Will I lose my dignity? Will someone care? Will I wake tomorrow From this nightmare?
These are the lyrics of the song “Will I” from the well-known musical “Rent” that is touring and playing at the Pantages right now—and that I got to see last night. They are the words sung by the youth with HIV/Aids attending a Life Support Group to help them come to terms with living and dying with AIDS. Judged and rejected, they sing their fear: the fear they will lose what matters most—human dignity that belongs to each person irrespective of health or sexual orientation or bank balance or country of origin; they sing of the fear that in their suffering, no one will care about them; they sing of the fear that there is no escaping this suffering.
These beautiful and poignant lyrics written by Jonathan Larson, could have been written by our Gospel writer Matthew, could have been the fearful cries of the mass of people in our Gospel reading today that have sought out Jesus Christ for healing--from disease and suffering and social and spiritual and economic displacement. These early followers of Jesus could too have been calling out: Will someone care? Will I wake tomorrow from this nightmare? And what is Jesus’ answer? No, Jesus says, you will not lose your dignity. And yes, Jesus says, yes, I care, God cares about you and what you are going through.
3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
There are no more powerful words of Grace and power in our Bible than the Beatitudes that we read today—whether you read the version from the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew as we did today or the version from the Sermon on the Plain in Luke as we did on All Saints Day in November.
We do not know exactly what the historical contexts were in which Jesus spoke and the writer of the Gospel of Matthew wrote. We do not know exactly what the crowd of people that was so huge it forced Jesus and his disciples to walk up a hill and teach from there really wanted, or where it came from. But we do have some ideas that this crowd of people had begun gathering at the shores of the Sea of Galilee to get close to Jesus that we know traveled the countryside teaching and healing every disease. This crowd of people were people in need of healing, and—most scholars agree—in need of relief from poverty and oppression and persecution—for their identity first as Jews in a Greco-Roman culture and political system, and again persecuted for their faith in Jesus Christ—a crucified Messiah (not a military victor) —whose life, death and resurrection promised relief and restoration for the suffering and the marginalized.
If you are “poor in spirit,” you are blessed. If you are mourning, “you are blessed.” If you are meek and feeling without power and status, you are blessed. If you are hungry, you are blessed. It may not look like it or feel like it in the moment, but in the midst of your suffering and struggle, Jesus says, you are blessed by God—by God’s love, by God’s care, by God’s promise.
Whenever we feel judged and rejected and afraid, whenever we feel the words of the song “Life Support” on our own lips—wondering if we are losing our dignity, wondering if someone will care or wondering if we will ever wake up from the nightmare we are in, we can remember the promise of blessing that Jesus gives us: yes, God blesses us.
But the Beatitudes do more than just preach a personal promise of Grace, they—and the Sermons on the Mount and on the Plain are the clearest articulation of Christian ethics in the Bible. With the beatitudes, along with the stories and rules in the Sermon on the Mount as a whole—passages we will read in the coming weeks—Jesus establishes what the characteristics of God’s rule are. Whatever the world might proclaim, the kingdom of God is a realm of blessing and grace, of healing and righteousness and peace and mercy and dignity. In fact, what the Beatitudes and the Sermons on the Mount and Plain establish—is an alternative vision, a pushback, a counter-revolution of what God intends against what sinful human power and political structures sometimes create. The theological short-hand for this idea is: Kingdom vs. Empire.
The Empire—originally, in the Biblical context the Roman Empire—ruled by domination and violence, oppression of indigenous peoples and through collusion with ruling elites from those local populations. But the Kingdom, the Kingdom reigns through God’s means of mercy, grace, peace and healing. In the Empire it is rich, the powerful, the full, the laughing, the ones who seek out conflict who are blessed. In the Kingdom, it is those who suffer, who are hungry and poor, who are merciful, who seek peace who receive God’s blessing.
This has been a challenging week for the Christian church in our nation as the church is forced to come to terms with whether or not we are called to be on the side of Empire or be people of the Kingdom. What has prompted this challenge to the church has been the series of executive orders signed by the new president around issues of immigration, immigration law enforcement, and refugee settlements. There are two orders in particular that are challenging the church. First, the church is challenged by the order to build a wall between the US and Mexico, and deport people who live in our communities, who are our friends and co-workers and employees and some family members who have been defined as “removable criminal aliens”—those are both undocumented immigrants and permanent residents—Green Card holders—who have committed criminal offenses (A common example is a DUI), even if they have paid their penalty for their crimes. Second, the church is challenged by the executive order to stop allowing refugees to enter our country. I want to preach today on the refugee issue. The vast majority of refugee resettlement programs in our country are run by faith-based organizations—Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, the Catholic Conference of Bishops, World Relief. However divided Christians may have been on election day last November, today in the wake of the executive order temporarily stopping refugees from entering our country and indefinitely stopping the settlement of Syrian refugees, Christians in this country this morning are united—at least their leaders and agencies are. Lutheran, Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian and Evangelical Churches and Organizations are condemning the order of the executive branch to turn the nations back on refugees. On Friday, our presiding Bishop the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton became the first signatory of a joint letter of religious leaders in our nation—there are 25 pages and growing of signatures--calling on the new administration and Congress to reaffirm their support for refugee resettlement, especially of Syrian refugees. And they do so on the basis of faith:
“As religious leaders from a variety of backgrounds, we are called by our sacred texts and faith traditions to love our neighbor, accompany the vulnerable, and welcome the sojourner. War, conflict and persecution have forced people to leave their homes, creating more refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people than at any other time in history. This nation has an urgent moral responsibility to receive refugees and asylum seekers who are in dire need of safety…. As people of faith, our values call us to welcome the stranger, love our neighbor, and stand with the vulnerable, regardless of their religion….We urge you to be bold in choosing moral, just policies that provide refuge for vulnerable individuals seeking protection.”
And yesterday, as the executive order banning refugees from Syria and immigrants and permanent residents from Syria and 6 other Muslim majority countries went into effect, thousands of Christians joined secular protestors at our nation’s airports. And today, right now, Christians even from this congregation are heading to LAX to defend the dignity of refugees.
The church’s place is not to proclaim and build the Empire. The church’s place is to proclaim and build the Kingdom of God--the kingdom of God that is granted to the poor and poor of spirit, to the hungry and those hungry for righteousness, to those who are persecuted whether in our own nation or in Syria or some other country.
The church’s place is to proclaim and build the kingdom of God.
When a person who is ill and scared of dying calls out, will someone care for me?—we, the church, say yes, you are blessed!
When a homeless person struggling to find a job, and earn enough money to buy and live in a car, calls out, will someone care for me? –we, the church say, yes, you are blessed.
When an undocumented immigrant who entered this country legally but ran afoul of green card renewal rules and has lived and loved and born children and paid taxes for 26 years calls out, will someone care for me?—we the church says, yes, you are blessed!
We, the church are not the Empire; we are the proclaimers and builders of the Kingdom of God expressed in the words, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When someone calls out: will I lose my dignity? We, the church respond with a resounding: no! You will not lose your dignity. Blessed are you who suffer, blessed are you who weep blessed are you who hunger for righteousness, blessed are you and me and all Christians who may be persecuted for righteousness sake. But better persecution than collusion with immorality and injustice. Amen.