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This sermon was originally preached on November 5, 2023 at Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Hopkins, MN. The livestreams of contemporary and traditional services may be viewed here and here.
Read today's gospel ext (Matthew 5:1-12) here
Good morning. I come to you this morning with a heavy, broken heart — with the kind of grief I can neither deny, diminish, nor divert, even for the sake of a sermon. I am tasked with preaching about what it means to be “Blessed” according to Jesus’s teaching, and what’s ringing in my ears, as we enter a season of stewardship and accountability, is how often we’ve heard it said that these beatitudes are promises for individuals seeking personal holiness and heaven, when what I see with today’s eyes are promises of grief and oppression to a group of people - Jesus’s disciples - who will all suffer unimaginable pain and persecution before their lives are over.
It’s no accident that The Beatitudes are the gospel for All Saints Day: a day when the veil between the living and the dead is thinned, when we remember and commune with all the saints who’ve gone before us, and light candles in honor of all who now surround us in the great cloud of witnesses.
And this particular All Saints day is a day to grieve all the lives taken over these last weeks, days, and hours by the escalating genocide of Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank.
Now, beloved, as much as I hate that word, as risky as it is to say, and as clear as we are that it must never be thrown around flippantly lest it lose its gravity, on this day of all days, as the dead surround and call us into communion, we must not provide coverage for evil through the words we choose and the ones we avoid.
Genocide is what Israeli political and military leaders have explicitly called for, publicly and repeatedly, in press conferences, interviews, and social media statements. It is what Prime Minister Netanyahu invoked when quoting 1 Samuel 15:3 as the foundation for calling Israel’s incursion into Gaza a “Holy Mission” -- a verse, within a genocide narrative itself, that calls for the utter decimation of all the enemy has and is, sparing neither man nor woman, infant nor suckling child, ox or sheep or camel or ass. It is what they have invoked when painting all Palestinians as terrorists aligned with Hamas, and in calling for Gaza to be leveled and erased.
It is genocide by their own declaration, and it is genocide according to both the Genocide Convention of 1951 as well as a growing number of institutions, NGOs, and experts who study genocide across the world. In fact Craig Mokhiber, the now-former UN Human Rights Director who worked as a human rights lawyer for more than 30 years, wrote this in his resignation letter this week: “the current slaughter of the Palestinian people…in continuation of decades of their systematic persecution and purging, based entirely upon their status as Arabs, and coupled with explicit statements of intent by leaders in the Israeli government and military, leaves no room for doubt or debate….Across the land, Apartheid rules. This is a text-book case of genocide.”
So yes. As grievous as it is to confess, as as careful as we ought to be in doing so, what we are all bearing witness to is genocide.
My heart is broken over all the images and videos I've seen, of grieving and wailing mothers, of exhausted men digging for the living under the rubble of bombs. And I grieve not just for the Palestinians under bombardment and the Israeli hostages whose families are begging for a ceasefire and their safe return, but also for our Jewish neighbors here in the states who are experiencing the blade of generational trauma in their bodies amidst the growing threat of anti-Semitic violence from those who view them as one with the Israeli government.
And for our Muslim neighbors as well, who are being accused, targeted, attacked, and even murdered because too many of us cannot differentiate between the horrific, terrorist actions of Hamas, and the everyday parents, children, and neighbors who suffer for their violence.
And yes, my heart breaks for those committing these atrocities, too. As author Ta-Nehisi Coates said this week, "I worry for the souls of people who do these things, and sleep at night." I pray for their humanity.
For all this violence and so much more -- homelessness, illness, death, poverty, and injustice -- I mourn and rage. I am weary of hunting for the Good News of Jesus under the rubble of bombs. And I suspect I’m not the only one. I am certain of very little in this life, but I am sure that we all are carrying grief.
So it is a good thing that we are together on this All Saints Day to grieve, mourn our losses, and declare as a community of God, to God, that we are counting on resurrection. In times like these it can feel impossible to hold onto the promise of new life, but holding it with each other in the communion of all saints, gives our grief a trajectory. It gives our anger a purpose. And it gives our hope agency, and an anchor in the what Jesus prayed for at the Last Supper in John 17, The Oneness of all that is: For "we are in Christ, Christ is in the Father, God is in him, God is in us, God is in the world, and we in the world," and through the Spirit, Christ is in and with us always -- there is no separation to any of it: It is all one. (Richard Roher)
Which is why we feel the pain and grief and desperation of people across the globe. As Alice Walker said, “What happens to one of us happens to all of us.” They are us; we are them. All grief is our grief, personally and collectively.
And it is this collective grief that Jesus speaks into in Matthew chapter 5, which begins after Jesus has been ministering for a while to the blind, deaf, lepers, and beggars, and bleeding women, people with demons. People who, as two South African scholars put it, “have suffered the imposed injustices of political repression and socio-economic and religious exploitation for long enough.” They’ve become his followers because Jesus sees them and recognizes their suffering as his own.
