By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, February 2, 2020
Reading: Matthew 5:1-12
It would be remiss of me if I didn’t begin my message today with a reference to the Super Bowl. You know, the event that’s occurring in that little country to the south of us, that pales compared to the Grey Cup in terms of its importance. There is a wonderful quote from one of the doyens of the Super Bowl, the great Vince Lombardi, who was the coach of the Green Bay Packers: “Winning is not a sometime thing, it’s an all-the-time thing. You don’t win once in a while, you don’t do things right once in a while; you do them right all the time. Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing, but winning is the main thing.”
I've thought about Lombardi’s words, particularly over the last week or so, when everyone seems to be enjoying the thrill of success, emulating our heroes, making those who are great, notorious. I understand the lure of winning, I get it that it is sometimes a habit, and clearly there are those who are so successful that winning has indeed become habitual, and sometimes celebrating that is positive.
It was interesting listening to young people this past week, in a sense giving a eulogy to Kobe Bryant, saying how he had inspired them to excel. I get it that people want to emulate the winners, like the United States women’s soccer team, or – and I've got to point this out – the Springbok rugby team. Everybody wants to emulate somebody who is great; I understand the lure of success. The biggest problem arises within our culture when that success becomes an obsession. When it becomes almost god-like and takes on the form of a lens through which we look at everything. When we look at our own lives and determine whether we are successful based upon the standards of others, or the spirit of the age. Success is powerful. It draws us in and becomes a lens through which we look at everything.
That’s why I have always appreciated the great poet and American writer, Carl Sandburg, who in a Pulitzer prize-winning book on Abraham Lincoln, who had both successes and failures, wrote the following: “A tree is best measured when it is down, and so it is down with people.”
What he’s getting at is that there are times when we are not at our height, our greatness, our most serene or powerful, but there are times when we’re done, we’re measured for who we really are. Contrary to Lombardi, it is not always in success that we find our virtue. Oftentimes it is the exact opposite. We see that in the words of our reading today from the Gospel of Matthew. How many times have believers read this passage in our lives? Many times. Known as the Beatitudes, part of the sermon on the mount, in many ways a Christian manifesto for how we should live, or what the future reign of God is going to look like.
We emulate this passage and elevate it. It is powerful because there are phrases in it that very often pass us by and yet they speak to a world that is predominantly concerned with success, with victory, and with power. It speaks a contrary word to what culture often speaks, and because of that, it has a power all its own, and more than that, it was a word from Christ Himself. It was a word from Jesus to his disciples about the reign of God and the work he was doing. There is one line that I find we often overlook, maybe because we don’t understand it, or maybe because it is too radical for us to comprehend. But that is the phrase: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth.” We cannot comprehend what it means. The peaceful we understand, the righteous we understand, the faithful we understand, but we’re almost incredulous to believe that the meek shall inherit the Earth. What is this meekness of which Jesus spoke? And is it realistic in our day and age to say that we can live by the precepts of meekness?
Well, the word in the Greek has been used for centuries before Jesus came on the scene. It has been used by philosophers and writers, this word, proates, meekness, as it’s so often translated. It’s hard to understand it. Aristotle thought that it was somewhere in the middle of extremes, between self-serving-ness and anger, or vanity and self-doubt. For Aristotle, meekness was a middle road, a road that is unexceptional, but has balance within it. Most people today put in the place of “meekness” the word “weakness”. They think somehow that if you are meek, you are weak, you are easily trodden on, you are self-effacing to the point of being ineffectual. If you are weak, you have no spine, you have no core, you have no power, you have no influence. Often when we think of meek, we think of weak, that the two are synonymous. But Jesus had in mind more the concept of meekness as is found in the Old Testament. Perhaps Psalm 37:11, which says: “The meek will inherit the land and will find peace.” The word in Hebrew is anan, and anan means a meekness that is essentially humble, but faithful; it is humble, but it is strong. It is something that God recognises, but it is also a gift, in a sense, from God to the people.
For the psalmist, there’s no question; the land will be theirs, because of their meekness, their humility before God. Not weakness, not some sappy middle-of-the-road, but a strength of humility that recognises God’s presence. It is powerful.
One of the best commentaries I have ever read on this passage, was from a very famous book written before the second world war, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship. He wrote this about meekness and the blessedness that comes from it.
This is a community of strangers who possesses no inherent right of its own to protect its members in the world, nor do they claim such rights, for they are meek. They renounce every right of their own and live for the sake of Jesus Christ. When reproached, they hold their peace; when treated with violence, they endure it patiently; when people drive them from their presence, they yield their ground, they do not go to law to defend their rights, or make a scene when they suffer injustice, nor do they insist on their legal rights. They are determined to leave their rights to God alone: non cubidae vindicti, as the ancient church paraphrased it. Their right is the will of their Lord and no more.
He understood then that the meek are a new type of community, new followers of God, who recognise that their wills, their lives, are humbly presented into the presence of God. They recognise the love and the presence and the power of Jesus Christ, and it is in Christ and Christ alone that they have their strength. Meekness then, according to Bonhoeffer, recognises the wonderful grace of God, and lives by it. So, if anyone tries to tell you that if you are faithfully meek, you are weak, tell them, no, rather you are humbly and respectfully dependent on the grace and the power of God.
