Stuck in the Middle of Luke’s Beatitudes: Jesus, Pauli and Eleanor

A Sermon for St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, St. Paul, MN
by The Reverend Craig Lemming, Associate Rector

In the name of Jesus, who stands on a level plain with us, speaks truth in love across all our lines of difference, and sets each of us free to free others. Amen.

Luke’s account of the Beatitudes reminds me of the chorus in “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” the first track on Michael Jackson’s legendary 1982 album, Thriller (1).

It’s too high to get over (yeah, yeah)
You’re too low to get under (yeah, yeah)
You’re stuck in the middle (yeah, yeah)
And the pain is thunder (yeah, yeah)

Jesus comes down and stands on a level place, with a great crowd around him; a great multitude of people pressing in on him from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. This introvert, who does not do crowds, hears:

It’s too high to get over (yeah, yeah)
You’re too low to get under (yeah, yeah)
You’re stuck in the middle (yeah, yeah)
And the pain is thunder (yeah, yeah)

This multitude of people had come to hear Jesus and to be healed of their dis-ease; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from Jesus that healed all of them.

Just before the culmination of “Wanna Startin’ Somethin’” bursts into Manu Dibango’s infectious Cameroonian hook, “ma-ma se, ma-ma sa, ma-ma ku-sa, ma-ma se, ma-ma sa, ma-ma ku-sa,” we hear Jackson sing these words,

Lift your head up high and scream out to the world
I know I am someone, and let the truth unfurl
No one can hurt you now because you know what’s true
Yes, I believe in me, so do I believe in you

But before we get to that liberating “ma-ma se, ma-ma sa, ma-ma ku sa,” we first feel the tense, claustrophobic, paranoia of being stuck in the middle. And we are stuck in the middle. As we reckon with the reality that we are not in right relationship with all of our neighbors, with Creation, or with God, the dis-ease and dis-comfort of facing unfurling truths about who we really are; truths about unclean spirits that possess policies, practices, principalities, and powers; truths that seem too high to get over, too low to get under, we’re stuck in the middle, and the pain is thunder. Nevertheless, “What the Thunder Said” at the end of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland (2), what that cathartic dance-break at the end of Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” and what today’s Gospel proclaims is The Good News: that Jesus steps down, directly into that middle place with us, on our level, in the center of a multiplicity of peoples’ realities – their poverties, hungers, griefs, hatreds, riches, greed, laughter, and praise. That middle place is where Jesus lifts his head up, eye to eye, shoulder to shoulder with us on a level plain, to unfurl the loving and liberating truth in the form of Luke’s Beatitudes: four Blessings and four Woes. Like those disruptive, prophetic words in his mother’s Magnificat (3), Jesus’s Beatitudes in Luke’s Gospel deepen our discomfort by keeping us stuck in the middle of his liberating truth spoken in love. A sacred stuck-ness where those who are rich cannot turn away from looking into the eyes of the poor; those who are full must see the faces of those who are hungry; those who are laughing must stop to listen to the screams of those who are grieving; and the highly praised stand with those who are hated. With Jesus, we are stuck in the middle, and it is only in being uncomfortably stuck in the middle of Luke’s Beatitudes that God’s Word made flesh in Jesus sets us all free, to free others.

In the revolutionary Brazilian educational theorist, Paolo Freire’s classic text, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which he dedicated, “To the oppressed and those who suffer with them and fight at their side,” he writes about the sort of person who is committed to liberating both the oppressed and the oppressor. The sort of person who “enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can better transform reality.” He writes, “This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people and to enter into dialogue with them,” (4). This is what Jesus in today’s Gospel is inviting each of us to do together. But how? Where can we begin?

Pauli Murray and Eleanor Roosevelt are two Episcopalians who made Paulo Freire’s abstract theory of conscientization into a concrete, embodied relationship based on their mutual commitment to develop, strengthen, and change one another’s consciousness of what is true, what is real, what is good. In her book, The Firebrand and the First Lady, Patricia Bell-Scott tells of the quarter-century deep, tempestuous, tender, and uncompromisingly truthful relationship between the Black, working class, transgender, poet, lawyer, professor, Episcopal priest, and Episcopal saint, Pauli Murray with the First Lady and founding chair of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Eleanor Roosevelt. Pauli Murray wrote, “For me, becoming friends with Mrs. Roosevelt was a slow, painful process, marked by sharp exchanges of correspondence, often anger on my side and exasperation on her side, and a gradual development of mutual admiration and respect,” (5). Eleanor Roosevelt wrote, “One of my finest young friends is a charming woman lawyer – Pauli Murray, who has been quite a firebrand at times but of whom I am very fond,” (6). Yes, indeed, that hot, prophetic language of Pauli Murray’s fiery letters ignited the Roosevelts’ Christian consciousness to join those who “wanna be startin’ somethin’” good, true, and beautiful by healing the policies and practices that dehumanize marginalized minorities as well as those in dominant culture. The mutuality Murray and Roosevelt, as fellow Episcopalians, cultivated together is a legacy we have been entrusted to build upon. In Patricia Bell-Scott’s words, “They helped each other see possibilities beyond their immediate vision, and this broadened view reverberated in the causes they served… They developed an enduring friendship that came to be characterized by honesty, trust, empathy, support, mutual respect, loyalty, acceptance, a commitment to hearing the other’s point of view, pleasure in each other’s company, and the ability to pick up where they’d left off, irrespective of the miles that had separated them or the time lapsed,” (7). As followers of Jesus who choose to get stuck in the middle of Luke’s Beatitudes today, we must seek out and cultivate relationships like theirs: a co-created friendship stuck in the middle of uncomfortable differences that liberated both of them and those they served.

As we commit our lives again to love one another in co-creating kinship across our many lines of difference, I close with Audre Lorde’s wisdom on embracing “the creative difference in our lives.” From her essay, The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, she writes,

Difference must not merely be tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic. Only then does the necessity for interdependency become unthreatening. Only within that interdependency of different strengths, acknowledged and equal, can the power to seek new ways of being in the world generate, as well as the courage and sustenance to act where there are no charters (8).

May every Creature of God choose to co-create the Kingdom of God’s Beloved Community on Earth today, so that all people can be satisfied, laugh, and rejoice together; be consoled, filled, honored, cured, healed, and liberated together today. In the Holy Name of Jesus. Amen.


2. T.S. Eliot, Selected Poems (New York, NY: Harcourt, Inc., 1964) 64-67.

3. Luke 1:46-55.

4. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, tr. Myra Bergman Ramos (London, UK: Penguin Classics, 1973, 1993), 13.

5. Pauli Murray, “Challenging Mrs. R.,” in The Hunter Magazine, September 1983.

6. Eleanor Roosevelt, “Some of My Best Friends Are Negro,” in Ebony, February 1953.

7. Patricia Bell-Scott, The Firebrand and the First Lady – Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt,
and the Struggle for Social Justice (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2017), xviii-xix.

8. Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press, 2007), 111.

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