So now, Jesus and his disciples are on a mountain taking a break from these crowds, and Jesus begins to teach them about poverty and privilege, not through one set of eight platitudes on how to become blessed, but through two sets of four Blessed-Are’s -- statements of what already is or is promised to be, not through effort but as the fruit of relationship. Each of which find their pinnacles in verses 6 and 10 respectively. The first four beatitudes address the powerless, outcast, diseased, and marginalized crowds. The latter four address people whose social location, privilege, and access to resources invite them to practice solidarity with the crowds in meaningful, liberating, Gospely ways. Like so many of his teachings, Jesus is connecting the powerless to the privileged and bringing to birth relationships and the sharing of resources between those who have and those who need because everyone’s life and liberation is bound up together. No one is free until everyone is free. They are one, and in communion with great cloud of witnesses, this relationship IS the kindom of heaven on earth.
Before I get ahead of myself, I want to take us into the Beatitudes, but I want to do it in a new way. If you tuned in to Wednesday’s Inside the Text, you already heard this, but in case you didn’t, I will offer this again. Also, I am a word-nerd, too, and in this particular text, our entire understanding hinges on two things. Firstly, the whole of the beatitudes are encapsulated in what ALREADY IS: Verses 1 and 10, at the open and close, declare that the Realm of a good IS theirs, presently and actively. Secondly, one Greek word-- Dikaiosune -- is used in verses 6 and 10 and the pinnacles of each set. So when you hear it, hold on to it, because we will come back to it.
Again, this is my own adaptation of the beatitudes, written for the world I’m in. So as I read, I ask you to ponder where you are among the Blessed.
“Blessed,” Jesus says, “are the deeply destitute, whose breath is ragged, whose spirits are bent over and begging — God’s realm is theirs, right now.
Blessed are those consumed by unsilenceable grief, those groaning for the release of hostages, those whose wails for the dead reverberate from the streets of Palestine all the way into our North American homes — they will be consumed in comfort and consolation.
Blessed are the resolutely tenderhearted, who steadfastly attend to the holiness of God’s image in others, without exception or expectation — the earth’s future and hope belong to them.
Blessed are those who are starved and desperate for dikaiosune -- for they will be filled, fattened, and satisfied.
Blessed are those who live lives of radical compassion and mercy— they will receive both in turn.
Blessed are those whose will is for one thing — for they will See the One God wherever and in whomever God is.
Blessed are those who make peace rather than complying with an unjust status quo — They will be Named God’s own.
And Blessed are those who are hunted and hounded, harassed and harmed for the sake of dikaiosune — God’s realm Is theirs, right now.
Dikaiosune. Blessed are those starved in verse 6 and hunted in verse 10 for dikaiosune.
Notably, most English Bibles, including the one we read from, translate dikaiosune as “righteousness.” But in this text, it doesn’t make sense. Because hungering for personal righteousness -- that is, right relationship with God -- does nothing to directly help the starving and suffering crowds Jesus has been healing and that he and the disciples have just come away from. Neither does the pursuit of personal righteousness typically invite the kind of persecution that hunts a person down or drives them out, which is what “persecution” here means. At least, not anymore.
So, when it’s translated as “righteousness,” and loaded as that word is by 21st century capitalist individualism, verse 6 can actually feel dismissive and belittling of people’s lived realities. To the downcast and marginalized, it can read like enslaver theology which taught that those who suffer under oppression should not fight for liberation in this life, but instead focus on personal holiness in order to attain heaven in the next.
And for the healthy and privileged whose ONLY hunger is spiritual, it can become a promise that relieves us of any responsibility to address the conditions which cause such suffering, oppression, and desperation in the first place.
So if dikaiosune here means “righteousness,” especially as we’ve come to understand it, it is troubling and disjointed.
But when it’s translated as the Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, Italian, and so many other languages do, the word we see is Justice.
Blessed are those starved for justice…
Blessed are those persecuted for justice…
If Justice is the apex of Jesus’s teaching to both the powerless and the privileged, it changes everything.
Blessed are the hostages, the incarcerated, the sick, diseased, disabled, poor; the ethnic, racial, and religious minorities who know their oppression is unjust but have no recourse within the system — for not only will they be healed, they will be made whole. How? Through the solidarity of the privileged who pursue Justice with them, and so become the Kin-dom of God in this realm.
Blessed, too, are those who are full of compassion and mercy for the oppressed and out-cast; whose Will moves in a singular direction; who are so committed to making peace and demanding Justice in communion with the oppressed, that they become targets of their social and cultural peers for breaking peace with the powerful — for God’s realm is theirs IN the communion of such saints.
Again and again: This is a present and active reality. The communion of the poor with the privileged IS THE KINDOM OF GOD on this earth. To hunger and thirst for and pursue justice, no matter the cost, is to be the realm of God with those who’ve been beaten and bombed by this realm.
This is how the veil is thinned and eternity happens right now. To put a fine point on it, this communion among the poor, the privileged, and the great cloud of witnesses is the ongoing, everlasting, always-right-now feast of all saints.
Friends, our times aren’t so different from Jesus and his disciples. Now, as then, earthly thrones are occupied by powers that require assimilation or death. Now, as then, countless people are suffering genocide and occupation, poverty and disease, and are being condemned and targeted for evils they did not commit.
And Now, as then, followers of Jesus have before us a choice to either keep the empire’s quiet peace. Or, being full of mercy and compassion and set on One Thing, to do God’s justice in communion with all the saints.
May we rise to the occasion and be called Blessed. For we are God’s own, and God’s realm is ours. Amen.
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