Text: Luke 6:20-31
In 72 hours we will know who the 45th president of the United States will be. I imagine, like me, you are ready for this election to end—not only for our personal sanity but for that of our nation. This election cycle, including but not limited to the presidential race, has brought some of the darkest days for our nation’s politics in my lifetime. The rhetoric has been shameful and embarrassing. As a people who for centuries has set the tone for respect and civility within the framework of a democracy when it comes to electing our highest leadership, I can only imagine what the rest of the world must be thinking when they witness the incivility that has emerged among many Americans in this election.
On Thursday, I was both excited and saddened as Nora and I stood in line on Salisbury Street to vote early. I was excited to be accompanying Nora as she cast her vote in her first presidential election. She had many questions as we waited in line an hour for our turn to cast our ballots. I answered her questions as best I could, encouraging her to vote her conscious and to not just vote the way her vocal mom would be voting. I tried hard not to dismiss her questions about emails. I tried even harder to not over-react to her questions about disturbing things she had heard concerning the rights of women and the LGBTQ community and racial equality. I listened as best I could and responded as calmly as I was able. I could tell, though, that she was really pondering her choices when she asked me about the third party candidate. I was also relieved when she told me she wanted her vote to really count and that she thought voting for the third party candidate felt, at least to Nora, like wasting her vote.
As we approached the table to receive our ballots, I turned and looked at Nora and said, “This is the greatest privilege you have as an American. The freedom to cast your ballot for the president of the United States is something you should always value and honor.” And with that, Nora walked to the table, stated her name and address and received her ballot. In that moment, I felt proud of Nora. But I also must admit that I felt a bit sad. Sad that I had had to answer the kind of questions that Nora had asked me throughout this election and continued to ask me while standing in line. Sad, that in a country where so many of our elected leaders proclaim to be people of faith—whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim or some other faith—that it seems the moral and ethical compass that we count on to guide our leaders has been abandoned. Sad, that no matter the outcome of this election, in the days that follow, our nation will still be divided and polarized on issues of race and equality. While the question of who the 45th president will be will be decided in the next 72 hours, the issues that divide us will, I fear, grow even deeper in the days to come. And so on this Sunday, as we approach decision day, it seems quite appropriate to speak to what our role as people of faith—moral and ethical people—will be in the days to come. Not for political reasons, but for gospel reasons. And what better text to turn to than Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain in Luke; Jesus’ second major policy statement of his ministry and mission while here on earth.
Unlike Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, known for its poetic elegance, Luke’s version of the address is briefer and more sharply stated. Whereas Matthew’s version speaks of the “poor in spirit,” Luke’s account simply speaks of the “poor.” Whereas Matthew’s account talks about “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” Luke’s version simply says “blessed are those who are hungry now.” Unlike Matthew, “In Luke they’re just poor and hungry and hated—vagrant beggars who can’t sustain themselves, can’t provide for themselves or their families, are hard to look at, and are a drain on the system.” (David Lose, Working Preacher) In Luke’s account, “Jesus is not delivering an abstract definition of discipleship or sainthood [based on righteousness]. He is not listing the qualifications to ‘get into heaven.’ He is calling all who hear to become faithful and effective agents of God’s [commonwealth] here and now.” (Commentary by David Tiede, Working Preacher)
One theologian writes this of Luke’s version of the Beatitudes:
The problem for the hearer is not that Jesus’ words are hard to understand but that their clear meaning is so challenging. The “rules of engagement” of Jesus’ reign stand in sharp contrast to the presumed rights of the prosperous to wealth, abundant food, and good times, “because I earned it!” In their practice of non-violence, Tolstoy, Ghandi, and Martin Luther King Jr. enacted Jesus’ words as a social critique and strategy for change. Ghandi admired Jesus, but when asked his opinion of Christianity, he reportedly said, “Oh, it would be wonderful!” [And so, this theologian concludes] In hearing Jesus’ words in Luke, rich and poor alike glimpse a realm at odds with the way things are. (David Tiede)
It was this insight that made me wonder about the “woes” in Luke’s account of the Beatitudes—the Sermon on the Plain. I wondered if what Luke was trying to do with the woes was to make us stop and really think about the difference between what the world values and what kingdom living values and what we value? “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” It is so tempting to say: “Well, I’m not rich. I’m not really that full. People don’t always speak well of me.” But we know it is true. We are the rich, the full, the people who hold privilege and power. Luke’s woes serve to remind us with words that are clear and direct that Jesus is speaking to us. And it is clear that Jesus’ policy statement—Jesus’ rules of engagement—run counter to our culture and most often the things we value.
