Blessed are those who have nothing…challenging our assumptions?

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Sermon for St Mary Whitkirk – 3rd Sunday before Lent

Sales of poetry books rose by 12% in both 2017 and 2018. As a bit of a poetry junkie I find that rather exciting – but why is it happening?

Well according to one publisher it’s because we’re living in uncertain times. He says “poetry is a really good way to explore complex, difficult emotions and uncertainty.” I think he’s hit the nail on the head there…poetry helps us look beyond what’s easy to grasp. It’s why poetry links so well with the language of faith…because it offers glimpses of things we can’t put into everyday words.

Today’s gospel reading tells of how this ‘looking beyond’ is the Christian story. How it’s about things that can’t be fully known or grasped…but that we somehow experience as truth. How, like a good poem, faith makes us look at the world differently.

Jesus looks straight at his disciples and says to them…the destitute, the marginalised, the ones everyone looks down on, they are blessed by God. Not sometime in an unknown future – but now. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.” ‘Look’, he says ‘at those who seem to have nothing…they are blessed by God.’ This challenges the disciples, and us, to reimagine what blessing looks like, to look beyond the obvious.

Woe, Jesus says, to those who have it all now…I hope he doesn’t mean it’s wrong to be happy or well fed…after all, everything we have comes from God. But if this is the only measure we have for blessing, what are we saying about those on the margins…that God is choosing not to bless them? That doesn’t seem like the God I experience.

So whilst the world might measure blessing in material things…as Christians we try at least, to bring our relationship with God into the picture.

But Jesus seems to point at those at the bottom of the heap and say – ‘they are particularly, especially blessed’. Perhaps he’s saying, in a phrase I came across recently…’Our God is the God of those who have nothing but God.’

And we have glimpses of this…some of the fastest growing and most joyful Christian communities in the world are in the poorest places or where Christians are actively persecuted…perhaps where they have nothing else to distract them from God’s love.

Now I trust that at St Mary’s we’re able to look beyond beauty, prosperity, position…that you loved Matthew just as much before he was an honorary canon entitled to a cassock with red piping…

But I think Jesus is calling for a much greater leap of imagination and faith – challenging the assumptions we make about others…asking us to look beyond.

If our God truly is ‘the God of those who have nothing but God’, then what of those who really seem to have nothing. Who don’t have the use of their senses, thinking skills, creativity, language in the way we do. What of people missing things that seem to be part of us…even things we use in our relationship with God? Can we look at them and say ‘Blessed are they…’?

What does it mean to look at a child who will never walk or talk or develop language, who seems locked in their own world, and accept not only that God loves them…but that his blessing is at work in their lives?

What does it mean to look at a loved one who’s lost the control, the language and seemingly the understanding they once had…and see someone God continues to call by name?

I’ve been reading a book that challenges us to do just that. It looks at brain damage, at conditions affecting our ability to use language and communicate with others, to remember and process information…the very things that seem to make us who we are.

It asks us not to assume that lack of language, lack of obvious communication means lack of hopes, desires, understanding, love, faith.

And it’s not just wishful thinking, something to make us feel better. There are the stories of two individuals with severe brain damage and how they join in worship. Not concrete proof – but mysterious glimpses – almost like poems, which invite us to look beyond.

There’s Mary, a young woman with severe disabilities, totally dependent on carers. She has no speech but can be very noisy. Mary is a Quaker, and “as the community moves into its time of silence, Mary becomes silent. Mary shares in the silence…precisely what that silence means for her is unclear…but her response is regular and engaged.”

Then there’s Jimmy – his memory virtually destroyed by alcohol abuse – almost unable to share in any activity. Yet in chapel “fully, intensely, quietly, in the quietude of absolute concentration and attention, he entered and partook of Holy Communion. He was wholly held.”

Just two tiny glimpses of God’s blessing experienced in ways we can’t imagine – but they challenge us to look differently at others.

Why does it matter? It certainly doesn’t make things easy, doesn’t belittle the fear, frustration and grief brought by illnesses that affect our ability to communicate. But it asks us look on every human life as a place where God’s blessing may be known.

Perhaps this just means there are no lives we look on as less than human, no lives we assume are not worth living. Perhaps it just reminds us to look beyond disabilities and illnesses to people blessed by God.

Perhaps it just means that when we share communion, pray, or just sit with loved ones who can no longer communicate…we might do so in the hope and trust that God can use our love to bless us both.

Perhaps it just reminds us there are ways of experiencing God beyond what we know…and lets us pray in hope that those who seem to have nothing, have God’s blessing and are able to know his presence.

“Blessed are those who have nothing – for they have nothing but God.”