A favorite hashtag on social media is #blessed. We use it mostly when we are bragging about our possessions, our expensive vacations and our happy families all spiffed up for the social media persona we carefully filter.
So I love that on All Saints Sunday, we always read the Beatitudes to remind us what “blessed” means to Jesus. It’s a far from instagram-able picture.
“The Beatitudes”—the scripture we read this morning from the Gospel according to Luke-- means in Latin a condition or statement of blessedness. We read Jesus’ Beatitudes on all Saints day every year because Saints are just imperfect people who did their human best to live in the spirit of this blessedness.
Sometimes we read the Beatitudes from Matthew, famously called the “Sermon on the Mount.” Today we read the “Beatitudes” from Luke, which is referred to as the “Sermon on the Plain.” This is a sermon that after a night of praying, Jesus delivers to his disciples at a “level place.” The Sermon on the Mount” and the “Sermon on the Plain,” though they both contain a similar list of those who are blessed by God, have some differences.
One difference is that the sermon on the plain has a whole lot of woe. Jesus says woe to those who are rich, full of food, powerful and laughing. I picture the villain in Austin Powers….Dr. Evil with his cohort of villainous friends after he says, “Gentleman, in exactly five days we will be one hundred billion dollars richer.” And then they laugh maniacally, holding their bellies.
But by Jesus’ standards, that “woe” is reserved for pretty much all of us in the richest nation in the world. WOE unto all of US, he is saying. In the Greek, “woe” doesn’t mean we are all Dr. Evils, or that we are all cursed or damned. It means, “yikes,” or “watch out.” Don’t get too comfortable. If you are comfortable, start paying attention to those for whom your heart breaks.
Jesus gets pretty specific about who his heart breaks for, and calls them blessed. They are the people who receive his attention during his ministry: the poor, the hungry, the crying, the ostracized, the hated and outcast.
In the sermon on the plain, he highlights the clash between the woeful world as it is, and the world as God dreams it to be.
The woeful world says, the more stuff you have, the happier you’ll be. Jesus says: “Blessed are you whose wallet is empty.”
The woeful world says, “happiness means nothing bad ever happens to you.” Jesus says “Blessed are you who know what it’s like to mourn the death of a husband, a wife, a relationship, a child, because you will love other people with a profound and real love exactly when they need it. You will laugh again.”
The woeful world says, “You have to be strong and powerful and well thought of.” Jesus says “Blessed are you who are afraid and unsure and are willing to admit it--for your humility is your strength.”
The woeful world says, “Seek revenge. Take to twitter in retaliation. Return anger for anger. Hurt those who hurt you,” And Jesus says, “Blessed are you who do unto all others as you would have done unto you.”
The woeful world says, “Win every fight. Show no mercy. Arm yourself with an arsenal of weapons so that you may protect you and yours,” And Jesus says “Blessed are you who love your enemies, who show mercy, who turn the other cheek.”
The woeful world says, “Be nice to everyone so that no one will think badly of you. Don’t talk about religion or politics in polite company and keep your voice down,” And Jesus says, “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you because you rise up in Love’s name.”
Jesus makes God’s blessing particular and real. All lives matter to God, but in the beatitudes, Jesus declares that the oppressed, hated, poor, persecuted and pushed down matter more. He calls them blessed.
I ran into a guy on the common last Sunday who said, “aren’t you the church that feeds all the people? I don’t go to church anymore, but I wanted to say thanks for being real Christians.” Becoming saints means concentrating on those who are hungry.
Speaking of the saints, Pastor Zach and his family moved to Sterling last Saturday! It’s so great! His house is beautiful out there on Kendall Hill. We visited this week. They are all settled in and cozy just in time for the first snow.
The weekend that they first visited Sterling, Zach’s eight year old, Tiana, saw a sign on the side of the road on the way to Meadowbrook Orchards that said “Black Lives Matter.” She turned to her dad all lit up and said, “Dad! Black lives matter here!” It made her feel immediately welcomed; like she could live here.“Eight year olds are so literal,” Zach said. So is Jesus, who blesses Tiana.
