The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 17, 2019
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
On Friday the President of the United States declared a national emergency at our southern border with Mexico, ostensibly freeing up more funds than were allocated by the Congress for building a wall along the border with Mexico. Some Americans are delighted with this step and believe it will make for a safer country for all of us. Others are outdone, believing that this is a constitutional crisis, an overreach by the Executive Office, and that the wall itself is emblematic of an immigration policy that is a moral outrage. As polarized as our country is, I suspect those are the two extremes--and that most of us are somewhere at those edges.
We seem disagree fundamentally on how to make the country a better place--how to make the world a better place for all people. Or to be more honest, I’m not sure we even disagree about how to make the world a better place; it’s more likely that we disagree about world view entirely.
We disagree about what the world should look like--and about what the common good entails. Not merely about the mechanisms for achieving the common good, but about the very end goals. This is a hard place to be, and it’s hard to see a way forward.
We hear in the gospel message this morning that the poor, the hungry, and the forlorn are blessed--that they will inherit the kingdom of God, be filled, and laugh with joy. That seems antithetical to the conventional wisdom of the world--and yet, as a Christian, it seems clear to me that our calling is to love one another--the entirety of all creation--not just the friends and family in our own backyards. That these tropes of Jesus’s sermon should indeed be true. And I grow weary that what seem to me to be basic tenants of the Christian faith--to love God and love one another-- are being called into question in our national discourse. And as a privileged person in a nation of discord, I can stand and observe the discourse and vote and advocate and weep. But I wonder how those whose lives are directly affected by our national choices--people of other nationalities and origins, refugees and immigrants--I wonder how their lives are made more difficult, how the kingdom of God is obscured for them, by the actions of our government.
Agencies like IRIS, Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, right here in New Haven give me hope for another voice in the discourse--another witness to a way of being in the world. IRIS welcomes refugees and helps them build new lives in their new country. And we’ll hear at the 10:00am hour, the Sunday forum, from Will Kneerim, Director of Employment & Education Services at IRIS. You’ll know from the prayers each Sunday that IRIS is a partner with Saint Hilda’s House, hosting a corps member or two each year. We are grateful for the work IRIS does and the chance to join in their mission, and we’re grateful for the partnership with Saint Hilda’s House.
The work that Will and his colleagues--including our Hildans--engage in is important. To welcome the stranger, the one in distress, is good and holy work.
The gospel, Jesus’s great sermon, known in Matthew as the sermon on the mount but here in Luke as the sermon on the plain, for “Jesus came down with the twelve apostles and stood on a level place” surrounded by a great crowd, with every one pressing in. And the gospel writer makes it clear to us that everyone was healed--those with diseases, those troubled by mental illness--everyone in that place was healed. And Jesus teaches his disciples, sharing an alternative vision of the world--something different than the world those suffering from afflictions that came for healing knew in their own lives--a vision of a world in which all are whole, and all are valued, and all are loved.
The word that we translate as blessed is makarios--happy, blessed, even to be envied. The contrast in the states of being, in the use of this word “happy, blessed, enviable”--is astounding. The rhetorical effect wouldn’t have been lost on Jesus’s followers--the sheer audacity of the reversal is powerful: Happy are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours. If you’re hungry now, count it an enviable position, because you will have everything you need to be filled. Happy are they who weep, for they will laugh with inestimable joy.
I’d like to think that the work that IRIS and other agencies like it do makes the world a little more like the world of the beatitudes--that these agencies of justice and mercy--and our participation with them--help to give people some happiness, some stability, some comfort here and now. And certainly that’s part of the story. That’s a good thing indeed. But why ultimately do we engage in these good works?
Perhaps a progressive world view might say that we are trying to make the world a better place. Perhaps we might even theologize around our good works and say that we are joining God’s work, even co-creating with God. That we are building the kingdom here and now on earth.
All of these well meaning tropes might point at the truth. But ultimately I’d like to suggest that they’re wrong.
They put us in the place of doing. They put us in the place of reconciling.
And ultimately that work is only God’s.
Jeremiah, railing against the southern kingdom of Judah in a time of political intrigue, alliances gone wrong, complex geopolitical forces, proclaimed the warning of God to God’s people--that turning away from God’s commands had led God’s people astray. And whether you locate the fall of the temple within a theological or political or social problem, the temple did fall--and God’s people were exiled in Babylon.
