“Blessed Are”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

January 29, 2017

Matthew 5:1-12

 

Before I begin this morning, I feel a need to stop and acknowledge the events of the past 36 hours.  Although I chose not to scrap the sermon I had prepared and write a whole new one on the topic of refugees (though I did consider it), these events cannot go unmentioned this morning.

I am very aware that this gathered body is not of one mind on many things, politics certainly included, and I believe with all my heart that that is good, for we have much to learn from and with one another.  There is room here for us to disagree and to love one another anyway as we seek to live our lives as Christians and respond to the events of our time from the perspective of our faith.  But we cannot let a fear of disagreement keep us from speaking.

The Bible is not a policy manual, and it does not tell us what the United States government’s approach should be on, well, anything.  In fact, the Bible itself is not of one mind on many issues—after all, it is made up of 66 books written by a variety of authors in a variety of contexts over the course of more than half a millennium.  But on the issue of refugees, the witness of our scriptures is unequivocal.  In both the Old Testament and the New, in law and prophet and poem and gospel and letter, over and over and over again, the people of God are called, even commanded, to welcome, care for, and love the stranger, the foreigner, the sojourner.

Leviticus 19:34 reads as follows:  “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”  There is no qualification by nationality or religion or any other trait—only the command to love the alien, whoever he or she may be, as yourself.

Indeed, Jesus spent his early years as a refugee in Egypt, where his family fled to escape persecution and execution at the hands of King Herod and his minions.  And toward the end of the gospel according to Matthew, Jesus instructs his followers that when they give food to the hungry, clothe the naked, or welcome the stranger, they feed, clothe, and welcome Jesus himself—and when they deny food to the hungry, and leave the naked out in the cold, and bar the gate to keep the stranger out, they do the same to Jesus.

May we have ears to hear and courage to follow.

 

And now, would you pray with me, please?  Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your presence, for you are our rock and our redeemer.  Amen.

 

Things were just starting to get going.  Jesus and his disciples were just beginning to build something, just starting to gain momentum, just starting to feel like a group, a community, a movement.  This was their first big public moment—a coming-out party, a campaign launch, an introductory offer.

Immediately preceding this morning’s reading is the text we heard last week, in which Jesus traveled through Galilee in the wake of John the Baptist’s imprisonment, calling disciples to follow him.  He taught in the synagogues and proclaimed the good news that God’s realm was at hand, that a new way of life was possible.  He healed the sick, the afflicted, and the suffering.  And great crowds followed him; people from all over the region were attracted by his promise and wanted to be part of the new world he offered.

And then comes today’s reading.  The crowds had gathered, and the disciples were there, and Jesus went up the mountain and sat down (in the traditional posture of a rabbi ready to preach) and prepared to address his followers.

But what followed, as you may have noticed, was not exactly a traditional motivational speech.  Jesus didn’t tell them that they had joined the winning team.  He didn’t tell them that with him they had found the path to prosperity and ease, glory and greatness.  He didn’t promise them that he would get rid of the people they didn’t like or bring their enemies to their knees.  He offered them something quite different indeed.

See, Jesus knew that the people had gathered because they were compelled by the vision of God’s realm at hand.  A meal where there is more than enough for everyone.  A table where pride of place goes to sinners and tax collectors and women of questionable morality.  A world of outsiders brought in, outcasts included, rejects accepted.  Hungry ones fed, thirsty ones quenched, naked ones clothed.  Children nurtured, elders respected, women treated equally, LGBT people embraced, black and brown lives cherished, refugees welcomed.  Protection for the vulnerable, safety for the fearful, healing for the sick, peace for the suffering.  God’s love overflowing like living water from a well that will never run dry.  It was then, and is now, a compelling vision.

