021322 Epiphany 6 A Defiant New Community

The sermon begins at minute 17:00 of the vido

Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1; Luke 6:17-26


       Last week I read first person account of a mother who went to her daughter’s new school in the community they had just move to. She tried to connect with two mothers seated near her. But they looked at her harshly and picked themselves up and walked away. She picked her self-esteem off the floor, grabbed her daughter, and left. That much of the story is unfortunately quite common. But the next day, she surprised herself by feeling gratitude toward those two women when she walked into the school. Why? Because she had reflected about how awful it felt to be rejected, and how important it was to welcome people, especially newcomers and those who were excluded.

       I thought about that story when I read the words of Jesus, Greatly Honored are you when people hate you, exclude you, revile you, and defame you. I don’t think that mother was thinking about Jesus’ words. She simply came to the same wise conclusion in her own reflection. Friends, the wisdom of Jesus is not beyond our reach. We have access to the same resources he does. And it is urgent that we access them, because human relations aren’t going very well. That mother’s experience is way too common. And on top of what happens in schools and neighborhoods, the country is divided into opposing groups who don’t communicate with each other. And, this weekend, Europe is on the verge of war.

     In the beatitudes, Jesus described the norms that are to form and govern the communities of his followers. Those norms were the opposite of the ones that governed most communities in his day, and in ours. There are multiple ways to express the Greek word that is usually translated, “Blessed are you”  A colleague recently helped me understand that a better translation might be, Greatly Honored are you. Read in this way, the passage becomes not a statement of hope for people who’ve been put down by society at large, but a clear indication of the new rules that will govern and shape the communities of “Followers of the Way.”

       In Luke’s version of the beatitudes, those who are greatly honored do two things: they put the marginalized at the center of community life, and they restore trust where it has been lost. This notion of community was and is a total re-orientation of what makes a community happy, blessed, and good. To put the poor, the hungry, the grieving, and the excluded at the center of the community, and to question those who are rich, full, respected, and who laugh at their good luck, is to turn community on its head.

       To implement such a view of community is almost always an act of defiance; few communities are already organized that way. Jesus makes clear that if you can’t let go of your wealth, your power, your self-satisfaction, or false confidence in your own security, you won’t be part of the community he imagines. In fact, you might not even be welcomed there. Remember, Jesus taught disciples to shake the dust off their feet when was rejected. To sustain community requires a degree of trust –in the other, in the community, and in God.

    Recent studies of happiness levels in different countries confirm Jesus’ view, and reveal why the United States doesn’t score as high on happiness surveys as some other developed countries. John Helliwell, an editor of the annual happiness report, affirms that “rich countries are definitely happier than poor countries. It’s no joy to be poor.” But he also states that happiness “is a measure of general satisfaction with life and, more important, the confidence that one lives in a place where people take care of one another. Happy people trust each other and care about each other; that’s what fundamentally makes for a better life.”

    It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that trust is deteriorating in the United States. In spite of being arguably the wealthiest country in the world, happiness has decreased here in the last few years as trust has been severely eroded. Work has ceased to be a place of trust for these folks, because it has brought neither security nor satisfaction. For others, government and society have also ceased to be places of trust – think of the U.S. – Canadian border today.

      We are seeing a few trends showing that some people are coming to understand that happiness isn’t just about having enough money. The challenge businesses are having in finding employees reveals this. Some folks are focusing on families and friends above financial well-being and larger communities. Maybe they’re discovering part of Jesus’ teaching about community as they let go of the fantasy that wealth, fullness and laughter are the path to happiness. Society may need to listen to those we see as turning their backs on employment opportunities.

       But their discovery will be short-circuited if they fail to embrace the full teaching, whether or not they attribute it to Jesus. Luke’s Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, hungry, weeping and excluded; and woe to you who are rich, full, laughing and respected.” The secret of a happy community is that it both rejects false values and embraces people who have been excluded.

       We must counter any narrative that focuses on ever narrower circles of family and friends to assure happiness. The reorientation and reordering of community that Jesus teaches and models includes trust, delight, and happiness, which some are discovering to be of more value than wealth. But it also turns social relationships upside down and inside out. Jesus repeatedly insisted that the last shall be first and the first shall be last. Time after time he restored to the community those who had been excluded due to illness, condition, or way of life. And with infuriating frequency, Jesus confronted those who were doing the excluding by asking questions like Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill? 

       It takes trust and risk, and defiance and disruption, to reorder any community, whether it be a family, a neighborhood, a church, a city, or a country. It takes blessings and curses, acceptance and rejection, support and resistance. It takes embracing the unknown and the different in the present and the future, and confessing the shame and guilt of past actions. Prophets like Jeremiah, the Psalmist and Jesus believed so deeply in the importance of trust that they called blessed what most called a curse, and to call cursed what most called blessed. They knew the difference it makes when people trust someone who faithfully tends their needs! Their growth is not stunted. They survive in seasons of high heat and drought because their roots sink deep and drink from the underground spring that refreshes and renews them. Then, no matter what happens, they may be shaken, but they won’t be moved.

      We who consider ourselves followers of Jesus must engage in both embracing and confessing. I’ve used before the example of the Barmen Confession prepared by the Confessing Church in Germany during the Nazi period. We are in a time like theirs. One section reveals the inclusion of affirmation and rejection.

The Christian Church has to testify in a sinful world that it is solely Christ’s property and that it lives and wants to live solely from Christ’s comfort and direction in expectation of Christ’s appearance. (affirmation) We reject the false doctrine that the Church is permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions. (rejection)

       We must do this work; and we must do it for today; but we must do it carefully. It takes discernment, reflection, and humility to be on the right side as we defy practices, disrupt institutions, embrace differences, and confess guilt and shame. We must constantly question our own blindness even as we boldly call for a renewed sense of love and patriotism. And we must find people we trust to be our guides. One guide I have found is William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign. He recently wrote a timely message about human community: We won’t equate democracy with the will of God. But a core value articulated by both democracy and the Bible is the inherent value and dignity of every person. Gerrymandering undermines that principle of equality. That is the kind of reflection and application we need.

       The Confessing Church wasn’t the only church in Nazi Germany. The established church was fully under Hitler’s control. Christians had to decide where they stood – with German Christians or Confessing Christians? The consequences were clear and frightening. That isn’t true yet in our country. We don’t have to fear deciding where we stand yet. But the day may come. There’s plenty of defiance, disruption, and shaming going on in our country today, but much of it is void of trust, commitment to truth, and democratic values.

       As we work to awaken the new community that Jesus still desires to see on earth, we must ask:

  • Do our actions strengthen and restore trust where it has been lost?
  • Are we committed enough to truth to admit our mistakes along the way?
  • Are we willing to acknowledge when our decisions unwittingly accomplish the opposite of what we seek?
  • And, will we keep confessing and acting for the truth even when we make mistakes?

       I invite you to join me in planting ourselves in humid soil beside living water so that our roots will flourish, and so that we might build the City of God