Here is a sermon I preached at my church back in November. You can download and listen to the audio file here.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.
In the early third century, the Roman Emperor Severus decreed that it would be a grievous imperial offense to convert to Christianity or Judaism. Those who were unlucky enough be caught breaking this law would face severe persecution, imprisonment, and the violent deaths. It was discovered that a 22 year old woman named Perpetua had violated the Emperors will by confessing Jesus of Nazareth as her Lord. She, her servant Felicity, and their fellow converts were lead before the Procurator who urged them to pay homage to the Roman gods. Her father, holding her own infant child in his arms, pleaded with Perpetua to renounce her conversion. She refused. Eventually she and all her fellow converts were rounded up, publicly ridiculed and subjected to violent deaths inflicted by wild beasts and the sword.
And Jesus calls them blessed.
Blessed are the peacemakers
Oscar Romero was a comfortable, bookish bishop in El Salvador. In a contentious political situation, he seemed like a safe choice for Archbishop. Surely, thought his superiors, academic theological pursuits and administrative tasks will occupy his time and he won’t get too political. However, in an increasingly violent situation, Romero began to question the implicit support that the Church had been giving to the regime. When a priest who was a dear friend of Romero’s was assassinated by the military for advocating for the poor and oppressed people of El Salvador, Romero hit a breaking point. “If they have killed him for doing what he did,” he said, “then I too have to walk the same path.” He could no long claim neutrality in a situation that eventually claimed the lives of over 75,000 people, most of whom were noncombatats. He became extremely vocal in his denunciations of violence and economic oppression of the government. Pointing to Christ, he consistently and repeatedly called upon the soldiers and politicians to renounce violence and seek peace. After years of warnings, threats, and imprisonments, persecutions of every kind, Romero was assassinated by a US trained death squad while he was presiding at mass.
And Jesus calls him blessed.
Blessed are those who mourn.
Almost a year ago, a dear family friend and missionary died of a heart attack while he was in Zimbabwe. He left a wife, two daughters, a son, four grandchildren, and countless friends and coworkers in the Kingdom. The shock of his death quickly gave way to unspeakable grief as the reality of his absence set in. Friends and family were left worrying about the future of the work in Zimbabwe, about the financial security of the family, about the grandchildren that would hardly remember their grandfather. The tears and raw emptiness left after his death have not yet healed. His daughter is getting married and he will not be there to walk her down the aisle. His son is graduating from college and preparing for ministry and he will not be there to see it. They are still mourning and will be for years to come.
and Jesus calls them blessed.
Over a decade ago, Ted Turner called Christianity a religion for losers. As can be imagined, it caused significant controversy when he said it. But, looking at these stories, we have to ask if he was right. The meek who are pushed around, the merciful who are taken advantage of, the poor in spirit at the bottom of society, the people who endure violent and seemingly pointless deaths hardly look like winners. Is Christianity a religion for losers?
Or to put the question theologically, where does God’s blessing fall? Who is blessed in the sight of God?
It’s one of the main questions the Bible asks. From the time of God’s promise to Abram, to bless those who bless him and curse those who curse him, the question is up in the air. Does God’s blessing lie with the line of Isaac or the line of Ishmael? Does it lie with Esau or Jacob? Joseph or his brothers who sold him into slavery?
Who does God bless, who is right and good in the sight of God: Saul or David? Absalom or Solomon? Is it the kings or is it the prophets? The Northern Kingdom of Israel or the Southern Kingdom of Judah? Does God’s blessing lie with the people of Israel or with the Assyrians and Babylonians who conquered them? Or with the Persians, Greeks and Romans who conquered them?
Who is doing God’s work and receiving God’s blessing, the Pharisees or the Sadducees, the Samaritans or the Jews?
Does God, as White House press secretary Jay Carney said this past week, help those who help themselves? Is God on the side of Wall Street? Is God on the side of the Occupiers of Wall Street? How do we tell who is blessed? Are we to heed the advice of the old gospel song and count every blessing to see what God has done? Should we stack our stuff on the scales of impartial lady justice and see who has been blessed the most?
As Christians, we turn to the clearest expression of God to find the answer to these questions. We look Jesus. We find that Jesus not only has a clear vision of where God’s blessing is, he has a different vision of what it looks like.
It is not the kings and emperors and lords of this earth that are blessed in the sight of God, we hear Jesus say, but rather the lowly, the meek, the mourners, and the merciful. It is not the rich and satisfied, but the poor and empty. It is not the comfortable and rested, but those who are slandered, persecuted and killed that are blessed.
It is not that the poor, lowly, meek and merciful achieve their own blessing by virtue or merit, it is that Jesus pronounces them blessed. Jesus can do this because of the promise of God’s present and coming kingdom. He can point to the lowliest in society and call them the highest because they will be lifted up. He can point to the saddest in the world and call them the happiest because they will be comforted, because God himself will wipe away their every tear. He can point to the meek and call them rulers of the earth because they will be. Jesus can say all of this, because he holds the future. He can say this because of the promise of the resurrection. Those who are killed and persecuted, who pour their lives out in service in quiet and lowly places will be given new life.
