Several years ago, I visited one of my Hospice patients at a local nursing facility when I was accosted by another resident. I had just made it past the nursing station when a lady sitting close by fixed her attention squarely on me. With a voice that commanded my attention, she rather impatiently and loudly asked, “What are you about?” Now, I knew that this particular resident had seen me before and I was familiar with her; she suffered from that insidious disease known as Alzheimer’s and she could be rather confused at times—and loud. She also struggled to express complete thoughts and yet, here was an intact statement. She asked this question like you might ask a friend, “What is this movie or this book about?” She asked it as if she were trying to discern whether I might be worth reading, if I might be worth the time of day. Because of this, her question demanded something of an answer. She had for a brief moment, caused every nurse and aide in the surrounding area to look up from their various tasks and glance my way.
Now, there are questions and then there are questions. There is the question, for example, with which we may rather casually greet our friends and acquaintances, “How are you?” Many times, we don’t really expect a reply. That is, we don’t always expect to hear a detailed response to the question; we don’t necessarily expect to hear, “Well, actually, I am rotten. My husband and I got into a fight this morning and he stormed out. My car broke down on the way to work and I accidentally locked my keys in the car when I stopped for help.” No, what most of us expect to hear is, “I am fine. How are you?” We call this exchanging pleasantries, with an emphasis on pleasant.
Perhaps my confused friend was simply exchanging pleasantries, but I don’t think so. I think that she was demanding an actual response that had some give and take. Her question pulled me up short, interrupted whatever “to do” list I had currently running in my head, and caused me to search for an answer that would make sense not just to her, but to me. When I came up short, I remember somewhat breezily replying, “Now that’s a very good question, indeed!” But, her question would not leave me alone. Like a clothing tag that itches incessantly, it kept pestering me and I kept scratching all week for a response. “What are you about?”
In the scripture for today, we also have a question. It is a question not unlike the one that my not-so-confused friend asked, and it has an answer imbedded in the question itself. In Micah, we hear, “What does the Lord require of you?” And then we hear the answer: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. Like the question of my friend, this question is meant to give us pause, and points us to a deeper question— “Are we actually doing what the Lord requires?” Do we actually practice the hard work of justice, or just talk about it? Do we love kindness or do we find it burdensome and inconvenient? Are we walking humbly with our God or have we become brazenly overconfident that God is not just at our side, but on our side in our choices and decision-making? What are we about?
In the “self-help” section of most bookstores, numerous books point the way to happiness, success, abundance, and peace of mind. We are told how to get rich, get ahead, get a life, and get rid of emotional baggage. I don’t want to diminish categorically all of this material, for some of it may really provide some benefit to its reader. Yet, following Christ points to a different way—not a way to satisfy the self’s lusts and attachments, but to fulfill God’s purposes. Not to always and forever focus on what is lacking in our lives, but to celebrate the gifts that we have been given. Not to focus exclusively on the needs and wants of the self, but to respond to the needs of the other. Discovering the difference is the journey that we call Christian discipleship.
Now imagine for a moment that you are standing on a hillside somewhere in Galilee. You have come a long way by foot to see a man that is said to have special powers. A friend of a friend of a friend told you that he healed his arthritic legs just by a gentle touch. You wonder if he can help you too. So you go, not knowing what to expect, but hoping for something to make the present tolerable and the future less bleak. Something to heal the ache in your heart, something that you can share with your family or friend tonight around a meager meal. You stand on your tiptoes to try to see over the crowd that has gathered. You close your eyes and try to block out the sounds of the folks around you. You cling to the rise and fall of this one man’s voice and you begin to find yourself somewhere in his words. And what you hear sounds shocking and promising, both convicting and consoling. What you hear sounds something like this:
“Happy are you who are poor and broken spirit now, for you are a part of God’s reign.”
“Happy are you who weep and mourn for what you have lost, for you will be comforted and held by God.”
“Happy are you who are powerless and without voice now, for you will discover what is eternal and what can never be taken from you.”
“Happy are you who hunger and thirst for the things of God because you will be satisfied beyond any smorgasbord of earthly delights.”
Then, someone elbows you and laughs, while rubbing his belly. Next to you, another person whispers something to her companion. You go on listening, intent to capture every word.
“Happy are you who have compassion for others because you will receive compassion.”
“Happy are you whose thoughts, intention, and action are in accord with God’s purposes for you will see God at work in the world.”
