“Who The Meek Are Not”
A Sermon by Rev. Megan Lynes
Delivered on Sunday, October 15, 2017
At The First Parish in Bedford, MA
A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:
Blessed are the poor. For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who hunger. They shall be satisfied.
Blessed are they who weep. They shall laugh.
Blessed are the humble. They will inherit the earth.
Blessed are the merciful. They will find mercy.
Blessed are the peacemakers. They will be ranked as children of God.
You are the salt of the earth. And if salt becomes tasteless,
how is its saltiness to be restored? It is good for nothing.
You are the light of the world. When a lamp is lit, it is not put under a bushel,
but on a lamp stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house.
—MATTHEW AND LUKE
Who the Meek Are Not
by Mary Karr
Not the bristle-bearded Igors bent
under burlap sacks, not peasants knee-deep
in the rice paddy muck,
nor the serfs whose quarter-moon sickles
make the wheat fall in waves
they don’t get to eat. My friend the Franciscan
nun says we misread
that word meek in the Bible verse that blesses them.
To understand the meek
(she says) picture a great stallion at full gallop
in a meadow, who—
at his master’s voice—seizes up to a stunned
but instant halt.
So with the strain of holding that great power
in check, the muscles
along the arched neck keep eddying,
and only the velvet ears
prick forward, awaiting the next order.
“Who the Meek Are Not” by Mary Karr, from Sinners Welcome. © Harper Collins, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
By Elea Kemler
From so many places and conditions of the spirit we come
seeking a center for our lives,
a sense of wholeness —
Quiet our minds, center our spirits, ground our being.
Enable us to find that power that already lies within us —
power for love, for hope, for gratitude
May our hearts be open to compassion,
our minds open to wisdom,
our spirits open to courage and grace
That we might try again the ancient commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves
and to know what that means for us right now.
Reading From Some Modern Beatitudes by the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber (Abridged and adapted slightly.)
Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor, serving a church called the House for All Sinners and Saints, in Colorado, and they like that their acronym is HFASS. John and I loved attending her workshop at a homiletics conference a couple years back. She’s a very non traditional and liberal Christian thinker, and she’s covered with tattoos. I like the way she brings traditional texts alive, and so here is her recent version of the beatitudes.
“Because I like to imagine Jesus here standing among us saying:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are they for whom death is not an abstraction. Blessed are they who have buried their loved ones, for whom tears are as real as an ocean. Blessed are they who have loved enough to know what loss feels like.
Blessed are the mothers of the miscarried. Blessed are they who don’t have the luxury of taking things for granted any more. Blessed are they who can’t fall apart because they have to keep it together for everyone else. Blessed are the motherless, the alone, the ones from whom so much has been taken.
Blessed are those who “still aren’t over it yet” Blessed are they who laughed again when for so long they thought they never would…
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who no one else notices. The kids who sit alone at middle-school lunch tables. The laundry guys at the hospital. The sex-workers and the night shift street sweepers. Blessed are the losers and the babies and the parts of ourselves that are so small. The parts of ourselves that don’t want to make eye contact with a world that only loves the winners.
Blessed are the forgotten. Blessed are the closeted. Blessed are the unemployed, the unimpressive, the underrepresented. Blessed are the teens who have to figure out ways to hide the new cuts on their arms. Blessed are the meek. (For you are of heaven.)
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the wrongly accused, the ones who never catch a break, the ones for whom life is hard – for they are those with whom Jesus chose to surround himself. Blessed are those without documentation. Blessed are the ones without lobbyists. Blessed are foster kids and trophy kids and special ed kids and every other kid who just wants to feel safe and loved and never does…Blessed are they who know there has to be more than this. Because they are right.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy…Blessed are the burnt-out social workers and the over worked teachers and the pro-bono case takers. Blessed are those who fight the fires as the smoke destroys their lungs. Blessed are the kids who step between the (parents as they fight…Blessed are the parents fighting.) Blessed are the ones who have received such real grace that they are no longer in the position of ever deciding who the ‘deserving poor’ are.
Blessed is everyone who has ever forgiven me when I didn’t deserve it.
Blessed are the merciful for they totally get it.”
Mary Karr’s poem, Who the Meek Are Not, has stayed with me since I first read it.
