For Sunday, 1 November 2020: Matthew 5:1-12
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus goes up a mountain. Like Moses of old, who climbed Mount Sinai to receive from the Holy One the Law for God’s people, Jesus ascends and brings with him God’s people themselves to hear further instruction in the ways of the Most High. In many parts of Native America, when one is said to “go up on the hill” is meant that an individual has fasted, prayed, and gone alone to seek a spiritual vision for one’s life from the Creator. Jesus’ people on the mountain also receive a vision for their lives from Jesus, the very incarnation of the Creator.
The vision we are given for our lives as followers of Christ is a difficult one. It begins with humiliation but ends in glory, denial culminating in fulfillment. Like Jesus, who “went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified,” we walk the way of the cross praying that “we may find it none other than the way of life and peace” (BCP 99). The vision commences with poverty, grief, hunger, thirst, the labor of peace-making, even slander, but is completed wonderfully with comfort, fulfillment, mercy, joy, gladness, and being claimed as children of God and inheritors of the kingdom. I am reminded of the old Cherokee proverb: “When you were born, the world rejoiced as you cried. Live your life so that when you die, you rejoice as the world cries.”
There is a Christian counterpart to the traditional Vision Quest of many tribes. Catherine de Hueck Doherty introduced to the west from the Russian Orthodox Church the practice in her 1975 book, Poustinia: Encountering God in Solitude, Silence and Prayer. “Poustinia” is the Russian word for desert and is a sparsely furnished room or cabin where one goes for twenty-four hours to be alone in fasting and prayer with the intent of seeking God. Oftentimes, this brief retreat begins and ends with prayer and conversation with a spiritual director. With extra time on our hands due to the pandemic and demands of social distancing, perhaps a poustinia experience is a possibility.
This Sunday coincides with All Hallows’ or All Saints’ Day. It is also two days before election day during a difficult and divisive season in this country. As the “saints,” the holy ones joined to Jesus through repentance, faith, and baptism, we remember to carry on his work through the peace-making called for in today’s Gospel lesson. With the psalmist we pray: “Let God’s ways be known upon earth, God’s saving health among all nations” (Psalm 67:2). May it be so in the U.S.A., the tribal nations, and all the peoples of the earth.
Michael G. Smith, OblSB, is a bishop of the Episcopal Church, an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and holds a doctorate in preaching.