Blessed Are the Refugees

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on Sunday, January 29.

Matthew 5:1-12, Luke 6:20-26

On Friday, First Church staff and our spouses gathered in my home for a post-Christmas party. As you know, the holiday season is especially busy for our staff so there is no real opportunity for us to relax and celebrate the season with each other. By coming together in January, we are able to enjoy a potluck meal and some less businesslike interactions with one another. We ended the evening with a Yankee swap. Many will be familiar with the tradition. Everyone brings an inexpensive wrapped gift, then we take turns either picking a wrapped gift from the pile or taking, basically stealing, a gift that someone has already chosen and unwrapped. Yankee swaps always lead to lots of laughter as someone opens a gag gift, or as a coveted gift is snatched away; and I find that Yankee swaps are especially fun with church staff. For good reason, we are required to be pretty buttoned up during the week and on Sunday mornings. But once a year we can let our hair down, be silly, and laugh at things that might raise eyebrows within the church walls.

Uh-oh, I think I’ve said too much. Your imaginations are probably running wild. OK, I’ll share one story. One of the Yankee swap gifts was a small picture book called Hot Guys and Baby Animals. It’s pretty self-explanatory. Each page contains a picture of a gorgeous, shirtless man holding a cute little baby animal. On one page you might find Ty, a muscular young man with a seductive smile, holding an adorable little puppy named Jasper. Ty, we read, is proud of having served in the military. While Jasper is proud of his ability to chase his own tail. And so on. As you might imagine, there was much uproarious laughter every time the book changed hands!

Oh, and if you want to sneak a peek at those “cute animals,” see our Church Administrator Shannon Lindsay; she went home with the book.

So, my reason for beginning with this story are two-fold. First, I want you to know that members of your staff like each other; we enjoy each others company. Second, it illustrates, albeit in a silly, clumsy way, that what we say and the way we say it changes depending on our setting and audience. I will express myself one way when speaking to Nancy Crouch about the church’s clinic in Uganda, and another when I open a nose-hair trimmer at the staff post-Christmas party (Mark Mercier and I battled over that nose-hair  trimmer!). Context matters.

Which brings us to this morning’s lesson from the gospel of Matthew, often referred to as the Sermon on the Mount or the Beatitudes. The beatitudes are a series of proverb-like blessings, each consisting of two phrases, a condition and a result. Blessed are the poor in spirit (the condition), for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (the result). The Beatitudes can be read as moral instruction; God will bless you when you act in this way, and many find comfort in these blessings, an assurance of God’s loving response to hardship.

Not one to mince words, Pope Francis recently said, “You cannot be a Christian without living like a Christian; you cannot be a Christian without practicing the Beatitudes.”

Some of you may know that there is a version of the Beatitudes in the gospel of Luke. Instead of the Sermon on the Mount, Luke’s telling of this story is often referred to as the Sermon on the Plain. While it is possible that Jesus preached two different versions of the same sermon, it is more likely that Matthew and Luke take the same story and interpret it differently for their respective readers.

Just as is makes sense for our church staff to present ourselves one way in the more formal professional setting of the church and another way in a more relaxed social setting, so it makes sense that the two gospel writers recount Jesus’ sermon about God’s blessings differently, depending on their setting and audience. What is said and the way it is said changes depending on the context.

I will spend a little time unpacking the difference between these two versions of the Beatitudes as this will help us understand what Jesus is saying to us today. First, let’s look at the setting and audience for each.

Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience, near Jerusalem, while Luke is writing to a community of gentile or Greek followers somewhere in Asia Minor.

Matthew introduces the Beatitudes by saying: When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them. So in Matthew, Jesus goes up the mountain to escape the crowd and teach the disciples.

Luke, on the other hand, writes that Jesus came down from the mountain with his disciples and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and cured of unclean spirits. Here, Jesus is speaking with the disciples to the people in the crowd.

Let’s compare two verses from the each gospel and see how this knowledge influences our understanding.

While Luke writes, “blessed are you who are poor,” Matthew writes, “blessed are the poor in spirit,” You hear the difference. In Luke, Jesus is speaking with the disciples to the impoverished people in the crowd. While these poor had been treated by the religious elites as if they were unloved by God and deserving of their lot in life, Jesus specifically affirms God’s love for them, for “you, who are poor.”

