Jesus’ Inaugural Address

by | Jan 29, 2017

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 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.”
Matthew 5:1-12

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Good morning Church of the Atonement and all our guests. Good morning, again, confirmands, as you prepare to take an important step in your life. Look around–you are surrounded by the love and abiding faith of this community.

It’s an honor for me to worship God with you. I cannot tell you how proud I am to serve as your bishop, and to have as a colleague and friend your rector, the Rev. Jocelyn Irving. I am in awe of you, Jocelyn, and I want your people to know that. Your faith, your love for Jesus, the clarity of your vision, your unfailing devotion to your family, and to your commitment to your own self care are examples to us all.

I am also impressed with the work you all have done since my last official visit, which was when you were just beginning the strategic planning process that is now in full implementation. We are proud as a diocese to support a part of that plan with one of our first congregational growth grants. The clarity of your proposal to provide employment opportunities to the young people of Southeast Washington, and your own engagement and commitment to the project, makes it a model that we now hold up to other congregations seeking diocesan support. You are a witnesses to the power of Christ to transform lives, and I give thanks to God for you.  

Yesterday we gathered as a diocese at our annual convention. Your clergy and lay delegates were there–thank you for that. I spoke of our collective strategic efforts to invest in the vibrancy of our congregations, for we need to be not only faithful but fruitful in our efforts, and to be  witnesses for Christ and his love at a time such as this.

We didn’t choose this time, but it’s ours, and on our own watch troubling things are happening. As you said, Rev. Jocelyn, in your opening remarks, we need to be where Jesus needs us.

On our watch, our nation has elected a president who seems determined to lead through fear and threat perception, which only encourages and legitimizes the worst in human behavior. It’s dangerous for everyone, and it is in direct opposition to Jesus’ gospel of love.

The list of alarming actions and statements from the president’s first week in office take our collective breath away, but nothing is more insulting to me as a Christian than for President Trump to declare that the some of the most vulnerable refugees on the planet here are not welcome because they are of the Muslim faith, and that instead, Christians are to receive favored status. That should offend all Christian Americans, for it flies in the face of everything Jesus has taught us. As your bishop, I will to stand with other Christians and interfaith leaders on Tuesday to say that such a policy is morally bankrupt. As people of faith and compassion we are called to welcome the stranger, for we were once strangers in the land of Egypt. We are called to welcome the refugee, for Jesus himself was a refugee, when his parents fled their homeland to save their young son’s life.

Jesus needs us to be stand firm and to say that we will not ruled by fear.

I’ve heard it said that the opposite of love is not hate, but fear. Jesus’ gospel is rooted in love, and Scripture assures us that perfect love casts out fear. We need not respond in hate to anyone, for Jesus meets us in the places where we are afraid with his love, and courage, and strength. We need to call on that love, courage, and strength for the days ahead.

So dwell with me now in these extraordinary words of Jesus from the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew.

In the way that Matthew organizes his telling of Jesus’ ministry, the lists of blessings known as the Beatitudes is Jesus’ opening statement of an inaugural address that we now call the Sermon on the Mount. In the chapters leading up to this sermon, Jesus was baptized by John and he heard the voice of God speak to him: “you are my beloved; with you I am well pleased.” He then felt God’s spirit lead him into the desert for 40 days of prayer, temptation, and the testing of his call. He left the desert, strengthened by the Holy Spirit, and called his first disciples. Then he traveled around the region of Galilee with them, doing such wondrous things that people began to seriously take notice. There was something extraordinary about him, something so clear, so  loving and strong, that it was as if holiness itself were walking among them.

In that context, as Jesus sees the crowds following him, he climbs a hill. While the crowd gathered around, he motions for his disciples to sit down. Then he begins to speak–his first public address. It lasts for three chapters, as Matthew records it. I commend the Sermon on the Mount to you in its entirely, as an antidote to all that we’re hearing from our president right now. We’ll read portions of it for the next three weeks in church, but it is so rich in teaching that we’ll only get through one chapter. So read it on your own, and you receive in the essence of Jesus’ ethical teachings, how he wanted his disciples to live in this world.

