The Simple Life

A message on the sixth beatitude.  

A few nights ago, with daughter Hannah away at camp, and wife Kathi out for dinner with a friend, my son and I opted to have what he calls “Daddy and Graham time.”

We did lots of things together that night, but the best moments were spent in the backyard. There’s a small firepit behind our home that I’m embarrassed to say we hadn’t used yet – even after being in Iowa for a year now – and it was high time to break it in.

Fireside Chats
First we gathered the tinder, some kindling, and bigger logs and set them all up in the pit. After getting the fire started we cooked hot dogs over the flames, nibbled on pretzels and peanut butter, and washed it all down with a favorite beverage. Graham, age four, loves his ‘lemolade.’

And if I’d planned a bit better we would have had smores too, it’s hard to beat munching on a sandwich of graham crackers, chocolate bars and marshmallows, while outdoors, watching the sun go down.

The two of us listened to birds chirp, heard grasshoppers sing, and watched as lightening bugs began to light up the night sky. Our home backs up to a forest full of trees, with plenty of greenery, and accented by vibrant flowers in multiple hues. We took the time to appreciate all of it.

Best of all we got to talking about anything Graham wanted to. It was our version of a fireside chat, no topic held back. He told me about the VBS he went to this week, singing a couple songs and sharing a bible story he’d learned. We talked about school starting again, he’s excited to begin using his new Incredibles backpack. And it sounded like he really missed big sister Hannah, and looked forward to her being back home from camp.

When it came time to go inside and start winding down the day I asked if he’d like to watch Ninja Warrior for a bit. “No thanks,” he replied, “screens are boring. Let’s play cars in my room instead.” Yes, I thought to myself, (parenting win!) and we excitedly headed inside to do just that.

After tucking Graham into bed I went back to the fire and reflected on the evening.

We’d eaten, and drank, and played, enjoyed nature, and connected in conversation. Our time spent together was one of those moments I’ll hold on to for a good long while. The experience makes me want to spend an awful lot more evenings fireside outdoors. At least while the weather here in central Iowa is amenable. It was peaceful. It was fun. And it was incredibly simple.

Gardenside Walks
In the beginning it was also incredibly simple. Before distinctions like sickness and health, poverty and wealth, cleanliness and filth, there was, simply, God. A universe, population one, is about as simple as simple gets.

When God got to creating creation complexity first entered into the equation. The heavens were separated from the earth, the waters from the land, and all sorts of life, from microscopic plants to big blue whales weighing a whopping 200 tons, suddenly, with the snap of a cosmic finger, all came to be.

Despite this increased complexity all was as it should be. The master builder had a master plan, and executed that plan masterfully.

To help manage all this newness God created Adam, and then Eve, forming them from the dust of the ground, breathing life into them. But God didn’t create them to sit on their hands and do nothing: God gave them jobs. Their job description, too, was simple. “Till this land, and keep it,” God said. Adam and Eve were the original gardeners, the original park rangers.

Our creation provides humanity identity: we are children of God.

But our vocation provides purpose: we are caretakers of all there is.

It was a pretty cool gig these two had, from what I understand. Their compensation was infinitely high – all their needs were met, they were free to roam the land, and could appreciate and partake in almost all there was.

Their healthcare plan too was unheard of, it had no cost, with no copays. Even more amazing, the plan included a guarantee of no sickness, and a promise of eternal life. Whoa! Try getting *that* from your government or health care provider. 😊

Best of all, after work finished up for the day Adam and Eve had the chance to walk in the garden, together, with God, and talk about anything they wanted to. No topic held back. I like to think that during these evening strolls they ate and drank as they walked and talked with God, grabbing some fruit from this tree and some cool water from that creek. I like to think they too enjoyed the chirping of the birds, the singing of the grasshoppers, the lighting of the lightening bugs, and everything else this original paradise contained.

And heck, Adam and Eve didn’t even have to worry about clothing; there was none. They were naked, and they were unashamed.

God then gave these first employees the shortest employee manual there ever was. It had just one rule. Eat from whatever tree you’d like, the manual says, with the exception of just one. You heard the rest of how that went down from Genesis 3. We’ve being living in the aftermath of the forbidden fruit ever since.

The Pure of Heart
Today we enter week six of our sermon series on the Beatitudes. The focus of this message is Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Author Dale Allison, in his book The Sermon on the Mount suggests this beatitude has generated perhaps more discussion than any other. What does it mean to have a pure heart? Biblical writers refer to the heart as where the true self resides, and also the symbolic center of both feeling and thinking. Scripturally speaking the heart is what makes us, well, us. It’s the whole ball of wax.

