(A sermon for Epiphany 4A January 30, 2011 Matthew 5:1-12)
One of the surprises in my life since our dog, Sam, died, is that apparently the walking schedule of an older dog was exactly the right amount of exercise for this middle-aged woman with Rheumatoid Arthritis. RA has been a fact of my life for almost three years now, and on the whole I’m doing very well with it. But when I didn’t have Sam to get me outside twice a day, I stopped going for regular walks, and within a few weeks, I began to have symptoms that had been gone for two years. Then new ones began to develop. And with RA, exercise is tricky. You need to move, but you absolutely must not overuse joints that are “flaring” or inflamed.
Overuse is a pretty subjective concept.
All I know is that I felt worse as Thanksgiving became Christmas, and finally in the New Year, I went to the physical therapist, who gave me a series of stretches to help with the things bothering me the most. And then he encouraged me to start exercising again, just a little at first. And we discussed the methods available to me. Could I join a gym or get to one of the public pools in Portland? Did it really make sense to count on walking at this time of year?
Finally, I told him, reluctantly, “I have an elliptical machine.”
He raised an eyebrow, appreciatively.
“I think it’s a pretty good one, a Nordic Track.”
And you may ask, and perhaps I asked myself, with an elliptical machine in the house, why was I worried about how to get to a pool or walking on snowy sidewalks in freezing temperatures?
Mostly because I didn’t know whether it was okay to use it with my ankle and shoulder not feeling very good, but partly because it took me back to other times when I made a fresh commitment to exercise.
And then didn’t stick with it.
But as it turns out, the elliptical is pretty ideal. It’s low-impact, if you don’t turn it up to be harder on purpose, and its motion is smooth. I’m adding a minute each time I use it, with a goal of getting to half an hour, most days. I’m more than 2/3s of the way there, and it feels good, so far. I am trying not to remember the days when I could easily do 45 minutes or an hour, at a higher level of resistance. I am trying to be right where I am, on this day, and do as much as I am able, based on the advice of the expert.
I do not always succeed at being so kind to myself. I have a tendency to look back and say, “If only I had done that differently, or begun sooner, or stopped when I should have, or asked the right question…” All of which adds up to a bigger question: “Why haven’t I already learned this particular lesson?”
The elliptical paddles turn a big wheel, encased in a plastic shell. I remember the effort involved in putting its pieces together six years ago, when we turned the oldest child’s bedroom into a den/exercise area and moved his things to his little brother’s room in the attic. I cannot imagine how it would ever come down the stairs again, to be moved or removed.
And so, I get on it, and I push the paddles again, and I hear the wheel spin, heavily.
We put it together on the same weekend the Beatitudes were in the lectionary that year, and it struck me then that these verses have a familiar rhythm of their own. They come around, again and again. We hear them, but do we listen to them? Is there one that sticks out over the others?
For me, there is. My mother used to caution me with this one, whenever a squabble broke out with my younger brother: “Blessed are the peacemakers,” she said. I had no idea what that was supposed to mean. I only knew what my mother meant. Stop fighting with your little brother. It’s your job to keep the peace, even if it means giving in to make the fight stop. Take the blame if you must.
It turned me off the Beatitudes, which being a clever girl I eventually found in my little New Testament. I read them all, and I thought they sounded sad, mostly. Still, it was clear they mattered, that I was supposed to attend to them. They reflect the human condition, the elliptical way of a spiritual life, with its ups and downs and it’s seemingly circular motion. We know we are working hard, but we wonder whether we are going anywhere.
I’ve gotten on the machine when some other member of the family used it last, someone stronger and taller, and found I could not make the paddles move at all. Unfortunately, it doesn’t turn “on,” the batteries don’t activate, until the paddles go around. So in order to change the level of resistance from someone else’s 8 or 9 to my Level 1, I had to find a way to make the wheel spin first.
When we feel like someone is persecuting us for being the kind of person we believe we’re meant to be, the kind of person God calls us to be, it’s hard work to turn the wheel, to get things in motion again, to feel actually blessed by God in the moment of challenge.
And that’s what Jesus wanted to explain to his disciples. The chapter begins like this:
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. (Matthew 5:1, NRSV)
So we may think of him on a mountaintop, far away from the crowds, talking to his inner circle, a group that is just getting to know him. And this is the first time we hear Jesus giving them a glimpse into their future as his followers.
And because by the end of the sermon, which covers three chapters in this gospel, there is an amazed crowd listening, we know his energy, his voice on the breeze, drew people closer. The “mountain” itself was more likely a gently sloping hill. People likely gathered a few at a time, adding to the circle around Jesus. But here at the very beginning, he had his new disciples with him. We only know four of them at this point in Matthew, the two pairs of fishing brothers, out of place on land, on the hillside, their lives thrown into excited confusion by their commitment to follow him. We know they have been traveling around the area, and that Jesus has been healing people, which is likely why a crowd had gathered.
And perhaps Jesus can see that. Maybe that’s why it seems important to let the ones closest to him know the truth.
It won’t always be shiny and happy, he’s telling them. You won’t always be popular with the crowds. There will be hard times ahead.
If God blesses people who are meek and poor in spirit and mourning and reviled and persecuted, you can pretty much count on being among them.
The hunger and thirst God will fill? For righteousness, not food and drink.
If God blesses people who make peace and show mercy, we had better get used to the idea you’ll be living that way, whether you like it or not.
And he wasn’t just talking to the people sitting with him on the little mountain that day. Every one of us will have the times Jesus describes; we’ll have some of them more than once. We’ll be sad and need comforting. We’ll be too sure of ourselves and need the reminder to be a little more humble. We’ll live our lives based on the values of our faith and find the world despises us for it, or even worse, nowadays, we’ll find the world doesn’t even care.
We’ll recognize to our dismay that we will need to learn some of these lessons not once, but many times. And some of those times will feel harder than others.
The way of Jesus will sometimes feel like the elliptical set unexpectedly at level 10.
Now, when I have to get that elliptical started under those difficult circumstances, I remember that gravity is my friend, and I step on and let my weight carry the paddle down, hoping the batteries will come to life. I ask for help, if someone stronger is nearby.
We have a whole array of spiritual options available to us when the way is heavy and hard. We come to church and listen for God. We retreat to our own version of a mountain top, or Jesus’ favorite, the back of a boat. We call a trusted friend, who reminds us that we could do it before, and we will do it again. We pray.
We get the wheel spinning, and we move slowly at first, then with more confidence and strength. We remember the people who came before us, blessed by God for their faithfulness, whatever resistance they faced. No matter how much time passes, no matter how the world has changed around us, one thing has not changed. We can rely on the spiritual blessing that keeps us spinning on an elliptical way. Thanks be to God. Amen.