“Happy are you who create peace and reconcile others for you will know yourself as God’s child and you will belong to something greater than yourself.”
“Happy are you who are persecuted for your commitment to God for you will find a place in God’s Kingdom.”
“Happy are you when people ridicule you, put you down, or speak lies about you because of your faith in me. All of heaven celebrates your faithfulness. You are not alone in this, because other witnesses and prophets were persecuted in the same way.”
Jesus continues to speak, but you are lost in thought. You have known times when tears stung your eyes and you’ve felt helpless at the bedside of those you love. You have known moments when it seems that you are some small cog in the Roman machine, an ant beneath the shoe of Empire. But you have also known times when you have failed to use the voice you do have, and misused your power. There have been times when you’ve hungered for the very things that Empire says you need. Times when instant gratification appears to be the easier way, despite its high cost to you and others.
Yet, in his words, you hear a future, a future that you can almost touch, taste, and see. A future that promises something other than “the same old, same old.” Somewhere from the back of your mind, you hear the words of your God speaking to you: “For surely I know the plans I have for you…plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me…”
The Beatitudes are not a self-help guide for the hurting. They are not a nine step guide to a perfect life. Barbara Brown Taylor writes:
“The Beatitudes are not advice…Jesus describes different kinds of people, hoping that his listeners will recognize themselves as one kind or another, and then he makes the same promise to all of them: that the way things are is not the way they will always be. The Ferris wheel will go around, so that those who are swaying at the top, with the wind in their hair and all the world’s lights at their feet, will have their turn at the bottom, while those who are down there right now, where all they can see are candy wrappers in the sawdust, will have their chance to touch the stars. It is not advice at all. It is not even judgment. It is simply the truth about the way things work, pronounced by someone who loves everyone on that wheel. The beatitudes do not tell us what to do. They tell us who we are, and more importantly, they tell us who Jesus is.”
You see, Jesus knew what he was about. Do you remember the story told in Luke when Jesus is about twelve? Jesus’ parents discover him missing on their return from celebrating Passover in Jerusalem. Do you remember what he says to his anxious folks? “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s interests?
More importantly, Jesus knew what humans could be about.
He knew that we could be self-interested or God-interested, self-satisfied or God-satisfied. He knew that sometimes we would have trouble discerning between the two. He knew that under God’s rule, those who have enjoyed standing on the misery of others would find themselves waiting at the back of the line. He knew that how we answer “what we are about” makes all the difference in the world to the world, for not only ourselves but for the overlapping communities of which we are a part. Jesus’ way of being in the world is like that woman’s question, urging us to consider ourselves and our walk with God, both as individuals and as a nation.
What are we about when we strip away the careful layers of respectability, credentials, financial security, privilege and power that insulate us from the world’s suffering? Who are we when we strip away our health problems, emotional or marital distress, work schedules, or addictive behaviors? What are we about when we face ourselves in the mirror each morning or against the pillow in the quiet of the night?
The prophets consistently called Israel to examine its reality in the light of God’s purposes. If a visitor from another country were to pick up our daily news, could they guess what we Americans are about? From the news this past week, would they conclude that we are isolationist, fearful, and nationalistic? Would they be able to conclude that we are walking humbly with God from our latest executive orders, our lack of concern for the environment, and our trumperies?
Many years ago, I found myself at the South Florida Fairgrounds celebrating with a friend. He had been nominated and selected by the community as “Friend of the Year.” Various people from ordinary circumstances were given awards for their contributions to the public welfare. After the speaker shared the nominating essay, my friend got to put his hands in cement, the way some celebrities do on the Hollywood walk of fame. This walk was much more modest but more special. In a world where we often feel powerless to effect change, where futility appears to reign, it was a good reminder that individuals, working together, can and do make a significant difference.
Later in the week, my friend and I took a ride on a large Ferris wheel. At the top, we could look out over fairgrounds and appreciate the view. At the bottom, we could see the faces of those waiting their turn and the face of the operator as he worked the controls. For three dollars, we rode for about three minutes, which were much too short for my tastes. And isn’t life like that? We do not know how long the ride will be, or what we will be doing at the moment when the ride stops. But we can trust God’s presence whether we are counting the clouds flying past us or stalled out in mid-air. And we can help one another to climb to new heights by our actions. By doing so, perhaps we will discover what we were about after all.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, Home By Another Way (Cambridge: Cowley, 1999) 55.