Fourth Sunday After Epiphany
Wicker Park Lutheran Church
Vicar Paul Eldred
January 29th, 2017
Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
If you’re at all like me, you may feel a little uncomfortable with today’s Gospel reading. These words that start what is perhaps Jesus’ most famous teachings, the Sermon on the Mount, may be about as familiar as they are challenging. For many people, the list of beatitudes we heard a few minutes ago has become a list of ways to receive God’s blessings in our lives. This can lead us to a number of questions:
What does it mean to be poor in spirit? Am I poor in spirit?
What if I don’t want to mourn or be persecuted? Will I still be blessed?
Do I really hunger and thirst for righteousness? Am I merciful enough or pure enough? Am I doing enough for God to bless me?
This kind of thinking leaves us with a transactional view of God’s blessing – an arrangement where if we do enough, God will bless us accordingly.
The problem with that view, however, is that we will never do enough to merit God’s blessing in our lives. God’s blessing will always beyond our worthiness of receiving it. And yet, despite that, God still continues to bless us and to love us.
And I don’t think that Jesus is giving us a checklist here now on to be blessed. This is Jesus’ first sermon in Matthew’s Gospel and he’s gathered his disciples around him not to give them an exclusive list of who qualifies for blessings, but to preach to them that the people who are on this list – those who are poor, those who mourn, the meek, the merciful, the oppressed, the persecuted, those who hunger and thirst, those who work for peace – that these people who are so often forgotten or rejected in society are blessed and loved by God. This is Jesus telling his disciples that his teachings will be different – that God is with those whom society doesn’t have time for. And I’m guessing that to this ragtag group of disciples – poor fishermen and day laborers, just trying to get by under the oppressive reign of the Roman Empire and a corrupt establishment – these Beatitudes of Jesus would have given them a completely new vision of the Reign of God. There on that mountainside, Jesus is telling them that even though society doesn’t accept them, God blesses them. Even though they are told every day that they are worthless, God values them beyond measure. Even though they are insignificant in the Imperial system, the Kingdom of God is made up of people like them.
Jesus is telling them that God chooses what the world considers foolish or weak, and calls these people blessed.
God chooses what is rejected and despised by the world, and God uses them to demonstrate God’s love and glory.
And, as St. Paul reminds us, God chooses what seems foolish to us – Christ crucified – and shows forth the wisdom and power of God and gives us new life.
There on that mountainside, Jesus is declaring to the world that these people, so often forgotten or rejected, are beloved and blessed by God. He’s not saying that these are the only people who are blessed or that to be blessed you must be like them, but he’s reminding us that God uses what the world rejects as instruments of God’s new and expansive reign of life and love. That even these people we may reject are beloved children of God.
We might see echoes of this in our world today.
It’s like when the saints of this community declared in 2006 that our gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer siblings were welcomed and affirmed here at Wicker Park Lutheran – the statement was not to exclusively welcome these people, but to demonstrate a welcoming for all people.
Or like when a movement forms to declare that Black Lives Matter. They are by no means saying that other lives do not matter, but are reminding us that the lives of our Black siblings, so often forgotten or discarded in our society, are important and precious.
Or when hundreds of thousands of women march to remind the world of their rights and their personhood, they are not denying the personhood of men but are declaring that they too have value and worth in society.
All this has me wondering what type of beatitudes Jesus may declare if he were teaching us today. Who has our society forgotten or rejected and who do we need reminding of as worthy of God’s love and blessedness? I like to imagine that if Jesus were here right now, he would include these in his beatitudes:
Blessed are the doubters.
Blessed are the questioners.
Blessed are those who come to church hoping to believe.
Blessed are the minimum wage workers.
Blessed are the unemployed and underemployed.
Blessed are those working multiple jobs.
Blessed are those living under the poverty line.
Blessed are the uninsured.
Blessed are those with a pre-existing condition.
Blessed are those who struggle with mental illness.
Blessed are the differently-abled and blessed are their bodies.
Blessed are the women and blessed are their bodies.
Blessed are the people of color and blessed are their bodies.
Blessed are the trans folk and blessed are their bodies.
Blessed are the queer folk.
Blessed are those who only feel safe in closets.
Blessed are those who don’t feel represented in government.
Blessed are those living in fear of their government.
Blessed are those who are just trying to get by.
Blessed are those living under oppression or war.
Blessed are the activists.
Blessed are those who seek liberation.
Blessed are those who build bridges and not walls.
Blessed are the Muslims – and blessed are the Jews.
Blessed are the immigrants – and blessed are the refugees.
Blessed are you – and you – and you.
Now, while most Sundays, I would end there and leave you with Christ’s word of blessing for you, this week I find it impossible for me to hear Jesus’ announcement of blessings for the forgotten and the rejected ones in society without thinking of how today’s gospel relates to us in this country – especially in light of Friday’s new executive action concerning immigration and refugees.
President Trump’s decision to bar thousands of people from entering this country who happen to be from majority-Muslim nations has been the spark of outrage and protests this weekend. As a Christian, I feel compelled to speak out against this discriminatory act and must proclaim how it is completely contrary to Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount that we heard this morning.
Throughout Holy Scripture, God’s people are instructed to comfort the outcast and welcome the stranger. God’s prophets call us to show love and hospitality to all people. We must remember that our Savior was himself a refugee when he and his family fled to Egypt in fear of their lives. And when his disciples ask Jesus later in this gospel, “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?” Our refugee God replies, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:37-40)
This decision is having immediate effects in this country and around the world. Real people’s lives are being impacted by this discriminatory announcement. Thousands of people who looked in hope toward the shores of this country as an escape from war, oppression, and violence have had their hopes smashed and must now look elsewhere. Many others who are living in the States with green cards or student visas are now prevented from traveling here because of their religion or national origin. Here in Illinois, the organization Refugee One has reported that 15 families, including 14 children, who were expecting to start their new lives in the United States in the next three weeks, will now be bared entry into this country.
This morning, we as a Christian community have the opportunity to live into our baptismal vocation and speak out against this oppressive act – to declare our belief that those who are refugees are blessed and beloved by God. During the hymn, I would invite you to join in coloring the banner that we have made that is in the back of the sanctuary. We will display it on the front of our building declaring that refugees are welcome here in this place and in this community.
During our annual meeting today, you will have the opportunity to write letters to our elected officials calling for the end of this ban and for the fair treatment of all people.
We will remember and proclaim that the same Christ who used the outcast and rejected of the world to show forth God’s glory continues to do so today. That the Christ who welcomed you and me into this place to give us his blessing welcomes all people and loves them and blesses them. In the face of discrimination and hate, we will make this place a testament of God’s abundant and steadfast love for all people.
Thanks be to God.