By Rev. Joan Kessler
This morning, we continue to journey through the season of Epiphany. And I know that this liturgical time of the year is not figuring highly in your diaries and calendars, but it gives context to the readings we share between January 6 and the first Sunday of Lent. Epiphany is all about revelation, of showing who Jesus was in his early life and beginnings of his ministry and his relationship with God.
Matthew 5 is the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon On the Mount. He begins this long exhortation with words of blessing. Blessed are the poor in the spirit, those who mourn, those who are hungry… for good things shall come to them. Jesus sets up his message by addressing the lowly, those down on their luck and his words would have been countercultural to listeners ever since. How can these folks have anything to look forward to? I discovered this week that my usual translation of Beatitude as Be-Attitude or as an “attitude” one should “be” is actually linguistically incorrect. The word comes from the Latin, Beati, which means “happy”. Jesus begins his teachings with affirmations. The community who would hear these statements of blessing were a group down on their luck. The temple had been destroyed yet again; the early followers of the Way were without their leader Jesus. They scattered out of fear for lives because of their new beliefs. They were all these things. Jesus’ words of blessing were for everyone, they were inclusive, no one was left out.
A topic of conversation I have had more than once this past week has come out of the report from our congregational retreat some two weekends ago already. By the way, we will have this report available to you next Sunday. The question was this: Would a discussion/exploration regarding the value of an expansive theology and what an expansive theology means be valuable to our community of faith? What a great question? I have been wondering about this for some time. I think we have lots of mission and ministry ideas. Our work will be making resources, both financial and people, available to fulfill theses hopes and dreams in this particular time and space in a COVID world where we view our personal health and public safety so differently than we did just three years ago. But how do we talk with one another about our beliefs and our understandings and our experiences? How do we acknowledge diversity and continue to move forward?
It’s a beautiful question because it digs down into us and it compels us to speak with our words what it means to be spiritual, or traditional, or ritualistic, or religious. Because we have all of it here. We are not a melting pot of belief and practice. But to uphold diversity, I would say this: it takes a wealth of gifts and energies and sharing to preserve this uniqueness, so everyone feels their beliefs are being honored and valued.
How do we use expansive language in 2023? What are the “We believe…” statements we can say together? Words matter here. I did a little researching this week and I found one Anglican community in the United States who says it most eloquently:
…we are a congregation of celebration, discovering the joy of openness to God’s spirit. We are constantly experiencing the liberating power that breaks down barriers among us. In our life together, we are being called to new dimensions in our faith and new challenges to service*
This particular congregation goes on to describe its use of language in order to expand its understanding of the presence of God it encounters in its life and work together. Words matter. Inclusive and expansive words are important to the Church, particularly the United Church of Canada because the images they produce hold tremendous power. Finding language that speaks to everyone’s experience of the holy, the spirit, one’s sense of God, often feels a bit like a moving target. One name for God no longer suffices the diversity that comprises a progressive community of faith. We don’t all think the same and it is important that we acknowledge this.
Here, in this moment, Winfield United celebrates diversity. We cherish it, we are proud of this reality that many different beliefs find a home together under this one roof. Part of our moving forward together is to recognize this reality and the sensitivity that comes with it. In the midst of theological diversity, what is the common ground we stand on? Being cognizant of our diversity and finding ways to talk with one another about our differences is as necessary as deciding whether or not we want to hire a child and family worker again or build housing or explore becoming a spiritual centre where everyone is welcome. Our theological identity is asking to be articulated and I believe it provides the foundation for all we create. And if it is to acknowledge we agree on somethings and disagree on others, then that’s what we say. Not talking about hard things doesn’t make hard things go away. But hard conversations can be life-giving and a blessing to one another.
So, to get this conversation started, I will tell you a bit about my faith. I believe in a relational experience of God. God is always with me. I cultivate this relationship through service, prayer/meditation, song, and study/reflection, not just on my own, but I do all these things with you also. I strive to be deeply sensitive human being to the differences in experiences and theologies and if I have ever offended one of you because of my beliefs, or misunderstanding yours, please accept my sincerest apologies. I do not have a method to offer you as to how we go about exploring our commonalities when it comes to language and recognizing our differences, but talking and listening well with one another is a really good place to begin.
Maybe this is where we return to the blessings of our readings this morning, the beatitudes. Blessings break down barriers. To receive a blessing is a most auspicious gift you can give to another because it gives words to God’s dream for us. The late John O’Donohue, Irish poet and theologian, was a master of the art of blessing. And those of you who have shared meeting spaces with me know full well that I am a fan. The Holy is just infused in his words without getting caught up in any naming. He lays out the vulnerability of the situation and brings forth words of goodness… that whatever is wrong in this situation there is hope abound. There is Kindness. Kindness, according to O’Donohue, …dwells deep down in things; it presides everywhere, often in the places we least expect. The world can be harsh and negative but if we remain patient and generous, kindness inevitably reveals itself. (To Bless the Space Between Us, p. 185)
I have known these beatitudes Jesus speaks of this morning… maybe not all of them… from one time or another over my life. My faith helps me weather their storms. The loving kindness and compassion of others has made all the difference and brings my faith to its fullest fruition. When someone is kind to you, you feel understood and seen. There is no harsh judgment directed towards you. In that moment, the theological language we use seems not as important. I think Jesus would understand this point I am trying to make today. This radical Kindness is what Jesus offered in the opening of his Sermon on the Mount. He let everyone know he saw them, and he cared for them, even when the world they inhabited said otherwise. The beatitudes were spoken for everyone. They were inclusive before that was even a concept. It never occurred to Jesus to say something that left people out. And if he did, it was likely a woman who helped him see otherwise. Even the Pharisees, those who chose to judge Jesus and dissect his words, were offered Kindness, compassion, and were seen as children of God.
May we continue to expand our understanding and experience of the divine among us. Having conversations with one another about what we believe and don’t believe is timely and important work for us going forward. We cannot make assumptions if we are to hold diversity and a space where everyone belongs in its highest regard. May we continue to live in the example of Jesus, and look to his first followers and know too, we will not always get it right but that is the whole point of the journey. May we live a life where we look through the lens of the Beatitudes, blessing one another, drawing from the well of our inner depths of Kindness that the world can be turned upside down… to see the poor in spirit, the meek, the hungry, the grieving and say a word of Kindness to them. That is how we live our theological language out.
Know you are blessed, dear friends, and share that blessing with another.
Pass it on. Amen and Amen.