Second Sunday in Lent

Psalm 37:1-11 ; Matthew 5:5

We continue our Lenten Sermon Series on the Beatitudes. These majestic phrases at the beginning of Matthew are the keynote address of the Sermon on the Mount, which covers chapters 5, 6, and 7. It is a vision statement of sorts, a preamble, the way Christ gives us of thinking about the world, His world.

We are gathering around these texts in worship together through to Palm Sunday, and will work in partnership with the Wednesday evening study that began this past week. Come join us to continue the conversation. Let us pray…

Christ of blessing, as you gathered with your people, as you called truth and life into being, do so again for us today. Entrust us with a glimpse of your wisdom, so we might follow you with boldness. Amen.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
The Word of God for the People of God.
Thanks be to God.

Ruby Bridges was just six years old when in 1960 she stood before a judge who ordered her to go to first grade in the William Franz Elementary School. No black child had ever before stepped foot upon the hallowed white ground. Ruby recounts: “my mother and I drove to school with the marshals. The crowd outside the building was ready. Racists spat at us and shouted [horrible things].” One woman screamed at me, “I’m going to poison you. I’ll find a way.” She made the same threat every morning. And this was Ruby’s routine for much of the year – go to school with Federal Marshals, stoically walk past the incensed crowd…learn all by herself in a classroom where every single white child had been withdrawn from school, and then go home just to do it all over again…that was first grade.

One day, there was a break in her routine. Her teacher, Mrs. Henry, noticed Ruby walking toward the school and the protesters. But then she stopped, turned toward the howling crowd and seemed to be trying to speak to them. Finally, she stopped talking and walked in. Mrs. Henry immediately asked Ruby what happened; why did she try and talk to such a belligerent crowd. Ruby irritatingly responded that she didn’t stop to talk with them. “Ruby, I saw you talking,” Mrs. Henry pressed. “I saw your lips moving.” “I wasn’t talking,” said Ruby. “I was praying…I was praying for them.” Ruby had stopped every morning around the corner from the school to pray for the people who hated her. But on this morning she had forgotten until she was already in the middle of the malevolent mob.

After school that day, Ruby bolted through the crowd as usual and headed for home with her two companion federal marshals. After a few blocks and with the crowds behind her, she paused as she usually did to say the prayer that she had repeated not once but twice a day — before and after school.

Please God, try to forgive these people.
Because even if they say those bad things,
They don’t know what they’re doing.
So You could forgive them,
Just like You did those folks a long time ago
When they said terrible things about You.
1

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

This might be my least favorite beatitude. We don’t like meek, do we? Meek is the kid in the back who won’t talk to anyone, meek is the awkward adult that we aren’t sure how to engage. We are taught, from the beginning to avoid being meek. Be strong and commanding and in control. The meek person gets left out on the playground, gets beat up in the locker room after school. The meek guy doesn’t get the girl. The meek miss the job opportunity because they don’t step right up, don’t sell themselves particularly well. The meek end up filled with untapped potential, in the corner, alone.

Digging into the language further complicates matters. The Greek, praus, really does mean meek, gentle, mild.2 This is the only time this particular word appears in the New Testament. Back into the Hebrew, it appears numerous times in the Psalms – appearing variously as poor, meek, the oppressed. 3 An animal whose wildness has been tamed, disciplined, having rendered him gentle, James Howell notes, would be called praus. The meek person shyly hangs back when others are stepping forward. 4 Meekness is passive.

But that assumes that we have some say in our situation. “The meek in Jesus’ crowd may not have chosen meekness; meekness is frequently forced upon you by circumstance. In Matthew 5, the meek are those treated by the world as nobodies. Think of the mentality,” Howell again reminds us, “of a slave woman on a Southern plantation, or the posture of a beggar on a street in Europe, or the stare from a disease-ravaged child in Africa.” The child, alone in the hallway, scared to enter the classroom. The older person sitting in a wheelchair by the nurses’ station, unsure of what exactly is going on. A Japanese family standing in line for water. “To those who have no power, who have nowhere to turn and no one in their corner, Jesus says, ‘Blessed are the meek.’” 5