That sign is on the way from church to her house now, so she gets to see it every day as a reminder. I am so grateful. I don’t think that the person who plunked that sign in their yard has any idea how much of an impact it would have on an actual human being, but whoever you are, thank you.
The first night Zach was here, he texted and asked us where to get pizza delivery, and I gave him the name of a local place. The pizza delivery car that pulled into his driveway had a bumper sticker said, “Make liberals cry again,” and we were texting back and forth laughing about it. “Welcome to Sterling,” I said. “It’s a mixed bag.”
The next day, a political rally next to our worship service at the library made sure that our confirmands had to pause occasionally in their beautiful faith statements over the honking of passing cars and screaming during our church service on the common.
And then while we prayed, a rolling rally paraded through, flags waving, trucks honking, for several minutes. For a long time, the participants made sure that only God and the people watching us on-line could hear our prayers. Many in our congregation were angry and attempted to shush them. One person waved joyfully. Some were shocked and uncomfortable, probably wondering what I would do. Many wept openly, including my children and Zach’s children, and the adults trying to comfort them. Suddenly, the bumper sticker from the night before that Zach and I were joking about seemed less amusing. The division in this country stood in stark contrast to our worship of God who UNITES us in one shared origin, and one shared destiny—LOVE.
I hope our confirmands heard the message of the song we sang to try and wait out and drown out the blasting of the horns: “there’s a river flowing in my soul, and it’s telling me that I’m somebody. There’s a river flowing in my soul.” I hope the children and youth heard the message from their church: that they are somebody to God.
Beloved, I am aware that this is an anxious week for all of us. Our Christian faith is being tested by the divisive and dehumanizing political climate in America, and the election is Tuesday.
I see signs all around town that say “Vote for God and country.” There’s one right across from my house.
I’m not sure what they mean, so I have been praying about it.
I have talked to more than one person who wrote in Jesus Christ in the 2016 presidential election. Maybe that’s what they mean. I wish I could vote for Jesus, too.
People often ask pastors what it means to be a Christian in a voting booth. Many pastors risk their 501c3 status to tell you which politicians to vote for. I don’t have a perfect answer for you for how to vote for God and country…I only have an answer for me.
In grade school, I was taught that my country was ONE NATION, UNDER GOD, INDIVISIBLE with LIBERTY and JUSTICE for ALL. To me, voting for country means voting for liberty and justice for all. We are only human and incapable of being perfect citizens. But if we hate half the country, we are not patriots.
The God I worship calls the poor BLESSED. The God I worship says the hungry will be filled, and the full will go hungry. The God I worship doesn’t just say “all lives matter,” but gets specific about WHO’s LIVES matter. To me, voting for God means voting for those who lift up the poor, who welcome the stranger, who set the captives free. We are only human, and incapable of being perfect Christians. I also know this: if we hate half of the country, we are incapable of loving God.
Here’s what I also know:
After we vote, no matter who we voted for or why, we will come back together around this table of blessing, where both the rich and the poor are fed and called beloved. We worship a God who tells us to LOVE our enemies, to BLESS those who curse us. Who demands that we give ourselves away. We worship a God who says that we shall DO UNTO OTHERS as we would have done unto ourselves. It doesn’t matter who we voted for…we will pray for each other, and build a world worthy of our children’s promise.
Regardless of what happens this week, remember first and foremost that you are children of the living God. An election doesn’t change that. You are known and named beloved. Our number one job as humans on this earth is to love God by loving our neighbor as ourself. Remember that in the voting booth, and more importantly, remember that in the weeks and months and years that follow. Get to the task of re-humanizing one another. It is our calling.
Small Kindnesses by Danusha Lameris
I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk
down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs
to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you”
when someone sneezes, a leftover
from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying.
And sometimes, when you spill lemons
from your grocery bag, someone else will help you
pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.
We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot,
and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile
at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress
to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder,
and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass.
We have so little of each other, now. So far
from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange.
What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these
fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here,
have my seat,” “Go ahead — you first,” “I like your hat.”
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org