Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Happy? The Poor in Spirit and those who Mourn?
Happy, the paradoxical blessings of the beatitudes as we walk with Jesus toward the cross. Preached March 6; 2022 at the 930am worship
It’s our first Sunday of Lent, the season of 40 days where we walk with Jesus toward Jerusalem. Now, people often think of Lent as a bit of a downer. So I thought, this Lent, let’s talk about HAPPY! That’s what parents sometimes say for our kids. “We just want them to be HAPPY!” Shoot, McDonald’s named their kids' meal the HAPPY meal. It’s what spouses sometimes say to one another. “I just want you to be happy.”
This Lent, we are going to imagine ourselves walking a journey toward real happiness, not the false promises and shortcuts and quick fixes that some in the world promise, but following Jesus and his wisdom about true happiness.
Thankfully, Jesus does us the favor of naming a few keys to true happiness at the beginning of the sermon on the mount. They are sometimes called the Beatitudes. We often read them “Bles-sed are the…” but another common and appropriate translation is “Happy are the…” Who Jesus, who are the happy ones?
For five Sundays of Lent, we are going to talk about 1 or 2 of Jesus’ sayings about who is truly Happy and read a story or two from Jesus’ walk to Jerusalem that may help us. Today, we hear the first two Beatitudes:
3 “Happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Happy are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Happy are the poor in spirit? Happy are those who mourn? Does that sound right to yall? On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus tells a story about a young person who is poor in spirit, and a parent who mourns. Let’s pray and listen to the word of the Lord from…
Scripture Luke 15:11-32
11 Then Jesus[b] said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So (the father) divided his property between the (sons). 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.
14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, and here I am dying of hunger. 18 I will get up and go back to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20 And so he set off and went to his father.
And while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; (the father) ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’[d] 22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then (the other son) became angry and refused to go in.
His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours comes back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you’ve killed the fatted calf for him?’
31 Then the father[e] said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”
Sermon Happy? Poor in spirit and Mourn
Let’s try something friends. Find someone close to you, someone you didn’t come to church with today. Make sure you know one another’s names. Then I’m going to give you three minutes total, 90 seconds each, to tell one another what you think “poor in spirit” means. Okay? Go…
That’s 90 seconds so switch, and give the other person a chance now…
Okay, let’s come back together…
The son who left, I am going to guess, was already poor in spirit. There was something about having to live at home and work for dad that wasn’t doing it for him. He wanted to see the world. He wanted freedom from all these chores and responsibilities. He wanted no rules or boundaries. He could go out when he wanted, come in when he wanted, do what he wanted. That’s the path to happiness, right? Money, freedom, independence.
“Dad, give me my share of the inheritance today.” The person who says this is hurting, desperate, poor in spirit and seeking a shortcut. He’s been sold a lie and believes it, that a deposit into his bank account and a withdrawl of rules and expectations on him are the one-two punch to give him happiness.
Dad has a hard choice to make. What is the loving response? “I’m sorry son, I love you, but I cannot support you on this. I can’t stop you, but no, I won’t give you anything...” or… “Son, I love you, and I don’t think you will find what you are looking for, but here you go.” The parent in Jesus’ parable chooses the latter. If dad had tried to hold him back or not supported him, the son could have blamed Dad for his unhappiness. He would have resented dad more and more for blocking him. So, dad chooses the latter. “Okay, son. I love you, and I don’t think you will find what you are looking for, but it’s your journey.”
The son cannot pack fast enough. There had to be an adrenaline hit to his system. Surely, he felt happier in that moment than he had felt in a while. Money, a CHUNK of money in his pocket, and off he goes. I remember selling my Jeep Cherokee for $7000, and they paid me in cash. I had my 14-year-old son in the with me and I let him hold it. He started drooling on it…
That much money, that much freedom, where should he go first? He can go anywhere! He’s free!
There’s a point in Jesus’ journey where another young person asks Jesus how to find an eternal, boundless, limitless, happy life. In that encounter, Jesus asks the young person if he knows the basic rules. Rules? Rules aren’t the path to wholeness and happiness, freedom is! But the young person has been taught the basics and responds. “Love the Lord with your mind, heart, body, and spirit… and love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
The younger son in our story is either unaware or skeptical of these basics. He now has some money in his pocket and some freedom. It is feeling like happiness to his head because he’s heard and believes money and independence bring happiness. It feels like happiness in his heart because he’s often felt like relationships and responsibilities were holding him back. In his body, he’s got more of a smile and a spring in his step today than he’s had in some time. But in his spirit, he’s still poor in spirit. The other three, his head, heart, and body tell spirit to sit down and shut up.
