This sermon was preached by in the Gettysburg Seminary Chapel by President Michael Cooper-White for the opening Eucharist of the spring semester, February 5, 2014. The primary text for the sermon was Jesus’ “beatitudes” from Matthew 5.
One of the most popular Sherlock Holmes short stories, "Silver Blaze" focuses on the disappearance of the titular race horse (a famous winner) and on the apparent murder of its trainer on the eve of an important race. It also features some of Arthur Conan Doyle's most effective plotting, hinging on the "curious incident of the dog in the night-time:"
Scotland Yard Detective Gregory asks the famous private investigator: "Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"
Holmes replies: "To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."
Gregory responds: "The dog did nothing in the night-time."
Holmes concludes: "That was the curious incident."
It was the dog’s silence that became the most important clue, revealing that the apparent robbery-murder crime was an inside job; the perpetrator someone whose late-night wanderings would cause no alarm to the dog.
As in Conan Doyle’s famous mystery, so sometimes in Holy Scripture, it is not that which is said or written that bears the deeper meanings. Sometimes it may be in that which is not spoken or recorded that the profound impact of a text resides.
In the case of the so-called beatitudes, the “blessed are’s” at the beginning of Jesus’ well-known Sermon on the Mount, we have become so familiar with what is said and recorded and read regularly in the church’s lectionary. But as you seek to unlock the surface significance or hidden meaning of these well-worn words of Jesus, have the tumblers ever fallen into place, has the successful “click” of the right combination ever occurred on the basis of what is not set forth?
Have you noticed, or does it now grab your attention what Jesus did not say as he began teaching his disciples and the crowds?
He did not say, for example, “Blessed are those who seek and achieve perfection in all they do.” He did not declare, “Blessed are the properly pious who say their prayers and read scripture religiously at all the appointed canonical hours.” In his declaration, his conferral of blessings even, our Lord did not insist, “Blessed are those who construct and conduct marvelous artistic liturgies,” or “Blessed they who wear the latest clerical garb and are never caught insufficiently coiffed in any public setting.”
Even more shocking to our pious, serious religious sensibilities, did you notice what else Jesus does not include in his short list of the sources of true blessedness? He does not declare, “Blessed are those who believe, trust and place their unwavering faith in God.” Nor does he declare, “Blessed are those who confess the Triune faith in the words of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creed!” Nor does he even seem to require the minimal mark of a Christian: “Blessed are ye who are baptized.”
The blessings, in short, come not exclusively or even primarily by means of what happens in the cultic, religious life of a pious person or people. The blessings come by where a person and people are placed or place themselves in terms of their social location: the poor (in spirit and material possessions as well (in St. Luke’s version); the reviled; the grief-stricken who find themselves mourning; those who are about the arduous task of making peace; those who offend or do not fit society’s norms and therefore are persecuted, bullied.
“So,” you ask, “do the beatitudes conflict with or even contradict a theology of justification by grace through faith?” Jesus simply does not say that the blessed estate comes by way of belief, bold confession or a prayerful posture before the Almighty. “Now wait a minute,” you protest, “surely our preacher—who calls himself and is called by others Lutheran—is not advocating a form of works righteousness, suggesting that in the end we are not saved by grace through faith but rather by human effort.”
You’re right. I am not so suggesting; not so interpreting these beautiful pronouncements by our bountiful gracious Lord and Savior. It’s not a matter of works, though I am convinced that the commitment to be about the task of peacemaking is among the more difficult work a faithful person can undertake in our violence-prone, conflict laden world today. But it’s not the work; it’s rather where one seeks to be before any work can even begin. It’s the desired destination, not the duty delivered once we’re on site.
And, we need to recognize, being blessed, being happy, feeling fulfilled is not the same as receiving the gift of salvation. We are, will be, can only be saved by the pure grace of God showered upon us mysteriously and inexplicably through the crucifixion and resurrection of God’s beloved, Jesus the Christ. But we can and will be blessed by our social location among the lowly, lonely, the lost and the least. This is not just countercultural, I think; this is counter-religious. It does take us to an indescribable realm Dietrich Bonhoeffer tried to describe when he wrote of religion-less Christianity.
There’s a lot of attention in the current climate to the “nones”—those who on a religious preference survey would indicate that theirs is “none at all.” Were he among us today, I have a hunch that Bonhoeffer would spend a lot of time hanging out with the “nones.” Rather than seeking to convert them, as appears to be the commonplace response of most Christians to the nones, I suspect Bonhoeffer might suggest we first need to be converted by those who reject simple religious answers and pious platitudes.
Embracing the beatitudes takes us to that place to which St. Paul was pointing in his exhortations to the contentious Christians in Corinth: “remember your call-stories.” Be honest as you complete your Rostered Leader Profiles! In that section where it asks about your gifts and attributes for leadership within the faith community, don’t write the typical: “Good preacher, strong teacher, loving pastoral care-giver, parish visitor, programmatic whiz-kid and eager evangelist.” Be honest with yourself and with those call committees. Put down “not so smart; B- at best when it comes to the overall grade on spiritual gifts; mediocre or a bit less as preacher; generally uninspiring and often downright dull; definitely deficient in the charismatic quotient.”
For Christians, if I understand Jesus’ sayings in the beatitudes correctly, the dog that does not bark in the night is the dogmatic rigidity that draws too small a circle delineating who are the blessed insiders. The beatitudes are broadly inclusive and open-ended. The dog that does not bark in the night for the contentious Corinthians is a kind of dogged holy determination and perfectionism that leads to paralysis. “Don’t wait until you can do all things perfectly,” St. Paul seems to be saying. “Just get on with the work of bold witness now, despite your weaknesses or ‘areas for growth’ as we like to soften them in our formation lingo.” “Don’t just stand there waiting for greater wisdom, for more courses in preaching or biblical interpretation; just start proclaiming the good news you’ve known for a long, long time.” “Don’t sit there on your hands waiting for someone to give you the nod and indicate it’s your turn to get engaged in the struggles of those who are beaten down by life or bullied by the high and mighty. Take up your cross; take up Jesus’ cross, foolish stumbling block that it is, and just start stumbling along.”
The dog that did not bark in the night for the prophet Micah was the critter that requires all manner of pious self-flagellation, elaborate liturgical contortions or frantic efforts to achieve self-perfection. In the end, the formula for Godly righteousness is straightforward and elegantly simple: “Yahweh has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
The dog that does not howl in the night is the one that year after year echoes down the corridors of every seminary I know; the one who cries out, “This place’s menu of spiritual richness is severely lacking!” Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are the poor in spirit. In SPIRIT!
If indeed, as I have suggested, being blessed, true happiness, finding fulfillment is a matter of social location, then a posture and trajectory of downward mobility is simply a must. We too must hear that same divine calling as did Father Moses and Mother Miriam, “Go down, way, way down in Egypt’s land where God’s beloved are oppressed and impoverished.” Get down, way, way down in the murky muddled places where God’s beloved are suffering. Make that hospital visit. Go to that ramshackle house out in the country where it feels like you’re way beyond civilization, where your GPS stopped reading miles ago. Gear up for an internship in a place so far outside your comfort zone you fear you’ll never find your way back—you might not; you might just find yourself comfortable among a new and strange kind of people! Take that first call to that parish about which even the bishop shakes her head and sighs, “oh my . . .” And you might just find that the dogs you feared so much not only don’t bark in the night, but they don’t even open an eye or raise a floppy ear; ‘cause you’ve become a member of the family, an insider down there in the low and lonely places where the blessed ones sleep so soundly.