Sunday, November 3, 2013

Blessed Are ...

Luke 6:20-31
November 3, 2013/All Saint’s Day/Confirmation

            Greeks spit.
            Now that I have your attention, let me explain that statement before I completely offend my dear sister and all of my other loved ones in Greece.  Greeks spit ritualistically as a way to ward off evil, the evil eye or evil spirits, etc.  If you’ve ever seen the movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding – and if you haven’t you really should – there are at least two occasions in that movie when the ritual of spitting occurs as a way to keep evil at bay. 
            Greeks aren’t the only people who spit in this particular way.  Eastern Europeans, more specifically Eastern European Jews, also spit ritualistically.  Again, think of the movie Fiddler on the Roof.  Golda, Tevya’s wife, does the ritualistic spitting three times to ward off evil or prevent more disaster. 
I know that these are examples from movies, but they are based on reality.  I’ve been greatly influenced by the Greek side of my family, so much so that I occasionally think about doing that ritualistic spitting; especially at happier moments cause that’s when it seems the evil eye is most likely to strike.  Everyone in the family is healthy, happy, things are okay; quick start spitting – you know just in case. 
But I have another image that comes to mind when it comes to spitting.  I think about some of the boys I went to high school with who chewed tobacco.  We weren’t allowed to have soda cans in class, so they would make spittoons out of paper and sit at the back of the class, hopefully outside of the teacher’s notice, and periodically spit.  Not the most pleasant of images, I know. 
            There’s a reason why I’m talking about this particular subject and it is based on a word used in our passage from Luke’s gospel.  The word is ptochoi; in English it is spelled P T O C H O I.  Richard Swanson, professor of Religion, Philosophy and Classics at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, did a profound word study on ptochoi in his commentary on this passage, and all the credit for what I learned about this word goes to him. 
            Jesus uses this word in the first of his beatitudes.  “Blessed are the poor.”  Ptochoi means “poor people.”  Unlike Matthew’s version, in Luke’s gospel Jesus wasn’t referring to the “poor in spirit.”  Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor people”  “Blessed are the ptochoi.” 
But as Swanson pointed out, every word comes with connotations.  So it’s helpful to think about other words that begin with that pt sound.  Swanson offered analogies to birds, such as ptarmigan and pterodactyl.  As odd as it seems to compare the poor to birds, ancient or otherwise, think about what it’s like to be swarmed by pigeons looking for crumbs.  How often have I been walking along in big cities and been swarmed, not just by hungry pigeons, but by homeless people asking for change.  Blessed are the poor who must swarm the well-off looking for food; whether it’s on a city street or standing in line at a food pantry, or queuing up downstairs waiting for the Community Meal to begin.  Blessed are the ptochoi. 
            While Swanson offered other interesting analogies between ptochoi to similar words that begin with the pt sound, the one that struck me was this – ptochoi is related to the Greek word ptuo.  In Greek it literally means “I am spitting.”  In fact our word ptooey comes directly from it.   Blessed are the poor people.  Blessed are the spat upon. 
            Blessed are the spat upon.  Think about the different examples of spitting that I started off with.  I would gladly accept the ritualistic spitting because, superstitious as it may be, it is a way of showing love and concern and asking for protection.  But there’s nothing in this world that would make me want chewing tobacco spat on me.  Nope.  No way.  No how.  But Jesus says that those who are spat upon are blessed.  Blessed are the ptochoi, the poor people, the spat upon. 
            As crazy as it may sound I agree with the commentators and Biblical scholars who say that this is an appropriate passage for All Saint’s Day.  It is appropriate and fitting because today is the day we lift up the saints of the church, the corporate saints and our own personal saints.  Being good reformed Protestants, we don’t venerate saints.  We don’t pray to them or consider them as intercessors between us and God.  But we do lift up their lives as examples, as role models of faith and faithfulness. 
            Father Clark Shackleford, the retired Episcopalian priest here in town, told a story at our Bible study the other day about a group of schoolchildren who were touring an Episcopalian church.  The church had many stained glass windows that featured biblical scenes and images of the saints.  When asked about which ones were the saints, one little girl said, “The saints are the ones that let the light shine through.”  I could not think of a more perfect example of a saint.  A saint is not someone who was saintly.  Someone we consider to be a saint is not necessarily someone who was perfect or lived a perfect life.  A saint is a person who through their living let the light of God shine through to others. 
            I’m going to take it one step further.   A saint is one who was willing to be spat upon.  A saint is one, who even if they weren’t born into the class of ptochoi, they willingly took on that mantle.  A saint is one who was willing to be spat upon for their faith, because of their faith. 
            I often use Archbishop Romero of El Salvador as an example of a saint.  He was not born as a ptochoi, and his views as a priest were traditional and aligned with the accepted teachings of the church.  When he was made Archbishop, the powers that be thought he would not cause trouble.  Other priests were upset by this appointment because they were afraid he would work against their cause of liberation theology.  But Romero saw a friend and fellow priest assassinated for his work to liberate the poor, and that changed him.  Romero was willing to be not just spat upon for his faith, but to give up his life for his faith.  Jesus said, “Blessed are the ptochoi,” and Archbishop Romero lived those words and died for them. 
            Romero is a well-known saint, but what about our own personal saints?  What about the people we’ve personally loved and lost?  I had a friend in seminary named Anne.  Anne had a brain tumor that affected her short-term memory, caused seizures and eventually took her sight and her speech and her life.  But Anne was the most determined person I have ever known.  We met in Hebrew school, which was like a boot camp for languages.  Learning Hebrew is tough to begin with, but having short-term memory issues makes it that much harder.  But Anne never quit.  When her health began to worsen, she was willing to take one class a semester, whatever it took to get through seminary. Before seminary, Anne worked with the poor, the ptochoi.  At one point I believe she was working in a shelter, and a resident there hit her, knocked her down.  Her husband and her father begged her to quit, but she just told them that they didn’t understand this person.  He had been knocked down by life over and over again; it’s no wonder he knocked her down.  He was one of the ones who was spat upon, and she was willing to be spat upon with him.  Blessed are those who are spat upon.
            Along with celebrating our saints today we also celebrate our confirmands: Ryan, Rebekah, Phoebe and Zach.  Too often the subtle message of confirmation is that it’s really graduation from church.  But that’s far from the truth. Today we confirm the vows that we made at their baptisms, even if we didn’t personally witness those baptisms.  But our responsibility to and for these young people is not over.  In fact, it’s just begun.  Because we are charged with being examples of faithfulness; being those who are willing to be spat upon in Jesus’ name.  We are charged with their continued discipling.  And we also must recognize that they are role models of faithfulness for us.  In so many ways, they have already shown that they are willing to be the spat upon.  We disciple them and they disciple us. 
            Although it may not seem like it at first, I think these words of Jesus, his sermon on the plain rather than on the mount, call on each of us to have courage.  Especially those of us, and I count myself a member of this group, who would not be considered one of the poor people.  We are called to have the courage to be spat upon, to be reviled, to be hated because of our faith, because of our trust in God through his son.  We are called to do this for all the saints, those who have preceded us and those who will follow.  Let all God’s children, let all God’s saints, let all those who are spat upon say, “Amen.”

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