Did we hear this morning what Jesus has said to us and Christians everywhere? Blessed are those among us who are poor, blessed are those who are hungry, blessed are those Christians who this morning have reason to be sad—for you shall find the richness of the Kingdom of God, you shall be filled, you shall laugh with joy. Blessed are those Christians who are hated, excluded, revile and defamed because of your faith commitment to me, for great will be your reward!
This morning there are Christians and others lands and in urban and rural parts of our country who are both poor and hungry. This morning there are Christians in Africa, Asia and Eastern and Central Europe, South and Central America who are among the sad, grieving and weeping victims of civil wars and drug wars. In our own country there are sad, grieving and weeping Christians because of their experience of domestic violence, hate violence because of gender, sexual orientation or race, and even Christians are among those who live daily with the threat of street violence. Just two days ago and young Christian man I’ve know for many years called to share his grief that his son was killed in street violence. A situation he had long feared because of the environment in which he lived.
There are Christians and their families in Pakistan, Sudan and elsewhere who risk death or mob violence and daily persecution for just being a Christian. There are those in this country who are demeaned and ostracized for holding to or expressing their Christian commitment and values.
In a world in which religion is too often seen as being for the “weak minded”; where the truest power is political and the truest security is economic; and social status and recognition, even popularity is highest reward the beatitudes or blessings are at best romantic folly.
There has been for sometime an on going debate as to whether Jesus, in the beatitudes is referring only to the economic poor or a call to the Christian to sincerely recognize and lament the poverty of material possessions and that a life converted to this truth will find in God’s rule, fulfillment.
I believe that Jesus means both.
Here and elsewhere in the Gospels it is clear that the poor, the suffering and the oppressed have priority claim upon the heart of God; and therefore, on the hearts and priorities of all Christians. Firstly, there is “pie in the sky” aspect of Christianity. The Christian faith teaches (and I believe it) that there is a time and place in the eternity of God where “God shall wipe away all tears from [our] eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither share there be any more pain…. [God will make everything new]” (Rev. 21: 3-5).
But I also believe that God has a dream for human community in our time. And that when we are committed to working with God for that purpose, no matter what our circumstances, we can taste of this fulfillment, this peace, this joy and empower of God’s Kingdom. I am often moved by seeing how Christians with so little resource are often so genuinely generous with their time or money. Urban and rural churches are often in the leadership of respond to families in crisis in their communities and beyond. Amazing how so many poor and modest Christian congregations responded with contributions of time and resources in the recent rebuilding the churches burned in the South or to the needs of victims string of natural disasters.
I have also seen the amazing sustaining joy and hope (as opposed to vengeance or despair) of Christians in Central America and Africa. In 1991 I visited a refugee camp in Zimbabwe for fleeing victims of the Mozambique War. People had lost family members to war violence; had loved ones—spouses and children—die while fleeing and had to leave their bodies on the road or in the jungle. No time to bury or grieve. Starvation, rape…. But in the camp they shaped new temporary families and tribes around church communities. Their faith, a faith that passed understanding, kept their hearts and minds. As the elders invited us to their encampments we were met with singing invited to hear stories and to also here their faith and hope as they prepared to return home and rebuild.
As Christians we must be connected with God to the desperate needs of others in this world, especially Christian sisters and brothers, suffering because of abuse, oppression, poverty or other disparate circumstances. Christians are called to understand that whatever our gifts of intelligence, influence, skill or talent or material resource—no matter how hard we have had to work to “get what we have—our primary work is to share with God—the giver of every good gift—in making this a more just and caring world for everyone, not just for ourselves and our own. Remembering: “All things come from thee, O Lord; and of thine own have we given thee.”
This is so contrary to the world around us and to our logic! In my boyhood days there was a popular television preacher whose ministry attracted many urban poor. He was challenged in a TV interview about his personal lavish lifestyle when his supporters were so needy. When asked what was personally doing to meet the needs of the poor he said: “The best thing I can do for the poor is not be one of them.”
As long as we see material wealth and social or professional acceptance as the most essential resources of life we will never achieve what God expects us and offers us. We will never know how there can be peace that is so deep and authentic that it sustains us in times of loss, in times of trial and tragedy, and in times of social isolation and exclusion.
Christian faith is about knowing that this world is about more than just us and ours. It is about know that our worth and the worth of others is about more that the opinion or adulation of others. From the Christian reality, not to know this is live in the deepest kind of poverty from which nothing material can save us. Silly thinking by the standards of the world in which find our social and professional lives, isn’t it? But those we venerate today as saints and have given thanks for in our prayers and litany this Sunday understood this and lived it. That’s why those know to the world and know only to us are called the saints. But St. Paul taught in 1 Corinthians 1:27, “But God chose what is considered foolish in the world to shame what is considered wise; God chose what is considered weak in the world shame what is considered strong; God chose what is considered low and despised in the world, things that are unrealistic not to reduce to unrealism things that are, so that one might boast in the presence of God.”
