It has been hard to write this last Beatitudes blog. I realize that, although I am grateful to regain some of the time that I have spent traveling and teaching this study, I will miss all of you, and your faithful, Christian, honest wrestling with faithful living. So, I start this blog by saying thank you to all of you for trusting and questioning, for pushing back and pushing forward, and for all of your support in emails and posts to this blog. I am particularly grateful for those of you who tried the "new-fangled" things that PW put into place with this study: the DVD and this blog. I hope you liked them and that you gave lots of love to the folks in the PW office at Louisville, without whom none of this would have been possible.
Special thanks again to Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty, Clifton Kirkpatrick and David Gambrell for their participation in the DVD and for Ashley Meyer, who was my editor until she left the office for new adventures. Special thanks also to all of the staff of PW who made it possible for Confessing the Beatitudes to win an ACP Award of Excellence for the best Bible resource of 2011.
As my last blog, I'm posting the sermon that I wrote for you and that I have preached to many of you all over the country. It is a sermon called "When."
Greatly honored are all of you, and may God bless and strengthen Presbyterian Women.
-a sermon for PW on the Beatitudes-
Sisters, as we turn to the proclamation of the word, let us once again turn our hearts and minds to prayer. God of our mothers, of Hagar the desert wanderer and God namer, of Deborah the judge, and Miriam the prophet, speak to us now using the words of our Savior Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, that we might be guided to live our lives as Christ's disciples. Amen.
The Beatitudes, especially the version recorded in the gospel according to Matthew, is one of the great poems or hymns of the Christian church. We learn to recite it as children, print it on T-shirts and signs and coffee mugs, stitch it into samplers and banners for the church, and hold it up as a primary example of the life of discipleship. And yet, friends, there is a word we often overlook in this great poem, a word that turns the poem from a lovely vision of what it means to “be a good person” into a pointed reminder of the cost of discipleship. The word, my sisters, is When.
Listen again to the way that word is used in Matthew's gospel: "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.” Friends, the first thing we must notice is that in this passage, Jesus does not say “Blessed are you IF people revile you, persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” Jesus doesn't say IF. Jesus says “when.” There is an expectation in that word, an expectation that the path Jesus is calling us to is a path that comes with some risks, risks of being reviled, risks of being persecuted, risks of being slandered. It is tempting to wonder, after such beautiful words, if Jesus could just have been making a mistake; if when is just too strong for this call to discipleship called the beatitudes. However, if you keep reading Matthew's gospel, you'll find that Jesus is completely consistent. Later in the 5th chapter, he commands us to pray for those who persecute us. In the 10th chapter, he instructs disciples who are persecuted in one town to flee to another town, and in the 13th chapter, he compares those who cannot handle persecution to seeds thrown on rocky soil that have no root. Friends, I'm afraid, it's quite certain that Jesus intended to use “when” in the Beatitudes.
Further, Jesus teaches that this “when” of persecution, revulsion and slander is going to take place on his account. Hear me. Jesus says, the “when” of persecution comes BECAUSE we are his faithful disciples. Too often, these days, I hear brothers and sisters of the faith preaching that discipleship of Jesus Christ will get you OUT of trouble, that it will take away your problems and your trials and will lead to a life of quiet prosperity. While I understand the wish for those things, particularly among those who come from families of poverty, I'm afraid that is not what Jesus teaches. Jesus doesn't teach that the gospel will get you OUT of trouble. Jesus teaches that living lives as his disciple will get you INTO trouble. For, the WHEN in the Beatitudes teaches us that WHEN we are followers of Jesus we will be reviled, not praised; persecuted, not protected; and slandered, not saluted. And these things will happened to us BECAUSE we are Christ's disciples, not in spite of that fact.
Hear what Jesus is saying, sisters and brothers. Jesus is saying that WHEN you live in a way that heaven honors, this world might cause you problems. For, this world holds up the richest and most famous among us as those we should honor, the Steve Jobs' and Bill Gates, the Oprah Winfreys and Suze Ormans, the Fortune 500 and those whom Donald Trump hires. These are the ones that we are called to honor in this world. When we, as disciples of Jesus Christ turn to these icons of our society and say, in the words that Jesus spoke in Luke 6:24, “Shame on you, for you already have your reward,”some will call us names. When we, in the name of Jesus Christ, honor the ptochoi – not the working poor but the destitute, those left to beg on our streets or wander through our deserts because they have no other way to make a living for themselves or their families, some will be revolted by us or seek to persecute us. And yet, this is the path of discipleship.
The world expects us to honor those who frequent Food Network, surrounded by a bounty of food and drink; and those who, because of who they are, receive help when they face trouble and leniency when they face hard times. When we, instead, as disciples of Jesus Christ, honor those who are starving and dying from thirst, calling for food and water justice both locally and globally, some will slander us, and revile us and persecute us. And yet, this is the path of discipleship.
