By Whose Definition?

Garden of Grace United Church of Christ, Columbia, S.C.
Readings for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany: Jeremiah 17:5-10, Luke 6:17-26

Back in 1998, a well known politician made a bizarre statement. Now, I know that’s not anything unusual, and I would only have to look at today’s newspaper to find another example of a bizarre statement by a politician, but this particular statement is well known – one you’ll recognize, because it’s so bizarre that it is lodged in our national psyche in the form of jokes and metaphors.

The politician in question was then President Bill Clinton. He made this bizarre statement during a grand jury appearance regarding the nature of his relationship with a young intern named Monica Lewinsky. He told the grand jury he wasn’t lying when he told his top aides that, “there’s nothing going on between us.”

He then uttered that famous phrase: “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is. If ‘is’ means is and never has been, that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement. Now, if someone had asked me on that day, are you having any kind of sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky, that is, asked me a question in the present tense, I would have said no. And it would have been completely true.”

Obviously, President Clinton was a masterful politician. But before anyone accuses me of paying him a compliment, it is my personal opinion that most of the world’s troubles today are caused by the fact that we have far too many masterful politicians in charge.

But, Clinton knew the power of definition and knew that it mattered whose definition was being employed when he was asked this specific question.

By his definition, of course, he had done nothing wrong.

I ran into this peculiar situation of definitions a few weeks ago when I went to Atlanta to complete yet another step on the road to ordination within the United Church of Christ. So far, Andy and I have endured hours of classes on UCC polity, written papers, met with committees and wrangled through emails to the conference to get all of our ducks in a row so they will bestow upon us one of their definitions of ordination: “privilege of call.”

One of the last requirements that we’ve been asked to fulfill is to submit to a psychological evaluation, which entails going to Atlanta to take a couple of personality tests and be interviewed by a psychiatrist. The evaluation is, of course, to weed out any truly crazy or immoral people from occupying the pulpit, but one test, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory seemed pretty easy to fake out to me.

For anyone who has never taken this test, it contains more than 500 statements that you answer either true or false. Some of the statements are simply ridiculous and would be so easy for anyone to lie about. There are many questions, for example, that center around whether or not you hear voices telling you to do things or if you think the whole world is against you. By the time I finished the test, I was feeling a little bit paranoid. Why do they keep asking me about voices and the world plotting against me? The voices have always told me that the world is plotting for my joy! But they didn’t ask me about that!

But, one question in particular made me just stop and laugh. The statement was, “I have never engaged in any unusual sexual practices.” I sat and thought about it for a moment and said out loud to the empty room, “Define unusual.” By whose definition do we judge some practice “unusual”? Finally, I decided it was my definition so I answered, “True, I have never engaged in any unusual sexual practices.”

Jesus understood how tricky definitions could be – in particular the world’s definitions of blessings and woe. Luke tells us about the “Sermon on the Plain” in today’s reading – which oddly enough is called the “Sermon on the Mount” by Matthew. Perhaps these two authors had different definitions of what constituted plains and mountains. But, that’s not the only odd definitions found in this passage.

Jesus, like Clinton, said some rather bizarre things to those people who had gathered to hear him. I’m sure these people, like the crowds who heard Clinton, scratched their heads and wondered what had gotten into this simple preacher. Did he really mean to say that those who are blessed are poor, hungry, weeping, scorned people? Did he really mean to impart woe to those who are rich, full, laughing and popular with everyone? By whose definition was this man judging blessings and woe? Certainly not any definition they had heard.

Jesus’ message is scandalous – proclaiming God’s preference for the poor and outcast – not the powerful and popular in the world. Matthew – again working by a seemingly different set of definitions – seeks to blunt the scandal of this message when he recounts this sermon, turning Luke’s poor to the “poor in spirit” and those who hunger to those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” As the New Interpreter’s Bible points out, “spiritualizing the beatitudes grants those who are not poor access to them, but it also domesticates Jesus’ scandalous gospel.”

Blessed are the poor? The hungry? The weeping? The hated? I dare say if we took a poll of people experiencing poverty, hunger, sadness and scorn they’d tell us of their woes, not their blessings. If the poor are truly blessed then America is becoming one of the most blessed nations. According to the Census Bureau the poverty rate has risen for the fifth consecutive year from 12.7 percent in 2004 to 13.3% in 2005.

That means there are well over 37 million people living in poverty in the land of plenty. I wonder how blessed they feel as our government increases spending on killing, and slashes money for life giving programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

But, whose definition of blessings are we judging by? When we talk about blessings – our definition is something good. In fact, the Greek word used in Luke means something like, “How fortunate!” or, “Good for you!” Jesus is congratulating the poor, the hungry, the weeping and the outcast. “Good for you,” he says – and we puzzle over such an odd definition of blessing.

