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Sermon for January 29, 2023; 5th Epiphany, Year A (Seminarian Emily Hyberg)

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable

to you, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer. Amen.


As I considered this week’s Gospel reading, I wondered how most of us

would feel if we learned that someone close to us, someone that we

respected—a friend, a boss, a family member— described us as meek,

mournful, and reviled.


I could be wrong, but I think it’s a fairly safe guess that most of us would be

upset to learn that this was how we were being talked about. I know that

those are never the words that I hope will show up on my performance

reviews.


In fact, most of us have probably spent a lifetime being told that to get

ahead, we need to be some combination of assertive, relentless, upbeat,

and well-liked—because that’s the world’s wisdom for how to be

successful.


But those aren’t the values that Jesus describes in today’s reading from the

Sermon on the Mount. Jesus tells us that the meek, the mournful, and the

reviled are the ones who are blessed.


So we’re faced with a contradiction because whole parts of our society are

set up in opposition to these values from today’s Gospel passage. There

are entire industries devoted to cheering us up. You can read a lifetie

worth of books about how to get people to like you. And meekness? When

was the last time you heard about a CEO being chosen for how gentle and

mild they were?


We live in a country with “In God We Trust” on our money. 7 in 10 U.S.

adults still identify as Christian, 1 but our way of life doesn’t really resemble

the values that Jesus describes or the lessons that his life and ministry

embody.


Jesus says blessed are the peacemakers and those who hunger and thirst,

not for material success, but for righteousness.


Still, we measure the success of corporations by how much money they

make, and I don’t think we’ve elected a Peacemaker to be president in my

lifetime.


Often the argument when this discrepancy gets pointed out is, “so what?

That’s politics; that’s business. This is the real world, and the real world

needs people who take charge, who know how to make friends and

influence people, who stand up to villains at home and on the world stage.

We can’t all be Jesus. We can’t sit around loving everyone all the time.

Nothing would get done.


No one would make any money.”arly 2000 years after Paul wrote his letter to the Church in Corinth, there

is still a gulf between the perceived wisdom of the world and the wisdom of

God. Just like in Paul’s day, the religious and cultural powers of this world

believe that the way of God is foolishness. That the teachings of Jesus, the

conviction that the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, the mournful are

blessed by God is somehow unrealistic and unattainable. The teaching of

the world tells us that the poor in spirit, the pure in heart, those who hunger

and thirst for righteousness will only get in the way of progress or profit

margins.


That puts us, as followers of Jesus, in an uncomfortable position. We

worship Jesus Christ, the Son of God who was hunted by Herod when he

was born, whose ministry confronted the religious and cultural authority of

his day, and who was crucified by the Roman Empire, the conquering

imperial power of Jesus’ time.


Jesus’ birth, life, teaching, and death are in opposition to the ways of the

‘real’ world.


The powers of this world tell us that we will be successful, that we will be

rich, that we will be happy if we are assertive and merciless, or barring that,

if we can at least be upbeat and likable. Jesus tells us that God blesses

those who are the opposite. That those who mourn, those who hunger for

justice, those who make peace, are esteemed in God’s eyes.


Jesus calls us into a relationship with God and one another that privileges

gentleness, kindness, and mercy. Idealistic, principled foolishness in the

eyes of the “real world.” Actions and ways of being that will likely cause you

to be reviled by the worldly.


No wonder that our nation, that our way of life, doesn’t resemble Jesus’

teachings. What Jesus is asking us to do is really, really hard. If it were

easy, we would be doing it already.


But here’s the thing, we’re meant to try. I don’t think Jesus climbed up a

mountain to deliver the sermon from today’s Gospel expecting the people

listening to shrug and go on with their lives. Jesus called us into a new

relationship with God and one another because he wants us to live a new

relationship with God and one another. He’s basically giving us a list of the

things that God wants. We’re meant to take that seriously.


And from what we do know about the earliest church, the Church of Acts

and the generations that immediately followed, the earliest Christians did

take the teaching of Jesus seriously. They built communities in opposition

to the ways of the world. Communities that broke down the social barriers

that kept people separated from one another. They lost privilege, status,

and security because they loved God. They were condemned by the

Roman Empire because their beliefs confronted the ways of the world,

because their way of life threatened the way the Roman Empire operated.


They were persecuted and reviled for this. They were publicly executed for

their beliefs. And yet, despite that, confounding everything the world might

expect or understand, people still converted, the churches still grew.


Maybe that’s because some early Christians gathered together before their

execution and publicly offered each other the kiss of peace. 2


The power of the world confronted them with all the anger and force and

violence of a world acting in the way the power of the world will always act

to protect itself, and the earliest Christians met that brutality with an act of

mercy and gentleness.


We could fairly call those early Christians meek, mournful, and reviled. But

they offered the world a different way of being, and people gave up family,

privilege, wealth, and sometimes their lives to become part of those

communities.


At the Annual Meeting last Sunday, Reverend. Deb reminded us that the

Church as we know it is declining. Christianity in the United States has

been doing so for decades, and if the trend continues as it has, there will

be no more Episcopal Church by 2050.


There are a number of theories and tactics proposed for how to reverse

that decline, but I wonder, I wonder what it would look like if the Church

simply returned to its place of opposing worldly values.


Because the ways of the world, the ways of empire and cultural supremacy,

have not changed, they are just as angry, cruel, and obsessed with wealth

and status as they were in Jesus’ day.


We, as the followers of Jesus, can choose to go along with with the ways of

the world, or we can take Jesus’ invitation from today’s Gospel seriously.

We can look with sadness at the injustice caused by the ways of the world,

at the pain underlying the endless hustle for wealth, privilege, and empty

happiness bought with violence and anger—at the harm caused to so many

people by those ways of doing business in the ‘real’ world.


And we can choose instead to orient ourselves to a relationship with God

and with one another that does not accept the so-called “wisdom” of the

world. We can commit ourselves to a way of living that prizes gentleness

and kindness, that hungers for real justice and values mercy.


Of course, that might cause people to utter all kinds of evil against us. If

we’re lucky, they might even call us meek, mournful, and reviled.


Amen

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