To understand the meek
(my friend the nun says) picture a great stallion at full gallop
in a meadow, who—
at his master’s voice—seizes up to a stunned
but instant halt.
So with the strain of holding that great power
in check, the muscles
along the arched neck keep eddying,
and only the velvet ears
prick forward, awaiting the next order.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” Jesus declares in his sermon on the mount. But it is this poem’s version of meekness that reclaims the word meek for me. I witness the ears pricked forward, the sudden awareness of a call, the subsequent redirection of energy. Meekness can be a quiet yet powerful force running through our veins. What can happen in our lives when we are able to harness the power of a life force that calls us on?
You may know, that the Beatitudes are eight blessings recounted in the Sermon on the Mount in the book of Matthew. Each is a proverb-like proclamation, without narrative, “cryptic, precise, and full of meaning. Each one includes a topic that forms a major biblical theme”. The theme of meekness is worth unpacking because it is not the doormat attitude we might at first associate with the word.
The Greek word translated “meek” is praeis and refers to mildness, gentleness of spirit, or humility. Meekness is humility toward God and toward others. It is having the right or the power to do something but refraining for the benefit of someone else.
In the Jewish and Christian scriptures, the meek are those who have a spirit of gentleness and self-control; they are free from malice and a condescending spirit. The meek may, like the poor, have no resources of their own. The meek do not exploit and oppress others; they are not given to vengeance and vendettas, they are not violent, and they do not try to seize power for their own ends. This does not mean that they are weak or ineffective in life. They may be gentle and humble, but they can and do champion the needs of the weak and the oppressed.
I have come to think of meekness as a perfect blending of two seemingly opposite qualities: of insight and innocence, of power and restraint, of mercy and justice.
“If we didn’t already know but were asked to guess the kind of people Jesus would pick out for special commendation,” writes Frederick Buechner in Whistling in the Dark, “we might be tempted to guess one sort or another of spiritual hero – men and women of impeccable credentials morally, spiritually, humanly, and every which way. If so, we would be wrong. Maybe those aren’t the one he picked out because he felt they didn’t need the shot in the arm this commendation would give them. Maybe they’re not the ones he picked out because he didn’t happen to know any. Be that as it may, it’s worth noting the ones he did pick out.”
“God Help the Outcasts” our song this morning proclaimed. The Beatitudes are the blessings Jesus offers upon those seen as lesser and lowly within society. Those who have little power on earth, he declares shall gain a place of prominence within heaven. No one is unworthy he says.
Let’s talk about the word blessing for a moment. In many forms of religious life today, and in popular culture we hear about being blessed as if it is a reward, as if good fortune comes to us as just desserts. Much of Christian culture equates blessing with prosperity, with health, with satisfaction and obvious abundance. While it’s tempting to equate these gifts with the favor of God, this notion comes with a corresponding fallacy that says that those who are sick, those who are not prosperous, those whom misfortune has visited: these are not blessed. The prosperity gospel is one form of Christianity I simply don’t buy. Those affected by the floods in Puerto Rico or the fires in California or the drought in Syria, are not simply out of favor with God. They are just very unlucky. They should be shown mercy, not further punishment by humans turning their backs.
With the beatitudes, Jesus utterly disrupts this line of thinking that only the lucky are blessed. None of us are better than others. Being blessed is not a reward for a job well done or for the accident of being born into fortunate circumstances. It is likewise not an accomplishment, an end goal, or a state of completion that allows some to coast along happily, and others to suffer.
Most often, the word blessed, from the Greek makarios, is linked with seeing, with hearing, or with understanding. And although the Greek makarios can be translated either as blessed or as happy, being blessed does not rest solely upon an emotion, meaning that an act of blessing does not depend on our finding or forcing ourselves into a particular mood.
Also, to be blessed is not a static state. It implies an ability to be in the ongoing process of recognizing, receiving, and responding. To be blessed is to enter into a deep attentiveness, where there is room to cultivate acts of mercy, of compassion, of solidarity, of love.
For me, the ultimate meaning of Jesus life is not found in his death, but in his insistence during his lifetime on mercy and compassion and in the way he turned things upside down – the last shall be first he said. The children, the poor, the vulnerable, the frail these are the ones who will lead in the kingdom of heaven, in the world where justice and love are real. The beatitudes are reminders of how we are all a little lost and downtrodden, weakened by our own greed or pain or vulnerability. We all need a great calling to pull us up short, remind us that we are loved, and send us on our way with new oomph in our stride.
