The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Solemn Mass, by the Reverend Dr. Peter R. Powell
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“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."
How to begin a sermon using the Beatitudes as the Text given all that’s happened in the world around us recently? While I could say several pointed things about the transition and especially last night and the equivalence of sojourners and refugees, they would all be predictable so while satisfying not really helpful. So instead let me turn to a Netflix documentary 13th, Barbara and I watched recently. It’s a documentary about the American prison system and its impact on African-Americans up through the Obama Administration. The title, 13th, refers to the 13th amendment making slavery unconstitutional and points out how we have continued to enslave African-Americans in the prison system. It provided a helpful reminder that while I have many huge problems with the new administration we, this country, didn’t begin behaving unethically, or in an unchristian manner in the last few weeks. We have been living contrary to the Beatitudes for our entire existence. It’s just harder to ignore now.
When I was still working and heading an agency that provided supportive housing and other services to the mentally ill homeless I enjoyed working with conservative politicians so we might be entering into a more productive time to be on the radical incarnational side of politics. The reason I enjoyed it was because neither I nor the conservative had to pretend that we were on the same side of anything. Be it a governor, congressman (and they were men), first selectperson (wealthy Connecticut town term for mayor and they were men and women), or local zoning committee member if they were conservative they didn’t have to pretend to like me or support my cause and I didn’t have to pretend to like them or appreciate where they were coming from. On the other hand, were they members of the Democratic Party then they would constantly ask me to temper my requests because they couldn’t be seen pandering to the far left and threatening property values. At the same time nor could they afford to alienate my supporters so they wanted me to make it easier for them. I didn’t. Liberals all had compassion for the homeless, they assured me, but if they alienated the less liberal by threatening property values then they would lose their office and I would be left with even less for the people I was advocating for. They were wrong but could not be persuaded they were wrong. So I preferred to work with people who opposed me openly.
One of the things we need to realize is that we are in the moment of a great opportunity to be the church. When the powers that be are advocating for positions that stand in such opposite and obvious contradiction to the Gospel then the church can stand clearly for what Jesus cared about and the Beatitudes tell us what that is pretty clearly. So we have been given, on a platter, a marvelous opportunity to be the church. We don’t have to pretend that politics is going to do anything for us. I’m sorry to be cynical but politics won’t do enough regardless of the political standing of the politician. Now we can clearly stake out positions which put those in power in awkward positions so no one can confuse being Christian with being Nice. We can also stake out positions in contrast to those of Evangelical Religious figures like Franklin Graham who recently stated that refugees are “Not a bible issue.”
A Pew Research Center Newsletter that came out on Thursday afternoon noted that nearly all Presidents have identified themselves as Christians, and nearly half have been either Episcopalian or Presbyterian. Trump is Presbyterian. And yet we watched the Oscar Nominated Documentary, 13th. It’s hard to reconcile a Christian government with the cruelty detailed from the earliest days of our nation to today to largely black men, enslaved or incarcerated. When I read the bible, and I say the office daily so I read it frequently, I find no way to reconcile the faith that guides my life with the government I’ve permitted to function in my name. So things have been strange since January 20 but hardly discontinuous with how they were before.
What would happen if we took the Beatitudes seriously? What if we believed that Jesus meant for us to live by them? No one ever has. At various times in Western History we’ve assumed that monastic communities should live by them but we’ve assumed they’re too hard and impractical for you and me to actually observe them. So we haven’t tried.
I come here week after week looking for you to help me figure out how my life would look were I to take Christianity seriously. In particular I come to an Anglo-Catholic parish with a diverse congregation because I want you to help me figure out how my life would look were I to take Christianity seriously. I began coming here more than 15 years ago because I need help figuring out what the Beatitudes mean when there is no denying that life is loud, sometimes cruel, always challenging and hugely diverse. How do I live in a way that doesn’t apologize for the many cruelties we inflict of course on each other but more especially on those of us who were not born with the advantages I was born with? What does it mean if I believe that you are crucial to my understanding who and whose I am?
The Beatitudes tell us that Blessed are those in a position of vulnerability, weakness or lack and that the Kingdom of God will be theirs. The word blessed is difficult to translate in this context. The Greek word behind it, makarios, doesn’t mean blessed as in fortunate or gifted but instead it describes the feeling the High Priest felt in the Holy of Holies in the Temple. It is occasionally translated happy but I am persuaded from recent reading that it is best translated, honored. Honored are you when you’re poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, merciful, peacemakers, pure in heart, persecuted for righteousness sake and finally honored are you when men revile you and utter all kinds of evil against falsely on my account. Honored. You and I are being told that to be authentically Christian, not American, not Successful, not Nice, but Christian, we must Honor that which God honors and today’s Gospel spells it out clearly. I urge you to read an article by Stanley Hauerwas, a retired professor from Duke, on the difference between being a Christian and a Patriot.
It would be nice if the Federal or State Government would adopt what we think is central. They never have and they never will. That is unavoidably clear now and it has been before. Sometimes the Powers that Be think it in their interest to placate us. Sometimes we permit ourselves to be placated and rejoice in having people in authority we respect, pander to us and even worship in an Episcopal Church. However, movies like the 13th remind us that all the while evil is being done to someone vulnerable and the church is only the church when it Honors first and above all the vulnerable. We have been given a moment of clarity on this and I hope we will seize the next four years to work, not against the Administration but for the Gospel. There is more than enough to engage in to make this time one that shows it was touched by Faith.