Blessed are the Unpopular

By Rev. Rebecca Messman

Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke, VA

February 27, 2022

 

Matthew 5:1-2, 9-11

1 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, saying:

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Will you pray with me and for me? Gracious God, Prince of Peace, uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen.

 

I am an early riser. I love to hear the cardinal who starts his morning song while it is still ink black. When I go out to get the paper, I love to see the brave daffodil pressing its green head out of the crust of the ground when it is still freezing cold. And usually I see my neighbor Fran, out walking her dog like she always does. She is a quirky woman who infuriates the neighbors because even though her dog is a 14-year-old Golden who wouldn’t hurt a flea, he lumbers behind her off leash, sometimes leaving “gifts” behind him in people’s yards that Fran doesn’t pick up. It has caused strife. Fran is Presbyterian, sigh, and she knows I am too, so when she passes, she’ll often say “Peace be with you…” so of course, I say, “And also with you.”  I truly mean it for her and our street. And, I wonder if we are peace-makers in that moment, or if peace-making might be a conversation with her about picking up after Scout more often or with others who level more blame on her than might be due.

As you can tell, I’ve been thinking about peace a lot this week. It happens more often than you’d think, that the pre-chosen text for Sunday rings out like a bell, the peal that startles us out of the gray headlines and summons us to God. And so it is that today as headlines thunder and smoke, we hear “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”  

And so it is that today, as history signals with the haunting siren that we have seen brutality and aggression like this before, we hear “blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” 

And so it is that today, as another generation wonders whether it is worth doing the right thing when it just leads to more work and real enemies and a ton of disparaging words in the comments section, we hear “blessed are you when this trolling and this assault happens on my account, rejoice and be glad, it will be noted on heaven’s paycheck.”  As Jesus spoke these words during the Sermon on the Mount, I wonder if the disciples felt shivers up their spines, not surprised one bit that he left these particular beatitudes for the very end of his list. 

Jesus was cutting to the chase: The Jesus way is no popularity contest. It is no stride down the red carpet. If you follow Jesus, people will say you are naïve and unrealistic. They will say loving your enemies is dangerous and eating with folks on that side of the aisle is a complete waste of time and Sunday worship conflicts with too many activities. They will say extending welcome to the stranger can be a security threat. Some people might revile you for being too religious and others might revile you for being not religious enough.  You may be called to the front lines, some of you truly have been, but more likely, the way of Jesus means attempting to love people who soil your yard, it means speaking up for the least of these when it would be easier to go with the crowd, and it means refusing to live only by the light of statistics or the fluorescents of despair, because you are squinting hard to follow the light of Christ.

And an important clarification: in our country practicing our faith may feel challenging, awkward, uncomfortable. but for most of us, it does not actually involve persecution. To be sure, persecution of Christians is still a real thing in our world. According to The New York Times in December of 2021, Christians in India have faced increasing violence and imprisonment, and there are anti-conversion laws on the books in half of the country (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/22/world/asia/india-christians-attacked.html). The Washington Post in February of 2021 reported that Christians in Russia have been tormented mercilessly. In 2017, Jehovah’s Witnesses – who are pacifists and do not vote or participate in military service – were outlawed as “extremists” in Russia, such that a 69-year-old woman named Valentina and her 46-year-old son Roman had their home ransacked, had their Bibles confiscated, and are currently in jail serving a 3-year sentence (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/jehovahs-witnesses-russia-persecution/2021/02/28/980b4c06-76d8-11eb-9537-496158cc5fd9_story.html). When I lived in Guatemala, a Pastor named Jorge Colindres told me that in the ‘80s, the Bible was considered a subversive book and he had to hide his for many years. I asked him why that was, and his chest heaved, “Haven’t you read it? The Bible is about holy freedom and Christ-like love for the poor and wild hope that won’t be tamped down. Dictators don’t like that.” He did the hand motion of a bomb going off. 

Peter, James and John – disciples of Jesus – faced that kind of persecution. The Apostle Paul perpetrated that kind of persecution until his own conversion and then he faced that kind of persecution. They were all martyred. And of course, sadly, professed Christians have persecuted other Christians and Christians have persecuted people of other faiths. Members of 16th Street Baptist in Birmingham and Mother Emanuel in Charleston and Tree of Life in Pittsburgh know that all too well.

