel challenge me to recognize the call to care for my brothers and sisters—indeed for all of creation?” I am convicted with the challenge of “blessed are the poor,” “blessed are you who are hungry now,” and “blessed are you who weep now.” When I encounter “blessed are you when people hate you,” how does this convict me more than “blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake.” St. Luke feels more “in my face” somehow, and it calls me to account for my own Christian practice. I find myself wrestling with my discomfort, and this is important to notice.
I do think that we struggle with the Beatitudes. In my experience, we live in an environment when some schools of Christian thought, some denominations, seem to give certain verses more moral weight than others. We fixate on some verses while others while giving others only a cursory glance.
Many of us are prone to proof-text, carrying certain verses in our back pockets to whip out like magical talismans when anyone or anything challenges our assumptions about how people should act or about how society should look.
Some of us Christians want so badly to hold on to a literal interpretation of the Bible—although I can honestly tell you that absolutely no one truly holds a literal interpretation of the Bible. We only hold a literal interpretation of those certain Bible verses that validate our preconceived notions of how the world should be. We keep our talismans close at hand to protect us in those moments when we feel afraid, when our worldview is challenged, when our cultural power is threatened. We all do this. It is time that we were more honest about it, because the hypocrisy is suffocating sometimes.
As rampant as this agenda and fear-based proof texting is, to hold on to certain verses to protect our status, I have never heard of anyone holding tight to a literal interpretation of the Beatitudes. Not many seem to hold these verses as a moral standard.
It is curious that when it comes to this text, in which we find Jesus himself giving a direct teaching on how to understand ourselves, we love to make it poetic. We are fine with this text being understood figuratively, but other verses we grasp onto so tightly our knuckles turn white. Why is it that we fixate on certain verses?
Look at the way the Church as an institution rationalized slavery by having a literal interpretation of certain texts—until we realized that we had evolved as a society and we had to come to grips with the other verses of the Bible that hold freedom and justice for all people as hallmarks of Jesus Christ’s message of redemption.
Look as well at how the Church has sought to keep women contained or controlled, to limit their role in the leadership of the Church—although I can tell you firsthand if it weren’t for the faithfulness of women, the Church would have shriveled up a long time ago. Some focus on a few verses while ignoring the many others that see women and men as equally worthy in God’s eyes—as equally called to bear God’s presence in the world.
And, look at how we grasp on to a few verses we can count on one hand when it comes to our brothers and sisters who were born gay rather than being willing to admit to ourselves—like we did with the permission of slavery—that we cannot simply take very few verses out of context and impose a rigid interpretation onto our day and age. We must ask ourselves what do we do with the many verses and stories that hold different expressions of human love and community, complex dynamics of family and identity? Why do we fixate on certain verses?
And look at how we have rationalized a warped understanding of dominion to justify our neglect of the earth and our ignorance in recognizing God’s presence in the beautiful creation God has made. What happens when we fixate on a few images that uphold our power and control while ignoring others that command us to be responsible, to see our interdependence within creation?
My point is this: I must ask myself why I focus on certain verses while ignoring others. The Beatitudes are a perfect example, as is Jesus’s challenge to the rich man to “sell all you have.” Or the Bible’s command not to charge interest on loans. Or the call to love our enemies. We don’t seem to focus on these verses when it comes to how we live in the world today. Why is that?
Today, I am curious about this tension and want to take the risk to explore it with you. How can we lean into the conversation in a way that might shine a light on this tendency we have to react out of fear and grasp onto certain verses that maintain our power and control?
I have learned that interesting things can happen when we lay certain verses alongside others. Take today’s reading from Jeremiah, and this challenging image of the human heart, which we see described as “devious” and “perverse”: “I the Lord test the mind and search the heart…” When we take this verse and lay it alongside the Beatitudes, something profound opens up that helps us understand how we approach certain verses.
Here is where it got interesting for me in studying these texts. The English translation that we read says this: “I the Lord test the mind and search the heart.” But, in reality, this word “mind” that immediately sends us into our minds, into our head spaces (with which we are far too comfortable), this word in Hebrew, kilya’, actually means, of all things kidney. Actually, it is a fascinating word because it is used nearly equally to mean kidney or—listen to this—rein. Rein, as in the rein used to guide and control a horse. Vestiges of this link between kidney and rein are hidden in plain sight when we think of the way kidney failure is what: renal failure. Or, with the adrenal gland, or adrenaline. There it is, right in front of our eyes. When we see things like this, we should stop and pay attention, because words are used purposefully.
Why does Jeremiah use this word for kidney and rein? Why is it translated in English as mind? Something important is going on.
Well, this is where you might say it gets spooky. The ancients knew—somehow—that this area of the body was the seat of complex and reactive emotions that were often fear-based and anxiety-laden. How did they know this?
Not to get to spooky, but ask yourself why that the Hindu tradition and yoga recognize the chakras as energy centers in the body. There is a knowledge there that recognizes that, somehow, this place in the body is a center of a certain degree of energy that needs to be controlled, directed, grounded, focused. It is an energy induced by fear or stress. How have we experienced our adrenaline spike in moments of fear or stress? If those complex emotions are left uncontrolled, if there is nothing to rein them in, we act out of a place of fear and anxiety that can inhibit mature spiritual growth and action.
Do you see the connection when this image is laid alongside how we approach the teaching of the Beatitudes? The Beatitudes are challenging in their understanding of how our personal lives and community should be understood: that poverty is called blessed while a grasping onto riches is deemed threatening. “Woe to you who are rich” Luke says, making sure we get the point.
We humans are interesting creatures, aren’t we? There is within us a tendency to grasp and control that, if left unchecked and ungrounded by a sincere practice of prayer, fuels our egos. Friends, this is why we speak of the need for a contemplative posture that grounds us, challenges us to see that shadow side of ourselves, the shallow side of ourselves. I can assure you that such a practice of prayer isn’t loosy goosy, or woo woo, or, honestly, optional. It is absolutely vital for our lives.
As Cynthia described so beautifully last week, we have the invitation to put out into the deep waters and be aware of the resistance we feel in being vulnerable. Are we aware of the resistance we feel when our assumptions are challenged? How willing are we to be honest about this?
Today I don’t have any answers to give you, only images to lay alongside our life, to provoke us, to challenge us, to invite us. Because I know I am challenged—daily—to open my heart to the transforming presence of Christ, a presence challenges my own selective reading. Christ’s sacred heart invites us to realize, ever more fully, what it truly means to be blessed.