It’s the same lesson every All Saints Sunday, Matthew or Luke’s Beatitudes. Thirty-two years of preaching on this, you’d think I would have pretty much said it all and repeated myself a few times over.
In fact, I have at least repeated myself since it hasn’t been 32 years in the same place. I’ve fudged and reworked the “Blesses ares” more than once.
But it is also the case that certain times and circumstances give one a unique perspective, allowing one to “see” things in the words and actions of Jesus than one did not notice before.
This is such a year.
I’m hearing, experiencing the Beatitudes differently because of how thoroughly aware I am of the power of Empire these days.
You can disagree with me, of course. You can say that we’ve always been at the mercy of state and federal regulation, legislation and felt far removed from the “sausage making” of governance.
However, in my memory I have never felt quite as disenfranchised or disconnected as I do now. I have never felt quite as “helpless” to effect change on things that impact me on a daily basis.
I have never quite felt the same connection with the events as recorded in the gospels, of what those times were like for a people who found themselves living in a time of Empire.
In the topsy-turvy world of a tweeting president who signs an executive order that up-ends the lives of many, I am feeling all the more poignantly the words from Luke’s birth narrative. “And a decree went out from Caesar Augustus ….”
In Empire you see, pronouncements are made with little thought given as to how they will affect those of little power or influence. Things are done, pronouncements are made with the promise that it will be “good for you in the long run.”
In the sideline of conflicting news, fake news, and news sources that are questionable or questioned I have never felt more clearly a kinship with the events of the trial of Jesus, where we are told that false witnesses were brought forward, “but they could not agree upon their testimony.’
In Empire, truth becomes whatever those in power conveniently say that it is. Those in power would prefer it not be up for consideration, investigation, scrutiny or debate, but rather just accepted as it is pronounced.
And in this Gospel lesson for today there is a detail that jumps out at me as it never has before. Listen to the start of this story again.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the….
It’s the “them” in this passage that catches my attention this time.
Who is the “them?” Who is it that Jesus is teaching?
The language is intentionally ambiguous. Jesus takes note of the crowds as the opportunity for the teaching, but then he sits down, which would be more indicative of this teaching being addressed to the close-by disciples, not the crowd in general.
We call this the “Sermon on the Mount” and we have a mental image that it was delivered for all to hear, but practically it would be hard to project from a sitting position so as to be overheard by the crowds assembled.
That is a detail that is not lost on the comic writers of Monty Python as they joke about it in the scene from their movie “The Life of Brian.” When Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” A woman in the crowd pops up and says, “What did he say?”
To which another man responds “I think he said blessed are the Cheese-Makers.”
“What’s so special about the cheese-makers?” she asks.
He then responds, “well it’s not to be taken literally, clearly Jesus is referring to any manufacturer of dairy products….” And on the scene goes on, and it is funny but it also makes one think.
What difference would it make to hear these words of Jesus as something that was intended for the near-by disciples, and not meant to be cast out to be overheard by the crowd immediately?
How might we imagine these words?
When as we come forward for communion on All Saints Sunday, we are invited to take a few moments to stop and light a candle for a loved one who has departed.
Maybe we aren’t all mourning here today, or hungry, or persecuted, but I’ll bet it would not take long if we took some time to identify people, a whole crowd out there beyond our walls who fit the blessings Jesus speaks of this day.
The words of Jesus are for them.
And with every candle lit, we remember one who has gone before us, we remember also the words from our Baptismal service, the words of Jesus — “Let your light so shine before others….”
Maybe when Jesus did his “Blessed are” teaching, it was meant for the inner circle as they sat there looking out over the crowds and all their circumstances that day. Spoken for them to hear as they survey the crowd before them.
Who will let “them” know that they are blessed?
Jesus has said so. We heard it. He has reminded us, but the crowd we behold this day and every day can’t overhear him, not from their vantage point, so who will let them know?
How do you see those crowds out there?