And whenever we honor those who live their lives in covenant loyalty to their sisters and brothers and to God, showing them compassion and feeling for them in our hearts, those whom our world calls weak and soft.... Whenever we honor those whose inner lives and outer actions match, and who don't play the game of saying what everyone wants to hear, even if it is not true, those whom our world calls strange and foolish... Whenever we honor those who live their lives seeking the fullness of shalom, peace as well as wholeness and healing, for all God's children, those whom the world calls peaceniks and idealists... Whenever we honor those who allow themselves to be arrested and put on watch lists and maligned in the press because they refuse to be silenced in the face of injustice, those whom the world calls troublemakers... Whenever we, as disciples of Jesus Christ honor these people, these children of God who are trying to live out their lives in response to the gospel of Jesus Christ, some people will revile us, some people will slander us, and some people will persecute us. Not if. When.
For you see, the old fable they used to tell us is not true. Being Christian is not at all the same as being a respectable person from a decent family. Ask the martyr Perpetua who was thrown to the lions, relinquishing both her respectability and her decent family because she refused to deny Christ Jesus as her Lord and Savior. Or, if you do not want to go back that far, ask Dorothy Day and Cesar Chavez, Mary McLeod Bethune and Martin Luther King Jr., Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass. Being a Christian, a disciple of the one who first appeared to Mary of Magdala and whom Martha of Bethany called “the Christ, the son of God who has come into the world,” being a Christian means being standing where Jesus stood, with the outcasts and the voiceless, and with those who are already standing with them. It means standing with the migrants, with or without papers, as children of the living God remembering that our ancestors were once wanderers through desert places. It means standing with the working class that are taught to blame “those people” for the injustices that irresponsible, unresponsive corporations are perpetrating on them. It means standing with those for whom this great recession has been and continues to be a great depression. It means standing with those nations that are at war over the minerals we need for our cell phones and our motor cars. It means standing with those women and men who are still in refugee camps months and years after earthquake or fire or war or flood. Being a Christian means lifting up your voice with prophets and peacemakers, truthtellers and troublemakers of every generation, putting all on the line for the sake of the God whom Hagar called El-roi, the God who sees. Being a Christian means today just exactly what it meant so many years ago, when Jesus said if anyone would come after me, let her deny herself, take up her cross and follow me. Being a Christian means acknowledging that the crux of the Beatitudes, for us as Christ's disciples is that troubling adverb, “When.”
And yet, “when” comes with a command to rejoice, not to weep. When comes with a command to celebrate not to shrink in fear. When comes with a command to leap and dance, not to lie awake worrying about the consequences of discipleship. For, as disciples, we are called to remember that our hope is not in the expectations of this world. Our hope is not in the honor of this world or the respect of this world. Our hope is not in the admiration of this world, but in a greater reality, a greater source of authority even than them empires of this world.
For all who live as disciples of Christ in this world are the concern of heaven, greatly beloved and rewarded. And the same God who honors the destitute and the mourners, the humbled and the famished, also honors those who stand with them in Jesus name. And, even as we are called to covenant loyalty, our God is faithful beyond our human understanding.
This is the promise of the prophets, the promise that even if we are sent into a world that will not hear and might even attack, nevertheless we are doing the work of God and will in no way lose our heavenly reward. Like so many of the promises of the beatitudes, this promise points to another age, an age when God’s will is done on earth as in heaven. It is a promise that, in the end, God is ultimately in charge and that God’s reign will ultimately prevail. However, this is not just a promise about the hereafter, a trust in the God of the not yet, of the unseen future. For, the promise is that, even in the midst of persecution, the Triune God is concerned with and is, in ways seen and unseen, standing with Christ’s faithful disciples. God is with us, and since God is with us we can dare to take the step of discipleship, even in the face of persecution. For truly, if we live as disciples, in life, in death, and in life after death, we belong to God.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, the word “when” in the Beatitudes is not a warning. It is a call to fearless Christianity, Christianity lived knowing that when we honor those whom heaven honors, and when we live as disciples of the Christ, we will be charged with meddling. Let it be so, and let us rejoice in it. For going before us is the one who calls us to be overjoyed, to leap and dance, the one who calls himself the Lord of the Dance, the one who has promised to be with us even until the end of the age.
And when we lose heart or our resolve weakens, we come again to the font and the table and the gathering of the people of God. For the font calls us to remember that we belong not to the world but to the Lord, and we have been given his Spirit that we might live as disciples. The table reminds us that we are fed not because of what we deserve but out of the grace and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ. And the gathering reminds us of who we follow, retelling together the story of our Savior who was reviled for challenging the wealthy scoffers, stuffed with food and swollen with the world's praise while honoring the destitute, the mourners, the humbled and those famished and parched for bread, water and justice. The gathering reminds us that our Savior was persecuted for calling for mercy and integrity among all of God's people. The gathering reminds us that our Savior was slandered for standing with the peacemakers and with those persecuted on behalf of justice. The gathering reminds us that he whom the world struck down, God raised up, and he lives among us, present when even two or three of us are gathered in his name. Then let us celebrate, PW, not because of the when but because of the call to discipleship. For WHEN we dare to live as disciples of the one we call Savior and Lord, heaven itself echoes with Christ's words: “Blessed are they.”