The beatitudes come as a gift from Jesus. Here, at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus sets out to describe the kind of life that will characterize the community that follows after him, Jesus pronounces blessings and gives promises to those lowly ones gathered around him. And these are not the words of an aloof and distant leader sitting in comfort and luxury while consoling his weak followers with promises about the future. He is not the wealthy CEO calling his employees to hold out for a little longer until this rough patch is over and their benefits will kick in. Rather, these words are, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, the words “of the one who did not relate to reality as a foreigner, a reformer, a fanatic, [or even as] the founder of a religion, but as the one who bore and experienced the nature of reality in his own body, who spoke out of the depth of reality as no other human being on earth ever before.” (Ethics, 231)
Jesus himself confirms all of these beatitudes in his own life. It is his suffering that is blessed, and his wounds that are transformed into blessings by the power of the resurrection. “Blessed are the meek” and Jesus says “Learn from me, for I am meek and humble in heart.” Blessed are the merciful. Who but Jesus showed mercy to the sick and the destitute, to the lonely and to the dead? Blessed are the peacemakers. Who is a peacemaker other than him who, as Paul said destroyed the wall of hostility and preached peace to those who were far off and peace to those who were near? Blessed are those who mourn. And it is Jesus who weeps outside of his friend Lazarus’ tomb and weeps over the stubborn city of Jerusalem. ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake.’ Certainly we see this in Jesus—him who knew no sin and was crucified for our sakes. It is Jesus then, who displays all of the beatitudes himself. Because of this, we can trust in his promise, for the darkness the darkness and suffering, the death and godforsakenness that he here is calling blessed is the very reality that he experienced for our sake.
And following the example of Jesus, we know that the beatitudes are not a ‘how-to’ guide of general ethical principles that, if enacted rightly, will bring God’s Kingdom. They are pronouncements of a King who declares that a new age is upon us and is coming—Jesus who proclaimed that the Kingdom of God is at hand. This Kingdom is not built on the effective actions of its servants but on the free action of God the King. As citizens of this Kingdom, we are to trust in the promised actions of our King. We carry our crosses because we believe in the resurrection. We make peace, not because it is effective (though it may be), but because our King told us to. As one theologian has said (John Howard Yoder) “The relationship between the obedience of God’s people and the triumph of God’s cause is not the relationship of cause and effect but one of cross and resurrection.”
Every week, we pray here, together for God’s Kingdom to come on earth as it already is in heaven. Every week, when we leave, we are challenged to live in light of that coming Kingdom and not in light of the kingdoms of this world. By praying and hoping for the Kingdom of God to come on earth, we are saying that the world beyond these walls is not yet finished. In the world that is so full of darkness and despair, where the poor have no food—the rich have no friends, we are to proclaim the future. In this hopeless world, we are called to embody and practice in concrete ways the hope that we have been given by Jesus. We must work out in the world the hope made possible by God’s action. We must, in the words of Wendell Berry, practice resurrection.
Practicing resurrection means resisting the temptation to see the cross of Jesus as a one time event and not a way of life that we are called to follow.
But what does that look like, here in this place, at this time?
Before I moved here I live in Lexington, Kentucky. My roommate and friend Ian taught me about what it means to practice resurrection. I remember waiting for a table at a downtown restaurant with him. You could see our breath as we waited outside in the cold. We were only outside for a minute before I saw trouble coming.
A homeless man is awkwardly talking to people, asking for money, presumably, and leaning in too close when he speaks. He acts as if he is a stranger in his body. Unfamiliar with how to make it stand up straight, he is constantly overcorrecting. He does not look unlike a child trying to keep balance while walking down the curb. I know he is approaching us, and my mind beginnings reeling as if I’ve been posed a question in a board game and must answer before the sand is emptied into the bottom of the plastic hourglass. I am not sure what ails him, whether he is the victim of mental illness, addiction, or just plain bad luck. I am unsure how I should respond, remembering Jesus’ command to “give to everyone who asks.” As I stand there, I contemplate the denominations of bills I have in my wallet and try to conceive of a way to sneak a guilt-alleviating single out without displaying the rest. I am so busy thinking about how to act, that I don’t notice that Ian has taken notice of the man too.
Ian ejects himself from our conversation, and meets the man before he has gotten to us. “How are you doing, John?” he asks, patting him on the back with his left hand and extending his right for a handshake. It is clear by John’s answer that they’ve known each other for a while. Ian introduces me, but I have nothing to offer beyond a simple greeting. I look on in puzzlement as the two chat about mutual friends, the new city plans, and the rescue mission where Ian counsels men coming out of addiction. As they stand there together, talking with each other as natural as Ian and I were only moments ago, I am struck that John begins to look less homeless. Ian has thrown open the doors and welcomed this guest.
That is practicing resurrection.
And there are hundreds of ways that this congregation is practicing resurrection. The examples abound of people all around us who pour out their lives, open their homes, devote their time and money to people who cannot pay them back—people from whom they receive no worldly benefit.
Chaplains—official and unofficial—who talk with the suffering and pray with the dying; Teachers who work long hours personally investing in ungrateful students; Families who open their homes to others and welcome in children, trusting in God to provide. These actions don’t make sense except as obedience to and trust in Jesus. They point to the promised future of God.
What are you doing? How are you practicing resurrection? Does your life make sense apart from the promised future of Jesus?
The world has a future that belongs to, and is promised by, God. We cannot force it, We cannot master it, we cannot stop it. We can only pray for it, proclaim it and live in light of it. In the words of Oscar Romero, “We are prophets of a future not our own.”