In Matthew however we find Jesus speaking privately to his disciples, teaching that if they want to experience God’s blessing they need to be “poor in spirit,” emptying themselves, letting go of their own way to let God in.

Similarly, in Luke, Jesus speaks to those in the crowd saying, “blessed are you who are hungry now,” while Matthew’s Jesus teaches the disciples, “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Luke’s treatment of Jesus’ teachings is consistent with the whole tone of his gospel which consistently affirms God’s love and justice for the outcast and challenges the rich and powerful. Jesus’ blessing of the poor and hungry on the plain echoes the words Mary sings when pregnant with Jesus, “God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Matthew, on the other hand, seems to spiritualize Jesus’ teachings, taking the focus off the poor, but is this really his intent? Notice that Matthew does not say that those who are righteous are blessed, but that God blesses those who hunger for righteousness, here meaning justice.

What does it look like to be poor in spirit and to hunger for justice?

Some of you know that with leadership from First Church members, a group named HANA has been formed to sponsor a refugee family in Connecticut. Some fifty excited, gifted and committed volunteers from area churches and organizations now comprise this group, Hartford Area Neighbors’ Alliance or HANA; they have been trained by a refugee resettlement agency called IRIS in New Haven and are now ready to receive a family.

Refugees are poor and hungry, right? Fleeing political or religious persecution, often leaving everything they own behind in their war-torn homelands. In Luke version of the Beatitudes, Jesus says of these poor, hungry refugees, God sees you, knows your suffering, and has something better in store for you.

Poor in spirit and hungering for what is right, “disciples” from HANA are responding to the plight of these beloved of God, emptying themselves of their own interest, putting love of God and stranger first.

Taken together, Luke and Matthew reconcile those who are poor and hungry in fact, with those poor in spirit disciples who hunger and thirst for justice. We need to hear the sermon in both ways if we are to come together and respond to the world’s poverty and hunger.

As many of you know, as of Friday, an executive order halted the entry of refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries. These countries would be the most likely homes of refugee families we would sponsor. I am heartbroken about this decision as I know the abject suffering these refugees are experiencing. For some, this decision to refuse entry to the United States could be a matter of life and death.

In the same speech in which he referred to practicing the Beatitudes, Pope Francis rebuked “the contradiction of those who want to defend Christianity in the West, and, on the other hand are against refugees and other religions. “It’s hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help, someone who is hungry or thirsty, toss out someone who is in need of my help,” he says.

The two gospels offer other blessings, and here Matthew and Luke agree.

Jesus, in both accounts, says, blessed are those who mourn and weep. So together poor and poor in spirit, refugees and those who see and know their suffering, will mourn; and the hungry and those hungry for justice will weep together until we all experience God’s blessing.

And in both Matthew and Luke, Jesus preaches, blessed are you when people hate, exclude, revile, defame and persecute you.

Those in the crowd that gathered on the plain with Jesus that day knew such condemnation, and so do Muslim refugees today. Through no fault of their own, they have faced persecution in their own countries that has required them to run for their lives, and they now confront hate and exclusion anew as they seek new homes around the world.

And Jesus gives the same message to the disciples on the mountain top. And guess what, that’s us. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are called to lift our voices in defense of Jesus’ teachings, even as we face the real possibility that we may be reviled for it.

In addition to supporting the ongoing work of HANA to sponsor a refugee family, I have reached out to friend of the church, Imam Sami Aziz of the Bloomfield Muslim Community Center and let him know that he and his congregation have the support of First Church. He urged me, urges us, to publicly refute the false narrative about Islam that is being promoted by some evangelical Christians and used by politicians to exclude and persecute Muslim immigrants and refugees in the United States.

This is just one of the ways Jesus is calling to us in these times, called from this Sunday morning mountaintop to go among the poor and hungry. You poor in spirit, God’s realm is crying out to us. You who mourn, God will meet us here, now, that we might be encouraged and respond. You who hunger and thirst for justice, go. Go. Go knowing that God blesses and accompanies us always. Amen.

