Sermon on Matthew 5:1-12.
Once upon a time, there was a community of acorns. They lived together, as acorns do, in the shade of a mighty oak tree. These were good little acorns and they wanted to be the best acorns they could be. So, they worked hard, took classes, and went to self-help seminars together. They polished their shells until they were sparkling bright. All in all, they were good little acorns who lived very respectable lives in the shade of that mighty old oak. Then, one day, another acorn fell down from the tree and said, “Friends, gather round! I have something very important to tell you.” The acorns were all abuzz at this news. They wanted to hear what this new acorn had to say, because they wanted to be the best little acorns they could be. A hush fell over the crowd as they listened close. The new acorn took a breath, looked up at the tree, and then looked back at all of them. “WE,” the new acorn said, “are THAT.” And pointed up at the tree.
The other acorns were confused. They looked at each other and then back at the new acorn and said, “What?”
So, the new acorn said it again: “WE are THAT,” and pointed back up at the tree.
“That’s ridiculous,” the other acorns said, “that oak tree has got to be at least thirty feet tall. It has leaves and roots. The tree is the mother of all acorn life and a home for beasts and birds. It has rough bark around the outside while we have these beautiful smooth shells. How can WE be THAT?”
So, the new acorn explained, “Inside of us, deep in our hearts, there is a seed. If we crack open our shells and plant that seed in the ground, it will grow into a tree like this.”
“This is crazy talk,” they said, “and treasonous blasphemy! We are trying to be the best little acorns we can be! We have spent our whole lives working on our shells! We’ve made them shiny and beautiful! They are the very things that make us acorns! How dare you say that we should crack them open? You’re undermining the very foundation of our acorn society!”
The little acorns were very angry at the new acorn. They beat her up until they had smashed her shell to bits. Then they kicked her out of the nice little acorn community, far away from the shade of the mighty oak tree.
But then something amazing happened. The new acorn planted her seed into the ground. And there, far away from the shade of the original tree, she grew into another mighty oak. And underneath this new tree, there grew another community of acorns. These new acorns were also very good acorns who polished their shells and wanted to be the best acorns they could be, until one day when another new acorn fell down from the tree and said, “Friends, gather round! I have something very important to tell you.”
I tell you this fable, which I have adapted from Episcopal priest and author Cynthia Bourgeault, because I think it is a very good illustration of the truth that Jesus is trying to tell his disciples in today’s gospel.
This passage, which scholars have long referred to as “The Beatitudes” (which is a Latin word for “Blessings”), is among the most famous of Jesus’ sayings. The Beatitudes begin the three-chapter collection of Jesus’ teachings known as “The Sermon on the Mount.”
In Matthew’s gospel, the Beatitudes mark the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in the same way that the Ten Commandments marked the beginning of Moses’ revelation of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. Matthew’s gospel makes a special point of emphasizing how Jesus’ movement was continuous with traditional Judaism. Jesus, according to Matthew, is like “Moses 2.0,” bringing the revelation of God’s Torah to God’s people.
The Beatitudes themselves, like the Ten Commandments, are a literary masterpiece. We could easily do a whole series of sermons on each Beatitude, although our Lectionary doesn’t allow us the time to do that. Instead, what I would like to do today is talk about the first Beatitude (“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”) because the rest flow naturally from it.
I’ll start at the end, with the phrase, “kingdom of heaven.” This is a central idea in all of Jesus’ teaching. When we hear it though the filter of our modern American minds, it sounds like Jesus is talking about the afterlife. “The kingdom of heaven,” so we think, is where good people go when they die. Understood through this filter, it sounds like Jesus is saying, “People who are poor in this life should be happy, because they won’t be poor anymore when they die and go to heaven.” While I agree that poverty is not a concern in the afterlife, I don’t think this is the point that Jesus is trying to communicate to his disciples.
“Heaven,” in first century Judaism, was not a destination in the afterlife but a respectful way of referring to God. So, when Jesus says, “kingdom of heaven,” he really means, “kingdom of God.” A kingdom, as we all know, is any territory where a monarch lives and has authority. The place where God lives and has authority is in our hearts. This is why Jesus says, in Luke 17:21, “The kingdom of God is within you.”
The kingdom of heaven is not a place in the afterlife, but a way of living in this world. The kingdom of heaven is the way this world ought to be, according to Jesus. Keep that in mind as we look at the rest of this first Beatitude.
Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Biblical scholars have spilled a lot of ink about this passage. They notice how, in Luke’s version, Jesus simply says, “Blessed are you who are poor.” Some of them, especially those of a more left-wing ideology, make Jesus out to be a good Marxist, fighting for the rights of the downtrodden against their evil capitalist oppressors. Others, especially those of a more right-wing ideology, emphasize Matthew’s version, where Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” They say that “the poor in spirit” are those who have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior, so their actual economic status does not matter. They think they can have material wealth and spiritual poverty at the same time. To be blunt, I think both of these interpretations are incomplete.
When I think of “poverty of spirit,” I think of the interpretation offered by Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine. The poor in spirit, according to Dr. Levine, are those who have the humility to admit they are the beneficiaries of abundant gifts and the generosity to pay those gifts forward to anyone in need. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., our great American prophet, says in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “All [people] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be… This is the inter-related structure of reality.”
Poverty of spirit is about knowing that there is no such thing as a “self-made person.” By a show of hands, who in this room can honestly say that they gave birth to themselves? No one. We were given birth by the labor of our mothers. In the same way, each of us is daily sustained by the free gifts of energy and nutrients from the Sun and the Earth.
The “kingdom of heaven,” as Jesus meant it, is any place and time where people realize this basic fact of our existence and act accordingly.
The “kingdom of heaven,” as Jesus meant it, can be here and now.
The “kingdom of heaven,” as Jesus meant it, is the way things ought to be.
This, I think, is what Jesus meant when he said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
This world will be the way it ought to be when those who have much realize that everything they have is a gift, and the God of heaven commands them to share what they have with those who have not. This world will be the way it ought to be when, in the words of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, “Love is the way.”
“When love is the way,” he says, “No child will go to bed hungry ever again… poverty will become history… Earth will be a sanctuary… When love is the way, we know that God is the source of us all, and we are brothers and sisters, children of God.”
My friends, I’m here to tell you that God’s kingdom will come, “on Earth as it is in Heaven,” when we live our lives according to the words that Jesus said. God’s kingdom will come when we become the kind of people that Jesus was.
This is the meaning of the parable of the acorns: Jesus came to show us that we are not self-made individuals, but mighty oak trees. We are capable of more life and growth than we could possibly imagine. If we can break through our fragile shells of status and privilege, we will discover within ourselves the “kingdom of God,” the life-giving power to make this world into the way it ought to be.
All we have to do is let go of our shallow and fragile egos and embrace our true identity as children of the living God. When we do that, we will understand what Jesus meant when he said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”