What a beautiful reading. To me, it says: “You are blessed, now go out and be a blessing.”
I am so delighted to be here at Lynn Valley United Church again. You are an exceptionally warm and welcoming community. As Jesus says in today’s scripture reading, “You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.” I feel that’s the mantra, the spiritual intention, in this community.
I’m also glad to be here representing VST, the Vancouver School of Theology, which is a great place to explore Christian Studies, Indigenous Studies, and Inter-Religious Studies. At VST, I am Director of Inter-Religious Studies, and Professor of Jewish Studies. And you’ll hear echoes of that in my words today.
You might not know that I was a student at VST long before I became a faculty member. In 2006, when I was still fairly new to Vancouver, I was working as the Rabbi at Or Shalom Synagogue in East Vancouver. I had completed all the pastoral training my denomination required: a unit of CPE (clinical pastoral education in a hospital setting), a course in counseling, a summer institute in life cycle ritual, 4 years of supervised spiritual practice.
But somehow I felt spiritually unprepared to be present as a pastoral caregiver. I knew how to care for people, and care with them. But I didn’t know how to channel God’s presence in a way that helped me feel, really feel, that God was holding all of us.
So, I talked with my spiritual director about it, and she suggested that I study spiritual direction. At that time, VST had a graduate program in spiritual direction. But if I went there, I would have to meet all new people, and I, a Jewish rabbi, would have to study from a Christian perspective. So that was exactly why I chose VST—to learn something genuinely new to me.
So, yes, I did learn what I came to learn: how to bring God closer and closer in my awareness. But I also fell in love with the community at VST. And I also learned a lot about Christianity, and I fell in love with Matthew’s gospel. It’s true, there are some anti-Jewish sections in Matthew, but that’s obviously not what I love about it.
What I love is how much Matthew loves the Hebrew Bible. He is so skilled at using the ideas and the images and the stories from the Hebrew Bible to talk about what is most important to him. And here, in the Beatitudes, today’s reading, Matthew weaves ideas from the prophets and the psalms as he recreates Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount.
Over and over again here, Matthew’s Jesus says “you are blessed.” The Greek word for “blessed” is makarias. It’s helpful to understand makarias as an idea borrowed from the Psalms.
Ashrei: Spiritual Happiness
The parallel Hebrew word is ashrei. Literally, ashrei means “Happy is the one who…[does or has whatever].” But to be ashrei is to have a special kind of happiness. You are ashrei when you are rich in spiritual peace and contentment.
The word ashrei is the first word of the book of Psalms. The word shows up again twenty-four times. So the Psalms have a lot to say about how to be ashrei.
You are ashrei when you: dwell in God’s presence.
You are ashrei when you walk in God’s ways.
You are ashrei when you avoid wickedness.
You are ashrei when you work towards justice.
You are ashrei when you care for the oppressed.
You are ashrei when you live in awe of the Divine.
Ashrei is so central in Jewish spirituality that it’s the name of a very old, very important liturgical prayer. The words are a mashup of four different psalms. And if you pray the daily liturgy faithfully, you’ll recite it twice in the morning, and once in the afternoon.
Ashrei yoshvei veiteicha, od yehallelucha selah.
Ashrei ha’am shekacha lo, ashrei ha’am she’adonai Elohav.
Happy are those who dwell in your house; they shall always praise you.
That’s just the first two lines. There are twenty-four.
The Talmud, the great book of Jewish law and lore from the 5th century CE, says: “Anyone who recites the Ashrei prayer three times a day is assured a place in the world-to-come.”
What is the “world to come?” It means lots of things in Jewish thought. The “world to come” is heaven. It’s a just and peaceful world. It’s a world of higher consciousness. Any one of the three, or all of them together.
How to Chant a Mantra
What are the Talmudic sages talking about? How can reciting Psalms place you in the “world to come”?
One day I was on a very long drive with a friend who is a Hindu spiritual teacher. One of his teachers had gifted him with a powerful mantra, a spiritual phrase to chant over and over again. His teacher said, “If you chant these words, you will never again erupt in anger.”
How can reciting a spiritual phrase bring you to a place of inner peace and higher consciousness? On that long drive, my friend and I talked for a long time about that question. We decided that you have to chant the mantra many times, and for many years.
For the first few years, you chant out loud. You learn the mantra. You sing it out. Maybe you memorize it. You feel the music in your body.
Then, for a few years, you chant in a whisper. You watch your behavior. If you find yourself expressing anger, you remember the mantra. You whisper it and calm yourself.
Then, for the next few years, you chant in your thoughts. When you feel annoyed, you notice how you interpret the feeling. Do you leap to blame others? Do you spin a list of reasons to be angry with them? If so, you think of the mantra. And you let the mantra talk down the angry thoughts.
Finally you realize that the mantra has become part of your feelings. Before your anger even arises, the mantra chants itself. Your consciousness has changed; your inner world is peaceful. You don’t have to be so angry. Because you aren’t attached to the thing you thought you needed. Instead, you are ashrei, rich in spiritual peace and contentment.
Be a Blessing!
As I learned at VST, and as Jesus says in today’s scripture reading, which, by the way, is full of powerful mantras: “You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.”
And then others can see the peace in you. You are blessed. Now go out, and be a blessing!
Gratitude to the scholars and sources whose work informed my thinking today: Amy-Jill Levine, Marc Brettler, David Schwartz, Bonnelle Strickling, Miles Krassen, Pandit Tejomaya, Babylonian Talmud Berachot 4b.