Jesus knew that this world was coming, surely and inexorably, as water wears away stone.  But he also knew this:  the way of discipleship does not come without a cost.  The path of justice has never been a smooth one.  The journey of peace has never been without false starts and dead ends.  The road of hope has never been easy.  The powers that be have never relinquished their hold on the world without a fight.  The arc of the moral universe bends toward justice—this is true.  But it is a long arc.  A long, long arc.  And just as the earth appears flat when we cannot see beyond the horizon, the shining realm of God can seem invisible, unreachable, impossible when our way passes through the valley of the shadow.

Jesus knew that those crowds of people were full of zeal and eagerness and enthusiasm.  But like those of us who join the gym in January but find our resolution fading before February arrives, the crowds would need something to carry them through when the going got tough.  So Jesus did what he always does—he gave them not what they thought they wanted, but what they really needed.  He gave them not a pep rally, but a deep and potent blessing.

This was not a blessing in the sense that the word is often used.  We tend to feel “blessed” when we are fortunate, when we are lucky, when we have received something beyond our deserving, when life is good and the future looks rosy and things are going well.  “Blessed” gets used as a social media hashtag for photos of celebrities vacationing on gorgeous yachts in the Caribbean, athletes celebrating scholarships or touchdowns or MVP awards, perfect-looking family photos where everyone is somehow, miraculously, smiling (seriously, how do they do that?!).  But the blessing Jesus offered was of a different sort entirely.

The blessing Jesus offered meant something more like this.  Even when things are tough, you will always have God’s unconditional regard.  You will never be alone, not ever, because the Holy Spirit will be your constant companion, comfort, and guide.  You have the capacity to rise above whatever the world throws at you.  You are worthy—not because of anything you’ve done, but simply because you are God’s child.  You are connected to something much bigger than yourself.  And so you can have hope, even when external circumstances suggest otherwise.

The ones Jesus called blessed were not the ones that the might-makes-right logic of the world around us would suggest.  He did not bless the wealthy or the powerful, the comfortable or the successful.  No, he proclaimed the blessedness of the ones who are outcast, downtrodden, left behind.  He blessed the meek and those who mourn, the poor in spirit and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful and the peacemakers and those who are persecuted.

With these blessings, Jesus invited his followers into new ways of seeing.  He invited those who suffer to know God’s presence with them, for God has always showed up, and always will, with those who are vulnerable, excluded, oppressed, and on the margins.   And he invited those who would follow God to take heart, and to take courage, and to show up as God does with solidarity, love, and power.

He invites us all to recognize that God shows up where we least expect it—in the broken places of our own lives and of the world.  He invites us all to remember that the way of God leads to and through the cross, that God’s strength is made manifest in our helplessness.  He reminds us that the work of God, and the work of God’s people, is always this:  to bless what the world refuses to bless, to love what the world calls unlovable, to redeem that which the world does not believe merits saving.

The work of God’s people is not always easy.  The way of discipleship does not come without a cost.  The path of justice has never been a smooth one.  The journey of peace has never been without false starts and dead ends.  The powers that be have never relinquished their hold on the world without a fight.  This is not the first time that vulnerable people have been threatened, that outsiders have been further excluded, that safety and healing and peace and inclusion have slipped further and further out of reach—nor will it be the last.

But if we take Jesus at his word, if we really believe these blessings, then we can trust that when we feel like all is lost, when our hearts are broken and our spirits are empty and our spark has almost gone out, that is when his blessing comes like balm, like honey, like fire.  That is when Jesus comes to us, all fierce-hearted tenderness and steely-eyed mercy.  Do you feel him with you, even now?

Let him bless you.  Let him restore your soul.  And then, my friends, get ready to go back into the world, shoulder to shoulder with one another and with Jesus, to sing and speak and pray and march and work and play and write and donate and cry and laugh and love and live that blessing into being—for the poor in spirit, for those who mourn, for the meek, for those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for the merciful, for the pure in heart, for the peacemakers, for those who are persecuted—for you, for me, for all, all, all of God’s children.

May it be so.

 


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