St. Augustine, who conducted his own beatitudes sermon series way back in the year 393, refers to a pure heart as being a “simple heart”.

A simple heart is single-minded in devotion to God. A simple heart is not divided or conflicted in allegiance. A simple heart doesn’t jostle between trying to please both God and humans. A simple heart is rightly directed. A simple heart is a singular focus on God.

And the blessing from having this simple heart? You will see God.

My favorite scriptural example of what this looks like is in the first two chapters of Genesis. These two chapters are all we have that describe what life was like before Adam and Eve ate that forbidden fruit. Here we have the first humans, of simple heart, that walked with, talked with, and saw God, in the flesh.

And it represents less than two-tenths of one percent of the entirety of biblical text.

I wish there was more, because what’s there paints a beautiful picture of life on earth before it got messy, complicated, and entirely screwed up by selfish human desires.

The beatitudes have been used at times to encourage a more cloistered lifestyle, where people separate from much of the world, to better focus on the divine. This approach, in a very tangible way, is a call to simplicity. This is the goal of many an order of monks and nuns. Martin Luther himself spent two years in the Augustinian order of monks, and it was deeply formative.

Most of us, however, are not called to a cloistered life of this sort.

(Tho if you are, please do consider selling *all* your belongings and then do consider donating the proceeds to our fine congregation. I’d suggest that you could just make the check out to Pastor Ryan, though that would impede my own aspirations of being pure in heart.  😊)

For the rest of us, we non-cloistered types, there is plenty of wisdom to be gleaned from this beatitude.

Our Allegiances
This beatitude represents, for all of us, a call back to simplicity.

Our world is incredibly complicated, and our allegiances are constantly being compared, tested, and challenged, in all sorts of ways.

Thinking locally…

For public school systems which is better, Gilbert or Ames? I’d guess in this room our allegiances are divided. And for the record both, from what I understand, are amazing.

The Scandinavian Coffee event we do here at Bethesda is a fine tradition that goes back over 60 years. But what about the upcoming Oktoberfest here? I hear that we’ll sell beer! Which do you swear allegiance to, coffee connoisseurs or lovers of beer breweries? And for the record I love both coffee and beer, and the traditions both hail from, and will be attending both.

And talk of politics? Of Republicans and Democrats and Libertarians, oh my? For the record I probably shouldn’t even go there. For the record it’s yet one more way for us to divide.

Our Allegiance
A pure, simple heart is single-minded in devotion to God. A simple heart is not divided or conflicted in allegiance. A simple heart doesn’t jostle between trying to please both God and humans. A simple heart is rightly directed on God.

Personally speaking I needed that reminder, that call back to simplicity, and it happened earlier this week outdoors with my son. Our time was spent eating and drinking, and talking and just being. All while surrounded by and appreciating God’s creation. For the two of us it was fairly novel – we really need a lot more of this kind of time together – and it was wonderful. It was divine.

Jesus modeled what it means to be pure in heart more than anyone who has ever walked this earth. His focus was on the will of his Father, at all times, and he lived that allegiance out on the daily.

Now this message isn’t a full treatment of the creation story, or of original sin.

But the garden of Eden, and the simple perfection it contains, offers an exquisite narrative of how we can live out this simple heart Jesus speaks of.

Close
The original garden is a reminder, that the master builder has a master plan for all that is, including you. You, yes you, are part of that master plan.

The original garden is a job description. We are caretakers of all there is, keepers of the land, tillers of the soil. We are to love the land and its inhabitants, just as God loves this planet and all that it contains.

The original garden is a warning, of what happens when we engage in the tug of war between our will and God’s. Allegiances become divided, simplicity is lost. Life becomes more difficult, more complex.

And the original garden is a promise, of what our life can be like, in the here, and in the hereafter. For when our hearts are pure, and simple, and focused on God, over and above all else, we are better able to see. It is then when we can see the world not just as it is, but as it should be. And it is then when we can participate, in the divine job of bringing this world closer, into alignment, with this idyllic garden.

Keep your heart simple, my friends, for therein lies the blessing.

Keep your heart simple, my friends, for it is there you will see God. Amen.

