Year A, Epiphany 4 January 29, 2017 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to Him. He began to speak, and taught them…”
Sometimes the Word of God we need comes just in the nick of time. We need it after a week like this. “Alternative facts” are now part of our lexicon. The President’s chief advisor called the media “the opposition party” and told the New York Times to “keep its mouth shut.” Are you paying attention to this? You are probably going to get sick of hearing me say this, but we must not let this become normal. And here in Eugene we marked the death of another unhoused person on our streets, a young man named Hunter. His friends suspect that he died of CO poisoning from the propane stove he was using to heat his tent. Hunter is the sixth!!! , sixth non-violent death that we know about on our streets this cold season. Death happening right out there. Randall was a friend of Paul’s who used to stay on our back porch. Randall died in Tugman Park. And deaths at this rate are probably not unusual, just not known. Again, you are probably going to be, if you are not already, sick of hearing me say this, but this must NOT remain normal.
We need to take care of each other a whole lot better if we are going to make it through these next four years. I am deadly serious about that; Jesus serious. One of the most radical, decisive, effective things that we can do as Christian citizens of this country in this moment is to care for those in our midst that need caring for; those who can’t take care of themselves for whatever reason, it doesn’t matter why they need help, it only matters that they need help. Not only will you be saving lives, six dead on our streets means that the statement “saving lives” is not hyperbole, but showing kindness and compassion is also a brazen political statement, it is a first order affront to the principalities and powers of this world. Caring for the least of these is the think local-act local resistance movement so many of us were looking for at the marches across the world last week. And if I am not convincing, just listen to Jesus. Just listen the Gospel readings today and for the next three weeks as we hear Jesus the Word made flesh give flesh to the words of the Sermon on the Mount.
St. Augustine gave it that name, the Sermon on the Mount. It is chapters 5 – 7 of St. Matthews Gospel, a long moral and ethical discourse given to His disciples on a hillside in Galilee. It “sounds a keynote of the new age that Jesus came to introduce.” The new age is the chance for a wholly new relationship with God for those who are willing to surrender to God. It is not about who you were born to, where you come from, from what tribe or language or people or nation you hail, but how you are in relationship to God and everything. That is the Way of Jesus Christ. That is the message of the Sermon on the Mount.
In this sermon, Jesus teaches us about the nature of God, the world and the people we share it with. He is teaches how we should be in relation to God and each other. And He teaches how to do it, the practice of living in accordance with God’s will. He teaches us how to pray. How to give alms. That we need to be willing to learn and open ourselves to new things, new wisdom: “You have heard it said… but I say unto you…” Jesus teaches that we cannot defeat or even resist evil with evil. That we shouldn’t put faith in things, that we shouldn’t worry, or constitution of the Commonwealth of God in under 2400 words. The Sermon on the Mount is one of the principal manifestations of Divine wisdom revealed to humanity, ever. It is a guide on how to be more perfectly human than we would be left to our own devices. And it is difficult, darn near impossible to live up to, but that is our charge.
It starts with the Beatitudes.
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
‘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. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
One way to understand the Beatitudes is that this is who is in the Kingdom, the Commonwealth of God, and who is not. Not in an exclusionary way, but an observation about who is in the right posture to be in an actual right relationship with God. If we are not poor in spirit, in mourning, meek, merciful… we are not with God. “But God loves everyone!” Absolutely. And it is on us to open to God. We can’t make God do anything, but we can keep God out. A hard heart is God-impermeable. And remember, a hard heart is active malice and greed as much as it is looking the other way. It is as much “I’m out for number one” as it is “I can’t deal with the suffering I see,” or “it’s not my fault.”
So who is in the Commonwealth of God or not, aspirationally as well as descriptively, that is one way to read the Beatitudes. There are others.
With the condition of the world, right down to here in our own city, something needs to give. I know that empires always crumble, that tyrants always fade or fall, but how do we get by in the mean time? How do we do our part, we little, decent people versus the principalities and powers of the world? I am desperate for a ray of hope that is not just the message: Endure. That is just a step on the downward slope of the banal evil that creeps in when we keep our heads down like Orwell’s Winston did until love changed his course.