It doesn’t take long. The expenses of freedom are high, and the income is non-existent for those trying to avoid responsibility. The money and freedom gave his brain, heart, and body a quick hit of happiness, but it doesn’t last. It melts away and he can’t afford his next hit.
Human beings are designed in the image of God, for relationships. More than anything, we seek connections, friends, partners. And when we are in real relationship with others, they expect things of us. We have to compromise with them. We agree to some rules we put on each other. We hold each other accountable to common priorities and boundaries. Can a person really be free and have friends? Can a person really be happy without friends?
When the son finds himself eating from the pig trough, that’s a magical moment. The Hebrew word Shalom that we often translate as peace, really means bigger. It means wholeness, fullness, completeness. When Jesus questioned the other young person what is written in the Law, and the young person answered, “Love with all your heart, mind, body, and spirit,” Jesus affirmed that answer. “Yes! You have answered wisely!” When we sync our whole selves, our thoughts, feelings, actions, and spirit with one another and launch them in love, we find shalom, the peace of Christ, real happiness.
At that pig trough, the young one that was poor in spirit finally finds an awkward wholeness when he “finally came to himself.” His spirit agrees with his heart and he confesses, with his mind and he plans, with his body and he goes. He is whole. It’s a new feeling, true happiness, and he’s so confused, but the one who was so poor in spirit and ran to the world in such brokenness is finally headed home whole. That is what happiness in God’s community looks like, not freedom and wealth but wholeness and connection. Happiness is the union of head, heart, body, and spirit in love.
Okay, once more, turn to your partner, and share with one another for 90 seconds someone you mourn, you miss, you still long to be close to and remember…
The father was mourning. The son didn’t have to die to be mourned. He was gone. He was out of reach, no Facebook, or find my friends. When we sent our boys to college, we asked them to activate their Find my Friends on the phone, so they wouldn’t be lost. It made us feel better.
This dad was mourning, hurting. He does his daily life, and constantly looks up the road checking the road. He aches, mourns, and he cannot repair it.
Then our eyes turn to the other son. His spirit is poor, but he doesn’t know how to mourn yet. He says, “this son of yours” and dad corrects him, “this brother of yours.” He resents his brother and his father. He didn’t even bother to mourn and grieve the absence of his brother, or the pain of his father as his brother’s absence. The son who left found happiness. The dad who stayed and mourned also has happiness, wholeness. He mourned, but he loved. The oldest son is the saddest part. We don’t know if he found happiness like the other two. Did the older son ever get his spirit in tune with his thoughts, feelings, words, and actions?
If your spirit is running low, that’s okay. In the kingdom of heaven, the honesty of those who feel poor is spirit if fully welcomed here. As a church under Jesus the Christ, this is meant to be a place for those who are poor in spirit. We will not paste on plastic smiles, or say “fine” when someone asks how you are doing. We will not offer you a short cut, or quick fixes, but we will offer you sincere, authentic relationship. We will offer you time and attention. We will offer you our poor and broken spirits and trust real happiness can only come when we become our full authentic selves when we connect our thoughts, feelings, actions, and spirit to one another and to love.
If you mourn, that’s okay. Mourning, grief is a sign that you have known love. You have loved or been loved, and distance, divorce, death took that person away. As a church of Jesus our Lord, this is meant to be a place for those who mourn. We will not rush you through your tears or pain, or expect you to get past it. We will wait with you. Love stays forever. We might lose the person, but the love stays with us forever, and we would never want you to leave that behind. Instead, we will hear your stories of love, and share ours with you too. We will tell each other about the people that brought love into our lives and let our minds, hearts, bodies, and spirit center themselves around the love that never leaves us even when the person does. In doing so, our mourning is truly comforted.
Happy are the poor in spirit. They will find themselves centered and whole, and be reconnected to others in real, honest relationships of compassion and love. Happy are those who mourn. They will show the world they have loved, and have been loved. They know love. They will share the story and be surrounded by others who also hold onto love so it never dies.
On Jesus’ journey, he was poor in spirit, and he mourned, but we can agree he was happy. Let’s look for his happiness, not the hollow happiness the world promises.