A sermon for the fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, and the aftermath of an executive order turning away refugees and other immigrants (including green card holders) from seven nations.
The Gospel was the Sermon on the Mount: the Beatitudes (Matthew 5)
The congregation was invited to write their own Beatitudes, for themselves, for the church, and for the world.
Have you ever thought that you would like to have been there, on that hillside, as Jesus delivered his Sermon on the Mount? We have an image of peace, of a quiet, grassy space in the sunlight, warm and comfortable; warm and comforting.
And yet if we had been there, what would we have heard? That this is your blessing: the reward of the prophets?
Yet Jesus addresses his disciples those whom he has called, and tells them, you are blessed. You who mourn, you who wander and wonder and are weary of spirit. You who pine for justice and are parched of righteousness. You are blessed; blessed simply to be in the presence of the Christ, the living God; for they have seen God.
The Beatitudes, these blessings which Jesus offers to his disciples and to those who would follow him, they are grounded in hard reality. They do not shy away from the deprivation, the poverty, the grief, the powerlessness of those who surround Jesus on the mountainside. They name our trouble, and they do not trouble to deny it.
Nor are they simply an instruction manual: we are not called to be in mourning, or weary of spirit. We are not called to seek persecution, nor to be starved of righteousness. These are not so much instructions as indications that in Jesus God sees our trouble, and meets us within it; that God finds us where we are, even mourning, or afraid. That God finds us in the poverty of our own spirits, and blesses us out of the abundance of God’s Spirit.
Still, there is an ethical dimension to this description of the disciples. They are peacemakers. They are merciful. They persevere. As the prophet Micah describes, they “do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with [their] God.” (Micah 6:8)
Jesus describes a motley and ill-sorted crew of disciples, poor and downtrodden, yet clear-eyed enough to recognize the call of Jesus when it comes; to leave their nets and follow him. To walk humbly with their God.
He blesses them out of their lives of sorrow and confusion, and through them he blesses the crowds beginning to gather, beginning to listen, beginning to follow. He invites them into the kingdom of God.
He reminds them of the prophets’ reward, and invites them anyway to be unafraid, to be unbowed, to find even out of the poverty of their own spirits the abundance of the Spirit of God.
So if we were to find ourselves on that mountainside, hearing Jesus, letting his eyes rest upon us, telling our lives with his breath, with his blessings: what would he say to us?
He would name what brought us here, to his feet, to the hem of his robe. He would bless us even out of that need, even out of that desire. He would name for us the promise of our God.
What would we hear?
Blessed are the lonely, for they shall find their place at the banqueting table.
Blessed are the faithful, for they will find God to be faithful in the promises of salvation.
He would bless us, and through us he would bless the crowds behind us, because we are here not only for our own sakes, but for the sake of the world; gathered as a motley assortment of disciples for the good of the whole people of God. So what would the world hear, from us, and through us, as Beatitude?
What would the refugee, the immigrant, the exile hear as Beatitude today?
I confess that I cannot imagine what it is like to live in a refugee camp for years at a time, while the wheels grind out paperwork and tape, finally to be presented with a visa, a passport to a new life, another chance at a normal home and family dinner on the table. I cannot imagine what it is like to have that snatched away at the airport, to be left, distressed, displaced once more, cast out even from the camps.
Blessed are the refugee, for they shall hold the keys to the kingdom of God.
Here’s what I can imagine: We moved here on a Tuesday, on the hottest weekend of the year. On Friday, camping out in our house, with our furniture on its way across the ocean, my mother called. “You can’t move to America,” she said, “the electricity’s off.” It was the weekend of the great power outage along the East coast and all the way into Cleveland. “That’s not how it works, Mum,” I told her. But if she had said, “You can’t move to America, the borders have closed”?
Blessed are the migrants, for such was your forefather Abraham.
Ten years ago this weekend, travelling back to visit my father for his birthday, newly minted green card tucked into my passport, it would never have occurred to me that the rules could change overnight, keeping me from my family, my home, my American life.
Blessed are those who are afraid to lift up their eyes, for the hills shall be brought low, and shall raise them up to the Lord.
I share these stories because the Beatitudes are not for the disciples alone, but for the crowds gathered behind them on the hillside. Because Jesus did not shy away from naming the suffering that he saw among them. Because he persisted, anyway, in declaring hope.
Blessed are those who do justice, for they will be justified.
Blessed are you when you proclaim by word and deed the Gospel of Christ; for you shall hear the Good News of God in Christ, the promises of heaven.