In reality, what needs to change is our own understanding of what it means to be blessed. Jesus is telling the crowd – and telling us – that all of the blessings we think we have in this world are fleeting. Those who are poor today can hit the jackpot tomorrow and be rich, full, laughing and loved by everyone. A year later – they can be poor, hungry, weeping and friendless. Our definition of blessing is shallow. We pin our ideas of blessing on things of this world – money, houses, cars, jobs, relationships.

Jesus reminds us that’s not where blessing comes from. Life’s blessings are fleeting – only complete trust in God can bring any of us lasting blessings, lasting joy and lasting peace. If we think we can find blessings anywhere outside of God, we will always be disappointed. To blessed – truly blessed – is to find that God shaped hole inside of each of us and fill it with the presence of God each and every moment of our lives – no matter what we’re doing in that moment.

Writer, priest and spiritual director Henri Nouwen wrote in his book, “The Inner Voice of Love”: “When your eating, drinking, working, playing, speaking, or writing is no longer for the glory of God, you should stop it immediately, because when you no longer live for the glory of God, you begin to live for your own glory. Then you separate yourself from God and do yourself harm. Your main question should always be whether something is lived with or without God.”

We are truly blessed when we realize our own poverty – that everything we have comes from God. Every breath, every thought, every movement, every sunrise and sunset – nothing in our lives happens without God. We think we’re rich – rich in things, rich in health, rich in friends, rich in relationships, rich in employment. But, we’re not, we’re all in poverty and we are blessed by the poverty because it forces us to rely solely on God for everything we have and for everything we are.

This is not the message we receive from the world, however. The world’s definition of blessings are definitely material. There are even preachers out there proclaiming a so-called prosperity gospel – telling people that God wants you to be rich, to have the finest things in life. Of course, it’s usually the prosperity gospel preacher who is living in the lap of luxury while those who support his ministry go without.

This past week I read a story in Newsweek last week about a preacher in Florida who says he is the second coming of Christ. Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda claims more than 100,000 followers who gave him $1.4 million dollars last year. De Jesus lives a lavish lifestyle with fancy cars and diamond encrusted gold rings. I can’t help but think that those who believe this rich man is the second coming of Christ have never read the Sermon on the Plain. If they had, they’d know that Jesus would have never lived such a lifestyle – because it’s a lifestyle of woe – not of blessing. Blessed are the poor, the hungry, the weeping the downtrodden – not the rich, the well-fed, the laughing and loved.

Blessed is the person who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is in the Lord. Blessed is the person who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is in the Lord. They are like trees planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought for it does not cease to bear fruit. (Jeremiah 17:7-8).

Oh, how fortunate is the person who trusts in the Lord. Good for you when you are poor – when all you have is God – when all you have is that light inside of you that shines no matter how dark the night. Good for you when you are hungry – when the only thing that will fill you up is God. Good for you when you weep because the only thing that will bring you joy is God’s grace. Good for you when the world hates you – because you have found that inner peace that only God can bring. Good for you – good for you.

Jesus message is clear, blessings and curses abound in this world – the only way to escape them is to turn to God – to look inward to that in-dwelling, still living, still breathing, still speaking God. Nothing in this world will give you the kind of blessings that God can. Nothing in this world will bring you joy like God can. Nothing in this world will give you the peace that God can.

So does that mean we don’t have to worry about this world? Does that mean we don’t have to be hard at work here – that we shouldn’t live and dream and build things for ourselves here in this world and instead should set our minds only on the next world? Of course not. It’s true that the world’s definition of blessing is fleeting, but the only way to find true happiness is to be at work in this world – being Christ to everyone you meet.

The secret to true happiness – to true blessing – is to give ourselves to others – to work to relieve the suffering of others in our world.

Unless we cultivate compassion for others, we will never truly understand what it is to be blessed in all circumstances of our lives. As St. Francis of Assisi says so eloquently in his prayer, “It’s in giving that we receive.” It’s when we realize that we are poor that we become rich. It’s when we realize how hungry we are that we are filled. It’s when we cry from the depth of our being that we burst into laughter and it is when we are willing to be openly despised that we gain the respect of the world.

For those of us who choose to live our life following the Christ, we have to be comfortable with paradox. Life is always an adventure as Christ takes the world’s definitions and turns them on their heads. By whose definition will we live, Jesus’ or the world’s?