“For Righteousness’ Sake”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

April 15, 2018

Matthew 5:1-12

 

I want to focus today on the last part of our reading, the part where Jesus says, Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

Last week, as we began this series on the Beatitudes, we paused to recognize that first and foremost, before he asks anything, before he gives any instructions for his listeners to follow, before he demands anything of those who would be his disciples, Jesus begins by offering a blessing.  He blesses those whose lives are hard, whose hearts are heavy, whose hands are empty, who have nothing but absence and longing.  He blesses those who are sad, who are poor, who are hungry, who are meek or timid or scared.

And he blesses those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.

For those of us who live in positions of relative comfort and privilege, this is not the most popular of the Beatitudes.  Here on Woodstock Hill, it may not be the one we tend to turn to most readily.  In fact, it seems easier just to stop the reading at verse 9 and omit that last bit about persecuting and reviling and uttering evil against.  It’s much nicer if we just end with Blessed are the peacemakers, right?

But Jesus didn’t stop there.  He went on to bless those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.  Because Jesus knew that those who chose to follow in his way would find themselves running up against the full might of the powers that be, and those powers do not like to be challenged.  Jesus knew that those who chose to shape their lives around the greatest commandment—to love God with all your heart, and soul, and mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself—would sometimes find themselves recognizing that the status quo is not consistent with the world as God intends it to be.  Jesus knew that those who choose to call ourselves disciples will sometimes find ourselves called to speak up, to stick our necks out, and that it will sometimes be uncomfortable, and that there will sometimes be consequences.

 

Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was murdered in Memphis, TN, where he had traveled to support black sanitation workers calling for equal treatment with their white colleagues.  Dr. King is hailed today as an American prophet, as a martyr for the cause of justice, as a courageous leader who, with his words, his deeds, his very life, bent the arc of the universe a little more toward justice.  His life was an embodiment of the teachings of Jesus:  care and concern for those who are vulnerable, solidarity with those who are pushed to the margins, love for neighbors and for enemies, courage to stand up for what is right.

But during his life, Dr. King was criticized by many for being too radical, too impatient, too demanding.  He was condemned by those who supported the “rule of law.”  He offended the sensibilities of those who felt that Christians really ought to be “nice” people, not rabble-rousers and trouble-makers.  As the Civil Rights movement gathered steam, the FBI called King one of the most dangerous men in America.  Though his legacy is celebrated today, Dr. King’s struggle against the evils of racism, poverty, and militarism did not make him popular with the powers that be in his day.

 

This week marked the 73rd anniversary of the death of the Rev. Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was murdered in Flossenburg, Germany, where he had been imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp.  While most of us are aware of Dr. King’s life and legacy, Bonhoeffer is less well-known.  He was a pastor, a professor, and an outspoken critic of the Nazi regime and the German state church that supported, or at least tolerated, it.  He became a leader of an underground seminary that trained pastors for breakaway churches that opposed the Nazis, and ultimately became part of a failed plot to assassinate Hitler, for which he was arrested and eventually executed.

Among those who know his story, Bonhoeffer, like King, is regarded as a hero, a prophet, a martyr for the cause.  His life, too, was an embodiment of the gospel:  sacrificing his own aspirations and desires in the service of what was most needed, leading with humility and great personal risk, sticking his neck out on behalf of people he did not know, but he was convinced that they were no less children of God than he was.  Today he is seen as an example of faithful and courageous moral leadership.  But at the time of his death, he was not a popular figure with the powers that be.  Less than 20% of German pastors sympathized with Bonhoeffer’s position; plenty of congregations would not have welcomed his leadership, thinking that he would only bring trouble down upon them.  And obviously, the German authorities whose atrocities he condemned were not exactly fond of him.

 

Jesus said, Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

But you don’t have to be a King or a Bonhoeffer to need this blessing.  You don’t have to have a title like Reverend or Doctor.  You don’t have to be arrested, to go to jail, to lose your life before your 40th birthday.

You can speak up about something that’s wrong in your workplace and find your colleagues turning on you.

You can point out misogyny and homophobia and racism when they rear their heads at the office water cooler or the family barbecue, and be left feeling like the ensuing awkwardness is your fault and not the fault of the one who made the bigoted remark in the first place.

You can pledge your allegiance to God before country and be called a traitor.

You can prioritize God’s laws above human laws and be called a criminal.

You can host a conversation with Dreamers after worship and find people saying nasty things on Facebook and threatening to call the authorities.

 

Now, I’m a good New Englander.  I know most of you are, too.  I don’t like to cause trouble.  I don’t like to make a fuss.  If I’m honest, I don’t want to be notorious for anything.  But God doesn’t distinguish between good New Englanders and our more bold or demonstrative kin when God calls God’s people to let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream, to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with God.

Jesus blesses those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake because he knows that discipleship sometimes comes with a cost.  That sometimes his followers are going to find themselves taking positions that are not, in the moment, popular.  That whether you are a King or a Bonhoeffer or an average Joe… whether you are a good New England conflict-avoider or Trouble is your middle name… sometimes you will find yourself called to take a stand for what you believe in.  And sometimes that will be uncomfortable.  But even then, even there, you will be blessed.

 

First and foremost, before he asks anything, before he gives any instructions for his listeners to follow, before he demands anything of those who would be his disciples, Jesus begins by offering a blessing.  And the thing about that blessing is that it wriggles its way down deep into your soul, and it takes root, and it grows.

And one day, you find yourself looking at the world differently, seeing people and places and policies through new eyes.

And one day, you find yourself broken open by the suffering of someone from whom you had previously felt separate.

And one day, you find yourself with the courage to speak when always before you had remained silent.

And one day, you find yourself compelled to act when always before you had kept still.

Because when you know, deep down, that you are loved by the very Author of the Universe, and so is every other inhabitant of this beautiful and broken world—when that truth settles itself deep into your bones, into the heart of your very heart, you cannot help but be transformed.

I don’t know when or where or how those moments will come for each one of you, or for us together.  But when they do, you can trust that there is a blessing there for you, for us.  And through you, through us, there is a blessing there for the world.

May it be so.

 


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