This, naturally, is tremendous word of comfort. Like with the poor in spirit, like with those who mourn, Christ is reminding us, again and again and again, that He is uniquely present with those the world forgets, dismisses, ignores by the side of the road. But these beatitudes all cut a couple of ways. They remind the suffering of the way they are embraced. They call us to be a people that seek out those Christ loves. But they also offer a challenge. When you are forced into meekness, when things fall apart around you, these words are profound comfort. But for the rest of us– folks who look like us and live in the neighborhoods we live in, Jesus presses us to embrace meekness. For Jesus, it seems, meekness was something akin to humility. Both verses 5 and 6 (blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness) draw on Psalm 37, which Mary Beck read a moment ago. Meekness, in the psalm, refers to those who are powerless and yet trust in God to save them, those who renounce retribution and live faithfully and with expectancy. 6 Tom Long concurs, suggesting that meekness is patient trusting that God will act in due time. 7 This is not a quiet submission, not assuming that everything that happens has to happen, not a resigned, cliché, ‘well, this must be God’s will.’ This is a patience that is rooted in humility – that knows none of us own truth. That none of us have full knowledge of God’s grand design. That, regardless of the circumstances and the pain. Regardless of the exhaustion we feel. Regardless of the fact that half of the children in the 34 county area of the food bank serves are on free or reduced lunch. Regardless of the death toll in Japan. That the moral arc of the universe is long, and it bends towards justice. That creation, and our lives, are something with which God can be trusted. That God is somehow underneath it all.

I had the privilege of being a part of a couple of really interesting interfaith conversations this week. At First Presbyterian on Monday a professor of Hebrew studies spoke on the ways the Christians, Muslims, and Jews all understand Abraham – and how those differences provide for us an important window into the ways these three great faiths relate. The second was on Thursday, when I walked into Duke’s chapel for a conversation between Dean of the Chapel Sam Wells, and Imam Feisal Rauf. Imam Rauf is best known as the leader of the Muslim community in Manhattan, hoping to build a community center there, a handful of blocks from ground zero, the former site of the World Trade Center. And they sat, in nice chairs right in front of the communion table, sitting in the light of the   windows, the delicate artistry drawing your eyes up to the ceiling in that magnificent space. They talked about the political football the community center had become, and how it dropped off the radar so quickly after the midterm elections. Imam Rauf said that in a meeting with families of those who died on 9/11, they asked him to get out, to spend time  traveling around America, to get to know it and allow us to get to know him. They told him he wasn’t near as threatening when they actually talked to him.

Both men talked about their faith, church and state, the way religion draws the best and worst out of us. It was really powerful, exactly the kinds of conversations the church ought to be having. And they both kept circling back to these same two pieces of meekness – humility and trust. Rauf said that we must get to know each other, as the world gets smaller and smaller. He was quick to complement Christians, saying we can teach the world about love for neighbor, at our best, about love and compassion for another. About being inspired by our faithfulness. He joked about a Christian friend being humbled by Muslims fasting for Ramadan. We give up chocolate for Lent and it drives us nuts, he said, you guys fast for a month! Dean Wells told a story about being on his honeymoon in Morocco. They went on a tour of a magnificent set of dunes, looking out to the sea. So beautiful, holy. And they got to the top of these dunes, and all of the Anglos were praying to the God of Nikon, he said, taking pictures for their friends back home. And he walked over the side of a dune and his tourguide had rolled out his mat and was praying. He had heard the call to prayer from the closest village, and had dropped to his knees in prayer. And I was so humbled, he said, challenged to dig more deeply into his own faith tradition, awed by the faith of another. And I realized, he said, turning to Rauf, that maybe I can become a better Christian by you becoming a better Muslim. That maybe we can engage our deepest
convictions, yet move towards a common vision.

There are times when the church must be bold. There are times when we must stand up andproclaim that the ways the white, southern church has treated African Americans and our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters is contrary to the message of the gospel. There are times when we the church must decry the rush to war, to the scapegoating of Muslims as the root of terror and evil. There are times when the church must say the poverty that remains is unconscionable, and the church cannot stand idly by. But the kind of faithfulness  to which Jesus calls these disciples here is one of powerful meekness, leaning towards the world, deeply rooted in  humility, in trusting God to be God. The world is too quick to listen to the loudest voice. As the church debates theology, as we struggle with coworkers, as we seek the best for our kids. As we confront the times in our own lives when we feel powerless, desperate, afraid. It is there that you must remember…Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

All praise be to God. Amen.

  1. The Ruby Bridges story is compiled from a first person account found at
    http://www.pbs.org/wnet/aaworld/history/spotlight_september.html and a third person account found at http://www.everystudent.com/wires/aprayer.html from the Rev. Jarrett McLaughlin’s paper on I Corinthians 1, shared at The Well’s 2010 gathering in Davidson, NC. 
  2. Joseph Henry Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, (New York: American Book Company, 1889), 534. 
  3. Psalm 25:9, Psalm 34:2, 37:11, 76:9, 147:6, 149:4, also Job 24:4. From the cross-reference function of Bibleworks 5: Software for Biblical Exegesis and Research
  4. James Howell, The Beatitudes for Today, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2006), p 47. 
  5. Howell, 47. 
  6. Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2005), 133. This reference comes from the Rev. Jessica Tate’s paper on this text for the 2010 gathering of The Well in Davidson, NC. 
  7. Tom Long, WBC:Matthew, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1997), p 49. Also from Tate.