Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Sermon for Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Sunday, January 29 2017, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Micah 6:1-8; Ps 15; 1 Cor 1:18-31; Mt 5:1-12

I don’t want to, nor will I, dwell entirely today on events to the south of our border; but these are things, I know, which are greatly on many people’s minds, and it would be hard to come up with more appropriate readings if I had tried.

This passage from Matthew is the beginning of the long teaching session now known as “the Sermon on the Mount,” and we’ll hear more of it over the next few weeks. But it begins with the Beatitudes, that all too well-known but still profoundly radical set of statements about the values of the Kingdom. I’m not sure the translation which we use, which starts each statement with “blessed”, really captures what Jesus is saying – using that English word makes it sound a bit like an attempt to cheer people up, in a consoling sort of way. It’s hard to get to what the original Aramaic might have been, but the Greek which we have uses the word makarios, a word which was originally and primarily used to designate the elite, the nobility, the rich and successful. By presenting to us these propositions, using this word, what Jesus is really saying – as he so often says — is that the Kingdom turns the values of the world upside down. God’s elite, God’s aristocracy, is among the wretched, the desperately poor, the broken-hearted, the abject, the lost, the depressed, the hopeless ones. God’s special people are the small and the vulnerable, the ones who long painfully for justice in a hard and broken world, the gentle ones who will not fight power with power but only with relentless love, the ones who are cast out and insulted and ignored.

It is not hard to create a point for point comparison setting Donald Trump’s rhetoric against that of Jesus – in fact, the world of social media has handily done nuch of this work. But Trump is really no more than an extreme, admittedly grotesque, expression of the values of the world as we know it. He speaks of making America great, strong, proud, rich, powerful, pre-eminent, and too many people respond to those words, too many people hear them as true expressions of value. They are the words we have learned to express what is “good.” And then Jesus, there on the mountain, tells us that we are to be small, poor, vulnerable, gentle, powerless, rejected even, tells us that we are to embrace those values with joy, that we are to learn that in them our real joy, our true life, is to be found. This does not sound natural to us. It is not the world as we have learned it. But it is the world as God holds it.

This does not mean that we are intended simply to lie down in the face of power. The direction to be “meek” is especially easy to misunderstand; but again, our translation does us no favours. The Greek word praus is much better translated (as I’ve already indirectly done) by the word “gentle.” Related words are used by Paul to talk about standing up for truth, maintaining what is right, but doing it in a spirit of gentleness and humility, with a recognition of the other as also a child of God, with a recognition of our own failures – it is the kind of strength that comes from a full acceptance of our own weakness, the persistence of the saints. It is only when we can begin to understand our own deep loss, face our own need for mercy, that we can begin to act in the light of this gentleness.

In the United States, during this last terrifying week, we have seen the mayors of Seattle and New York and Boston, among others, announce that they and their communities will not turn on immigrants and refugees, that they will continue to be cities of sanctuary, and that they are prepared to take whatever punishment the President may try to dish out because of that; we have seen the people of New York as gather in their hundreds, maybe thousands, at JFK airport last night, protesting the sudden and brutal detention of innocent people by border security, and winning at least a temporary stay on deportations from a federal judge; we have seen scientists, their official communication channels shut down, set up rogue Twitter feeds which have been pumping data about climate change and the need for action into the public sphere for days. They are not blustering or shouting or threatening; they are just getting the work of justice done. That is part of what it means to be meek in these days.

For God has chosen the despised and the outcast. God has chosen the weak and the foolish, the poor and the disabled, the broken-hearted and the confused, God has chosen queer bodies, Black bodies, Indigenous bodies. God has chosen us, God has chosen you. The early church was mocked for being a church of slaves and women, a church of people who didn’t count, a church of the worthless. This is our church, this is the church we must be if we are to be the church at all, the church of the losers and the wanderers, the church of every last wretched and failing one of us. God has chosen you to overcome the powers of this world.

I don’t, of course, mean to say that we are going to see the complete defeat of injustice in this world in our lives, any more than the early church did. We are talking about the horizon of being, about a kingdom which is not just another one of the world’s kingdoms, even if a better one. But when Mary speaks in the Magnificat of the lifting up of the poor and the casting down of the powerful, she uses the accomplished tense. She speaks of it as a thing which has already happened – for in God’s eyes it has, this is already the reality, it is only that we don’t know it. And it is a reality in which we can, at least a little bit, at least now and then, already live.

We may have only small things to do, here in this place, here in our own lives, but we can do those small things. We can welcome refugees into our cities, and, if we have the capacity, into our homes, as the Archbishop urged last week; we can demand that our government raise the quotas for refugees, especially from the Middle East, and end the classification of the United States as a “safe third country”. We can stand with the Indigenous people of Turtle Island in their defence of the land and the water against irreponsible fossil fuel exploitation.

And we can build lives of goodness and justice here. We can feed someone, we can create a moment of beauty. We can speak the truth as we have opportunity. We can get in the way of violence and hate. We can be kind to those whom the world rejects. We can hold onto the hunger for justice in a world which tries to feed us the empty consolations of consumption and status. And in the swirl of angry rhetoric, in a society in which we are taught that we can only win if someone else loses, we can try, even as we fail again and again, to talk to those who oppose or threaten us as one small vulnerable person to another, broken heart to broken heart.

For God has chosen you. Each of you. Each of us. In all our weakness, in all our foolishness. On the days when it feels like you can do nothing. On the days when it seems like all your efforts fall apart, and the world doesn’t care, and your soul is stretched and thin and the floods keep rising. God, the God who chose to be power’s victim and to rise beyond death’s grasp, has chosen you to stand in this time against the powers, to be the place in this world where love can dwell. Weak, we are chosen. Foolish, we are chosen. Despised, we are chosen. Inadequate, faltering, faithless, we are still chosen. Marked with the cross at our baptism, made Christ’s own forever, we bring ourselves, our poor souls and troubled bodies, into the heart of need. Bring your hunger and your thirst for justice, bring your hope for mercy, bring your mourning. If you have nothing to bring but your sorrow, bring that. Make it your offering to God, and let God make it into an offering to the world. Stand up, beloved. Stand up, be God’s chosen. Stand in the light of love.