The Errant Haircut

About a month ago I went to the local Sportclips for my once-every-six-weeks-or so haircut. Sportsclips uses electronic check-in, so everyone gets their hair cut in order, and you can see your name and estimated wait time on the screen, I kind of like it. They also keep your hair styling preferences in your electronic profile, so no matter who does the cut there’s a record of how you normally like your ‘do’ done. So if you typically get a clipper setting of four to trim your sides that’s what the stylist defaults to.

Knowing Each Other
When I walked in the door to get my haircut last month it was business as usual. I knew the routine; go to the desk and sign yourself in on the tablet. My name and estimated wait-time appeared on the big screen as expected and I sat down to wait. All appeared to be well.

After hearing my name – or at least I thought I heard it – I went over, shook hands with the hair stylist and we got to chatting as she cut my hair.

As we talked of things like kids and local churches, restaurants and schools I noticed at one point that the stylist was trimming my sides shorter than I remembered. But she’s the professional I figured, it’s probably right. Instead of asking about it I opted to continue with idle chatter instead. Besides, it’s a summer haircut and short equals cooler anyways.

But then, as she got to the back of my hair, and looked down at the haircut profile on the slip of paper she appeared a bit confused. She then called over a co-worker for input, and the two of them trimmed and chopped my back 9 until both seemed satisfied. Watching this impromptu haircut tag-team play out piqued my curiosity. Without my morning coffee I mostly yawned and shrugged it off until the cut was complete.

As I went to pay I noticed the name on the computer screen was Steve. “My name is Ryan” I told the stylist, “can you add that name to the screen so I can pay and check out?”

It was then that a look of minor horror swept over the stylist’s expression as she realized and then explained a case of mistaken identity. She thought I was Steve. And she’d given me a haircut based on his profile. She apologized profusely and asked how I liked it, and gotta say, having it a bit shorter does feel kinda nice. I joked that Steve must have better style, and wondered if there’s a Steve out there sporting a Ryan cut that is somewhat less than thrilled with my personal style, or lack of. 😊

As I drove away and pondered what had happened, I found myself initially suffering from a case of righteous indignation…how could she not know my name? I mean really, we’d had a 30-minute conversation.

But then I realized the opposite was also true, after being in that same conversation I couldn’t remember her name.

It was a judge not lest ye be judged moment, for sure.

As much as I pride myself in being able to talk to just about anyone, and finding common bonds in those conversations to chat about, remembering names, for me, takes some time.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, the hairstylist and I are fairly normal.  Studies suggest that in conversations between two strangers people are more than twice as likely to remember details like a person’s job, or hobbies or hometown than they are to retain their first or last name. How very interesting.

Being Known
This experience, of getting someone else’s haircut (feel free to call me Steve for the next few weeks) and not knowing each other’s names is part of the human condition. We all struggle to know and be known when it comes to being in relationship with each other. Sometimes we succeed, and build deep, intimate, sometimes life-long friendships, and what a blessing that is. But too often our attempts at connecting with others fall flat. We fail to remember, fail to hear, fail to absorb and fail to understand not just people’s names but their stories. We fail to get, at a deeper level what makes others tick.

But God? He doesn’t suffer from the limitations of the human condition. Our reading today reminds us how deeply we are known by our Creator.

Our God has known us, by name, from our very beginning. And has mapped out a plan for us better than anything we could devise for ourselves.

Our God knows not just about our hair but knows the very number of hairs on our head. That’s something even the best of hair stylists could only guess at. It’s this level of detail and depth of understanding God has, of us, that far surpasses what we have from our bestest of friends, our closest of pals.

Our God cares for the smallest of things, like sparrows we’re told. And unlike our oft-failing memories, God doesn’t forget them. How much more are we humans, we children of God known, loved and cared for than that?

Even better our God wants to be known by us, and wants to be in relationship with us, at that same deep level. So seek ye first this God that knows us deeply, loves us unconditionally, and desires the best for us eternally. Draw close to your heavenly Father as he seeks to be close to you. And then go out and share this relationship with others, bringing care, connection, and love, as modeled by our Creator, to everyone you know. Amen.

Stay Thirsty

A message about the fourth beatitude.

In 2006, Johnathan Goldsmith had the most interesting of opportunities cross his plate; he was given the chance to interview for a reoccurring role in Dos Equis beer commercials.

Homeless at the time, the 65-year-old actor, of European heritage, who hadn’t held a stable acting gig in a decade, and only showered on occasion, was a longshot at best. The ad agency was looking for a young Latino, Mario Lopez type. Goldsmith was none of that. But after an audition that ended with him saying “and that’s how I arm wrestled Fidel Castro” the casting crew was in stitches. And the role, surprisingly, was his.

