SERMON: 4 Epiphany A 2 2 2020
Molly and I had dinner a few nights ago with a couple in a mixed marriage. He's an Episcopalian and she's a Roman Catholic. I mean, some people, right? The topic of jokes in sermons came up. Molly rolled her eyes. I told a couple of my favorites. I think the most fun thing about church jokes is that we can laugh at ourselves. Otherwise we take ourselves SOOOOO seriously. But then I thought I haven't told a joke in a sermon for a while. So I found this one. It pokes fun at all the Christian denominations, so you know it has to be good.
You see there was a great big convention of all the different churches. It was held in the biggest church in town. They were all there. Suddenly the secretary of the church rushed into the church shouting, "
The building is on fire!"
The Methodists immediately gathered in the corner and prayed.
The Baptists cried, "Where is the water?"
The Quakers quietly praised God for the blessings that fire brings.
The Lutherans posted a notice on the door, declaring the fire was evil.
The Roman Catholics passed the plate to cover the damage.
The Jews posted symbols on the doors, hoping the fire would pass.
The Congregationalists shouted, "Every man for himself!"
The Fundamentalists proclaimed, "It's the vengeance of God!"
The Episcopalians formed a procession and marched out.
The Christian Scientists concluded there was no fire.
The Presbyterians appointed a chairperson who was to appoint a committee to look into the matter and submit a report.
The secretary grabbed the fire extinguisher and put the fire out.
It's interesting to discover a joke like this one and find out what it is that people think characterizes worship in the Episcopal church, not to mention the other denominations. It presupposes a couple of things. One is that there is a single thing that accurately captures the spirit of each denomination. The other is that it's not Jesus. It's not his birth, life, death, resurrection, and Holy Spirit enlivening all of us all of the time.
Well, of course it is Jesus. It is Jesus who during his earthly life and since has shown Christians the way to live their lives. Today, as we read part of the Sermon on the Mount and consider what Jesus had to say we realize that he wasn't just speaking to the crowd gathered on the hillside at Capernaum. He was speaking to everyone. You. Me. The other Christians. Not just Christians. Everyone.
He was telling us that the promises he made there, called the Beatitudes, can be relied upon. That the woes, the many woes, he knew people experienced, they would not last forever. That there are joys to be derived from living in faith and those joys are available to everyone.
Even more, he was telling the people who suffered the most and had the least that their burdens would be lifted and their spirits as well. By extension he was telling them that their money, property and prestige were no help to them, either, when it came to realizing the benefits of the Beatitudes.
Who did Jesus say was blessed? The poor in spirit; those who mourn; the meek; those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; the merciful; the pure in heart; the peacemakers; those who are persecuted for righteousness sake; those who persecuted and reviled on Jesus' account.
A person might look at this list and think, "Well, these are truly a sad bunch. Look at all their problems." But in fact what Jesus is saying is that we should all aim, actually try, to be like those enumerated in the Beatitudes. Their rewards are the rewards that matter. And they are the ones who receive those rewards.
"Well!" some well-off person or self-satisfied person ,might say. "That's not fair!"
Isn't it? The idea of being poor in spirit, if examined from the original Greek, means considering oneself open to learning spiritually and thereby receptive to God's guidance. By implication we can conclude that it is hard for the haughty and self-important to be humble enough to actually be "poor in spirit." Would it not make sense that a person utterly open to God would be better poised than others to receive God's blessings?
Likewise, who wants to mourn? Who wants to be sad over loss? Practically no one, but Jesus points out elsewhere that those who grieve are feeling the pain of the world and helping bear the pain of others, not in judgment but in sympathy.
With some effort we can explore the Beatitudes and get a clearer grasp of what it is that Jesus has in mind for us.
When we get in a mindset of absorbing God's will for us for a day or a year or a while, we open ourselves to God entirely. That is how we love God. When we put ourselves in the middle of the lives of those we love with all the mess and wrongdoing and dissatisfaction and struggle, and simply align with them for their well-being, we are demonstrating Christian love for them. When we do that for comparative strangers we are loving our neighbor.
It is not difficult to see how careful exploration of the other blessings outlined in the Beatitudes can lead to a deeper appreciation of Jesus' constant admonition that we love God and love our neighbor.
I found some really interesting and affirming news reports this week along the same lines. And they shone a strong light on a couple of questions that have been gnawing at me for decades.
Both of the articles were from the opinion pages of The New York Times, my favorite newspaper anywhere ever, including the ones I've worked for. You're going to get the impression from these articles that I'm just a self-absorbed liberal, and I guess that's close enough to the truth that I won't quibble about it. But the points these articles made are really interesting and they point squarely at the Gospel reading today and the Beatitudes.
The first one was titled, "The myth of middle-class liberalism." What it noted was that for a couple of centuries it has been assumed that as societies generated a larger middle class, elevating folks into the middle-class, that the expanded middle class would continue to lift others out of poverty and they, in turn would extend the favor to others, and that that process would be a self-perpetuating liberal shift in our society over all.
What the author actually found was that folks didn't necessarily assume liberal politics when they were elevated into the middle class. They weren't seeking ways to assist others attain that status; they were looking to protect their own. Thereby, for example, in the 60s and since we saw examples of unions resisting integration, refusing full membership to new members, and occasionally endorsing labor unfriendly candidates who found other ways to appeal to a more self-interested middle class.
The article pointed out that populist movements get their greatest support from the middle class, from people concerned about protecting their property and their values. It is not difficult to see how these examples and this attitude stands in stark contrast with the elements of the beatitudes described previously. This clearly is not being open to God's spirit and attentive and supportive of one's neighbor.
The other article was titles, "Listen up, Liberals: You Aren't Doing Politics Right." This one grabbed me because it compared religion and politics and the ways they have evolved. Both started as membership organizations, people working with a mission, enlisting and training others, and regularly meeting with their expanding comrades. The interesting aspect of this article is that both in religion and politics the membership--and attendant expansion and recruitment efforts--have fallen by the wayside. Politics has become sort of a personal hobby for a lot of people as observers. Religion, likewise, has lost its visible public role, in large part, due to people declaring themselves "Nones," that is, not of any religion, or "spiritual but not religious," which often means there's no active membership engagement, much less recruitment and expansion.
Because I believe and participate in both religion and politics I found this extremely to the point and troubling. The article said, "The spiritual-but-not-religious and the political hobbyist share a mentality that is deliberately powerless, rejecting community to avoid the hassle and to avoid getting burned."
The article's focus on liberals is not my point. Rather, when we lose touch with our spiritual source, that is God, by not being "poor in spirit," and when we aren't mourning their difficulties with those who struggle, we are missing the point. We are the "hobbyists" of one of the articles, observing but not engaging.
Our ministries at St. Paul's give us a platform to address these two concerns. Our presence and our generosity in the Thrift Shop and the Food Pantry are a balm for our hard-up neighbors. This is a connection we can now take out into the world rejoicing, with the Beatitudes as our guide. Amen
A sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church Poughkeepsie NY February 2, 2020 by The Rev. Tyler Jones, Rector