Homily for the 4th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Jan. 29/30, 2011)
For the communities of Dignity/NoVA at Emmanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Arlington, VA and Dignity/Washington at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, Washington, DC.
Readings: Zep 2:3; 3:12-13; 1 Cor 1:26-31; Mt 5:1-12a
These Beatitudes from the Gospel of Matthew come at the beginning of what is commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount or sometimes “The Great Sermon.” The author of Matthew’s Gospel goes to great lengths to “set the stage,” as it were, like any good director of a play or movie, to make sure that the readers of his Gospel know how important these Beatitudes and this Sermon are to fully understanding the message of Jesus. The Gospel writer, for example, starts off by saying that Jesus “went up the mountain,” consciously evoking the image of Moses who went up the mountain to receive the Commandments, to be the bearer of God’s Law to the Israelites. No matter that the geography of where Jesus was at the time doesn’t really have a “mountain” per se … the point is that Jesus is the New Moses, the New Lawgiver … and that what he is about to say is a revelation from God.
The Gospel writer continues to set the scene by making the point that Jesus “sat down.” Being seated is the position of a teacher, a rabbi, a wise person to whom others come to seek insight and understanding. And that is, in fact, what happens next. Jesus’ disciples come to him, they gather around this seated teacher and wait. The translation we listened to then simply says that Jesus “began to teach them,” as it leads in to the Beatitudes themselves. However, the original text paints a more descriptive picture. The Greek text says, “…and he opened his mouth and begin to teach them.”
All of this the Gospel writer does to make sure that Jesus has our full attention, that we are closely attending to what is to come. And the reason we need to pay close attention is because what Jesus says doesn’t seem to make sense. Like so much of what he says, these Beatitudes don’t seem to fit with our experience of the world. In fact, one of the standard points one hears whenever there’s a discussion of the Beatitudes is that they turn upside down the values of the world. They take what most would see as conventional wisdom and turn it on its head. For example, what is so good about being poor or poor in spirit? Why would Jesus claim as blessed those who grieve and are in mourning? Where in your experience is meekness seen as a virtue, and why would Jesus proclaim as blessed those who are persecuted and lied about and condemned by others?
To be sure, our world does at least pay lip service to the virtues of being merciful and seeking peace, but do we really hold these in high esteem? Do most people in our war-torn and violent world really live their lives by showing mercy when we have the chance, or by doing what we can do not only to pray for peace, but actually to promote peace in our actions as well as our words?
To get a bit of an insight into these Beatitudes and the “newness” of the law and message that Jesus was preaching, our first reading from the prophet Zephaniah may be helpful. This prophet is not one we read very often. There is heaviness in much of what he wrote, but one of his most enduring contributions to our understanding is his assertion that God is concerned for the poor ones of our world – in Hebrew, the anawim. In the culture of the time, being “poor” isn’t solely about economic condition, though it’s certainly connected to that in some way. Being poor, rather, is about having lost status in some way or another. It’s about being outside the social order, outside the group. Thus, the widow or orphans were seen to be poor in this sense, because she or they lost their social status with the death of a husband or parents.
The question remains, however … why would the poor, or the poor in spirit, be said to be blessed or highly esteemed? What could possibly be so good about being considered without status or power or position in any group or culture or society? The answer is that such poverty, such lack of status means that the poor ones – the anawim – are freed from the illusion that status or power or position have lasting value. Jesus proclaims the poor as blessed, as honored – as the truly lucky ones esteemed by God – because they are freed from the burden of what the world and others say is important and are almost forced by the sometimes harsh and difficult circumstances of their lives to rely on the One who is always dependable and eternally reliable.
Perhaps the truth of this is most explicitly stated in the final beatitude in which Jesus first states a general blessing using the third person, and then speaks directly to his disciples using the second person. “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.”
This past week was a busy one for news. We saw the President’s State of the Union address and the various responses to it; the bombing of the Moscow airport; the continued violence and unrest in Egypt, as well as the continued stories about our own troubled economy and what the newly-elected Congress may have on its agenda. In the midst of all these “big stories,” you may have missed the one about the murder of one man in Uganda. David Kato was 46 years old. He was a short, very slightly built man who had become known as an activist within the Ugandan gay community – especially in the wake of having his picture on the cover of a Ugandan tabloid that called, literally, for the killing of homosexuals in that country where homosexuality is a criminal offense. In its call to “hang them,” the newspaper provided the names and addresses of 100 gay and lesbian Ugandans. The paper’s call was fulfilled earlier this week when Mr. Kato was beaten to death, having been attacked with a hammer to the head.
It is coverage of the story, CNN interviewed another gay Ugandan, a lesbian named Stosh Mugisha, about her experience of also having been identified in that same newspaper story. At one point in the interview, as she told about feeling too scared to leave her home because neighbors had gathered outside and were shouting that she was a homosexual, and stones were being thrown at her house throughout the night, the interviewer asked “Was it sad for you” to see this happen in your own home, your neighborhood, your own community? With tears in her eyes she responded, “Yes I felt so sad, it’s what made me want to leave the place, because these are people with whom I used to share … I felt I was betrayed.” “But,” she said after pausing to wipe her tears, “I had to just understand that they didn’t know what they were doing…”
Does that sound familiar? “They didn’t know what they were doing.” This woman – someone whom Zephaniah would clearly have named as among the anawim, the outcasts of society, someone who (in the words of St. Paul) was not powerful and whom her society counted for nothing – this gay Ugandan woman was able in the midst of her own persecution to see the humanity of those who literally sought to stone her to death. I have no idea whether she is a Christian or whether or not she ever heard of Jesus, but clearly she carried the mind and heart of Jesus within her … and may those of us who call ourselves Christian have faith enough to do the same.