The Austrian Jewish theologian, Martin Buber, believed we experience this ultimate “calling” through love of one another in relationships that are mutual, respectful, and where each person in the relationship is seen and accepted as whole. Buber believed that what we are experiencing through this meeting, dialogue, mutuality, and exchange is what some of us call God. This, in an imperfect translation from German, is called the I-Thou relationship. An I-Thou relationship, with anyone or anything connects us with the Holy.
Buber believed that in these moments of deep meeting, we experience one another as our most authentic selves, without any qualification or objectification of one another. This is the only kind of relationship he believed is possible with God, and when we have these moments with one another, we connect in some profound way to that eternal relationship with God. To put it very simply, when we love without judgment or reserve or qualification, even if we can only do that for a brief moment, we bring God (or some might say Love,) into being in the world.
Buber wrote these words:
“Existence will remain meaningless for you if you yourself do not penetrate into it with active love and if you do not in this way discover its meaning for yourself. The true meaning of love of one’s neighbor is not that it is a command from God which we are to fulfill, but that through it and in it we meet God. “Love thy neighbor as thyself, I am the Lord.” [that is to say] “You think I am far away from you, but in your love for your neighbor you will find me; not in his love for you but in yours for him. Whoever loves, brings God and the world together. Meet the world with the fullness of your being and you shall meet [God].”
When I trip over the word God, I insert the word Love, and sometimes the whole concept eases up. I do know there is something at work between myself and the other, and it is of us, but it is not us. I believe that as we go about our business, we stumble into situations that requires inconvenience, self-sacrifice, even risk. Every day, things, needs, sometimes people land on our doorstep and demand of us that we answer the question – who is my neighbor? This past year our congregation has become a Sanctuary Church, and at last we’re ready to host an individual or parent/child pair. How much would we like to have someone stay with us in our carefully prepared sanctuary space?! We’ve worked hard to be ready for them, and now sincerely hope to take part in keeping them safe. It takes courage and practice and usually the support of others if we are to answer, “Yes, you are my neighbor. I will come near to you despite pressure otherwise. I will bring a fraction more of Love, of wholeness, of respect, into being through loving you.”
Here’s a story from Japan, which illustrates the way humility and love can often grow stronger and more powerful when a goal is not easily attained. “Many centuries ago, Tetsugen, a follower of Zen in Japan, decided to publish the sutras, the life of the Buddha, in Japanese. At that time the sutras were still available only in Chinese. To translate and publish these works in Japanese, then, would be a project of great significance, the value of which would be applauded everywhere.
The books were to be printed with wood blocks in an addition of 7,000 copies, a tremendous undertaking.
Tetsugen began by traveling and collecting donations for this purpose. A few sympathizers would give him 100 pieces of gold, but most of the time he received only small coins. He thanked each donor with equal gratitude. Finally, after 10 long years of begging, Tetsugen had enough money to begin his task.
It happened that at that very time the Uji River overflowed. Famine followed. Tetsugen took the money he had collected to publish the books and gave it away to save the villagers on the river from starving to death.
Then he began again his work of collecting the money necessary to produce the sutras.
This time it took seven years before Tetsugen had enough money again to begin his task. But the money was barely collected before an epidemic spread across the country. Again, he gave away what he had collected to help the sick.
After 20 more years of begging, he was at last able to publish the sutras in Japanese.
The printing blocks that produced the first addition of sutras can still be seen today in the Obaku monastery in Kyoto. But to this day, the Japanese tell their children that Tetsugen made three sets of sutras, and that the first two invisible sets surpass even the last one.” Love in action created all three.
While on the quest for a modern day person who leads with humility, I discovered a broadcast of Krista Tippett, Host of the NPR radio show On Being, interviewing Representative John Lewis. Lewis is a prominent civil rights leader and has been the U.S. Rep. for Georgia’s 5th congressional district, serving since 1987. Often called “one of the most courageous persons the Civil Rights Movement ever produced,” and yet deeply humble, John Lewis was and is an advocate of nonviolent protest. He led the push for voting rights and the first Selma march on what became known as Bloody Sunday, and nearly died that day from injuries suffered at the march. This weekend begins a series of programs and book discussions based on Bedford’s One Book One Read, MARCH, a graphic memoir of Rep. John Lewis. And if you’re free today at 2 pm Bedford favorite Professor Dan Breen will offer a lecture at the Bedford Library outlining the major events and figures of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.
