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January 29th 2023

Sermon By Rev Joel Crouse


Would you consider yourself a lucky person? Several years ago, an American psychologist conducted a series of unusual experiments. He divided participants into two groups: those who defined themselves as lucky, and those who said they were not lucky. And then he gave each one a newspaper and asked them to count all the pictures in it. According to his results, the lucky people took seconds, on average, to finish the task. The unlucky people were more likely to take minutes. The catch was that on the second page of the newspaper there was a note in big letters filling up half the space. It said, “don’t read any further. There are 45 pictures in this newspaper.” As the researcher theorized, the lucky people saw it and stopped right there. The unlucky people, intent on their task, missed what was right in front of them, and kept going. So he tried again. This time, he sent his participants to a coffee shop. At the entrance, he had dropped a $5 bill. What happened? The lucky people, in his experiment, almost always found the bill. Some of them even shared it with a stranger they met inside and enjoyed a conversation. Those participants returned saying how great the outing had been. The unlucky people more likely walked over the money, got their coffee, and spoke to no one. When asked how their trip had gone, they were more likely to say, “Nothing exciting happened.” Now, the sample sizes were small, so I am not sure how “scientific” these experiments really were. But the idea they were capturing was “the openness” that the so-called lucky people had to the world around them—their willingness to pay attention to their surroundings and to invest in the people they encountered. There was nothing quantitatively luckier about them than those who declared themselves unlucky – but their posture in the world meant that fortune found them. Today our gospel would appear to be about some pretty unlucky people. Jesus opens his Sermon on the Mount by promising “blessings” to those who are poor in spirit, who mourn, who are meek. He goes on to speak about those who look for knowledge, those who are pure in heart, those who take risks for what is right and face persecution. He pretty much covers the whole gambit. And we can all find ourselves on the list somewhere. I imagine we find the Beatitudes speak to us in different ways depending on our stage of life. Jesus is speaking about a promise of the luck of God falling upon both the lucky and the unlucky: the term “beatitude” originates, in fact, from the Latin word beātitūdō which means "happy," "fortunate," or "blissful.” That is, lucky. It’s an elegant speech – and a deeply reassuring one for us – which is why it is so often quoted and referenced. It is a promise from Jesus that things will work out when we are most in despair, that we will be carried through the valleys of life by our faith in God. It is also, I would say, a recognition from Jesus that it is often when we are most troubled that we feel closest to God, and that we lean most heavily upon our faith. But a few lines down, Jesus makes a telling shift. The first three examples are passive: people who are low in spirit, who mourn, who are meek. The next six are much more active. It takes, after all, self-control and intention to be pure of heart, even when it comes easy. To thirst for righteousness implies that we are looking for it in the first place. To be a peacemaker requires an intentional act of forgiveness or compassion – if not the active settling of the dispute. And the last two are truly bold – so central to the gospel that Jesus references them twice: those who face persecution in the act of doing something right, Jesus says, “shall rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” There’s another more modern experiment to test our concept of luck. A teacher asks a diverse group of students to stand in a line. He tells them that they are to run a race to a set finish line and the first person to cross it will win $100. But first he asks the group to take two steps forward if his statements apply to them, and not to move if they don’t. Are their parents still married? he asks. Two-thirds of the group steps forward. Did they have access to tutors for school? More steps forward, a slightly smaller group this time. Did they never have to worry about the family bills being covered? A picture emerges - it is mostly the same students stepping forward each time, and the same group standing still on the original starting line. You get the idea: the teacher is pointing out that some people are lucky, not because of any personal accomplishment or ability, but because of their family’s economic status. The students at the back will have to run much faster to cross the finish line first. And so that’s an important context to add to the original experiment - and to how we read the Beatitudes. It is easiest to be open and generous when we feel lucky, but often our luck is not a quality we create in ourselves, but the result of a life lottery we happen to win. We should never judge the people still racing through that newspaper - perhaps working twice as hard to keep up means you miss things. And we should never judge those who fail to see the $5 - they might have things on their mind, like worrying about the bills. To be victims of poverty, injustice, and trauma - as the first group in the beatitudes - is a burden of mind and spirit, that the lucky do not carry. So the Beatitudes are a collection of gifts and challenges. When we need it, God carries us. And when we have the strength, we carry the gospel. In this way, Jesus upends out notion of fortune. It is not the accumulation of material goods, or the recognition of human achievement. It is not a life free from grief and tribulations. It is a posture – the act of paying attention, of seeking, of listening. Ultimately the Beatitudes are a description of the human condition: at times in our lives we are brave; at other times we are meek. Sometimes, we feel rich; at other times, we feel poor. There are many ways to describe those qualities: material, emotional, and spiritual. But at all times we are blessed. In the world the Gospel envisions, we receive God’s comfort when we need it, and God’s call when we are able to follow it. We all have our part to play in that. Maybe we split the $5 dollars with our neighbors who missed it. Maybe we show them the riddle in the newspaper so they can catch a break. Maybe we wait in the race so that those left unfairly behind can catch up. Maybe we don’t race at all. Maybe we walk together. That would be a lucky world indeed. Amen

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