By the time he preached the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus knew humanity was a boiling stew of goodness and sin, and the good news … the headline of this story…is that he blessed us anyway.

Today, Jesus’ blessing makes direct eye contact with us. It shifts from the global third person “blessed are those who” to hyperlocal second person, blessed are you. And whew, I feel it deeply. Blessed are you when you have felt bombarded with falsehoods. Blessed are you when you have witnessed so much nastiness. Blessed are you having seen so much evil that it is tempting to hole up in the bunker of cynicism, tempting to hide in the basement of overwhelm, tempting to take up arms in the foxhole of vengeance, or tempting to pull the blinds on everything for the sake of your sanity. Good news. You are siblings with every person who has ever breathed and wept and spilled coffee and lost something they can’t get back and behaved stupidly and needed a second and a third chance and who nevertheless deserves not to be bullied, harassed, or attacked.

When you work for real peace, Jesus says you are on your way to the Kingdom of Heaven. Oh, one more thing, that means you are not on a Disney Cruise. These beatitudes are the voice over the intercom of our lives, saying the captain has illuminated the fasten seat belt sign and there will be turbulence. These are words for when we are gripping the armrest. But even if we are scared, our job is to trust the Prince of Peace anyway. We trust that a greater hand is steering the vessel. We know that Christ went before us and faced all that we face and emerged shrouded in light and goodness. 

Today is called Transfiguration Sunday. It is when we remember that the disciples didn’t just hear the words of the Sermon on the Mount and go on their scary way. They also beheld Jesus in transcendent glory on the mount, next to Moses and Elijah. And you don’t forget something like that. That kind of luminous peace stays within you as you endeavor to make peace in the world. In fact, I think you need peace inside you if you ever hope to see it in the world.

What do you do when the turbulence of conflict comes? Do you pray? Do you breathe deeply? Do you remember the goodness and glory of God that can’t be tamped down?

This week, I reached for the sermon C.S. Lewis preached in 1939, shortly after Germany invaded Poland. He said, “this war creates no absolutely new situation. It simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it.” And our job is still to live every day ‘as to God.’ 

Then, I read sermons from Peter Marshall, preaching at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church when the US entered WWII. He said this country could never achieve internationally what it wouldn’t accede to individually, nationally, locally. He said, “A different world cannot be created by indifferent people.” 

And finally, I read what Apostle Paul preached. There weren’t armrests enough for the turbulence he faced — shipwrecks, floggings, being jailed at least three times. And still he wrote, Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 

In their words, I heard something deeply true. Peace-making is as local as it is global. It is as personal as it is universal. It is as theological as it is situational.

Earlier this week, Fran made her way down the street again, and I prayed for the peace to see this situation differently. And that’s when I saw her stoop down to pick something up. I thought this might be a turning point for our street. The moment she cleaned up her ways. And it was, but not in the way I thought, because what she did next surprised me. She was picking up the newspaper from the sidewalk in front of the Georgiadis home. Lord knows that family has faced so many health problems lately. I wondered if she was going to “borrow” their Washington Post bag. But instead, she tromped the newspaper all the way up their icy brick stairway so that it would be placed neatly on their doormat when they woke up. And on down the sidewalk she went, Scout lumbering freely behind her. And in that small interaction, I felt blessed, blessed by a turn of events I hadn’t counted on. I felt a peace, peace that surpassed the understanding I had previously held about my neighbor.

Apparently, the wall of Shishu Bhavan, a children’s home of Calcutta operated by the Sisters of Charity, Mother Teresa’s order, reads: 

People are unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered.  Love them anyway. 

If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.  Do good anyway. 

If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies.  Succeed anyway. 

The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.  Do good anyway. 

Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.  Be honest and frank anyway. 

What you spent years building may be destroyed overnight.  Build anyway.

People really need help but may attack you if you help them.  Help people anyway. 

Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.  Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.

For you see, in the end it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.

 

What a great summary.

The cardinal sings in the dark. The daffodil rises in the cold. The world is messy and broken and beautiful and surprising. The headlines are grim but when Ms. Georgiadis opens her door the paper will be right there and she won’t necessarily know who helped her but she’ll feel blessed anyway.