Opening Prayer by Pat Hielscher:
May we pray together…..
We come to worship this morning to sit in the quietness and to center ourselves to be present to your Holy presence.
Humble our hearts so we may eagerly come to you in times of trouble and find respite in your unfailing love.
Open our eyes to the injustices among us and motivate us to speak to the evils we see. Give us the courage to share stories and hear the stories of others. Give us glimpses of your world from perspectives that are not ours.
Help us not to take our own freedoms lightly, but to use them to advocate relentlessly for the freedoms of others. The political area can cultivate bitterness and hatred within our hearts. Show us how to fight for justice without using ill will as fuel for our fire. Replenish our energy so that we can return to the work you have called us to do. Empower us to be seekers of trust and truth.
Free us from habits that dishonor the land and teach us to revel in its beauty with gratitude. Motivate us to seek beauty and godly purpose and fuse both with our lives.
Make us hungry…..hungry for food so that we can understand why a man would come to the church Friday and ask if he could eat out of our garbage can. Remind us that our physical needs for food, shelter and clothing are basic needs for all people.
Call us to be peace makers and give us voice to communicate in the midst of a polarized people. Empower us to build bridges that undergird liberty and justice for all, that welcomes strangers, connects peoples of diverse backgrounds, races and faith practices so that we build Your kingdom on earth that values all peoples. Let us hear your voice clearly: “Fear Not!”
Make us mindful Oh God, that we are a people with much to be thankful for, that our greatness lies not in our political affiliations or our net worth, but in our understanding of what it means to be in relationship with You. Continue to show us that when we choose to be in relationship with You, with others, and with the creation, we find purpose and meaning in our lives.
Prepare us for the challenges of this week and encourage us to persist in love. May love motivate our lives and healing motivate our words. Remind us that our loves grows soft if it is not strengthened by truth, and our truth grows hard if it is not softened by love.
In the name of the One who has called US by name
Text: Matthew 5:1-12
As I sit at my desk to write these words two candles are lit before me: one for the refugees of our world; and one for my Muslim brothers and sisters. My mind is occupied today with the executive order that President Donald Trump signed this week that suspends admissions for Syrian refugees and limits the flow of other refugees into the United States by instituting what the President has called “extreme vetting” of immigrants. Titled “Protection Of The Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States,” the executive order would start to follow through on Trump’s promise to tighten borders and halt certain refugees from entering the United States.
I pause in my writing to respond to a text message from my colleague and brother Imam Abdullah Antepli. Knowing that he was traveling this week, I had texted him earlier in the day: “Where are you? I am worried about you.” He texted back, “In Houston. Don’t worry, be terrified. I fear for us all. Let’s provide leadership to channel people’s outrage and fear into constructive actions.” I texted back: “I’m ready to do whatever we need to do. I just need your help knowing where to start.”
Where do we start? As I thought of my question, I read again Jesus’ words to his disciples, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…blessed are those who mourn…blessed are the meek…blessed are those who hunger and thirst…blessed are the merciful…blessed are the pure in heart…blessed are the peacemakers…blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake…” I stopped to pray:
O Merciful God:
For the refugee families who passed every part of the vetting process, sold all they had, and stood at the airport, ticket in hand, only to be told they could not come here after all—Lord, hear this prayer.
For the children orphaned by a war we helped create, waiting to come here to the foster parents who are waiting for them, only to be told they cannot come here after all—Lord, hear this prayer.
For those fleeing violence and persecution, caught in the biggest humanitarian crisis of our time, for whom we represented harbor and hope, who now see those hopes smashed—Lord, hear this prayer.
For legal residents, traveling abroad, including students home on winter break, who now find themselves locked out—Lord, hear this prayer.
For our own complicity in violence, for our refusal to be more than bystanders, for our willingness to let fear weigh more than fact and to let cowardice overcome our compassion, hear this confession. You told us and you taught us, but we have turned away. “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me.” It is true. We have turned away, and our love has failed. Have mercy on us, O God, according to your steadfast love. Create in us new hearts, and put a new and right spirit in us. Deliver us from bloodshed, and save us from our own hatred. Save the world from our hatred and our fear. The night is dark. May our fears of the darkness – of the world and of our nation and of our own lives – rest in you, and wake to hope. Amen.
-written by Stacey Simpson Duke
I return to Jesus’ most famous sermon and to my question: Where do we start? Possibly, the Beatitudes? It seems a bit like an unusual place to start. But then again, if we look closely, we will learn that Jesus delivered these words to his disciples in a political climate and context not much different from the one we are living in today. So maybe the Beatitudes are a perfect place to start.
For the twelve, to whom Jesus preached his sermon, “their country was occupied by the [oppressive, authoritarian, and cruel] government of Rome. Race prejudice was so prevalent that a [person] hardly knew who his [her] neighbor was…The middle class of people had almost disappeared; there were only the very rich and the very poor. Slavery was rampant. It was a dark hour indeed. And all kinds of answers were being proposed [as to how to respond]. Some people said, ‘It’s no use. Quit trying. The thing to do is to go ahead and enjoy yourself while you can…Others said, ‘Grit your teeth and bear it. Show people how strong you are by never complaining.’ A bunch of fanatics called Zealots said, “Don’t mope about the inner life. We must win our national freedom.’…[Another group called the] Sadducees felt about the same way, except they were not as outspoken. They were great at compromising, for it always seemed to work out to their personal advantage. [Yet another group called] the Pharisees saw things differently. They felt if you lived a clean, pure life (as defined by the rabbis) and trusted God, God would do all the rest…[it was all divine providence] Where the Sadducees bargained with Rome; the Pharisees bargained with God.” (Clarence Jordan, Sermon on the Mount)
It was in this cultural, political, and spiritual climate and context that Jesus delivered a sermon to die for—figuratively and possibly quite literally. Other than Psalm 23 and the Lord’s Prayer, the Sermon on the Mount is one of the more familiar Biblical texts for religious and non-religious people alike. Regardless of what people believe about Jesus, many have made the Sermon on the Mount—the Beatitudes—their creed. It is a great text for humanist. But the problem with this approach is that you can’t separate the sermon from the man or the man from the sermon. The two go hand and hand.