Do you see them from the perspective of learning at the feet of Jesus?
Do you see the crowd differently than you used to as you listen to Jesus, or do you find yourself being lured into seeing the crowd as Empire tends to sees them?
Do you see the poor as Jesus does, or do you see them through the lens of Empire? The crowd, the unemployed as a drag upon the economy?
Do you see the meek out there in your view as Jesus does, or do you look upon them through the lens of Empire? See them as suckers born every minute, and if they can’t figure out how they are being scammed, then they deserve to be preyed upon by the stronger. It’s the natural order of predator and prey, after all – or as we might say, “a dog eat dog world.”
Do you see those who mourn as Jesus does, or do you look at the mourning with the eyes of Empire? All that violence on the streets, the communities mourning the death of their youth, their husbands, their mothers and fathers…. what we need is more enforcement, more soldiers, stricter penalties and longer sentences. Subjugate the violent with greater violence, that will end the mourning. Lock them up, that will solve the grief caused.
Do you see those persecuted as Jesus does, or do you look at the persecuted with the eyes of Empire? See suspicion in every foreigner? Invoking fear of any who are “other” for whatever reason? Default to rules and regulations over human stories and circumstances.
This year as I hear the beatitudes I hear them differently.
I hear them as one who is sitting at the feet of Jesus but who is also keenly aware of the messages of Empire.
I look out over the crowd of the evening news, of the homeless person on the corner, on the people just out of Jesus’ earshot, and I want to be a light shining out there, but the truth is I am also aware of the risk.
I have benefited from Empire, my stock portfolio is better now than it has ever been.
I have been intimidated by Empire, I’ve never felt more out of step with others around me in my own community, my own family, than I do whenever the conversation turns to politics or politicians.
I am sitting at the feet of Jesus and I can hear what he says, but I’m not so sure if I can repeat it, say it, act upon it.
I’m not so sure I can clarify it to the crowds out there, inform those who can’t quite hear that Jesus isn’t just for the “cheesemakers or all those involved in Dairy manufacturing,” or for the peacemakers, but is in fact for everyone. Jesus is for a world who suffer under in the throes of Empire as well as those who are enamored with the Empire’s dreams.
I can hear Jesus, and I can see the crowds, but I’m not so sure I can bridge the gap, be the light, shine forth to give these blessings he speaks to those who long to hear them.
How about you?
Have you felt caught between what you hear Jesus wanting you to do, to say, and the power of Empire? Felt either its’ seduction or its intimidation?
If you have been there, (perhaps are there right now,) then take heart because the last part of the Beatitudes is intended for you, oh conflicted one, for “Blessed are you!”
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
If you are feeling conflicted in these days, you are feeling as the Prophets did before you, caught between the call of the Word of God and the seductions of Empire or its wrath!
You are in good company here at the feet of Jesus, listening to his words and seeing the needs and reality of the crowd!
The prophets saw this too, and so they spoke!
They spoke, and some suffered.
They spoke, and gave hope to a new generation who were afraid, despairing and lost in exile, longing to hear if God’s Word was for them!
They spoke, and got shouted down by the voices of Empire sometimes A voice which always wants nothing more than to carry on “business as usual” – for that is what is good for Empire.
“Blessed are you….” Jesus says, to those disciples at his feet who now live in the tension between the Kingdom of God that Jesus comes to proclaim and the reality of the crowds who are both suffering at the hands of Empire and are also complicit with it in so many ways.
“Blessed are you…. Jesus is saying. Great will be your reward, but hard will be your work as you try to shine forth your light in this wind whipped hilltop of a life.
And remember, remember you are not in this alone, and that others have gone before you in faith and have shone forth the light of hope and have received their reward.
That’s what I hear in this Gospel lesson today. Jesus teaching me, and reminding me to remember.
Remember those who have gone before.
Remember those before you who are like sheep without a shepherd, the crowd outside these walls longing to hear Jesus’ words are for them.
And Remember…. Remember to shine!