[I delivered the following sermon on 29 January as guest preacher at Gethsemane Episcopal Cathedral in Fargo, ND.]
I feel myself quite privileged to be with you this morning, particularly during a week of the year in which many Christian communities pray for closer ties, if not for some sort of unity in the Lord. That said, we have to acknowledge that this is one of the few really big things for which we pray where we’ve actually made progress over the years. We pray for world peace, and yet world peace eludes us. We pray for an end to hunger and disease around the world and wonder if we ever make any headway. But when it comes to better relations among churches, we’ve made astonishing progress over the last fifty years.
We could read from a long list of encounters between various leaders of the churches, but none of that matters unless we experience something on a personal level. In my own case the Episcopal Church has impacted me especially when it comes to music. It’s no secret that for the last five hundred years the Anglican Communion has had a near-monopoly on all the best hymns in English; and thankfully it’s shared them with churches far less blessed. In high school I first discovered the richness of The 1940 Hymnal. Then at Saint John’s Abbey, where I’ve been a monk for more years than I care to say, The 1982 Hymnal remains the source of first and last resort when we’re in need of a good hymn. If and when you visit Saint John’s, you’ll discover a copy of that book sitting alongside two other hymnals in our choir stalls. And if you sing with us you’ll realize how much that musical tradition has contributed to our worship.
Last year I happened to walk along Park Avenue in New York, and as I passed Saint Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church the sign outside the door caught my eye. The message was simple, warm, and very familiar to me. It came from The Rule of Saint Benedict, and it’s something that guides our day in the monastery. “Let all guests be received as Christ.” If that’s appropriate for a monastery, it’s even more so for a church. It’s a reminder that the parish church is not some exclusive club. And if we see the face of Christ in our guests, then it means that Christ is out there walking in the streets. He’s not just sitting in our sanctuaries. That, it seems to me, is both a sobering and yet wonderful thought.
In today’s gospel passage from Matthew we read once again the Beatitudes. It’s a passage we could all afford to read a little more often, because it’s a job description for what it means to be Christian. The Beatitudes rely upon the same passage which inspired Saint Benedict’s thoughts on guests, and it’s familiar to us all. Jesus tells us that what we do for the least of people, we do for him, and the Beatitudes translate that high-minded sentiment into lived reality. They distinguish Christians as a people set apart. And if by chance we seem out of step with society, it’s not because we are eccentric. We’ve elected instead to view all of life from the perspective of Jesus Christ.
I have to confess that for much of my life I have had some difficulty with the Beatitudes. The fact is, Jesus has taken some undesirable experiences and turned them upside-down and inside-out. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” for example. Who among us really wants to be poor in spirit? Even if I knew exactly what Jesus meant by that, it still sounds like depression to me. “Blessed are they who mourn.” Who wants to spend time mourning? Wouldn’t we rather be happy 100% of the time? “Blessed are the meek.” In my experience people trample all over the meek. “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Isn’t that something of a lost cause? “Blessed are the merciful, the peacemakers and those persecuted for the sake of righteousness.” At first glance all of these blessings seem to be thankless tasks, if not curses. Who really wants a life based on these experiences?
The Beatitudes can seem singularly unattractive, and they are until we realize what our world would be like without the people who practice them. If then the Beatitudes describe people who go through life as doormats or shrinking violets, consider for a moment the alternative. What if the Beatitudes read like this: “Blessed are the warmongers.” “Blessed are the suspicious and paranoid.” “Blessed are those who are merciless.” “Blessed are those who never have to mourn — ever!” “Blessed are those who never endure insult because their lives stand for nothing.”
You could devise your own additions to this list, but you get the point. The Beatitudes may seem benign, until you realize what life would be like without them. Could life on this earth even be possible if no one aspired to such principles? How long would it be before we descended into chaos?
So the first point I would make is this. The Beatitudes are a blueprint for a good and purpose-filled life. They virtually demand that we lead active rather than passive lives. They presume that we would take charge of our lives and live them with the greatest intensity and thoughtfulness. Even more, they encourage risk-taking. Taking chances includes the risk of failure, but that’s the point of stepping up to be counted.
I can’t go through all of the Beatitudes, but for just a moment let’s consider the words of Jesus when he says that they are blessed who mourn. In popular culture people avoid mourning like the plague. But consider that a life free of mourning is risk-averse. Such lives are pointless, Jesus teaches, precisely for this reason. People who mourn, however, are people who have taken risks. They have taken chances. When they had the chance to love others, they chose love. When they had the chance to help someone in need, they helped. When they had the chance to clothe the naked, feed the hungry and so on, they did it, regardless of the potential risk. And they did all this for the sake of the kingdom.
Only those who never love or never care get spared the mourning. Meanwhile, those who take chances reap the rewards, much as the folk wisdom reminds us: “Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”
In his Rule Saint Benedict urged his monks to keep death daily before their eyes. Many assume that this is an invitation to depression, but in fact it’s an invitation to live life with intensity. We have so few days, and why would we choose to be risk-averse and hide our lamps under a basket? On the contrary, Jesus came to give us life, so that we might have it in abundance. How we pursue our lives is the creative opportunity — the gift — that God gives to each of us.
The Beatitudes are a recipe for life lived to the fullest. They are an invitation to live life with passion. And if by chance there are moments of mourning or setback along the way, then it means we are making progress. We are making good use of the gifts God has given us. So let us conclude with this prayer: “May God, who has begun such good work in us, bring it to a wonderful and happy conclusion.”
+On January 24th I presided at the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s.
+On January 27th I drove to Fargo, ND, and on the 28th I preached at Gethsamane Episcopal Cathedral. That evening I gave a presentation on The Saint John’s Bible. Fr. Mark Strobel, the dean of the cathedral, received a graduate degree at Saint John’s and remains a periodic and welcome visitor to campus. He and his fellow church members offered hospitality that was truly Benedictine.
I cannot recall when I last went to Fargo, but it was before the Cohn brothers made the movie to which Fargo lent is name. Being mere feet from Minnesota, you’d think there would be scant difference between the two; but you’d be wrong. Fargo manages to flourish in its own culture, perhaps because of the independent spirit of the prairie. For example, at the 10:30 Mass at the cathedral there was a baptism that almost stole the show. This was one tough baby, and he remained stoic despite the very cold water and being held by the pastor for three minutes or more. That befits a youngster who was baptised “Odin.” Yes, Odin. I was stunned by that name. Then Fr. Mark told me it was the second Odin he has baptised at the cathedral. Further, his son’s swimming coach is named Thor. So just when I thought the Norse gods had faded from memory, I discovered that they have a home in Fargo. How charming.
+Two weeks ago I presented photos of the exterior of the church of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. The exterior is certainly monumental, and one wonders whether the interior could be up to the challenge of carrying its own drama. It does, and it succeeds in a way that just overwhelms. Visitors cannot quite grasp the immensity of it, and these photos scarcely do it justice. Throughout the church there are sweeping vistas bathed in light, and nooks and crannies that surprise. The photo at the bottom is of the choir loft, and were I up there I would be too nervous to sing.