Tell us what we need to hear, O God, and show us what we need to do to become disciples of Jesus Christ. Amen.
My old friend, Bill Coffin, William Sloan Coffin, used to be the Chaplain at Yale University, former colleague at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. He was a curmudgeon in many ways, and he didn’t like a lot of things. But he really didn’t like that book that was popular in the 70’s, “I’m Okay, You’re okay.” He was fond of getting up before a group and saying, “I’m not okay, and you’re not okay, and that’s okay.”
Seems to me that’s what the Scripture Lessons that are assigned today are saying. You’re not okay! And that’s okay. The Old Testament Lesson, the prophet Micah is definitely saying to the people, “As good as you think you are, you’re not as good as you think you are. You’re not okay.” He prophesied in the eighth century before Christ. After a period of some prosperity, fifty years of unparalleled prosperity, he and his contemporary Isaiah, spoke to that time saying to the people, “You’re not really okay because you have forgotten who you are. You have forgotten the God who brought you out of slavery, out of Egypt, through the desert and the wilderness, the one who led you to a land, and it’s given you food and sustenance and good leadership. And you think that by performing elaborate religious ceremonies—they were obviously Episcopalians—you think by doing that, you will then be okay from that. “ But he reminded them, this is what I require: “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly before your God.”
And that still holds true today. Do you want to know what God wants? God wants you to do justice, to be kind, to love kindness, and with humility, do your daily living and your work with others before God.
Jesus faced the same situation some hundreds of years later. In the Gospel Lesson assigned today, Jesus was addressing a crowd. The crowd had come because they had heard of his fame in healing the sick, driving out evil and teaching. And when facing the crowd, Jesus went up on the mountain. Mathew has him on the mountain. Writing for Jewish Christians, he knew that when one speaks on the mountain that is with the very authority of God. When Jesus looked out on the crowd, what did he see?
He saw a contradiction, just as Micah did. He saw a paradox. He saw people who on the one hand were okay, but on the other hand they were not. I wonder if Jesus were addressing congregations like this today, what would he see? What would he say?
He would probably see what many social scientists are coming to see more clearly—that America itself is in paradox. I commend a book to you by David G. Meyers (?), recently published called The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty. He begins that book, this social scientist—he’s a social psychologist and a former professor of mine who’s made a career of analyzing happiness, and what makes people happy. He quotes Charles Dickens’ famous beginning of his book A Tale of Two Cities. “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom. It was the age of foolishness. It was the epic belief. It was the epic of infragulity. (?) It was the season of light. It was the season of darkness. It was the spring of hope. It was the source of despair. We had everything before us. We had nothing before us. We were all going directly to heaven. And we were all going directly the other way.”
What Dr. Meyers sees he applies to the American situation. He reads the data, and he says in the last fifty years America has enjoyed unparalleled prosperity. I won’t bore you with all the statistics, but suffice it to say we as average Americans have doubled real incomes, what money can buy, in the last fifty years. We have expresso coffee, the worldwide web. We have sport utility vehicles and caller-ID. And we have access to all sorts of material goods that are forebears would not dream of. Appliances for the home and cars have never been more affordable than now.
And yet, by any measure of Gallop polling, Harris polling or others, we have less happiness, more depression, more fragile relationships, less communal commitment, less vocational security, more violent crime—even after the recent declines, and more demoralized children. The American paradox.
If we were to extend Ronald Reagan’s famous question some twenty odd years ago, “Are you better off today? Are you better off today than you were fifty years ago?” The answer is truthfully, materially, yes. Spiritually, psychologically, no.
That’s what he sees. And I think that’s what Jesus sees. Didn’t Mother Teresa see it so clearly many years ago when she said that the United States may be the poorest country she’s ever visited. Poor in spirit. If we understand who the poor in spirit are, that was talked about in today’s Gospel lesson, we don’t usually think of them as blessed. The poor in spirit are not just the humble, or those who don’t brag or don’t have an ego. The poor in spirit are those at the end of their spiritual ropes. Their energy, their zest for life has been drained. When poverty or defeat or inability to surpass life’s obstacles saps the spark from our souls. That’s poor in spirit.
When we have lost so many of the battles of life that there is no fight left in us, that’s poor in spirit.
We can see how the rich in spirit have been blessed. But Jesus said, “Blessed are ye poor in spirit, for yours is the Kingdom of Heaven.” How did he mean that?
Jesus knew that we all are programmed for happiness, or I might say blessedness. It goes beyond having a smile on your face. But it’s that deep sense of well being in life. We are programmed for that as human beings. But because of the turmoil of life and some things beyond our control even, we have emotional programs for happiness that can’t possibly work.
And so the prophets and Jesus have come to point out to people that your program is not working for you, you are not okay because you are looking for happiness ‘over there’. And that direction of happiness is always preceded by the clause ‘if only.’ If only I had more money. If only I weren’t the New England Patriots (I just said that to see if you were still awake.) If only I had a different job. If only I had a million dollars. If only I lived in a different neighborhood. If only I drove a Mercedes Benz. If only I didn’t marry him. If only I had different parents. If only my children behaved. If only I were thin. If only I didn’t have grey hair. If only I were older. If only I had more education. If only I wasn’t so stupid. If only I could get over my depression. If only I were someone else, … then I would be happy.
And then Micah comes along, and Jesus, who says, “You’re not okay, but it’s okay. What you need to do is repent.” And repenting means to change the direction in which you are looking for happiness. All of our life we have been programmed to believe that happiness is in the symbols of power and possession and control and pleasure. But it’s not there. The paradoxes that we search for all our life, and it makes us less happy the more we achieve.
By repenting we change the direction in which we’re looking for happiness. It’s not there. And you know that. Jesus says it’s over there. It’s being connected to the source of your life. It’s participating in the values of the reign of God, the Kingdom of God. It’s knowing that you are blessed in your poverty, not in some sweet future by and by in the sky, but right now you are blessed. Probably because by realizing you’re mourning, your poverty, you are better prepared to know of your dependence on God.
And so, what about you? Has anyone here lost a job in the last year? …You really are blessed here. Have any of you here experienced a loss this year? Of a loved one? You are blessed. Blessed are you. In your crying and in your tears, in that poverty of spirit, you have never been closer to God. Have any of you received any news this year, a bad health report? Blessed are you. You are blessed. Jesus has never been nearer. Have any of you experienced a break up of a relationship or a family or a marriage? Blessed are you. Jesus says you are blessed in your poverty you have never been closer to the Kingdom of Heaven.
Riches are not in things. Riches amounts from the outpouring of the healing power of the Holy Spirit through your adversity.
So I’m not okay. You’re not okay either. But it’s okay. We are blessed.