These hard words of Jeremiah warn against trusting in the power of humans or even of governments but call on God’s people to trust only in God. “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the LORD; Blessed are those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is in the LORD.” (Jer 17:5,7)
If we cannot trust ourselves, if we cannot trust our government, to do the work of welcoming, of lifting up, of serving, then where is our trust?
I want to share with you a story of good works. Well, it starts with good works but moves to something very different. Over a year ago a group of parishioners joined together in a practice known initially as Living Local, Joining God. They met monthly and read and reflected together on a passage of scripture. They met with other parishioners and got to know one another by sharing stories about Christ Church and their time here. They walked the neighborhood and got to know it better--seeing and hearing from people that live nearby. And finally they tried on an experiment; our group decided to serve in the Community Soup Kitchen. They started by working on the food line, serving lunches--itself an act of charity. But after a few times serving, they moved to the other side of the line and sat down at tables with diners, joining them for a meal and conversation. And crossing that line made all the difference. From serving to being, our parishioners found themselves no longer offering charity but standing in solidarity. They were, at least for a moment, in real relationship.
One of the participants told me that at first he was uncomfortable; that he wasn’t sure he could bear the stories of despair that he was hearing, the stories of people who were beaten down by unemployment, addiction, abuse, or other hardships. But what he found was joy. That even in the midst of difficulties, there was laughter. There was happiness. There was real and present joy in relationship--in a community of people that come together, six days a week, for a meal. Not explicitly the meal that we share here of Christ’s own body and blood--but not unlike it, either, for in that sacred moment, in that loud and chaotic space, amongst spaghetti and goulash and shepherd’s pie and Kentucky Fried Chicken on Thursdays, the grace of God was made known in the love that people shared, if just for a moment, in relationship. In story.
Happy are you who weep, for you will laugh with joy. Happy are you who are hungry, for you will be filled. Happy are you who are poor, for you will inherit the kingdom of God.
Friends, what if the beatitudes aren’t directives about how to act. What if they’re not about good works. What if instead they’re an icon of reality-- a picture of the ultimate reality. What if they’re showing us the kingdom of God.
And if the kingdom of God looks like everyone being fed, everyone having enough, everyone filled with joy, everyone being loved--if this is the icon of the kingdom of God--then aren’t the beatitudes also an indictment of sin? Of the things that don’t measure up in our world?
And if that is true, then isn’t anything that doesn’t look like the kingdom of God not a given reality--not a truth--not the way that things are or should be--but rather an indictment of sin, the thing that’s separated us from God’s reality in this time and place? Isn’t the good work of every agency of justice and mercy an indicator of what’s failed, what’s wrong, what’s separated us from the kingdom of God? Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the LORD. (Jer 17.5)
The reason we as Christians engage in good works is not that we will save the world, or save ourselves, and not even that we may make a difference in someone’s life, though that certainly may happen, and that’s a good thing. We don’t engage in good works because we ourselves are good. No one is good but God alone, Jesus reminds us. We exercise charity, we engage in so called good works, because of who we are as a result of our baptism. We live in this way because we belong to God--and we know what the kingdom of God looks like, because we have met it in Jesus Christ.
When you’ve seen the kingdom of God come near, you begin to recognize it--and you have to live into it. To live as though it’s come, because it’s the only reality that we know. The only truth. The only way. The only life.
With the icon of the sermon on the plain before us, of Jesus’s own teaching, we can live differently in the world, we love one another in the world, we say yes to God’s call--to the image of the kingdom of God shown to us by Jesus Christ. And so we feed the hungry and comfort the forlorn and provide for the poor not as good works--but because we cannot imagine a brother or sister in Christ that is not cared for. We cannot imagine a part of God’s creation that is not beloved.
We are not changing the world. God is, and we are saying yes to God.
That’s what we do in this place each Sunday, each day really. In the liturgy, in the sacraments, in the word of God made flesh. We practice what the kingdom of God looks like so that we know it. We share a meal with someone so that we can practice. We share the load of someone who’s burdened so that we can recognize the kingdom coming near.
Come across and hear what IRIS is doing so that others might know what welcome feels like. And let’s pray together about how it is that we are saying yes to God. How it is that we are practicing the kingdom of God come near. How we are joining in that reality--throwing down the assumptions, the falsehoods, the lies that the devil tells us about how the world is--and gazing deep into the very heart of God.
The kingdom of God has come near. Thanks be to God, who moves and works in our yes to God’s call for justice and mercy. Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory, through our Lord Jesus Christ.