With his new role came a new title to coincide with the Dos Equis marketing slogan. Goldsmith was now known as the Most Interesting Man in the World, aka the Dos Equis Guy, via an ad campaign that lasted a decade.

A Most Interesting Man
The ads for the Most Interesting Man in the World generally follow the same format, showing Goldsmith in an exotic locale, doing and saying things that most of us couldn’t, or wouldn’t. Often the narrator describes what makes this man so interesting, using some highly memorable one-liners. Here are a few personal favorites.

His charm is so contagious that vaccines have been created for it.

His personality is so magnetic he is unable to carry credit cards.

Every time he goes for a swim, dolphins appear.

Even his enemies list him as their emergency contact number.

He never says something tastes like chicken. Not even chicken.

And if he were to give you directions you’d never get lost. And you’d arrive 5 minutes early.

He is, after all, the Most Interesting Man in the World.

The ads typically end with Goldsmith saying this: I don’t always drink beer, but when I do I prefer Dos Equis. This one line has become a famous meme, mimicked in all sorts of ways, you’ve likely seen versions of it on Facebook, or Instagram, or in your email in-box.

In fact when I was called to serve this congregation last Fall I shared a similar meme:

I don’t always preach” the meme says, “But when I do, it’s at Bethesda Lutheran.” And here we are 😊

More importantly, the Dos Equis commercials close with this: Goldsmith raises a glass, toasting us in a way, encouraging viewers to “stay thirsty, my friends.”

The primary goal of this final line is obvious, a beer company is looking to sell more product. (and the campaign was highly successful in increasing sales, mission accomplished there)

But there’s an underlying message here perhaps, of what it means to stay thirsty. The Dos Equis Guy, this most interesting man, lived a life of excitement, of impact, and people were drawn to it.

Righteousness
Today’s message marks the fourth in an eight-week summer sermon series Pastor Bryan and I are doing with a focus on the Beatitudes. Each week we take one beatitude, or blessing, and dissect it’s meaning. Up today is the fourth beatitude, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

The word righteousness is an odd one, you just don’t run across it much in our modern lexicon. Yet scripturally it’s fairly common, the Greek derivative for the word shows up approximately 300 times in the New Testament; in the Old Testament the Hebrew equivalent shows up no less than 525 times.

To be righteous, scripturally, is to be many things. Translators use synonyms like to be right, good, pious, proper, just, honest and innocent. To be righteous can also be understood with a phrase: it is to be in right relationship with God.

We talk about what it means to be in right relationship with God in faith communities a good bit. Arguably that is the theme of every message you’ll hear most pastors preach.

That Jesus ties the importance of being in right relationship with God to being hungry and thirsty speaks to the importance this divine relationship holds. The human body can go about three weeks without food, it’s pretty crucial. And can go only three or four days without water. After that we simply fail to exist.

Jesus suggests that we are to seek out this divine relationship, and seek spiritual nourishment from our creator, like our life depends on it, over and above all else.
And to do that takes some prioritizing. It takes some planning. We have to be intentional about it.

Vacation Planning
Our family just returned from a week-long vacation, so perhaps my mind wants to meander back to the trip. When memories of the trip start bouncing around my head I can’t help but think about what it took to plan out the week.

I was really excited about going to all four single-A minor league baseball parks in the state during vacation, they all happen to be the eastern part of Iowa. So I mapped out the cities, the ballgame schedules, the driving distances, going from one town to the next, and started to design an itinerary. When Kathi reminded me the Field of Dreams movie set is also in the area, we excitedly baked that into the trip too.

Kathi’s role in planning was, fortunately, a good bit more holistic. She found a hotel with a built-in waterpark that ended up being *perfect* for our kids, they just loved it. She made sure we mounted the portable DVD player screens in the back seat of the car, and made sure we had plenty of movies on hand too. That way our little ones wouldn’t get bored during the drives.

And she took the lead finding all sorts of fun things to do, sourcing ideas from travel guides, friends, and the internet. It was this part that really made the trip special, as it added in funky destinations like the crookedest street in the world (in Burlington), the world’s shortest, steepest scenic railway (in Dubuque), and a couple of waterfalls that just happened to be on the way as we drove home.

The result of all this planning was we woke up each morning with a pretty good sense of what the day would look like.

