Rev. Ellen Jennings
I’m sure some of you, wiser than I, managed to make it through this week without experiencing a single bout of apoplexy. Perhaps you went so far as to take significant breaks from the news media. Or maybe you watched or read something that has nothing to do with the current political situation.
I did not manage this.
Now, I know there are those who think pastors should be more spiritually and less societally focused, but I’m unable (perhaps, unwilling) to disconnect them. Just as the personal is political, so, from my perspective, is the spiritual societal. They are interrelated, and we ignore this at our peril.
As Professor Karoline Lewis of Luther Seminary writes, if we think the church should not be in the business of politics, then we don’t understand the gospel. We in the church are called to be involved in the world.
The Gospel is a word of protest. In this time and in this place, we cannot forget this. Jesus was a person who stood up and said no.
Which is why the Beatitudes (or “blessings”) which comprised this morning’s Call to Worship are also a Call to Action.
Let’s listen to them once again, this time from Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message:
“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and God’s rule.
“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.
“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. For God’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.
“You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.
“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.
“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.
“You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.
“Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, God does! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. For all God’s prophets and witnesses have gotten into this kind of trouble.
In other words, we’re blessed when all our expectations of the world as we know it are turned upside down—when we not only “repent,” or turn around, turn back to God, as I preached last Sunday, but also fully embrace and choose to live within this turned around, inside out, upside down, all around vision of the world that Jesus presents as his definition of the Kingdom.
As John van de Laar writes in Sacredise:
The Kingdom of Heaven…is not referring to a place we go to when we die, but to God’s reign experienced and lived on earth. And the picture we see in [the Beatitudes] is nothing short of world-changing… Whatever the powers-that-be may tell us, however we may believe society functions, Jesus is drawing back a veil, revealing what’s really going on, and inviting us to enter into this new (or rather, eternal) life. It is not those who enjoy abundant wealth or manage to avoid pain who are blessed. It is not the powerful or the legalists who really call the shots. It is not those who follow the shadowy paths of expediency and violence who are truly practical and realistic. It is not those who manage to protect themselves from all who would harm them, and who shelter in impregnable fortresses of propaganda and weaponry that know life’s richness and vibrancy… [No. Rather] the Beatitudes show [us] what the world really looks like, and if we want to know what it means to be “blessed”, we will have to risk letting go of our limited, distorted view of reality and step into this vision of Jesus.
Which sounds rather political… And is perhaps why the Rev. Dr. Rachel Keefe, after participating in last weekend’s Women’s March, offered her own version of the Beatitudes, one more inclusive and specific to the day:
Blessed are the forgotten and forsaken, the ones we walk by and overlook, for heaven will be their home.
Blessed are those mothers who rage against the deaths of their black and brown skinned children whose blood flows in our streets, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the faithful Muslims and Jews who live under threat of hateful bombs, for they will inherit the Earth.
Blessed are those transgender, queer, and gender-nonconforming people who hunger and thirst for recognition and welcome, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the fierce ones who risk speaking truth and acting with mercy, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the quiet ones who show up when no one else does to speak a word of hope, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers and the justice-seekers who push us beyond what is into what needs to be, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who have had hate thrown at them in Jesus’s name, for theirs will be the realm of heaven.
Blessed are you when you speak truth to power, when you step away from the center to make room for the marginalized, and when you awaken to the injustice all around you. Others will revile you, but you will be loved beyond your imagining and your reward will be immeasurable.
These are thought provoking, aren’t they? And they help me understand that Jesus’ words weren’t uttered as pie in the sky platitudes. He spoke them to real people, whose real lives mattered, who needed to hear how they could live and resist and overcome and survive—both spiritually and societally— in the very real context of 1st century Palestine.
The good news? They translate to our time.
So what does this mean? For us. What are we meant to do? How do we respond to this shocking week? What would Jesus do?
Well, I can’t know that, but I’m willing to wager what he’d ask us to do, and it’s based on the scriptures of his own Jewish tradition. This morning’s Old Testament or Hebrew Bible reading was Micah 6:1-8, and the last line is both one of my favorite verses and a prescriptive way to live: What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
The Prophet Micah, preaching eight centuries before Jesus, offers us his own “beatitude”—one that is, at once, elegantly simple and fantastically difficult. He responds to the people’s increasingly hyperbolic questioning (what do you want, God, our firstborn?!) by telling them exactly what the Lord requires of them, exactly how they’ll be blessed.
And here’s what his words mean:
To Do Justice—As theologian Walter Brueggeman writes, “doing justice” is about “actively engaging in the redistribution of power in the world and correcting the systemic inequalities that marginalize some for the excessive enhancement of others.”
To Love Kindness—This last word is somewhat misleading. What the Hebrew word, hesed, actually means is to reorder life into a community of enduring and faithful relationships. In other words, it refers to covenantal loyalty. We are meant to be responsible to and for one another.
To Walk Humbly With God—Again, in Brueggeman’s words, this means to “abandon all self-sufficiency and acknowledge in daily attitude and action that life is indeed derived from the reality of God.” In other words, not from the desires and whims of our own egos!
If we do these things, we’ll be blessed. If we do these things, or, whenever we do these things, we’ll experience God’s Kingdom.
So, for those of us asking, “what next?” I say: “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” But, to me more specific, I suggest three solid steps:
1) Pick an issue, any issue, and educate yourself about it, call your congresspeople about it, and tell your friends about it. Don’t pretend you can handle multiple issues. Pick one (or two) and make a difference.
2) Talk with other congregation members about what issue(s) we should focus on as a church. Refugees? Undocumented immigrants? Climate Change? Education? LGBT? Women? And, of course, there are the ongoing problems of poverty and homelessness. I’ll be attending a Sanctuary Church workshop this Tuesday evening and welcome anyone who would like to accompany me. Again, we can’t do it all. But if we choose wisely, there’s a chance we can affect real change.
3) Take breaks. Don’t emulate my week. And I won’t either. From now on, we must view this as a long haul. Exhausting ourselves in a sprint isn’t going to save the world. It will only burn us out. For my part, I’m reestablishing both media free and recreational portions of my day. Know what brings you joy—and embrace it!
This morning, this is what I’ve got: Jesus, Micah, some good biblical commentaries, a few ideas, and my connection with all of you. And it’s going to have to be enough. Because now is the time; it really is.
As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached a year before he was killed:
We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The ‘tide in the affairs of men’ does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: “Too late.”
Now is the time to do what is next, or, as Glennon Doyle Melton likes to say: the next right thing.
What will that be? And who will step forth to do it?
Blessed art thou.