This sermon was preached on Sunday, January 29th 2017 at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Platteville
Scripture: Micah 6:1-8 and Matthew 5:1-11
When we meet Jesus in our Gospel reading this morning, he has traveling, teaching, and healing for just a short time now. He’s called his disciples and together they’ve gathered a rather sizable following. Crowds begin to grow and each day it seems more arrive to hear about the coming kingdom Jesus proclaims. It is just a few verses before our scripture reading today that Jesus lays out his central message: “Repent! For the Kingdom of God has come near!” That is, “Turn around! Change your ways! The promise of God is within reach!”
Jesus’ message spreads; his hope is contagious. And before you know it, Jesus is standing on the side of a mountain giving his inaugural address: laying out the path forward for his administration (or as they are better know, his disciples), who sit in the front row. This is the vision he offers, as they set out on the path toward God’s Reign:
The world celebrates those who are strong, or even ruthless. But we will bless the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
The world celebrates gain, accumulation, the desire to move ever closer to immortality. But we will bless those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
The world answers to the loudest voice, but we will bless the meek, and they will inherit the earth.
The world makes decisions around elite dinner tables where plates cost $10,000 just to be in the room, but we will bless those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and they will find themselves full.
The world is vengeful – it keeps clear track of who owes what, and collects on even the prettiest of debts. But we will bless the merciful, so all people will receive mercy.
The world runs on lies and deceptions, but we will bless the pure in heart, for they will see God.
The world has perfected the art of war, but we will bless the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Now, our vision seems naive and idealistic. It might even be foolish or dangerous. But we will bless those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
And in the end, we will all rejoice. We will all be glad. And we will all know we are blessed – because we will know the promises of God.
I’ve often preached that God began the world with a blessing.
And here Jesus too begins with a blessing.
Some might suggest that this blessing is also a call to action. Or at least, a call to recognize the blessings that are already there. What if, Jesus here isn’t saying that the meek are blessed because they are meek – but that the meek are blessed simply because they are. Simply because God blesses them, and God blesses you and God blesses me. When Jesus calls out the meek, and the mourning, and the hungry, and names their blessing it isn’t because they need it, but because they already have it and the world just can’t see it – no matter how hard they try.
And that my friends, is everything wrong with the path we find ourselves on today: our inability to see what God has blessed. What God has ordained good.
God ordained this earth as good. That is where God started. First, the land: “And God saw that it was Good.” Then the oceans: “and God saw that it was good.” The plants – tall trees and the tiniest flowers, moss on the damp floor of the forest, algae on the corner of ponds: “And God saw: it was good.” Good. Good. Good.
God looks at the mountains and calls them Holy.
Jesus looked at crushed wheat and the juice of grapes picked from local vines, and called it his body.
And yet we’ve forgotten. We’ve done what we can to build walls between ourselves and God’s goodness. And it has led to pollution of God’s good oceans; and the extinction of God’s good animals. It has led to the melting of God’s good habitats, and the destruction of God’s good forests. It has led to blowing up mountains and spilling oil.
And, yet…. the earth is blessed. And we are called to see it that way.
Sometimes seeing the blessedness of the earth looks like taking a step backward, asking questions of our food: like, where did it come from and how did it get here?
And sometimes seeing the blessedness of the earth looks like Native Americans standing firm on solid, frozen ground.
Sometimes, seeing the blessedness of the earth, looks like rogue park rangers sharing science with the people, even when they have been told to shut up.
God has also ordained God’s children as blessed and beloved. All of them. From the very beginning of time. But we have forgotten. And we have divided, once again drawing lines and building walls to protect ourselves from one another.
As a colleague of mine said:
“It may feel like a blessing to declare America Comes First. To shout from the rooftops that we are independent and can do it all on our own. But that is the way of the world. A way where the powerful thrive while the vulnerable are ignored. Jesus declaims blessing on the other way.
The way of the gospel is a tougher road to tread. It involves trust in a power beyond our own abilities. Faith that our neighbor’s wellbeing is tied up in our own. Belief that we are all connected, despite our differences and disagreements.”
Here’s the thing: the Bible is a diverse and complex collection of writings. You don’t have to look far to find blaring contradictions around every corner. The Bible is clear on very few matters. But immigration is one of them. Welcoming the stranger is a consistent theme and command from God in the Old testament and new. In the teachings of prophets and Jesus. In the ancient stories of the torah and the the most recent letters from Paul:
“The LORD your God is the God of all gods and Lord of all lords, the great, mighty, and awesome God who doesn’t play favorites and doesn’t take bribes. He enacts justice for orphans and widows, and he loves immigrants, giving them food and clothing. That means you must also love immigrants because you were immigrants in Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:17-19)
“You must not oppress foreigners. You know what it’s like to be a foreigner, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9)
“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34)
“The same law applies both to the native-born and to the foreigner residing among you” (Exodus 12:49)
“for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And they will be answered, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[g] you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25)
“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2)
There may be many, many secular reasons to close our ranks, build walls, and deny refugees. And it might seem downright foolish not to listen to them – but the way Jesus leads often seems that way: foolish and dangerous. Hear now the echo of his beatitudes ringing loud and clear today: Blessed are the refugees – detained at airports across the United States, waiting on the promise of a nation they have chosen to love, escaping the horrific violence of the land they left behind – for they shall inherit the whole earth.
Sometimes, the path forward seems simple:
Sometimes, seeing the stranger as blessed looks like a smile or eye contact as you pass them on the street.
Sometimes, seeing the immigrant as blessed looks like learning a few lines of Spanish so that you can meet your neighbor and maybe even ask her name.
Other times, the path seems insurmountable and recognizing the detained refugee as blessed, looks like lawyers setting up shop at airport McDonalds until they are freed. It looks like online donations to the ACLU.
It looks like churches who risk reputation and entire cities risking federal funding to declare themselves sanctuaries – safe spaces for those who so often live their lives in fear of being seen by the wrong people.
So Jesus’ words from the beginning set the course before us: Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those that mourn. Blessed are the meek, blessed are those that hunger and thirst for righteousness, Blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers. Blessed are those that are persecuted for righteousness sake, and blessed are you. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on account of the gospel.
When I was at the women’s march, there were many signs that reflected why I was there: the anger, fear, hope of the future. So many signs that spoke for me – and certainly, there were some that didn’t. But there was one that spoke to me: It read simply, “Don’t forget to be brave.”
That same colleague I mentioned earlier also offered this challenge: “When you see injustice, raise your voice. When you hear prejudice and racism, speak out. Whenever and wherever you recognize an opportunity to stand with the last and the least, take it. Be brave. Know that Christ’s blessings are with those the powerful have forgotten, and when you stand with them, you stand with God.”
Let us pray: God of grace and glory, you have said what you require of us: that we do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly forward down the path of righteousness with you. Grant us clarity, grant us courage, that we might know we are blessed and that our eyes might be opened to your blessings all around. Amen.