I had the honor of meeting Representative Lewis a couple years ago, and was deeply affected by his integrity and warmth, but most of all his humility. He is someone who makes others want to stand tall and affect their power, and yet his stance has always been that he is one among many, and that if we organize and share our knowledge, together we can accomplish great things even in the face of great difficulty. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Here’s a little bit of the interview with John Lewis by Krista Tippet.
“REP. LEWIS: Well, long before any sit-in, any march, long before the freedom rides, or the march from Selma to Montgomery, any organized campaign that took place, we studied. I remember as a student in Nashville, Tennessee, a small group of students every Tuesday night at 6:30 p.m. would gather in a small Methodist church near Fisk University in downtown Nashville.
And we had a teacher by the name of Jim Lawson, a young man who taught us the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolence. We studied. We studied what Gandhi attempted to do in South Africa, what he accomplished in India. We studied Thoreau and civil disobedience. We studied the great religions of the world. And before we even discussed a possibility of a sit-in, we had role-playing. We had what we called “social drama.” And we would act out. There would be black and white young people, students, an interracial group, playing the roles of African Americans, or an interracial group playing the roles of white. And we went through the motion of someone harassing you, calling you names, pulling you out of your seat, pulling your chair from under you, someone kicking you or pretending to spit on you. Sometimes we did pour cold water on someone — never hot — but we went through the motion.
This was drama because we wanted to feel like they were in the actual situation, that this could happen. And we would tell people, whether young men or young women, that if you’ve been beaten, try to protect the most sensitive part of your body. Roll up, cover your head, and look out for each other. So when the time came, we were ready. We were prepare
TIPPETT: I also read somewhere that you were trained, even if someone was attacking you, to look them in the eye, that there was something disarming for human beings.
REP. LEWIS: We did go through the motion, the drama, of saying that if someone kicked you, spit on you, pulled you off the lunch counter stool, continue to make eye contact. Continue to give the impression, “Yes, you may beat me, but I’m human.” Be friendly, try to smile, and just stay nonviolent. And during the nonviolent campaign, in a city like Nashville and so many other parts of the American South, you never had one incident of someone striking back or hitting back. There were even people who would say, “I cannot go on the sit-ins. I cannot go on the freedom ride. I may not be disciplined enough.” But we were trained. When we left to go on the freedom ride, we were prepared to die for what we believed in.
TIPPETT: In the way I come to understand this, the point of all of this role-playing was not just about being practically prepared. I suspect that some neuroscientist now in the 21st century probably understands what happens in our brains somehow with what you knew about that moment of eye contact and human connection. But you also understood this to be a spiritual confrontation, first within yourselves, and then with the world outside. Is that right?
REP. LEWIS: You’re so right. First of all, you have to grow. It’s just not something that is natural. You have to be taught the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence. And in the religious sense, in the moral sense, you can say in the bosom of every human being, there is a spark of the divine. So you don’t have a right as a human to abuse that spark of the divine in your fellow human being.
We, from time to time, would discuss if you see someone attacking you, beating you, spitting on you, you have to think of that person — years ago, that person was an innocent child, innocent little baby. And so what happened? Something go wrong? Did the environment? Did someone teach that person to hate, to abuse others? So you try to appeal to the goodness of every human being. And you don’t give up. You never give up on anyone.
…MS. TIPPETT: And do you feel like, even in that moment, on that dark day on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, were you able to love those officers who came at you in this sense you’re describing?
REP. LEWIS: I saw these officers as individuals carrying out an order. And since then, I’ve had an opportunity to meet some of the sons and daughters of some of the people. I had a discussion on one occasion with Governor Wallace about what happened on that Sunday.
It was a very moving moment to me. I cry sometimes, and sometimes I think I cry too much, but they’re tears of gratitude, tears of appreciation, joy, happiness, of seeing something about the distance we’ve come and the progress we’ve made. What the chief did today was so meaningful.
TIPPETT: He gave you his badge too.