The trip itinerary, by design, had things we all enjoyed, and gave space for us to enjoy each other’s company in unique, memorable ways.

Don’t get me wrong, our family vacations contain a certain crazy built right in, and our trip had its fair share of nutty, insane moments, but boy I’m glad we planned and prioritized the way that we did.

Had we simply hopped in the car, without this planning, or prioritized other things, without an end-goal in mind, I imagine the trip would have been considerably different.

The Most Interesting Man
As much as I appreciate the character Goldsmith plays as the Most Interesting Man in the World, I think historically this actor has been topped by another. Let me tell you about this other guy who’d I suggest holds the crown.

His charm is so contagious he said simply follow me, and people quit their day job to do just that.

He once turned water into wine, all to keep a wedding reception hopping. And when asked about it he humbly replied that mom made him do it.

He can cast out demons with a glance, heal the sick with a touch, and feed thousands at a time, just by giving thanks to Dad.

He came to earth from on high, lived a perfect life, then rose in three days time, overcoming death, and sin, once and for all. He did that so that the whole world might live.

And, if he were to give you directions, you’d be wise to take them, because the destination would be heavenly.

Hopefully it’s fairly clear who we’re talking about here. He is the Most Interesting Man in the World, and the King of Kings, and the Son of God. He is Jesus, the Christ.

Stay Thirsty
There is one thing that the Dos Equis guy has in common with Jesus, both, in their own way, encourage us to stay thirsty. And instead of simply selling beers, Jesus wants us to stay thirsty for a higher purpose. He wants us to thirst for, and constantly desire, to be in right relationship with God. And fortunately, how we do that has been modeled exquisitely by Christ himself, and documented in a guidebook we can easily access.

But to do this requires a certain reordering of our priorities. It requires us to place our relationship with God, and by extension our relationships with each other, over and above all else this world may offer.

And just as a vacation wouldn’t be the same without careful planning, we are asked to re-evaluate our priorities, thirsting for just one.

We are asked, in no small way to thirst to be in right relationship with God, making this one relationship more important than our:

– Money making
– Education getting
– Stuff acquiring
– Political wrangling
– Recognition seeking
– Self-aggrandizing
– Truth denying ways

And to do that requires a certain intentionality, certain routines that can help guide us for all of our days. We can do this by seeking Gods will, through prayer and study of scripture, and by joining together with other people of faith intent on doing the same.

Close
For when we thirst to be in right relationship with our Creator, Christ has good news: our thirst will be quenched. Let me encourage you, to stay thirsty, my friends, thirsty for righteousness, above all else. For therein is the blessing. For therein is the kingdom of God. Amen.

Car Wash Fail

A couple of months ago, when it seemed like the long, cold winter had finally begun to release it’s snowy grip from this locale, I decided it was time to take my car to get washed. Off with the salt, off with the dirt, bring on the bright – for me the wash symbolized a post-winter spring cleaning of sorts. I was excited.

I went to one of those local gas station car washes; saving a couple of bucks on a car wash with a fill-up tends to get my attention. With printed car wash code in hand I drove over to the vehicle line and waited my turn for the wash. After a few minutes wait I drove up to that little machine you interact with, rolled down the window, typed in the code in, and diligently read the instructions.

Remove or lower car antenna
Roll up window
Drive wheel into track
Stop at yellow line
Put car in neutral

Check,
Check,
Check,
Check,
Check!

I rattled off the list in my head as I did each step and prepared for the car wash to begin.

Being Wronged
But then the weirdest thing happened. I watched as the track that’s supposed to move the vehicle ahead started moving. But my tires, and car, didn’t move an inch, they just stayed put. After what seemed like an eternity – tho was probably just a minute or two – someone walked up, offered to reset the system, and then asked me if the car was in neutral.

Yes, of course, I responded.

What a silly question.

I’d already gone through the list.

I told the man thankyou, and feeling relieved the problem had been solved waited for the car wash to begin.

But then the same thing happened again.

Track started
Car stayed put

At this point there were a couple of other cars in line behind me and I began to feel a slew of emotions. Feelings like frustration, impatience, and judgment – directed at that dumb car wash – began to bubble up.

I concluded, in that moment, that the car wash must be broken. The failure must be in the machine. And me, as the paying customer, had been wronged.

So I drove through the car wash, without getting one, and zipped over to the cashier to get my 5 dollars back. I was still not in the best of moods.