The beatitudes represent the foolishness of God. Things weak and rejected by the wisdom of this world. Yet we know that the world has only taken steps for social healing, has only seen glimpses of what is meant by “the Kingdom of God” when these truths are lived out in highly visible world changing ways and simple everyday miracles. Saints are those who heroes and heroines who have helped us to see this truth and who inspire us to grown in our abilities to live it.
The saints they are all around us. Some acknowledged by millions and represented in stained glass and statutes, while there are others etched only in our hearts and personal memory. But God has given them to us, regardless of their poverty or privilege, their successes or failures, their sins and graces to show us through them the way to the Kingdom of God; and to inspire us live the foolishness of the Christian faith in our own lives to the glory of God and the fulfillment of own life.
I could speak of Mother Teresa, the young girl of Albania who moved through her own pain and privilege to become the Saint of the Poor, especially of India. Today no one, Christian or other, can think of Teresa of Calcutta and not be convinced that love can ease the pain of the poorest of the poor and bring joy into their faces and lives.
I could speak of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was a black man born to relative privilege in the segregated South. He earned a Ph.D. and became pastor of one the most desirable churches in the South. He was also a man whose privilege masked his frailties and personal imperfections. But the struggle of poor blacks began to make claims upon his gifts, privilege and his passion. His faith moved him from preaching gown to overalls; from the security of choral processions to the dangers of civil marches. One of the most elite sons of the black South died in Memphis taking a risk for garbage workers. Whether Tiananmen Square in China, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Solidarity Movement in Poland, the feminist and gay movement in this country, few can imagine the world without the vision of hope we have seen in Martin Luther King, Jr.
But I also think of Mallard Fuller, an entrepreneur who became very wealthy as a manufacturer. But his closeness to his workers helped him discover a poverty in himself, the need to make a difference for others. He offered God his skill, expertise, fears and faith and his business and eventually became the founder of what we know as Habitat for Humanity. I have met him and you never saw a more joyous man. But more importantly the world now knows that if we wish there is at least one model of how we, individual, church groups or corporations can house the poor.
I think of two women in Ireland, one Protestant and one Catholic, Betty Williams and Maraud Corrigan. Two woman who risk everything to bring together Protestant and Catholics to protest violence in north and south Ireland. Today there are hundreds of local peace groups in Ireland and England, unseen by the cameras because they risked to live their faith.
But I also think of Anne, one of my personal “saints.” She was a young blond-haired, blue-eyed teenager who came to the urban center where I was working in Pennsylvania. Anne was a college student with an obvious Christian commitment who seemed more naive than savvy enough to work with the street smart girls of our center, all of whom were African American. But she persisted and insisted that she be given a chance. She worked with fifth and sixth grade girls in our after school craft and sewing program. Over the next several months I took it upon my self to “look in” on her group to see how she was doing. I watched as Anne took the knocks and bumps, survived the blunders but keep drawing the girls with her skills and love. One day as I quietly stuck my head in the room I over heard a girl sharing with some of her friends how she was mistreated by a school teacher: “I hate Mrs. X, she’s old white ‘so and so.’” Another of the girls confirmed this conclusion by saying, “Yeah, I hate all white people.” Anne replied, “Really? Do you hate me, I’m white.” Spontaneously the girls turn to her and said with unguarded surprise, “You are?” As they caught themselves laughter broke out among them and Anne used the moment to teach them about prejudice and Christian love.
Saints persevere in resisting evil; their lives proclaim good news (or hope) by what they say and what they do. Saints seek and serve Christ in others by loving them (even their enemies and persons whose conditions are repulsive). Saints are those who commit to work for justice and peace among all people and who strive to respect the dignity of every human being. God places them in our lives not to show us that there are persons greater than we, but remind us and inspire to more faithfully live the life Christ call each us lead. In a moment we will renew our baptismal covenant and recommit ourselves to grow in living the life Christ shows us in the saints. When we do not commit ourselves—when ambition, personal security and material satisfaction are at the center of our lives—we are poorer and the world is poorer. To be a Christian is to believe that the way of God gives more life and fulfillment to us and others than the way of the world.
There is a prayer that I found some years ago and have often carried in my wallet. It is a prayer that reminds me of call to place the way of God at the center. I share with you as I conclude.
Set us afire, Lord; Stir us we pray
While the world perishes, we go our way
Purposeless, Passionless, day after day
Set us afire, Lord; Stir us we pray. (Ralph Cushman) Amen.