January 29, 2023 Guiding Beacons of Light by Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to our God.

Those of you who attended the Buddhist-Christian study last fall will have heard Sensei Tanis Moore talk about her struggle with current interfaith social actions directed against a particular bank because of its support of fossil fuels and pipelines through Indigenous territories without Indigenous approval. What you may not know is that Tanis is a social activist. I can count on her to be present at any number of interfaith social activist events. She and I stood together outside of MP offices in support of Guaranteed Basic Income. We have prayed together at the statue of Gandhi for world peace. She explained to us last fall that the difference between these events and the current action is that the former actions were asking for support for justice initiatives while this action against the bank is confrontational. The pathway she is following calls her to send compassion and loving kindness to others, rather than condemnation.

Just recently, I was invited to attend another action against this bank. This time, those of us who are clergy are asked to wear our collars and religious symbols while walking into the bank and praying for the conversion of those working in the bank. In my earlier years, I may well have been there, but in my senior years, as I can now claim as I approach the watershed age of 65, my path has changed. I am finding my call to be more in line with Tanis’s. I am less comfortable with confrontation. I am more aware of my own contradictions and weaknesses, as I would have driven a car to the bank. I would need to pray for my own conversion before I could, with integrity, point fingers at others. Instead, I am drawn increasingly to finding a third way between polarized sides. This path invites conversation that may still be difficult, but tries to open hearts, not to condemn them.

This doesn’t mean that there is no place for the sharp words of the prophet in our midst. Tanis and I agree that our choices of pathway do not negate the paths of others. We still need the clear, outspoken condemnation of injustice and there are a few prophets in our midst who have the street creds to be heard. I greatly admire a handful of people in Winnipeg who have a strong prophetic voice and live what they preach and pray; they are some of the leaders of this current action against the bank.

With Tanis’s permission, I tell you about this dilemma with which Tanis and I have struggled, because I think it might offer a new way to read some of the most familiar passages in the Bible, including today’s lectionary readings. Micah 6:8 gives us a timeless guide for our lives: God has told you what is good. What does God require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.

These three guiding orbs of justice, kindness and humility are inextricably linked. To promote justice without kindness or humility can be dictatorial or bullying. To be kind without being just or humble can be hypocritical or two-faced. To be humble without being kind or just can be self-disparaging or manipulative.

We each are called to different paths in our spiritual journey. Some are behind the scenes, others are out front, some pray and some sing, some follow and some lead. But no matter which path we follow, Micah 6:8 remains our steadfast guide: justice—especially for the vulnerable, kindness—especially for those we don’t like, and humility—especially when we feel particularly passionate about something. Whatever path we choose must be guided by these three, interlocked beacons of light.

In the middle of the beatitudes, we find these three beacons listed one after the other: blessed are the meek, which could also be translated as humble; blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, which could also be translated as justice; and blessed are the merciful, which includes kindness.

As we hear Matthew’s version of the beatitudes, we need to remember something. Jesus is not telling the crowd that good behaviour will end in heavenly blessings. Jesus preached about the kingdom of God more than any other topic. And by this, he didn’t just mean a future realm of justice, kindness and humility. He was also referring to the kingdom of God that is already present within each seeker. These blessings are not only about the future. They are also about the blessings that are already here.

This takes me to a fascinating translation of the beatitudes that is based on Aramaic, the language which Jesus spoke. In the original Greek version of our written gospels, the word blessed could also mean happy. Happy are they who… But Jesus did not speak Greek. The writers of the gospels were recording stories and teachings of Jesus that were originally spoken in Aramaic. The Aramaic word for “blessed” was ashray which means “to set yourself on the right way for the right goal; to turn around, to repent.”[1] That gives us a very different meaning of the beatitudes.

According to this research, Jesus was telling the crowd to get going and do something. He was urging them not to be paralyzed by their situation, and certainly not to wait for some heavenly reward. If you are meek and humble by nature, get up, go ahead, do something, for what you do out of humility will bring you the whole world. If you hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice, get up, go ahead, work for justice, for then you will be satisfied. If you are merciful and kind of heart, don’t just sit there. Get up, go ahead, offer mercy and you will receive mercy in kind. If you are naturally a peacemaker, then by all means, get up, go ahead and offer your peacemaking skills, and you will be called a child of God.

To understand the beatitudes as a call for action is to live into the spirit of the beatitudes. These actions can be as varied as our gifts and abilities, guided by the three beacons of humility, kindness and justice. Christianity is not a passive religion. The teachings of Jesus provide an action-packed manifesto that will help each one of us, in our own ways, to usher in the kin-dom of God.

[1] Megan McKenna, Blessings and Woes: The Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Plain in the Gospel of Luke (Orbis Books: 1999), 22-23.