Lessons for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany (Year A): Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; and, Matthew 5:1-12.
We live in a broken and fragile world. It is natural to fear. But, we fear as those who are members of the Jesus movement. We fear as those who follow Jesus and as those who proclaim Jesus as Lord, and that makes all the difference. We fear but we refuse to allow fear to rule our actions and decisions. We fear but we remember Jesus.
The Beatitudes are iconic. They are, in many ways, the New Testament version of the Ten Commandments, providing a definition of sorts for the message of Jesus. There is beauty in them but there is also a danger, for they are inconvenient, radical, and revolutionary.
The form of the Beatitudes is familiar in Jewish tradition, especially in the Psalms and Wisdom Literature (Psalm 1 is an extended example of an OT Beatitude: “Blessed is the one who walks not in the counsel of the wicked.”). The most striking deviation of the Matthean Beatitudes from the Old Testament pattern comes in the timing of the reward. The assumption of the Old Testament is that the rewards are directly present while the Matthean Beatitudes promise fullness of life in God’s kingdom. The Matthean Beatitudes have an identifiable eschatological direction to them. But they are decidedly not “entrance requirements;” but, rather, they serve as marks of character and actions that flow from belonging.
The two exceptions to the obvious future, eschatological fulfillment are the two promises that frame the list:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit” (1st Beatitude, Matthew 5:3)
“Blessed are those who have been persecuted for righteousness sake” (8th Beatitude, Matthew 5:10).
In these two the promise is given in the present indicative. If we are going to catch hold of the deepest meaning of this we need to go a little further on in the sermon, to the point when Jesus teaches us about prayer. In “The Lord’s Prayer,” as we call it, Jesus teaches the people to pray God’s kingdom come and that God’s will be done “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9-11). We pray those words together every Sunday and many of us pray them daily but do we recognize what we are doing. In this prayer and, I think, in the Beatitudes we see an intersection of heaven and earth, an interconnection between the eschatological hope and the present reality. There is a coming together of the spiritual and secular.
The Beatitudes might best be read if we approach them not from the perspective of reward but rather as a road map. They tell us not so much how we might arrive at the destination but rather offer a view of the landscape whereupon our lives are lived. They tell not so much how to attain the kingdom of heaven but instead show us how to live in the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
Read this way, we can no longer demand a religion that is relegated to the inner sanctum of the personal life without having any influence upon social or national life, without a concern for the soundness of civil institutions. Would we silence the message of Saint Francis of Assisi or Blessed Teresa of Calcutta? Would we silence blessed Rosa Parks or the saintly Desmond Tutu? No! Authentic faith can never be completely comfortable nor can it be completely personal. Rather, authentic faith must always seek transformation, the transmission of the values that make us who we are. We love this home of ours – this earth, our fragile island home, and this country, may God shed his grace on us. If, as the Christian tradition holds, “the just ordering of society and of the state is a central responsibility of politics,” then is the responsibility of the Church (globally, nationally, and locally) to arise from the sidelines to fight for justice and peace, to see to the building of a better world. (See, Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium.)
The Beatitudes invite us to pursue a new vision of life where the poor stand at the center of the Church’s concern, where those who mourn receive comfort, and where those who resist nonviolently the encroachment off the world’s values inherit the earth. Hungering and thirsting after righteousness is not something the rich and satisfied do but those who genuinely seek after the nourishment of God will receive blessing. Purity comes from the refining fires of being human and lead to the deep desire to be peacemakers in our world.
Some pastors may preach today that there is nothing to fear. After all, “fear not” is what Jesus taught his disciples on more than one occasion. Sermons will proclaim that God is in charge and that all manner of things will be well with Jesus. God will protect. God’s plan will prevail and we have no reason to fear. That all may very well be true but I will not tell you that today.
The world is a broken and fearful place. I know it and you know it. I fear. I fear for my African-American friends who themselves fear that their lives don’t matter. I fear for my Native American friends who are threatened with the loss of their land. I fear for my Latino and Hispanic friends whose families are being torn apart. I fear for my Muslim neighbors who are reviled and persecuted and have all kinds of things uttered against them because of their faith. I fear for my gay and lesbian and transgendered sisters and brothers. I fear for those in our community with addiction and lack of access to health care. I fear for those who serve in our military and police and in our fire departments with inadequate resources and support. I fear what those who do resort violence and terror might do.
We live in a broken and fragile world. It is natural to fear.
Bur, we fear as those who are members of the Jesus movement. We fear as those who follow Jesus – as those who proclaim Jesus as Lord, and that makes all the difference. We fear but we refuse to allow fear to rule our actions and decisions.
We fear but we remember that Jesus – and today, especially, we remember that Jesus was a refugee. The 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection f that country.” While the borders may not have been as clearly defined as they are today, under the terms of that definition, when Mary and Joseph took the infant Jesus to Egypt to keep him safe from Herod, they became refugees (Matthew 2:13-15).
Jesus teaches us that the way we individually and collectively treat the least of our sisters and brothers is the way we treat him. That would seem particularly appropriate and important in relation to our brothers and sisters who are refugees.
Our sacred story is unequivocal: Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:19) and “I was a stranger and you welcomed me…just as you did to the least of these” (Matthew 25:35, 40).
It is something that God clearly did,
- In Psalm 146, God “watches over the strangers.” (Psalm 146:9)
- In Psalm 17, God shows “steadfast love…for those who seek refuge from their adversaries.” (Psalm 17:7)
- In Deuteronomy, God is mighty and great who “loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing (10:18b)
- Throughout Deuteronomy, Numbers, and Leviticus it is God who defends the cause of the stranger, who shows no partiality to natives or refugees.
- In Luke 4, Jesus announces that the Spirit of the Lord is upon him to bring Good News and release and recovery and freedom to just such people as refugees and immigrants. (see Luke 4:18)
A further response from our sacred story is that God invites us to respond as well.
- In Deuteronomy 10, just as the Lord “loves the stranger” so God says to Israel, “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:20)
- Leviticus demands, “34The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:34)
- Isaiah speaks of allowing the “outcasts of Moab” [refugees] to “settle among you,” asking Israel to “be a refuge to them from the destroyer.” (Isaiah 16:4)
- Most challengingly of all, Matthew 25 challenges us with visions of the last judgment to welcome the stranger for in it we are welcoming Christ.
It is a strong and unmistakable record. Archbishop Welby, Presiding Bishop Curry, and Bishop Brewer and other spiritual leaders from far and wide, including Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama, and Desmond Tutu, have likewise reminded us in recent days that asks us to welcome the stranger, to be a refuge for the refugee.
I have a friend whose grandparents and great uncles arrived in this country in 1937. They were Jews fleeing the coming violence, oppression, and terror in Europe. They were shown welcome, refugees who were given refuge and it made all the difference.
My grandfather came with his mother and brother and sister, to this country in 1929, fleeing the coming terrible storm of Mussolini. They were refugees who were welcomed, and it made all the difference.
Benito Ituralde, el bisabuelo di mi hija, Emma, con su esposa e hijas huyó del violencia e del terror en la Cuba de Fidel Castro. Se les mostró bienvenidos en Miami, eran refugiados a quienes se les dio refugio y eso hizo toda la diferencia.
(Benito Ituralde, the grandfather of my daughter, Emma, fled with his wife and daughters the violence and terror of Fidel Castro’s Cuba. They were welcomed in Miami, refugees who were given refuge, and it made all the difference.)
God’s kingdom is here and we are blessed. Saint Teressa of Avila said it best,
“Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks.”