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In a few weeks, Karen and I will be traveling to Red Lodge, MT where we will once again enjoy a reunion of my family. Over the years these have ranged in number from 100 to 300+ people…most of whom were an active part of my growing up. Because of the love and concern and support I knew from all of these relatives, I was gifted with a sense of community that has always helped me better understand what God’s kingdom is all about – it has meant for me that kingdom might be understood as kindom. And kindom is what we share during each reunion. But having said that, I will continue to use the conventional word: kingdom in the rest of this sermon as we explore what Jesus was teaching when he talked about the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven.
The Sermon on the Mount is the largest block of ethical teachings in the Bible. These are the teachings we most readily identify with Jesus, and as is true of most of the parables, the central theme in these teachings is the kingdom of God. Jesus never designates a place for this kingdom, nor does he only understand it as a reference to future life. For Jesus, the kingdom of God is to be understood as God’s rule, God’s active rule in the midst of life.
Now to say this much is not enough, for we are left with an incomplete understanding of the kingdom. The parables are helpful for they give us numerous glimpses of that kingdom, concrete examples with which we can easily identify. But the parables are not enough either – after all they’re stories, short stories, and they have content limitations. Jesus wisely used the parables in conjunction with his explicit ethical teachings and taken together the parables and teachings enable us to more fully grasp the meaning of the kingdom of God.
Today we only have time to consider a portion of The Sermon on the Mount, and I’ve chosen to focus on the first portion: the ethical teachings found in the Beatitudes and what these have to say to us about God’s kingdom. You heard these beatitudes when the Gospel text was read, and what is helpful to know up front is that they are blessings … simply a series of blessings. But to whom are these blessings directed? Who are the people Jesus had in mind as he taught and described the kingdom?
If we condense the 9 blessings (which admittedly changes their meaning somewhat) we’re left with these words: blessed are the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted. All of us can conjure up images of people we have known who fit these categories, and it’s important to do so, for in the process we can begin to really understand what Jesus was saying. I have the luxury of having had a head start over all of you in this task of imagination, so I invite you to journey with me and my memories of people I knew in my childhood – people who seem to fit the categories of the 9 condensed blessings. I’m going to share a cast of characters who were a part of the life I experienced growing up in Red Lodge. And before I do so, I beg your forgiveness of my use of some names that in today’s terms will seem not to be politically correct – the names that follow are the names by which I knew these different people.
The names are colorful for they come out of the rich, diverse ethnic population that marked Red Lodge in its mining days. That population was not unlike the diverse crowds that followed Jesus to hear him speak. In other words, the cast of colorful people I knew were the kinds of people who would have been right in the middle of the crowds attracted by Jesus.
The first person that comes to mind is Spaghetti Mike, a lonely hermit who lived in the mountains outside of Red Lodge. I never knew what it was in his past that drove him to isolate himself from other people, but probably only a person like Jesus could have drawn him back into society. Mike got along better with his flock of goats than he did with people. In fact, several of his goats always slept with him and kept him warm during cool mountain nights. He smelled like those goats, and perhaps that’s why he needed to stay away from other people! Mike was poor and may have been mourning something. He was also a peacemaker of sorts… for at least he didn’t disturb anyone else, and he seemed to have found some peace for himself.
Another character is Tuffy Johnson. Boyhood legend had it that he was really Liver Eatin’ Johnson (and as a matter of fact the real Liver Eatin’ Johnson, Jeremiah Johnson, did live in Red Lodge for a part of his life. He was a mountain man who married a Flat Head Indian wife. Crow Indians killed her, and in revenge he killed a lot of Crow braves. It was reported that he ate the livers of the braves). I still remember the fear and sense of awe that Tuffy inspired in me whenever I encountered him. Not only did I have his identity mistaken and thus fear for my own liver, but in addition he was a hard-looking man who deserved the name Tuffy. He was usually intoxicated, and when he was sober he did odd jobs around town. My father’s generous judgment of him on one occasion corrected my misunderstandings and permanently etched my memory: He maybe drinks too much, but he’s the best house painter in town. Tuffy was an easy mark for thirsty teenagers – he would buy a case of beer for any group of underage youth as long as they gave him back a six-pack. He was poor, and he was one who thirsted.
A third character is Goofy Dan – a name that reflected the fact that he was mentally challenged. Dan was one of the persecuted. People liked him and were usually friendly to him, but they also used him. He would do practically anything for a free drink or for attention, and people often made him play the fool – especially teenagers. My memories of Dan are tinged with a particular sense of pain, for they remind me of the capacity we human beings have to be cruel to one another. Such cruelty is often founded upon fear, and I vividly remember my fear of Dan. He was a big man, usually drooling a bit out of the side of his mouth, and he wore big thick glasses that caused him to have a wild look in his eyes. I’m sure he was harmless, but I wouldn’t have trusted him then – I was too caught up in my discomfort with his looks and with his nickname. Now I can look back upon some of my memories of Dan and understand him in new ways. I think in particular in terms of William Faulkner’s creation of Benjy, the 33-year-old mentally challenged man in The Sound and the Fury – a man who symbolically represents Jesus.
