Blessed are the Debonair

Blessed are the Debonair

This morning, we celebrate God’s good creation.

We celebrate the gift of this world… this earth that has been placed in our care.

And I’m sure you are wondering as you heard the scriptures for today and look at that sermon title… what in the world do these things have to do with creation care?

Well, as I prepared for our time of worship today, I spent some time in the works of Lutheran eco-theologian Joseph Sittler.

Rev. Sittler was born in 1904 and in his work began connecting Christian theology and environmental matters as early as the 1950s. He firmly believed that care for the earth and our environment is one of the central concerns of our faith.

He also loved to explore the ways various biblical translations impacted our understanding of what they mean. Robert Saler points to his fascination with a French translation of the Beatitudes – in particularly Matthew 5:5.

We know the verse today as “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

However, “Sittler noticed that the French would often translate this as ‘blessed are the debonair.’ “ (Saler)

Immediately, you probably have an image in your mind of what it means to be debonair. I know, for me, it was almost the opposite of meek.

Yet, as Sittler explains:

… “debonair” in French, in the time of the French Bible of John Calvin, meant a person who is not an idolater, one who hasn’t gotten hooked up in anything worldly, one who is so sophisticated as to know wealth for what it is and that it isn’t everything…

This is a person who has a kind of centeredness that doesn’t let the idols of this world capture it. It’s a kind of debonair in which you sit lightly on the offerings and temptations of this world because you have a vision of something better…

I think about this in the context of our passage from Acts.

Peter has operated under a world view his entire life that divided the world into good and bad, clean and unclean, impure and pure. He was hooked on an understanding of the world that separated him and those like him from others.

There were some things, and some people, as a part of this creation that were outside his concern. Just as he traditionally wouldn’t have been allowed to enter the house of a Gentile, he couldn’t eat certain foods.

But then he has this vision… a vision that opened up his world as never before.

As the Message translation describes that vision in modern language:

Something like a huge blanket, lowered by ropes at its four corners, came down out of heaven and settled on the ground in front of me. Milling around on the blanket were farm animals, wild animals, reptiles, birds—you name it, it was there. Fascinated, I took it all in.

7-10 “Then I heard a voice: ‘Go to it, Peter—kill and eat.’ I said, ‘Oh, no, Master. I’ve never so much as tasted food that wasn’t kosher.’ The voice spoke again: ‘If God says it’s okay, it’s okay.’

There are two things happening here.

Missionally, God is opening Peter and the disciples’ hearts to the possibility of ministry among the Gentiles. God is helping them come to a more sophisticated understanding of their mission that is no longer limited by the old delineations. The Holy Spirit sends Peter to a non-Jewish family who is converted on the spot.

But important for our conversation today, God is helping Peter to understand that all of creation was made by God and it is all a gift. Just as there is no distinction between clean and unclean people, there is no distinction between clean and unclean animals or birds. God has made it all and to God it all belongs… yet it is also being given to Peter, to the people, to us, as a gift… as an inheritance.

In his reflections on the beatitudes, Rev. Sittler considers those debonair who will inherit the earth:

It doesn’t say they shall own the earth, or control the earth…It says they shall inherit the earth.

…The difference is: what you own, you probably earn, or make. An inheritance is something you don’t own. You don’t deserve it. It’s a surprise. You live in the world with a gentle spirit, because the whole of creation is a kind of outrageous surprise, a gift.

Blessed are they of a gentle spirit, because they live in the world not as ones who strut around as if they own the place… Rather, their first feeling for the world is one of tender wonder, gratitude, and amazement.

And Peter does have that sense of awe. The Message translation in particular captures the drama, the wonder of it all, by saying that Peter was fascinated and took it all in. That gentle debonair spirit took over.  He realized that the systems of division between clean and unclean he had lived with his entire life were stripped away.

Every little bit of this world was made by God and belongs to God and we are merely granted temporary guardianship and use. Like Adam and Eve were given creation in Genesis to care for, to steward, to use for their needs, so this world is gifted to Peter and to us.

Rev. Sittler describes a moment when he saw that debonair spirit in action:

I went with some college kids on a trip, a big Saturday afternoon walk through the gigantic Douglas-fir forest in the lower slopes of the Cascades. I watched these sophisticated kids . . . . When they walked into the woods, they became quiet, silent. They would reach out and pat the big trees as they went by. The further we got into the woods, the quieter they became.

Then the phrase came to me, “They inherit the world, because they don’t own it.”

They don’t think of it fundamentally as potential two-by-fours, though it’s all right to use it that way wisely; if you love a thing, then you’re prepared to use it wisely.”

Why should we, as people of faith lift up creation care? Why would someone like Joseph Sittler claim that environmental concerns are one of the central issues of Christianity?

Precisely because it is one of the richest gifts and inheritances that God has given us.

As we state in the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church:

All creation is the Lord’s, and we are responsible for the ways we use and abuse it. Water, air, soil, minerals, energy resources, plants, animal life, and space are to be valued and conserved because they are God’s creation and not solely because they are useful to human beings… we should meet these stewardship duties through acts of loving care and respect. (Book of Discipline, ¶160)

And if we truly love God, if we truly love one another, if we truly love this gift of creation, then our love will lead us to use it wisely.

The greatest commandment, after all, is to love. And that love should fill every relationship and every engagement with the world.

And that love also leads us to periodically check ourselves and ask if we have taken this gift for granted. That love calls us to speak up when we see others abusing our common resources. That love demands that we teach our children and ourselves how to walk gently and carefully among this precious planet.

Blessed are the Debonair… for they shall inherit the earth.

We have been given this world as a gift, and we are to make sure future generations are able to inherit it as well.

 

References:

Robert Saler – “Eco-Justice Commentary on the Common Lectionary Easter 5”

Jospeh Sittler, “His God Story,” in The Eloquence of Grace: Joseph Sittler and the Preaching Life, ed. Richard Lischer and James Childs, Cascade, 2013, 23-24

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