And if it doesn’t make you personally uncomfortable in some places, you’re not paying attention. Jesus challenges all of us to be the best we can possibly be, to offer the highest of human potential. It’s so challenging, in fact, that we quickly realize how incapable we are of living as he  calls us to on our own. We need the grace of God working through us to be able to forgive as he calls to forgive; to love our enemies the way he challenges us to do; to turn the other cheek or offer our coat when someone asks for our shirt. We have to rely on his grace and his forgiveness when we fail, and then get back up and start again.

For all it’s challenge to us, Jesus begins this sermon with words of blessing. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, those that mourn, the merciful. . .”  Ponder with me the power of blessing: what it feels like to receive and to offer blessing. There are few powers given us with more healing, life affirming potential than the power to bless. For to speak a word of blessing is to call upon all that is good to surround the one we bless. In blessing, to quote a great Irish poet, John O’Donohue, “we draw a circle of light around a person to protect, heal and strengthen.”

Listen to O’Donohue’s words on blessing: “To be in the world is to be distant from the homeland of wholeness. We are confined by limitation and difficulties. But when we bless someone, we are enabled somehow to go beyond our present frontiers and reach into the source.” That is to say, a blessing invokes our future wholeness and brings it back to us.

You know how in storytelling, we use the word “foreshadow” to describe something that represents or symbolizes a part of the story yet to come? How usually in the first chapter of a story, something happens to “foreshadow” what’s to come, usually something difficult? What O’Donohue says is that a blessing fore-brightens the way. Not foreshadows, forebrightens. When you offer blessing, you’re doing what Jesus did, surrounding someone with a circle of light, and healing, and protection.

Now about the list of people of that Jesus called blessed in Matthew 5. This list of blessings is often read at funerals. In fact, I just preached on these words at a funeral last week for an extraordinary woman of God, a lay leader at our Cathedral, who died suddenly. It’s often read at weddings. It was the text my husband and I chose for our wedding over 30 years ago. And we read this list of blessings every year in church on the Feast of All Saints, when we remember those who have gone before us who inspired by their examples of faith and love.

And one way to read this list is as if it were describing different groups of people, as if Jesus were here blessing us and saying “blessed are the poor in spirit” meaning these people to my right, and “blessed are those who mourn,” over there, and the “blessed are the meek,” in the back corner, and “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” down in front. Each blessing is distinct and we can determine which one fits us best. That’s one way to read the text.

But another way is to read the list of blessings as all the qualities of being that Jesus calls us to cultivate within ourselves. We have the potential for each one, and as we nurture and cultivate these qualities and attributes–recognizing our own poverty of spirit, striving to be merciful, seeking peace, and so on–not only are we blessed in the ways Jesus promised, we become a blessing to others wherever we go.  

And how do we cultivate these qualities of blessing? I suspect that you already know.  Let me give you three examples to illustrate the same point:

When I was 22 years old, I took a job as a caseworker in a social service agency run by the Methodist Church in Tucson, Arizona. I met with people seeking financial assistance and emergency housing. This was in the early 1980s, and not only were Central Americans streaming across the Mexican border fleeing the brutal civil wars in their countries, people from the northeast and midwestern states were also arriving in droves. Many had lost their jobs because industries in the Rust Belt were leaving their communities for cheaper labor abroad. In response, thousands packed up their cars and drove to warmer climates. It harkened back to the Dustbowl era, when farmers who had lost their land to the banks headed west. People would arrive in Tucson with no money, no family, and they had no place to live except in their cars, some of which had broken down.