After describing what had happened, and telling the cashier that *clearly* their machine must be broke, they asked the same simple question:

Did you have the car in neutral?

Yes, I replied, as I could feel my face turn a darker shade of red. It was in neutral.

I was sure of it.

As the cashier completed the refund and gave the standard have a nice day and I found myself snidely replying, I will, as soon as I get to a working car wash!

Oh dear, where did nasty response come from?

I was still hot under the collar about being so wronged by a broken machine; it was not my best moment.

Being Wrong
But then, as I returned to the car and looked down at the gear shift I realized something. I’d put the car in the same gear I always do when stopping for a while, it was in Park. That must have been what I’d done in the car wash.  And a car in Park won’t budge when a track is moving underneath it.

My emotions of frustration, impatience, and (gulp) anger were suddenly replaced with feelings of humiliation, embarrassment, shame.

The failure wasn’t in a machine, it was in me.

I was the one that was wrong, not a car wash, and certainly not a cashier. And I’d acted out of those feelings in some really crappy ways.

Sober Judgement
If only I’d read Romans 12 before heading to get that car wash
If only I’d paused, and reflected on Paul’s wisdom some
If only I’d taken those wise words to heart

Verse 3 reminds us to “not think of yourself more highly than you ought to think.”

I was sure I’d followed those car wash instructions to a T.

Absolutely sure of it.

And yet, when given the opportunity (twice!) to recheck the gear shift, I instead replied, over-confidently, and incorrectly, that the car was in neutral.

And even worse I hadn’t treated people around me too well, instead letting my emotions in that moment get the best of me.

What began as a mundane task, of getting a car washed, ended with something I was less than proud of.

So how could have this gone differently? The second half of verse 3 offers more wisdom, saying simply “think with sober judgment.”

I love that phrase. Sober judgment is another way for saying think with a clear head. Aka don’t get tied up with negative emotions. If I’d done that perhaps I could have heard the good advice to actually check the gear shift one of those times.

Verse 18 offers one more kernel of truth I wish I’d followed: “If it is possible live peaceably with all.” When I gave that snide remark to the cashier egad did I fail on this one. Even if the car wash was broken I could have at least been kind. Living peaceably with others is such a simple concept, tho so incredibly hard at times to live out.

Close
So often in our daily lives we find ourselves in circumstances rife with the potential to create conflict, both within us, and with others.

We let pride get in the way of reason
We talk at times when it’s better to listen
We lash out when the moment calls for kindness

Instead of responding to a frustrating situation as I did here, consider applying Paul’s approach in Romans 12.

Stay humble
Keep a clear head
And, if possible, live peaceably with all

For when we do, we bring the relationships around us into alignment with each other, which brings us into alignment with our Creator. And when we do, instead of finding ourselves burdened with feelings of anger, guilt and shame we can instead experience joy, peace, fulfillment.

And, on occasion, instead of being stuck with the messy dirt of life that, when left unchecked accumulates on us and others, we may just find ourselves sporting a much, much cleaner car.

Poor In Spirit

A message on the first beatitude: blessed are the poor in spirit.

In 1979 the Monte Python classic Life of Brian was released. The film is a satirical look at the life and times of Jesus, as seen through the eyes of Brian, who the movie suggests was born in the stable next to Jesus. Which of course causes confusion with the visiting wise men, and causes cases of mistaken identity for Brian throughout his life.

The movie created quite a stir when first released, some would call it blasphemous, the film was even banned in Norway for a while. The filmmakers wisely used this notoriety in their marketing campaign, putting up posters in Sweden that read, “So funny, it was banned in Norway!”

But personally? I love it. Sometimes a good pop-culture treatment of the stories of our faith can make those stories more accessible, to new groups of people, in new ways. With the film commonly rated as one of the best comedies of all time that is definitely the case here.

One of my favorite scenes in the film involves Jesus speaking to a crowd, with those farther away struggling to hear him. Jesus has just launched into a teaching on the Beatitudes.

But what did Jesus say? Here’s how the film interprets it:

“I think it was ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers” one person repeats.
“What’s so special about the cheesemakers?” quips another.
“Well, obviously, this is not meant to be taken literally” says the first person. “It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.”

And really, thank goodness this is satire, because otherwise we’d all find ourselves rooting for the cheeseheads, those Green Bay Packers. And who wants to do that? Amiright Vikings, Bears and Chiefs fans?