 

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More Than a Mannequin Challenge

I preached this sermon on December 18, 2016, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, our “Christmas Sunday” at First Church, Simsbury. During the Children’s Moment that preceded the sermon the entire church participated in “The World’s Largest Nativity Mannequin Challenge.” The children came forward to fill the roles of Mary and Joseph, and shepherds and animals. I stood in the pulpit, arm outstretched, frozen in the middle of an impassioned sermon. Others also played themselves including our Bell Choir, the Ushers, and our Women’s Praise and Chancel Choirs. The rest of the congregation all posed, arms outstretched, as angels. The Nativity Mannequin Challenge can be found on the First Church Facebook Page (scroll down until you find it).

Who doesn’t love a beautiful nativity scene? Our family had a lovely old one when I was a kid, we called it a crèche. I remember the wooden manger required careful handling or its legs would collapse and baby Jesus would tumble out.

I have this tiny nativity set from Peru, the figures carved from Alabaster.

Then, there are all manner of odd nativities, dog and cat nativities, Lego nativities, a marshmallow s’mores nativity, nativities made from butter, from Spam, and from cupcakes. And new this year, a hipster nativity, with the wise men delivering their gifts from Amazon on Segway scooters, and Mary and Joseph taking a selfie!

Whether sacred or profane, we love nativity scenes. Whether children’s pageants or a Sunday morning mannequin challenge, we love nativity scenes. Like a snapshot, they capture a moment, snatch it out history, shepherds, angels, Mary, Joseph and Jesus stand frozen in time in a church chancel or on a front lawn, reduced to fit on a mantelpiece or in the palm of your hand.

Yet their very timelessness also speaks to the limitations of our beloved nativity scenes. The story of Jesus’ birth is so much more than a mannequin challenge frozen in time. God birthed God’s-self into human history. Removed from its historical context the story of Emmanuel, God with us, loses its meaning. Something preceded Jesus’ birth, and just as importantly something immediately followed his birth.

So, here the first of this morning’s readings from the gospel of Luke:

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

 

This part of the story is familiar to many. The Roman emperor Cesar Augustus orders that all Jew in Judea be “registered.” The province of Judea had been put under direct Roman rule, and a distinguished soldier and Consul, Quirinius, was appointed as its Governor. The Jews initially went along with this but soon began to chaff at the loss of their autonomy, and a small number of Zealots tried to resist Rome and incite violence. So this “registration” is ostensibly a census taken in order to tax the Jews, but it is not hard to imagine that uprooting all Jews and ordering them to travel to their ancestral homes was also an effort to assert Roman power and disrupt plans for rebellion. Of course this requirement wasn’t voluntary, and we can only assume there would have been serious consequences for disobeying Rome.

Like thousands of other innocent Jews Mary and Joseph had nothing to do with resistance to or agitation against Rome, but they were required to be “registered” along with everyone else.

Imagine the disruption this would cause. Disruption and fear. Fear of Rome, of what could happen in Bethlehem, of the well-being of Mary’s baby. Nazareth to Bethlehem is about 90 miles, about the distance from Simsbury to Providence, RI. Imagine the US government telling you that you needed to walk to Providence to be “registered.” Then, when you get to Providence, there is no place to stay. The weather forecast in Bethlehem for today is a high of 51, a low of 42, and raining.

So a far cry from our fun loving Nativity Mannequin Challenge, the events preceding Jesus’ birth were miserable and terrifying.

And what followed Jesus’ birth? Well this is a story that ministers rarely get to preach on. This reading comes up the Sunday after Christmas, a Sunday that is a “low” Sunday as far as church attendance. Everyone is still basking in the warm glow of Christmas so no one wants to hear a story like this, from Matthew:

Now after the Magi had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

 

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

 

As soon as the Magi depart, an angel comes to Joseph and tells him to flee to Egypt. King Herod, feeling his throne is threatened by the one “who has been born king of the Jews,” orders all male children in and around Bethlehem, age two and under, to be killed. Fleeing one who would murder their newborn child, not for anything they had done but just out of fear for what the child might become, Mary and Joseph become refugees. The Holy Family lived on the run in a strange land for anywhere from a few months to several years.

