Delivered at Claremont UCC on January 25, 2015
© The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Oh my, what a time we had yesterday! In partnership with Pilgrim Place, our neighboring retirement community for pastors, YW and YM workers, missionaries, professors, and their partners, we hosted the Albert McNeil Jubilee Singers of Los Angeles.
The event honored the work of The Rev Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, as well as two members of our own congregation: The Rev Dr. Jim Hargett and Dr. Louilyn Hargett. That is them as a young couple on the screen.
Through song and readings from the slavery through the civil rights era, we were taken on a journey of bondage to freedom. We were reminded of both God’s insistence on justice and our responsibility to respond.
And so it seems only right that today our scripture reads
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you….”
This section, known as the beatitudes—it gives me shivers. For these are not words of comfort, no “Well done, good and faithful servant” from Jesus. It is a pointed lesson to those who have the audacity to claim discipleship.
After his baptism in the river and temptation in the desert, Jesus passes by the Sea of Galilee and calls Simon Peter and Andrew into discipleship, James and John, too. Going through Galilee, Jesus teaches and cures, becoming wildly popular and famous.
Everywhere he goes there are crowds. Of course there are crowds: an oppressed people hearing that God’s reign was near, one that would trump Caesar’s, that is bound to get attention. Of course they follow one who relieves people of pain and possession.
But on seeing the persistence of the crowds, Jesus goes to the mountain. Seeking solitude, he is yet followed by his disciples. So Jesus taught them, Jesus schooled those who thought they were entitled to his constant presence:
These are the characteristics of God’s home, he says: poverty, grief, timidity, costly generosity. Risking all, risking hatred, for justice, mercy, righteousness, that is God’s heart.
Jesus named the upside down, even backwards, kin-dom of God as a blessing. A portrait that crowds adored and the disciples, well, the disciples might have feared.
Because God’s kin-dom seems to be born out of pain and uncertainty. Those disciples, they had jobs before Jesus walked by. They knew who they were and where they fit in the order of things, both as Hebrews and subjects of Rome. Now they are hearing that God meets them in their meekness. But also God wants them to risk persecution.
Dr. King knew both were true. He restated the beatitudes for our time when he told his congregation that God found them in their legally-enforced subjugation. Dr. King also reminded all who claimed the name of Jesus, who claimed the title of disciple, of the tremendous risk required. And when not all disciples rose to that risk, he responded, writing from Birmingham’s jail:
I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection. When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.
Claremont UCC, are we moderate, sedated? In this era of #BlackLivesMatter, immigration reform, gay marriage, and minimum wage protests, we know how alive oppression remains in America today.
We know how badly our communities need those who would be persecuted for the sake of righteousness rather than persecuted because of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or nation of origin.
It does not feel like a coincidence that the beatitudes and the Jubilee Singers event are falling at the beginning of our period of discernment about our budget. Which is really a discernment about our ministries. Which is really a reconciliation of our faith practices to the God of the beatitudes, the Jesus of Palm Sunday, and the Spirit of the Pentecost.
The conversations we will have about real estate and wages and expense lines are not divorced from the gospels. They are embodiments of our response to them.
So how do our assets embody God’s blessing to the low? How do our ministries empower us to risk hatred and revilement for God’s name’s sake?
BE A DISCIPLE
Our sanctuary was PACKED yesterday. I mean, PACKED—700 people. And it wasn’t packed because people expected to be coddled or told everything is now ok, oppression was solved in 1965.
It was packed because we know the march from Selma has not yet ended and we need to be shaken again from complacency, and fueled for the journey.
Those who come to this house of prayer are STARVED for a message that pushes us to be more together than we are alone.
So we give thanks that Christine, Penny, Victor, Jesse, and David, are formally joining us in discipleship
Beloved, we can be among the crowds, looking to God for personal healing and relief. But we can also be as those entitled disciples, bearing the risk of closeness to Christ, even if it scares us.
Jesus warned that the good news he brought was not safe. But as Dr. King, the Hargetts, and so many others have shown, it saves.