Beatitudes
This weekend begins a summer sermon series here with a focus on the Beatitudes. This passage in Matthew 5 is one of the more well-known parts in all of scripture. Biblegateway.com tracks these sorts of things, and ranks it as the seventh most searched for scripture passage on their website.

But one of the downsides of a passage this common is we all think we know it – this is the blessed are the so-and-so people piece of the Bible. And I bet many of you could rattle off many of those blessed groups, right alongside the blessing they are to receive.

So instead of a brief treatment of the passage, Pastor Bryan and I will dissect the Beatitudes one verse at a time over the next eight weeks, connecting it with other bits of related scripture.

This passage in Matthew occurs right after Jesus calls the first disciples and then teaches and heals the sick throughout Galilee. The Beatitudes are the opening of the Sermon On The Mount, a 2,500 word message, direct from Jesus, teaching the disciples, and others gathered there that day, what discipleship looks like.

The message happens so early in his ministry, it’s like Jesus is saying listen up! The class, DISCIPLESHIP 101, is about to begin.

Societal Blessings, Heavenly Blessings
Jesus begins this sermon with some repetition, each beatitude begins with “blessed are the” then a description of who is blessed, followed by what it is they’re blessed with.
But the blessings Jesus doles out aren’t for the kinds of people that, by default, you might expect. In Jesus’ time, as in ours, this concept of God’s favor, and who has it, is often – and incorrectly – tied to where you stand in society.

If you run a successful business, society says you are blessed.

If you’re a military leader, with a track record of winning, society calls you blessed.

And if you’re the king or queen or president or prime minister and rule the land? Society definitely calls you blessed.

But these blessings Jesus gives, and who they are for, represent peoples and groups we don’t normally associate with good gifts from God.

Blessed are the poor, Jesus says, lifting up those without.
Blessed are the peacemakers, Jesus extols, celebrating the ways of non-violence.
Blessed are the meek, the persecuted and those who mourn. With these words Christ empowers people with minimal agency of their own.

These blessings Jesus gives, to those often at the lower rungs of society, is downright shocking. The default view in many sectors of our world is that if you have a deficit of some sort, either physical, or mental, or economic, then you must have done something to deserve your ailments. To put it in modern lingo if you don’t meet society’s definition of success, well then you must not be #blessed.

But Jesus throws that notion out the window, pointing these blessings not to those with, but instead specifically blessing those without.

The Poor in Spirit
Today’s message focuses on the first beatitude, blessed are the poor in spirit.

Biblical scholars generally agree that this blessing isn’t just for the poor, but more specifically the poor in spirit. People poor in spirit may have very little in this world, and they’ve reached a conclusion about that: they find themselves utterly dependent on God. Yet this kind of poverty, and people’s utter dependence on our Creator has another benefit, it makes it possible for people to have a new relationship with God in unexpected, even joyful kinds of ways.

In a culture where wealth is often idolized, and success most often associated with our cars and houses and bank accounts, it is really difficult to grasp this blessing Jesus describes for people with seemingly so little.

Tho I’d like to try.

When thinking about the poor in spirit, and their special relationship with God, and the benefits of that relationship they have, what comes to mind is an experience I had in Haiti several years ago.

Haiti
I’ve been to this country four times on various missions trips in the last decade. The trips typically focus on education and providing accessible healthcare to people in the poorest country in our hemisphere. On one trip our team led Vacation Bible School for the week among a couple hundred elementary school children. We did that at a Christian school our church sponsored, that was a blast.

After a few trips to a third world destination you begin to start to have some sense of what life may be like in a country very much unlike our own. Access to the electric grid there is spotty at best, millions don’t have access to it at all. For those that do the access is extremely unreliable. If you’re really wealthy there you have a backup generator, and plenty of gas, for when the grid goes down.

The condition of roads is often a state of going from one pothole to the next, which as you can imagine absolutely kills the suspension system in vehicles. Getting parts for vehicles is difficult, often they must be ordered from overseas, which takes time, and isn’t cheap.

But the road condition isn’t even a large issue for most Haitians, because less than 2% of the population owns a car. That’s a luxury most simply can’t afford.

And it’s best not to assume that too many people have reliable access to food each day and a roof to sleep under because so many in this land simply don’t.

The average income per person in Haiti is less than $2,000 a year. Compare that to their Caribbean and Latin American neighbors in other developing countries where the average income is over $14,000 a year. The common person just doesn’t have much.