In our desire to sanitize Jesus and his message, or to separate Jesus and the message, I am afraid we have not consider the full meaning and impact of what it means to say “Blessed are…” We must remember that this is the same rabbi, prophet, teacher, healer, and agitator, fully divine and fully human being that also preached:
- “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…’” Who said…
- “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Who said…
- “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Who said…
- “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.” And who said…
- “If anyone would come after me, let them deny themselves and take up the cross and follow me. For whoever would save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”
“Blessed are you…” There is cost, there is sacrifice, there is required change in how we live if we want to embrace the concepts represented in these words, “Blessed are you.” To condense it to pretty words of blessing in a framed picture or even to a motto or mantra we recite without understanding the One who spoke these words is to gravely cheapen its message. These are not the blessings or fortunes found in a cookie or on a bubble gum wrapper. They are values and principles people have died trying to honor and live by. And they were spoken by a man who ate with sinners, healed the sick, blessed the children, fought for the oppressed and marginalized, broke with tradition, challenged the religious establishment, confronted the powerful government institutions, welcomed the stranger, and who was himself a refugee. It is such a person who preached this sermon and who is still challenging us with that phrase, “Blessed are you when…”
And therein lies our work for today. What do these Beatitudes mean in these early days of 2017? In a Facebook post just a month and a half ago, my dear friend, colleague and mentor Carter Heyward wrote: Christmas Beatitudes 2016
- Blessed are those who are kind, especially when it’s hard.
- Blessed are those angry for justice in situations of unfairness and oppression.
- Blessed are the compassionate in times of hatred.
- Blessed are those who speak honestly when pummeled by lies—and who seek truth when confronted by fake news.
- Blessed are those who keep their courage in the face of belligerent bullies.
- Blessed are women who stand up to abusive men—and men who stand with, not on, women.
- Blessed are the queer who do not walk straight and narrow paths.
- Blessed are black lives—and white lives who know that black lives matter.
- Blessed are the earth and animals in a climate indifferent to their well-being.
- Blessed are non-violent resisters whose enemies hope you will pick up guns.
- Blessed are you when people shake their heads because you refuse to accept authoritarian rulers as “normal.”
- Blessed are you peacemakers who refuse cheap grace.
Each of us must decide, if we so desire, how we will be the “blessed” ones of this, our time. As we think about that and where to start, unlike popular culture, I’m pretty sure it will not be through #blessed. That is not the kind of blessing that Jesus spoke of in his most famous sermon. No, the blessedness that Jesus spoke of is not about: Received a promotion #blessed; College scholarship #blessed; Wonderful family #blessed. The kind of blessedness that Jesus preached about means more risk, more courage, more sacrifice, more compassion, more marching and protesting, and more resistance to policies and laws and executive orders which legalize discrimination and oppression of anyone who is considered “the other.” It may even mean that it is a sermon to die for—not literally, although there have been those who have died following its ways. What I mean when I say it is a sermon to die for is that in order to fully live these Beatitudes—these blessings—we may have to die to some of the ways we are currently living.
We will have to die to our private peace. Right after the election, Karla deleted Facebook and all news apps from her phone. She just couldn’t deal with the onslaught of reality confronting us. And that was OK. We have all needed to grieve in our own ways. And for some of us, a break was necessary to process and recover. But we can’t stay there. We can’t tune out or wait it out or peace out. There is no personal peace to be found when our brothers and sisters are being persecuted.
We will have to die to the convenience of letting someone else be disruptive. We have all sat on the bench at some point or another, but this a bench-clearing moment in our society. If we as a people of faith are to be worth the blessing in Jesus’ most famous sermon, we must act. That doesn’t mean all of you have to march down Jones Street, though that wouldn’t hurt. But it does mean that all of us need to find our action. As your pastor and as a church we will be working with other congregations in the coming weeks to offer suggestions of how to do just that. But each of us must be pro-active and lead as we are called.
And finally, we will have to die to the myth of the resilience of American democracy. I fully realize how hyperbolic that statement is. And yet, we must wake up now to the reality that the very fabric of our social agreement as a country is at risk. If the United States is to survive with any semblance of the country we believe ourselves to be, we, the people must be prepared to live a sermon to die for.
But most importantly, if we are survive with any semblance of who we are called to be as God’s people in this world then we must be prepared to live a sermon to die for. “Blessed are you…who seek to follow Jesus’ way in these days.”
I have asked the Deacons to affirm the following statement to be placed on our website:
In Response to President Trump’s executive order titled: “Protection Of The Nation From Foreign Terrorists Entry Into The United States”
Pullen is a place of love, compassion, support, and refuge. All are welcome here—people of all faiths and people of no faith.
In this time when our nation’s leaders are desecrating one of our most cherished values as Americans, offering hope and hospitality, we especially reach out to refugees and their families and to our Muslim sisters and brothers. The Pullen Memorial Baptist Church community will continue to be a place of safety and protection for those in need. We will actively resist any policy that demeans human dignity and we will continue to stand in solidarity with those who are considered “the other.”