Some of the people seeking our help had brought a lot of their suffering on themselves. They had made mistakes; their family relationships weren’t great; there was a fair amount of drug and alcohol abuse. And I confess to you that sometimes I would sit across my desk, and in my 22-year-old arrogance I would feel morally superior. I sat in judgement and wondered to myself who of the many who came to us were worthy of the money we had to give. (I’m not proud of this, mind you.)
But remember, I was 22 years old, and in those years, I also made some pretty big mistakes. More than once, I put myself in a vulnerable place and was spared the worst consequences of my actions only because I had a safety net to catch me, something that the people who came to us for help didn’t have. I didn’t know the term white privilege then but that’s what it was, although there were plenty of white people on the other side of my desk.

Suffice it to say, there were days when I came to work knowing my poverty of spirit, knowing my need for mercy. And on those days, I had greater capacity to be merciful, to look into another’s eyes as one person poor in spirit to another. That’s when my entire countenance changed. Just as Jesus said that we grow in forgiveness by being forgiven ourselves, we grow in our capacity to be a blessing when we are in touch with our own need for blessing and mercy.  During that time, I was also in the presence of people who embodied a hunger and thirst for righteousness, who were committed peacemakers, who were willing to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake, and I wanted to be among them. Their example of blessedness inspired me.

That’s how we cultivate qualities of blessing, when we know our need for blessing ourselves and receive blessing, and when we are inspired by another’s power to bless, so that in a state of humility we can offer what we have received.

Yesterday at Diocesan Convention, we were debating a resolution that called us to reaffirm, in light of President Trump’s election, our church’s commitment to social justice. The resolution called us to stand with those who are particularly vulnerable in our communities now, and it named particular groups of people, including Muslims. Someone questioned whether we should be that specific–shouldn’t we stand for social justice in general and not start calling out particular groups?

The rector of Our Saviour Episcopal Church in Silver Spring came to the microphone. He reminded the convention that his church was the one that had been vandalized with the words,  Trump Nation Whites Only, spray-painted on their sign and memorial garden wall. Our Saviour is a multi-cultural church, serving immigrants from around the world, including Spanish speakers. Among the many who came to express their solidarity with the people of Our Saviour, he said, were members of an Islamic Temple in Silver Spring. “The Imam and many of the temple’s leaders stood alongside us and came to worship with us the following Sunday. They continued to check on us to see if we were okay. And on Christmas Eve day,” he said, “our Muslim community arrived with over 500 Christmas cards, personally signed, and I gave one to each family in our congregation. I am proud and eager to stand in solidarity with our Muslim neighbors now in their hour of need, because they stood so faithfully and lovingly with us.”

One final example to drive the point home:

In a short film that you can watch on YouTube, the scene opens with a young man, presumably of Middle Eastern descent, sitting alone in the waiting room of a doctor’s office. Then a family enters the room–mother, father, and young girl. When the girl sits next to the young man, her mother quickly takes her by the hand and moves her as far away from him as she can. They all sit in silence, and the parents are clearly uncomfortable and hostile in their eye exchange with the young man. The doctor’s office opens and a nurse beckons them in, all of them together. The parents eye the young man uneasily as the the little girl runs to receive her doctor’s embrace. The young man stand off in a corner while the parents sit down in front of the doctor’s desk. “Is something wrong doctor?” the father asks. He looks at the young man and back at the doctor, as if to say, “what is he doing here?” The doctor replies, “Oh no, there is nothing wrong.” He goes and puts his arm around the young man and says. “I wanted you to meet Jafar.” He looks back at the young girl. “He is Anna’s bone marrow donor.” The girl beams, and her parents first look at each other then down at the ground in shame then meet the gentle gaze of the now smiling young man.

To be a blessing, we all need to remember our need of blessing, so that we can receive it and then share what we have received. We’re the ones called to do this now. This is our watch.

I am confident that we are up to this good and important work. And I know that we’ll fail sometimes, but that will just serve to remind us how much we need blessing ourselves. Then we’ll pick ourselves up and begin again, in faithfulness to the one who loves us all, died for our sins, and promised us a place in that land of light and joy and wholeness. Our blessings now, received and given, forebrighten the way.