The Orphanage
Even with some sense of the country, and Haiti’s struggles, nothing compared our group for what we saw one day at a rural orphanage. The orphanage is run by an order of Catholic monks, a group of men that hail from around the world, mostly in their 20s and 30s. The monks work alongside local Haitian employees to meet the daily needs of caring for about 100 orphans, it’s a fairly big operation.

The orphanage we visited cares for children with significant mental and physical challenges, from babies just a few months old to kids in their late teens. Some kids are minimally verbal or can’t speak at all. Others walk with a significant limp, or are missing limbs. Because of the 2010 earthquake that killed 160,000 and injured many more there are a lot of people with missing limbs in Haiti. Some are confined to wheelchairs, others beds, for most of their lives.

The monks there had been called to a life of poverty, and here were called to serve not just the poorest of the poor, but also the most challenged of the challenged.

Many children there have at least one living parent; studies suggest that about 80% of Haitian orphans do. Parents often give children with challenges of this sort to facilities like this. They know they wouldn’t be able to provide basics like food, housing and healthcare that these kids so desperately need.

I have to admit the conditions there were jarring for my affluent, American, first world eyes. Bunkbeds lined large rooms, and the nursery housed over a dozen cribs, each holding a child with significant challenges.

As you might guess the facility had minimal access to electricity, there was only enough to keep food and medicine cool, employee cell phones charged, and provide power to the one computer there.

Our group had the chance to participate in the morning breakfast feeding, helped with cleaning a bit, and then gathering for morning worship.

And at first I found myself looking at all that was lacking:

No AC
Unwanted children
Abject poverty
Physical challenges that no one would wish on another

It was pretty depressing.

But then I found my gaze shifting to see what *was* there, and what was there was plenty.

As we helped with the morning feeding, which consisted of water and a basic porridge, the children seemed grateful. Food was shared, medications given, nurses made plans for doctor visits scheduled later in the day. This was part of their daily routine. The physical needs of these children were being met.

As we helped clean – I got to sweep rainwater that had fallen on an outdoor patio the nite before, it was pretty fun – I watched as other volunteers and staff worked in harmony, completing the daily tasks at hand. Bed linens were changed, and washed, floors scrubbed, dishes cleaned. The kid’s housing needs were being met. The facility, while sparse from our vantage, was well maintained.

And the best part? Morning chapel. The Catholic monks led us in scripture reading, prayer and song. Tambourines came out, voices were raised, we found ourselves singing, and dancing on a large outdoor patio. And with palm trees gently swayed in a cool, tropical breeze. Many kids danced together, and with us, hand in hand, as we sang praises to our Creator. We sang either in our native tongue or trying out the language of our new friends.

You haven’t really lived until you’ve sang, and danced, and tambourined through several verses of Jesus Loves me in multiple tongues, especially in a setting like this, it was *awesome*

The spiritual needs of these children were *definitely* being met, many responded with sheer bliss.

It was hard not to tear up experiencing all this; the joy, the smiles, the motion of life that swirled all around. What was there was holy, and beautiful. God’s children were being cared for by God’s people. And our group had been incredibly blessed to be part of that, if only for a few hours.

A Lived Beatitude
This is the closest I have personally come to the poor in spirit. Not only did these children have nothing, but because of their limitations, of mind and body, they were entirely dependent on others, unable to care for themselves.

There’s an old saying, that you never know God is all you need until God is all you have. That was definitely the case here.

And that’s where the monks came in, called to a life of poverty, called to serve their God in addressing the needs, of God’s children, in their daily vocation.

This connection, between God’s children and God’s servants, felt like the culmination of this beatitudinal blessing, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Despite conditions that many of us would describe with unkind language, seeing these children cared for, and seeing their joy, gratitude and sheer bliss, felt, in that moment, like heaven. No strings attached.

Close
Most of us here aren’t called to lives of poverty. And most of us don’t have the challenges of debilitating mental or physical ailments as our daily reality. And we can be thankful for that. Perhaps later in life we come somewhat closer to this reality as our bodies and minds deteriorate.

But, as disciples of Christ, and followers of the Way, we are always part of these beatitudinal blessings.

So if you find yourself poor in spirit, it’s good news, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.

And if you aren’t poor in spirit, it is also good news. For as a Christ follower you are called to help bring the kingdom of God to others, through how you serve, how you live, how you give.

For when you do, you not only bring the kingdom of heaven to others, you step foot into this glorious kingdom yourself. Amen.