So there you have it. Our beloved Nativity scene of angels singing, shepherds quaking and cows lowing is sandwiched between two absolutely horrifying events in human history, an Empire’s forced registration of Jews, and a vicious king’s infanticide.

At this point, I should promise you that it is not my intent to ruin our happy Christmas buzz. Rather, I hope the context of Jesus’ birth will make this Christmas more meaningful for all of us.

Jesus’ birth takes its meaning from its particular historical context.

The hymn we will sing after the sermon, Star Child, begins:

Star child, earth-child, go between of God, love child, Christ child, heaven’s lightning rod.

God birthed Jesus, his love child, not in the midst of merriment, not to celebrate some victory or as a reward for an achievement. No, God offered a go between, Emmanuel, God with us, in a dark and scary time in Israel’s history. And God gave heaven’s lightning rod to a particular, ordinary couple in the midst of their fear and fatigue.

The Christmas story isn’t frozen in time like some mannequin challenge. It continues to take its meaning for us today from our context.

Like Mary and Joseph, we also live at a time when politicians talk openly of registering an entire population of faithful people, this time Muslims. Some have even proposed forcibly moving them out of fear of what a few might do. And like Mary and Joseph, today millions of refugees in Syria flee their homeland because children are being indiscriminately slaughtered by a vicious and fearful king.

And so it is today that Christ is born to ordinary people in the midst of our fear and fatigue. The hymn continues:

Street child, beat child, no place left to go, hurt child, used child no one wants to know.

 

Hope for peace child, God’s stupendous sign, down to earth child, star of stars that shine.

So this is the first thing we learn. In response to our fear and fatigue, God births God’s-self into the darkness of our world as a stupendous sign of hope. But that’s not all there is to this Christmas story. No sooner was this down to earth child born than one who feared him wanted to snuff out that star of stars that shine. Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt to keep that hope alive.

The Nativity draws its meaning from what precedes it and what follows. In Herod’s slaughter of the innocents we quickly learn that the birth of Jesus did not magically dispel all darkness to usher in a fear-free happily ever after. But that star child born in a manger reminds us that we need never again doubt God’s presence with us in the darkness.

The Gospel of John does not include a story of Jesus’ birth, but it does include these powerful words:

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

When Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt with Jesus, God’s grace and truth went with them. And so it is today. When we enjoy a Christmas pageant or enact a Nativity Mannequin Challenge in church on a Sunday morning, sure it’s fun, but it serves as a powerful reminder that we carry God’s grace and truth with us, within our very flesh, as a force for good in our lives and in the world.

So this is what we have learned so far. First, Jesus is born right smack in the middle of the darkest of dark times as a stupendous sign of hope.

Second, Herod serves as a reminder that dark forces will remain, but through Jesus’ birth we now know that God’s grace and truth live on within us, and through us a light shines in the darkness and the darkness shall not overcome it.

And there is a third thing we learn about this still-speaking Christmas story. When Mary and Joseph became refugees in Egypt they did so not out of fear for their own lives but to preserve the life of their Star Child. They had been entrusted, not only to give birth to the light of God, but to ensure that that star of stars not be extinguished.

And so, brothers and sisters, this is also our charge this Christmas. We have been entrusted to preserve the life of this earthly Star Child, the heavenly earth child, God’s grace and truth that lives still within humanity.

One of the ways we do this is by telling the story, not just the nice parts about angels and shepherds, but the tough parts that come before and after, about an empire that sought to register a faithful people out of fear of a few, and of the Holy family  become refugees to flee a murderous king. And God calls us to share this not just as a story of long ago, but as a story that continues to unfold today.

Because empires still seek to forcibly register faithful citizens, and refugees still flee murderous kings. This is our story. And when we tell it, Jesus will live on within and among us, teaching, healing, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, overturning the tables of the greedy. And when we tell this story, Emmanuel accompanies us, suffers with us, even dies with us, and will ultimately triumph over death with us. But we have to tell the story. The whole story. The ancient story and today’s story of an encroaching darkness and of God’s light.

For the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.

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