Rev. Susan S. McKee
January 29, 2017 (4th Sunday of Epiphany)
Park Hill Congregational Church
Matthew 5: 1-12 (Translation from The Message)
When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said:
You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are – no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.
You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.
You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being “care-full,” you find yourselves cared for.
You’re blessed when you get your inside world – your mind and heart – put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.
You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.
You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.
Not only that – count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens – give a cheer, even! – for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.
“My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.”
This is a battle cry.
This is an invitation: an invitation to resist lies and racism, anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia; to resist misogyny, xenophobia, and white supremacy.
This is a battle cry to cultivate compassion, not conflagration; to foster dialogue, not diatribes.
This is a battle cry commonly called “The Beatitudes” and it is as revolutionary today as it was when Jesus first proclaimed it on a mountaintop near the Sea of Galilee in a country ruled by the repressive Roman Empire. Jesus knew what it was like to be a marginalized member of society. He lived in a culture defined by harsh oppression and power rooted in iron-fisted control. Jesus proclaimed the power of love in contrast to the power of armed force that prevailed all around him. Jesus was a subversive, non-violent revolutionary and The Beatitudes were the heart of his manifesto.
His ideas did not arise out of a vacuum. He was an observant Rabbi who was intimately familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures. Many of his followers were also acquainted with these same texts, so Jesus framed his teachings with their language, but he modified them to create new meanings, frequently with a subversive sub-text. As James Hastings describes this in the Dictionary of the Bible, “... the Beatitudes present a new set of ideals that focus on love and humility rather than force and exaction.”1
The question for us this morning, is whether this subversive manifesto has anything to say to us, living in a world in which the clouds of autocratic despotism are growing deeper and darker with each new Cabinet appointment and Executive Order.
I contend that we’re living in a FLASH-drive world –- not the kind of flash drive you use to transfer documents from one computer to another. What I’m referring to is our reactive tendency to respond to situations with one of five emotions: fear (F), loneliness (L), anger (A), shame (S), or hunger (H). F-L-A-S-H. Flash. These five “flash” emotions have become increasingly dominant drivers in our society.
These FLASH drives are important for us to recognize, in our selves and in others. Author and entrepreneur Seth Godin describes FLASH like this: “They drive us. They divide us. They take us away from our work, our mission, our ability to make a difference. . . . When a variety of FLASH shows up [Godin says] it almost never calls itself by name. Instead, it lashes out. It criticizes what we’ve made or done. And mostly, it hides behind words, argument and actions, instead of revealing itself.”
The FLASH drive I’ve seen most frequently since the Presidential Campaign began a couple years ago is the first one: Fear. We’ve been called to fear our Mexican neighbors as rapists, murderers, and drug dealers. We’ve been called to fear immigrants and the jobs they will steal from us. We’ve been called to fear abortion as a tool of the devil. We’ve been called to fear the multi-ethnic face of America and instead to embrace a white-supremacist America. Progressive Evangelical leader Jim Wallis describes our culture’s current Fear-factor this way: “Donald Trump masterfully turned economic resentments and genuine grievances against a rigged system into blame, fear, anger, and racial resentment.”
Fear is perhaps the most deadly flash-drive because it instantly distorts our reality. It gives birth to a phenomenon The Albert Ellis Institute2 calls “awfulizing,” a term that describes the human tendency to “turn a bad situation into something worse. When you awfulize, any situation rises to a tragic level. Discomfort is intolerable. Failure is magnified. Nothing can seem worse. Sometimes the situation is not even that bad, but you make a tempest out of a teapot.”3 The call to “Make America Great Again” relies on this phenomenon of awfulizing, despite actual facts about America and the world around us. For example, consider these facts 4:
There was actually a lot to celebrate in 2016, but it was overwhelmed by threats of imagined fear-filled outcomes. How do we cope with this seductive addiction to awfulizing and fear-mongering? How do we navigate the Flash-drive minefield all around us? How do we convert from a flash-drive reality to one that is healthy and whole-some: for our selves and for our society?
There are plenty of strategies and Action Plans that have been proposed since November 8th. You can find them on websites like Moyers & Co or Sojourners or the Huffington Post or the Women’s March on Washington. Some have catchy titles like “10 Actions/100 Days” or “Resistance is Patriotic” or TRP (the Trump Resistance Plan.) But the Action Plans I’d like you to consider this morning are plans that work from the inside-out. These are plans that will help you take care of YOU (your inner being) as well as the well-being of our society.
Action Plan #1 comes from Together Colorado, a “non-partisan, multi-racial, multi-faith community organization that unlocks the power of people to transform their communities through community organizing.”5 I’m a member of this organization as your representative.
The Together Colorado plan recognizes that there is power in money and there is power in the people. In us! This plan challenges us to choose community over isolation; to choose life over violence; and to choose liberation over fear. It calls us to stand up, speak out, and mobilize. The women’s marches last Saturday are one example of this game plan in action. Women, men, wise elders and children stood up, spoke out, and marched in cities all around the world. Best estimates conclude there were marches in more than 500 communities across the United States6 and somewhere between 3,667,305 and 4,577,523 marchers on 7 continents.7 You’ve probably seen some of the signs that spoke truth to power: “Let’s Make America KIND Again” or “You’re so vain, you probably think this march is about you . . .” or “One Small Voice Marching for Human Rights and Our Planet” or (one of my favorites) “Amber Alert! There’s a child running wild in the White House.” The challenge, of course, is turning a march and a placard into a prophetic movement. So, this game plan directs you back to three fundamental steps: find a community that feeds and supports you, engage in non-violent action, and recognize your own fear so you can turn it into inner courage and strength for the work that needs to be done.