REP. LEWIS: I said to him, “I’m not worthy.” I wanted to say to him, “You don’t have to do this,” but he did it. It says something about the power of love, the power of nonviolence that it happened to move us toward a reconciliation.
TIPPETT: I want to push you a little bit because the word “love,” as you said, it’s romantic. Love, as you are talking about it, as you have aspired to live it, is not a way you feel. It’s a way of being, right?
REP. LEWIS: It’s a way of being, yes. It’s a way of action. It’s not necessarily passive. It has the capacity, it has the ability to bring peace out of conflict. It has the capacity to stir up things in order to make things right. When we were sitting in, it was love in action.
TIPPETT: When you were doing the sit-ins, like at lunch counters, at big department stores that had been segregated?
REP. LEWIS: Right. When we went on the freedom ride, it was love in action. The march from Selma to Montgomery was love in action. We do it not simply because it’s the right thing to do, but it’s love in action. That we love a country, we love a democratic society, and so we have to move our feet.”
Last week in Washington Rep. John Lewis continued to advocate for non-violence, this time by calling on congress to tighten up gun laws. He led almost all of the House Democrats down the steps of the Capitol on Wednesday for a brief event to respond to the Las Vegas shooting massacre, asking those gathered, “How many more must die?” “How many more dead bodies will it take to wake up this Congress?” Lewis asked, with fellow Democrats standing next to him along with former Rep. Gabby Giffords, who was shot at a constituent event in Tucson in 2011, “What will move this Congress to act? … We hold moments of silence and vigils, and offer our thoughts and prayers, and it is all a show or placeholder until people forget.”
He suggested that forgetting has allowed a GOP-controlled Congress to roll back gun restrictions. “Don’t tell me otherwise… I lost colleagues in Mississippi and Alabama to gun violence. We lost Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to a man with a rifle. We lost Senator Robert Kennedy to a man with a handgun. And now another mass shooting. We have seen too many gun deaths and I am here to say right now, ‘This must stop, and it must stop now.’” In the days and weeks to come, let’s all stay alert to the invitation to speak up for gun control. Our advocacy is love in action.
The truth is that very few of us are actually powerless. Being meek or humble is a desired state because it cultivates inner strength without seeking to overpower or submitting to being overpowered. The world needs more people like John Lewis who will use whatever little they have to do whatever little they can do, organizing, collaborating, agitating – to save the world from the violence that threatens it on every level.
If the question is, what does it mean to make a difference, the answer may simply be that we must not allow failure to become more important to us than witness. We feel powerless because the power we do have, we sometimes do not use.
My friend and colleague Sarah Gibb Millspaugh writes: “Religion is as much about faith in humanity as it is about faith in deity. And many of us will find that, over and over, our faith in humanity gets tested. We are immersed in a culture that’s deeply corrupted by selfishness, greed, and oppression-borne privilege and fear. It’s all too easy for us to justify the dehumanization, ostracization, suffering, and death of others. It’s all too easy for us to devalue some humans’ lives, and feel, somehow, like we’re still good upstanding moral people.
Religion at its best asks us to do better than this: to rise above the selfishness and status-seeking, the othering and xenophobia that come so easily to us. Religion at its best — and our Unitarian Universalist faith — calls us to honor that which is sacred in each person, even those we might hate, even those who we find disgusting. It impels us to accept, on faith, that there is a sacred spark, a worthy spark, in every person. This can sound mundane but it’s very radical — revolutionary even. Each person, sacred. Each person, worthy.
Accepting this, on faith, changes how we live. In this time when so many of us live in fear of a dehumanizing political regime, let us renew our pledge to live out those sacred and humane teachings that draw us toward humility, compassion, love, and justice in ever-widening circles of care.”
John Lewis says love in action has the ability to bring peace out of conflict. Love in action has the capacity to stir things up in order to make things right. To be humble or meek is not to be passive. It is to be pulled up short to stand stark still, paying deep attention, like the stallion mid-gallop in the field, muscles rippling in the sun. We must ready ourselves.
What is possible when we harness ourselves to the power of a life force that calls us on?
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
 Matthew 5:5
 Leviticus 19:18.
 Martin Buber, On Judaism, p 212.
 Welcome to the Meaning of the World and Its Meaning for You, Joan Chittister, p. 62.