I’ve been reading Gandhi recently. His central message, satyagraha, clinging to truth of soul-force is directly from his reading of the Sermon on the Mount. (With a little Tolstoy mixed – that’s another week). My reading of Gandhi is opening up the Beatitudes as not just a statement of how it will be when you repent and align yourself with God, but that it is Jesus’ observation of how it actually is, about how the world right now, almost all of the time, actually works, how it actually is. Gandhi writes: “The fact that there are so many men (sic) still alive in the world shows that it is based not on the force of arms but on the force of love or truth. Therefore the greatest and most unimpeachable evidence of the success of this force is to be found in the fact that, in spite of the wars of the world, it (the world) still lives on.”
He goes on, “Little quarrels of millions of families in their daily lives disappear before the exercise of this force. Hundreds of nations live in peace. History does not and cannot take note of this fact. History is really a record of every interruption of the even working of the force of love or of the soul. Two brothers quarrel; one of them repents and re-awakens the love that was lying dormant in him; the two again begin to live in peace; nobody takes notice of this.” You can guess where this goes… two brothers can’t resolve their dispute and they resort to lawyers or some other form of force and neighbors notice, and people talk and it’s in the papers and is recorded in history. Terrible, but that is the anomaly.
The lesson of this is NOT think positive! Ignore the bad and focus on the good. No, precisely the opposite. It is to see the bad as the disruption, the interruption of the normative, a priori good, and is a clarion call to right what is wrong, to heal the sin sick soul, to forgive the sinner so thoroughly that they see there is no right choice but repentance and changing their ways! It is good! All of this, the creation, each other, you, Mr. Trump, all of us, good, its essence, our essence, our soul exists in love. That is its natural disposition. And that power, the power of good, of life, that is the power of love, and it is infinitely more powerful than the forces of evil and disruption.
But that power is not power in the way that violence, coercion, wealth and privilege is power. Worldly forces want to control, to make us comply, to break resistance. Agape doesn’t make anyone do anything, it opens like a flower and invites us in (buzz, buzz). It invites compassion and kindness. It invites a change of heart and a change of way. It is the power of living. Of breath. It is the force that through the green fuse drives the flower, another way to say unstoppable. Agape gathers, heals and builds while worldy power divides, controls and destroys.
This is what Jesus observed of the world and teaches us in the Beatitudes. When your spirit is broken, God is with you. Always has been. When you mourn, when you are open and honest about the suffering of the world, you are comforted. The pain doesn’t go away, but mourning, yu are not alone with it. When you are meek are not striving. Being simple, humble, meek – you will be satisfied with what comes to you, and not in a “be a happy peasant” kind of way, but really, fully, truly satisfied with storing our treasures in heaven where moth or rust cannot consume it. Those who desire righteousness, receive it. Already. The search is its fulfillment. And you will be persecuted for it. Just be prepared. That is just how the world is. That is what Jesus is teaching here.
There is a force of limitless power and might that we find right there in the basic day-to-day lives that we live. That force is agape. That force is the God that Jesus is introducing us to in the Sermon on the Mount. Mo. Jo is always talking about the God in whom we live and move and have our being. That web of love, the state of the world as described in the Beatitudes, the condition of agape, exists, and though unrecorded by history, it is unstoppable, and has triumphed in every case. Like the brutal defeat on the Cross was actually a victory that has outlasted the Roman empire and will outlast our empire and will continue until, as James Weldon Johnson puts it, that “great gittin’up morning.”
The agents of discord and oppression always have and always will wilt when faced with the love found inside our grandmas’ cookie jars. And as they change or at least fade we will be strengthened by it. We will be girded by it. It will be the armor of righteousness that we will need if we are to live with the beatified in the Commonwealth of God that is right here, right now.
Leaning into love like this is the narrow path. A gun is faster, and to conventionally wise eyes seems more efficient than love. Loving the hard to love, loving the stranger, loving our enemies, that is the long game, victory is assured, but it is terribly difficult. How many decades did Gandhi toil? How long does Jesus have to wait for us to hear His cry in the mouths of the suffering? Love does not prevent suffering, no, love, agape love invites suffering, because it calls us not only to not shy from our own suffering, but to take up our neighbor’s suffering and do everything we can to relieve it. (Even taking up our enemies’ suffering. If we take the love of the cookie jar to its conclusion, it ends with giving our enemy a choice of chocolate chip or oatmeal).
I am so glad that we have so much time with the Sermon on the Mount in this very moment. It is all foolishness the those wise to ways of the world, but it is the path that Jesus Christ lays before us. For “…what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” AMEN