As I told the lectionary group this week the “woes” hit me hard. My inclination was to read through them fast, even at times substituting in my mind Matthew’s version. The “woes,” at least for me, made real the challenge of what it means to follow Jesus—to live in this world by the rules of engagement that he lived by and calls us to live by. And so at some point, I realized that what I needed to do was to just sit with the woes. Not try and skip over them or ignore them or pretend they were not speaking to me. I needed to feel the weight of them. Not as punishment. Not as guilt. Not as a burden. But I needed to sit with them and hear them as a way to reflect on the truth that God’s vision for our world and how we are to live in this world as God’s people is often, very often, at odds with the way things are. And I am a part of that. And if ever I needed reminding of this, I need it going into these last 72 hours and beyond. At such a time as this in our nation’s history, when policy statements coming from our leaders are so often at odds with the way God’s envisions our world, I need to be reminded of Jesus’ policy statement: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
Regardless of how this election turns out, injustices will continue to be real in our families, in our communities, in our nation, and in our world.
“Steeped in fear and ignorance, the culture of hatred, violence, and rejection directed against all people seeking…justice of all kinds will be with us long into the future – because we are living together on a small vulnerable planet as sisters and brothers whose fear of one another is often stronger than our love.
This is why oppression and violence continues to be waged against young Black men throughout this nation 50 years after Selma and the passage of Civil Rights legislation. Fear is a stubborn thing. Injustice has deep roots. Oppression is slow to die. But, dear people, fear, injustice, and oppression are no match for the Justice-Love of God and the revolutionary patience of God’s people!…
[We are not] drawn to the Beatitudes largely because of the persecution part and the woes in Luke’s version! [We are drawn to] this most revered passage from Matthew because it makes clear that Blessing – God’s Blessing – is universal, here for all of us, all the time. Whether we are Baptist, Orthodox or Episcopal; Christian or Jew, Muslim or Buddhist, pagan or agnostic, male or female, gay or straight; people of darker or lighter cultures, colors or ethnic heritages; married, partnered or single;” [Democrat, Republican, or Unaffiliated; human beings or other creatures who share this earth…. To be blessed by God is to receive God’s comforting, empowering gift of peace, a deep confidence in ourselves and one another at our best.] (Carter Heyward, from her homily at my wedding)
And so, with 72 hours to go, Luke reminds us of the message we need to hear—not for political reasons, but for gospel reasons. Whether your candidates win or lose or my candidates win or lose—“to be blessed by God is to receive God’s comforting, empowering gift of peace, a deep confidence in ourselves and one another at our best.” Somehow, someway we have to find our way back as a nation and as a people who see one another as blessed by God and we must reclaim that deep confidence in ourselves and one another to be our best. And as people of faith, as followers of our brother Jesus, it is incumbent upon us to begin that process of blessing and healing.
Some of us have joked about moving to Canada after this election if things don’t turn out the way we hope. As I have thought about that, I have heard in my head the words of my colleague and friend, Malkhaz Songulashvili. Malkhaz comes from the Republic of Georgia, and he and his people have lived in a place and a time that made it impossible to proclaim to be Christian while enjoying the privileges and power of mainstream culture. During Soviet occupation, Christians were actively persecuted. And while the Republic of Georgia has managed to regain its sovereignty, the threats against its people, from both without and within are real and deep. In this context, Malkhaz has had to be a deliberate Christian – a man whose faith has compelled him time and again to act on behalf of those who are poor, those who are hungry, and those who are hated. When last we discussed my own dread at the potential for political catastrophe here in the US, Malkhaz reprimanded me. Essentially he said that chaos offers us a true opportunity for clarity. As long as we are in the majority, in the mainstream, in the “norm”, we can easily be seduced into forgetting the Sermon on the Plain. It is exactly when we find ourselves in the minority, when we experience our own poverty, when we are hungry for different leaders and different policies – this is when we are most positioned to do gospel work—the work of justice-love.
And so, on this All Saints Sunday, I conclude with the words you find on the front of your worship guide. “But cannot we live as though we always loved? It was this that the saints and heroes did; this and nothing more.” (Maurice Maeterlinck, The Treasure of the Humble)
For gospel reasons, not political ones—let us live knowing we have already received God’s blessings. And let us live knowing we are always loved. And in being blessed and loved, it is our duty then to bless and to love.