A second Action Plan I commend to you comes from the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado.8 It encourages healthy self-care as well as effective action by following 7 key steps:
The third Action Plan I offer you this morning is actually more of a strategy that will support and amplify any other action plan you choose. This one has more to do with cultivating your inner resources so you can maximize your outer effectiveness. If you want to create light in a dark situation, you’d better be sure your own inner light has plenty of fuel to keep burning steadily.
The strategy for tending to your own inner light is rooted in Jesus’ subversive manifesto, the Beatitudes, especially the third one. The translation Jess read this morning puts it this way: “You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are – no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.” You probably recognize this parable-like blessing in the words of the King James translation: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
I can feel some of you squirming. That word ‘meek’ doesn’t sit well for most of us. One reason is that it rhymes with ‘weak’ and we almost automatically think of the two words as interchangeable. And, to be honest, most of us associate meek not only with weakness, but with being tame, or deficient in courage. An additional problem for us, of course, is that the last election underscored the predominant political narrative that proudly proclaims, “Blessed and happy are those who enjoy power, because they will be in charge.”
To understand the power inherent in Jesus’ blessing, we need to understand the biblical interpretation of meek. According to Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Jesus was talking about meek as “strength and courage under control, coupled with kindness.” Strength and courage under control, coupled with kindness. We don’t see much of that in our political realm these days, do we? If you want a life-sized example of what this looks like, look at Jesus who described himself as “meek and humble of heart.”9 He’s the one whose strength and courage under control allowed him to firmly and confidently speak truth to power and vigorously turn upside down all the money-changers’ tables in the Temple.10
To be meek means we refuse to inflate our own self-estimation. It means we’re willing to acknowledge and accept our strengths and limitations for what they truly are, instead of constantly trying to portray ourselves in the best possible light. To be meek also means that when we exercise power, we do it for the benefit of all people, not just ourselves.
In closing, I’d like to share one more example of what meekness sounds and looks like. They’re excerpts from a statement carried by the Huffington Post last Thursday that was written by the leader of our denomination, John Dorhauer, General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ. Although it’s not short, it is an important “meek” prophetic message:
“We belong in the market place of ideas, and will never be silent on things that matter. Whether we are arguing about marriage equality, reproductive choice, the death penalty, the deployment of our armed forces, health care, climate justice, immigration or a host of other issues that require collective and political options to be debated – people of faith have something to say. Excluding their voices from public debate would not only be a great loss, it would be an infringement of the First Amendment and an egregious overreach of governmental authority.
“. . . this isn’t a policy debate or an argument about the political pathways we will opt for in order to build an equitable, just, and irenic society in which the poor are fed, children are educated, neighborhoods are kept safe, or health care is distributed wisely and evenly. This is about basic human dignity and decency being violated almost daily from the highest office of this country.
“For many of us, religious ideals that compel us to enter into a struggle for basic human decency and dignity require us to respond to what we have endured from the lips of this opportunistic narcissist. That he may have solutions to problems that confound us is debatable. Long after we resolve the dilemma of his bombast, vitriol, pettiness, and adolescent nonsense we will still be wrestling with those matters. But until that time, you can count on religious leaders and organizations insisting that the President of the United States of America speak and act in ways that communicate a baseline of decency, respect, dignity and worth.
“You can’t separate religion from decency. And when the art of politics becomes the seedbed of indecency, asking religious leaders to hold their tongue is tantamount to treason.”11
That’s what meek sounds like. It’s the same kind of rhetoric Jesus used when he proclaimed the Beatitudes on the hillside in Galilee. I invite you this morning to recognize the power of your own meekness. I challenge you to cultivate your capacity for “strength and courage under control, coupled with kindness.” And I implore you to rekindle the light that lives within you so that, together, we can stand as lights in the darkness around us. . . . The broken world awaits, in darkness, for the light that is YOU. ~ Amen.
Colorado Organizations Making a Difference:
Together Colorado http://www.togethercolorado.org
The Interfaith Alliance of CO http://www.interfaithallianceco.org
The Abrahamic Initiative http://www.abrahamicinitiative.org/
Black Lives Matter – CO http://www.blacklivesmatter5280.com/
Showing Up for Racial Justice http://www.showingupforracialjustice.org/
The Colorado Latino Forum http://www.coloradolatinoforum.org/
One Colorado http://www.one-colorado.org/
Planned Parenthood – Denver https://www.plannedparenthood.org
African Community Center http://www.acc-den.org/
Colorado Criminal Justice
Reform Coalition http://www.acc-den.org/
Denver Justice Project http://www.denverjusticeproject.org/
Colfax Community Network http://colfaxcommunitynetwork.org/
American Civil Liberties Union-CO http://aclu-co.org/
Anti-Defamation League http://denver.adl.org/
1 A Dictionary of the Bible, James Hastings, p 15-19.
2 world-renowned psychotherapy training institute: http://albertellis.org/
2 world-renowned psychotherapy training institute: http://albertellis.org/
6 Huffington Post quoting University of Connecticut Professor Jeremy Pressman and University of Denver Professor Erica Chenoweth. Half the town of Stanley, Idaho (pop 63) came out in a snowstorm to march.
7 Statistics from Jay Van Bavel, NYU Professor of Psychology.
9 Matthew 11:29.
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