Next, I think of Gert and Dolly – sisters who were as tough as any man in town. And I mean tough in a total sense. They fit right in with the coal miners and cowboys who lived their off-work hours in one of the 13 local saloons. Gert had an illegitimate child who spent about 3 years with her (I think the court finally took him away). I’ll never forget that child either. After several years of teasing and rough language in the midst of the saloon gang, he was the meanest little kid I’ve ever experienced. One time I watched him run up to a perfect stranger, yell a few choice words and then kick the guy right in the shins. Gert and Dolly used their share of choice words, too, and they did their share of imbibing – they were clearly two other people who hungered and thirsted.
Another character I recall is Snowball – a short, round, loud, retired coal miner from Yugoslavia. Snowball never did master the English language in his 50 some years in America, and he brought laughter to many as he bumbled along. For example, he would stop every day in the Blue Ribbon Bar and drink his share of beer. And whenever he was out drinking, he always drove his jeep instead of his Cadillac – this because on one occasion he did drive the Cadillac and wiped out a gas pump, which damaged his prize car. When he was ready to go home, he would hop in the jeep and yell: Go home, jeepy! …and jeepy always got him there safely. Snowball was funny, but his life story was sad. He came to the United States during one of the waves of immigration. His plan was to strike a fortune and then send for the wife he had married just prior to departure. It took him longer than he expected, and his wife got tired of waiting. When he finally had enough to send for her, she wouldn’t come. He continued to send money to support her … and a son that reputedly wasn’t even his. Snowball suffered because of his initial poverty, and I’m sure he was one who mourned in the loneliness of his life.
Yet another character is Jimmy Joe. Jimmy was a little guy, the last of the frontiersmen. He lived alone in a mountain cabin, but he wasn’t a hermit. He always had one or two Alaskan Huskies that he had trained to pull him in his red wagon in the summer and a sled in the winter. He would ride 15 miles into town whenever he got the urge to socialize. Socialization, of course, took place in a saloon – The Wagon Wheel. Jimmy loved to tell stories and talk about his life in the wilds. He actually hunted, trapped, and fished for much of his food. He liked to brag, too – especially about his dogs, and in particular one dog that save Jimmy’s life when he fell and broke his leg in the winter, far from the cabin. The dog received some national dog food company award, and Jimmy nearly popped his buttons telling the story. He was really a fairly meek man though, and merciful, too. I remember visiting him in his cabin once, and he shared a picture of an Asian orphan girl he helped support through an International Adopt a Child Program. He sent her money regularly, even though he had little to spare.
Finally, I think of Jimmy the Hunchback – a short man with an obviously deformed back. I remember when I was about 10 years old how he came to my school to shoot marbles with my friends and me. He was about 40 years old at the time, and we never quite knew how we should relate to him. There was always a sense of mystery about him due to the reputation of his mother, Big Esther – the operator of one of the Red Lodge brothels. One of Esther’s call girls was Little Ida, and after the brothel closed down Esther took in Ida as well – probably because Ida was mentally challenged. As I came to know the family, I learned that Esther also had an invalid husband, and about 40 cats and 10 dogs – all living together in one small house. Little Ida used to come to the grocery store where I worked and would haul home a wagon full of pet food each week. The entire family was unique: big Esther, tough as nails yet merciful: Little Ida, poor and meek and even pure in her simple-minded innocence; Jimmy, another one of the persecuted and forsaken, a man who didn’t fit into the adult word or that of children.
Well, that is my list and a small piece of my life. It’s quite a cast of characters: Spaghetti Mike, Tuffy Johnson, Goofy Dan, Gert, Dolly, Snowball, Jimmy Joe, Big Esther, Little Ida, and Jimmy the Hunchback. Are these the blessed that Jesus was talking about? The inheritors of the kingdom of God?
The answer is YES, but to understand how that is possible we need to understand the meaning of the word blessed. The Greek word means how happy, and it was often used as a kind of congratulation. Congratulations to the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Congratulations to those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. As the word is used in the Beatitudes, then, it is intended to describe someone rather than to prescribe behavior. The Beatitudes name those who are happy in God’s sight; they describe life in the kingdom – a community in which people are poor in spirit, are comforted, are meek, and are merciful.
The cast of characters from my hometown was not a happy group; not to be congratulated in general for what they had made of their lives. Yet they had things about them which made them just as eligible for life in the kingdom as people who would be their opposites: the proud in spirit, the wealthy who misuse their money, the hedonists bent on pleasure, the non-meek aggressors in life, those who are never persecuted because they never risk anything. These people are surely more typical of people in general than are the figures out of my past, but they are no more nor no less deserving of life in God’s kingdom. This leads us to ask then: who is there that cannot be described as blessed, as people to be congratulated?
Maybe Jesus was not describing the people who live the life in the kingdom as much as he was describing that life itself. All people, no matter who they are, have the potential for touching on that life, for doing things which merit blessing and which bring them true happiness. As these things are touched, then life in the kingdom is experienced. Such an interpretation seems valid, for Jesus never really distinguished between life now and life in the kingdom to come. The kingdom is here and now … as well as to come.
Men and women who show humility, love, trust, fidelity, hope, compassion, courage, and generosity are praised in the Gospel. They are not presented as being perfect, but if their interests and desires are turned in the direction of the kingdom of God, then they are on their way to realizing that kingdom for themselves. This is the kingdom which is promised in the Beatitudes and painted for us in the images of the parables: to be in the kingdom is to be comforted, to inherit the earth, to be satisfied with life, to obtain mercy, to see God and to live under God’s rule. The kingdom of God is located in the midst of such life!