Sept 20 — Whiffs of Insignificance

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” — Matthew 5:1-3

Why, Socrates, I always thought it was expected of students of philosophy to grow in happiness daily; but you seem to have reaped other fruits from your philosophy. . . I do not know whether you follow the common rule of teachers, who try to fashion their pupils in imitation of themselves, and propose to mould the characters of your companions; but if you do you ought to dub yourself professor of the art of wretchedness. . . .Thus challenged, Socrates replied: One thing to me is certain, Antiphon; you have conceived so vivid an idea of my life of misery that for yourself you would choose death sooner than live as I do. . . .As I listened to this talk I could not but reflect that he, the master, was a person to be envied, and that we, his hearers, were being led by him to beauty and nobility of soul. — Xenophon, Memorabilia

So we begin our 9 week journey through the most amazing nine  sentences of the New Testament — a veritable treasure trove of metaphysics.  This is not the story based, narrative New Testament that we like so much — the parables and the witty situational lessons Jesus is so justly famous for.

These are remarkable, pithy skeletons of ideas upon which, if we are to make any use of them at all, we must hang our experience. It may seem odd to begin these nine sentences all of which begin with the Greek word markaroi, variously translated as blessed or happy, by talking about poverty.  A depressing subject.  And just so that you do not attempt to gloss it, let me point out that the Greek language has two words for poor.  The first word is penes — it describes the situation of the working person — never quite enough to get ahead — the one who is penes is the one who lives by his own hands.  The other word is ptochos — our word — and it describes abject poverty.  It’s root is ptossein which means to crouch or to cower.  The povery we are talking about is complete.

All it takes is a moment of consideration to realize that this is not a recommendation to a life of poverty — especially since the kind of poverty referenced is so utterly abject.  Jesus lives his life, preaching about realistic ways out of abject poverty — and he loses his life in his insistence that the authoritarian regime relent on their downward pressure upon the poor.  It seems much more likely that Jesus is tapping into a bit of Middle Eastern wisdom. The same wisdom in fact that Socrates seemed to display and which he tried to teach.  That Socrates and Jesus meet the same end is not proof of their wisdom, but testimony to the fact that whatever wisdom the taught irritated the structures of power and authority enough to put an end to it.  For Socrates that startling reality was not evidence against his teaching, but on the contrary, part of the wisdom he taught to be able to see life as it is.

Now we see the line of questioning by which Antiphon queries Socrates.  It is essentially: “if you’re so wise — why you so gloomy?”

Antiphon was a sophist — a teacher of wisdom. Socrates was, of course, a teacher of wisdom too, the difference between them, though, is that Socrates was not paid.  Antiphon, according to the histories, was a rich man — he taught the kind of wisdom that people paid for –the kind that made them happy —  not the kind that might trouble the waters.

Now, the sophists were wont to attack Socrates as often and vigorously as possible because the common perception of the sophists, given that they charged for their instruction, was that they were greedy.  Socrates did not charge for his instruction.  If they were successful in any attack against him, they could have a reasonable come-back to the charges against them of greed, because they will have proved that free teaching is unsuccessful.

Socrates’ response, is longer than I have quoted.  But the gist of it is there — it is better to live a life poor in spirit and in accord with the gods requirement of justice than to be happy.   By acknowledging that the Human Condition is poor, Socrates is in fact able to life honestly, is in fact able to be happy despite the fact that he is not rich like Antiphon.  Antiphon recognizes that while Socrates is poor — he is rich in really significant ways that he will never be.

The subtext, then, with which we begin to make sense of this beatitude, is that our riches consist, as Jesus argues elsewhere, not in treasures that will spoil, but in the willingness and ability to see our true condition and to see it as part of and only part of , a greater whole, the extent of which we cannot begin to fathom.

Why is all of this important?  Because the seduction of sophistry is not unique to antiquity.  There are modern Antiphons for whom the goal of our common life is the pursuit of private happiness at the expense of the kind of happiness that comes when one’s liberties are placed in the service of others.

Today’s sophist’s go on the air and suggest that the desire to provide healthcare to every person, rich and poor alike, is really an ploy to create death panels. Today’s sophists suggest that because we invented the automobile and created the addiction to oil, we should be allowed to continue driving the kinds of cars we want — that the noise about carbon dioxide killing us slowly, is so much hock.  Today’s sophists use the bible in  distorted ways to argue that gay people should be denied a right to live, let alone seek the benefits of living in a society.

Here’s a story that describes just what I mean. The story comes out of a project run by the nonprfit group called Story Corp, whose sole mission is to honor and celebrate one another’s lives through listening to each other’s stories.

The story is of Tony Perri and his wife who had been married for 17 years. After 12 of those years, he came out to her. Perri recalls telling a priest he was gay when he was 17, during a confession. “I thought there was something a little different in me, that I was attracted to other men,” Tony says. “And the only advice he gave to me was, ‘Be careful who you tell that to, son.’ ” “So I didn’t tell anyone for another 17 years,” he says. It was hard, but Tony finally told his wife he was gay. He said he knew it wasn’t fair to him or the people close to him to stay in the marriage. His wife asked him to never tell the children, but eventually, he had to sit down with the kids and “just say the word gay — I’m gay.”

Perri came to this moment of decision by a need to live honestly.  He says that part of his story is that he was simply not living an honest life.

The proudest moment of his life was not when he told his own children that he was gay, but when he told his grandson, because with his grandson, he never lied about who he was.  Perri broke up with his boyfriend, Uncle John, and at that point his grandson realized that this was a different relationships that he had previously assumed.  Perri explained that he was gay.  And he said to him that he would not lie to him — that he strives to live his life honestly.”

I think, like David Isay, the founder of Story Corps, that being acknowledged for our stories is being acknowledged for the condition we live in together.  And like David Isay, I think these are not just generic stories, but stories connected to a name.  The prophet Isaiah reminds us that God has called each of us by name — not in a kind of wishy-washy sentimentalism, but in a call to live honestly, to engage life authentically and to share it with others.

Today we begin a nametag campaign.  I call it that on purpose — much like the Story Corps is a campaign to collect stories, that does not end with the perfect story — our campaign will not end with perfect success in getting you to wear the nametags — for it is never over — this call to extraordinary welcome is a call to be neighborly in the open and honest, authentic and engaged way of the sermon on the mount.  In other words, it’s not just about knowing each others’ names — but about learning new names, about learning new stories, about being open to the kinds of things Jesus and Socrates opened their lives to, and about seeking our flourishing and the flourishing of our neighbors in just and responsible ways.

The name tag board will die, unless we see it as more than a way to be able to learn someone’s name we should’ve known a long time ago.  Eventually we will know each other’s names — and unless the name tag board becomes a way for us to extend extraordinary and honest hospitality, to one and to all, then we will no longer need the name tags.   What I find exciting about the name tags though, is that it can be a “program” of “church growth.”

I put both of those words in quotations, because I mean by them something simpler and more organic than a program, and something not at all related to the idea so common in today’s popularized picture of the Christian church that bigger is better.  I am instead talking about worship as fulfilling a calling.  And in that fulfilling of our calling, to become larger, fuller, people engaged in a wisdom that leads to blessing.

So, here we go.  There are kinks to be worked out, for sure — like how to deal with the tags themselves.  That’ll be work, no doubt.  But also how to expand it, so that people who visit us, are in turn visited, and accepted and made to feel like they can find their blessedness in this crowd who is  poor in spirit.  Amen.


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