But do these meek inherit the earth? I’ve often been troubled by this passage, for maybe I'm like others. I’ve wondered whether the meek do inherit the earth. On the surface it seems that the people who inherit the earth are the strong, the powerful. Even those who abuse their power, seem to have victory, seem to win trials, seem to walk free. It seems that everything is the contrary; it is not the meek who humbly recognise God who have power, it is the powerful who assert their power and they use it.
The very last Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustus, thought that he was a man of power and prestige, but he was the end of the line for the emperors. Napoleon thought that he had all power and was successful, and though he recognised that there were higher powers than he, nevertheless, he loved and enjoyed the power he had. It looked for a while as if Napoleon was about to inherit the world. I think those who were the subscribers of the Third Reich thought that in their Reich, they and their power would inherit the earth. There have been those throughout the years who have believed somehow that by power and might, by aggression and force, by success in worldly terms, they can elevate themselves but are they really inheriting the earth?
A very good friend of mine, Barney Pityana, a South African theologian, once said in a lecture, and I’ve never forgotten this. “The powerful and the mighty think that they are inheriting the earth, but in reality, it is the earth that’s inheriting them.” For those who think that they lift themselves up, and that they can be victorious and successful by worldly standards through devious schemes, they themselves have then become slaves to worldliness and the seductive nature of power. I get it. When it seems the unjust get away with things, or those who have assumed power by force, seem to be important, we wonder where there are other voices, and whether the meek will inherit the earth.
The great African scholar, W.E. Du Bois, the founder of the NAACP, a magnificent writer, pacifist, and scholar, was a controversial character. He once said: “If there is anybody in this land who thoroughly believes that the meek shall inherit the earth, they have not let their presence be known.” Where are they? Where are the meek, and why don’t they let their presence be known? The problem is that we are so conditioned – and this is my point – to reading the signs through the lens of success and power, that we cannot see the work of God in our midst. Nor do we have the hope of what God’s reign eventually will become. What we see now is only, says Paul, “like looking through a glass darkly.” We are conditioned to believe that strength, power, and success are the winners, because it seems that that is the case. We’re misreading the signs.
I love a banner that I saw in a magazine – not a Christian magazine, just an ordinary magazine – it told the story of a priest and a reformed minister, who are standing at the end of the road with a big sign that simply said: “The end is near; turn back before it’s too late.” A young guy came along in his sports car, looked at this sign and laughed and he mocked them. He put his window down and said, “You crazy religious people.”
The sports car tears off down the road, and there’s this great crash, and there is a splash and the two of them looked at each other and said, “We should have said, ‘the bridge is out’.”
There are those who mock the notion of meekness because they think that meekness does not win the day. By doing so they turn their back on the One who said it. For some people there is a crisis of faith when they read the Beatitudes, but here’s what they forget, and here’s the rub, that the meek must show meekness because of the One who was meek. Remember folks, it was Jesus of Nazareth, it wasn’t a philosopher, an idea-maker, or a mystic. It was the Son of God who spoke this. At every turn in Christ ministry, both preceding Matthew Chapter 5 and following, the definition of meekness worked itself out.
A little later on in Matthew Chapter 11, Jesus says the following, and these are words that many of cleave to, from the Kind James version: “Come unto Me all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn of Me, for I am meek and lowly in heart, and you shall find rest unto your souls. For My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Notice the language. “I am meek and lowly of heart.” That is why I think that one of the powerful parts of Jesus’ life and ministry is that those who, in this world, by the lens of success, seem to be anything but successful. The disenfranchised or the poor, or the people who are often excluded, the people who are hated, the subjects of violence, these are people who look to Christ and they see in His meekness, not only a yoke and a burden that can be taken from them, but they see in that the very power of life and hope. They live in this world knowing that there is a Kingdom that has both come and is coming, that will lift and bring them to a place where they know that they are loved by God.
For those who think that the standards of this world and the standards of power and might are the only things that are victorious, then look at the life of Christ. There were those around Him who judged Him by the standards of their own levels of success. Even when He was on the cross, that lens of success was still thrown in His face; “Why don’t you call down angels from heaven? Why don’t You save Yourself?” The meekness of Jesus was a humble trust in God. He knew that even on the cross, there would be ultimate victory.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer concluded his portion on the meekness in The Cost of Discipleship, with this: “The renewal of the earth begins at Golgotha, where the meek one died, and from thence it shall spread. When the Kingdom finally comes, the meek shall possess the earth.”
How right Bonhoeffer is. Let us never be duped, despite the advice of Vince Lombardi, to believe that success is a habit and that losing is a habit too. Let us not be seduced into believing that meekness is weakness, that a humble life before God is the middle of the road of no real consequence. That it can be the subject of derision by those who look on by the standards of this world, because meekness does inherit the earth and meekness will inherit the earth.
For those who, right now in this world, feel that their weakness is crushing them and their meekness finds no home, may they know that on the cross, their ultimate home is found, and the meek, along with the Lord of Life, shall inherit the earth. Amen.