(Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany A, based on Matthew 5:1-12, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Micah 6:6-8)
I’ll never forget the day about twenty years ago, when I was on my seminary internship, and my supervisor said to me, “For every pastor there comes a time when you have to decide, ‘What am I willing to go to the cross for?’” In other words: “For what or for whom am I willing to risk everything—perhaps even my life?…” Looking back, I think my supervisor was right, except that he should’ve said “for every Christian” instead of “for every pastor!…” “For every Christian there comes a times to decide, “For what or for whom am I willing to go to the cross?…” My friends, for me that time is now. As I stand before you today, I’m heartsick and sick in the pit of my stomach because of all the hateful and hurtful things that are happening in our nation and our world. As one called by God to proclaim the Good News of God’s love for the whole world, I cannot and will not remain silent while many of God’s most vulnerable children are being hurt…. Instead, I will do my best to welcome these sisters and brothers as God in Christ Jesus has welcomed me: with open arms and an open heart…. As I stand before you, I have no illusions: I know that those who take a stand for Christ will never win any popularity contests. I don’t care about that. What I do care about is living a life that makes a difference, and for me that means answering God’s call to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. It means fulfilling my call as a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America—a call that is incorporated into the constitution of our church:
*C9.03. Consistent with the faith and practice of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,
- Every ordained minister shall:
1) preach the Word;
2) administer the sacraments;
3) conduct public worship;
4) provide pastoral care; and
5) speak publicly to the world in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, calling for justice and proclaiming God’s love for the world.
(I never thought I’d be quoting from our constitution, but here I am!…)
Seriously, though, more than anything else, I’m heartsick over the increasing divisions between people. Yes, we live in troubled times. Yes, there are very real dangers out there, and real people are experiencing real hurt. In their pain, some are lashing out, seeking someone to blame; I read recently that “hate is the bodyguard of pain and grief,” and I think there’s much truth in that. Yet God has shown us that hate and hardheartedness are never the answer. As people of God, we’re called NOT to turn away from our neighbor, and we’re called NOT to turn our neighbor away! In the first five books of the the Old Testament, we hear God’s call to care for the stranger and the alien among us 36 times, including a passage in Leviticus—a book I never thought I’d be quoting, but we live in strange times!… The passage reads as follows: “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” Similarly, throughout the gospels we hear Jesus declaring that God loves the most unexpected people: the outcasts and the outsiders. The other books of the New Testament bear witness to the Good News of God’s saving power spreading ever outward from Jerusalem to include all nations. As disciples of Jesus Christ in this time and place, we, too, are called to welcome others as God has first welcomed us: with love and mercy and hospitality…..
I remember saying to you in a sermon several months ago that God hates division…but God LOVES multiplication! God loves creating things and then blessing them to “be fruitful and multiply.” God loves multiplying wine to bring joy to a marriage feast. God loves multiplying loaves and fishes to feed God’s people. God loves multiplying blessing to God’s people by saying to us, “I will bless you…so that you will be a blessing,” and, “Go and make disciples of all nations!…” In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus tells his disciples they are blessed just as they are…. Let that sink in a moment: Jesus’ disciples are blessed by God before they even do anything! They are blessed because they—and we!– belong to God. Every single one of us!… God has knit each of us together in our mothers’ wombs. So, you and I are created out of love and for love. Yet being blessed by God isn’t just something that’s reserved for the next life. Being blessed by God is for this life, because, as Jesus himself is fond of saying, the Kingdom of God is at hand!… Just so there’s no misunderstanding: Being blessed doesn’t mean that you and I are exempt from the hardship and pain of living in this world!… On the contrary, in the Beatitudes Jesus tells us that even though it doesn’t always feel like it, we’re blessed right where we live: right in the very midst of this world of hurt…. We’re blessed SO THAT we’ll have the courage and compassion we need to live as God’s people here and now.
By his life and teaching, our Lord Jesus reveals to us what it means to be blessed by God: To be blessed is NOT to be comfortable; it is to comforted. To be blessed is NOT to be wealthy in a worldly sense; it is to be rich in the things that truly matter: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are what the Bible calls the “fruits of the spirit.” In other words, these are the things that fill our hearts to overflowing when you and I say “yes” and allow the Spirit of God to become part of our everyday life…. Furthermore, Jesus tells us that to be blessed is NOT to wield worldly power over our neighbors; it is to be empowered to raise our neighbors up to new life and then to stand with them in solidarity as sisters and brothers.
Dear friends in Christ, when you and I look around us, when we look in the mirror, and when we look in our hearts, I’m sure we’d all agree we’re very blessed. When we stop to consider that all we have and all we are is from our Creator, then we see that we’ve been entrusted with many gifts: gifts we’re called to use for the sake of this world God loves so much…. How you and I live each day matters, because each day we have the opportunity to bring healing and hope to our little corner of the world. Each of us must ask God to help us discern how to use our God-given gifts in loving service to our neighbor. As for me, I cannot and will not sit idly by while my loved one who has a disability is stripped of her health care coverage. To my neighbors who cannot speak for themselves, I say, “Teach me to be a more compassionate and courageous witness to the gospel, and I will speak out in solidarity with you….” I cannot and will not turn away when my gay, lesbian, and transgender friends are suffering the pain of an anti-gay backlash. To them I say, “I will meet you at the Reconciling in Christ worship service this evening, and I will hug you and tell you I love you. Teach me to be a more compassionate and courageous witness to the gospel, and I will stand in solidarity with you….” I cannot and I will not stay silent while innocent people are labeled and scapegoated. I will write letters to our local mosques and tell our Muslim neighbors they have allies in our community. I will attend the Oregon Sanctuary Cohort information tomorrow evening, and I will say to my immigrant sisters and brothers, “I love you, and I’ve got your back. Teach me to be a more compassionate and courageous witness to the gospel, and I will stand in solidarity with you….” You should know, my friends, that our own Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service has joined the outcry against the grave injustice of turning away families fleeing warfare and persecution—families who’ve already undergone a lengthy and intensive vetting process. Also, I learned that according to Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, 51% of refugees are children!… I remember attending a presentation hosted by Lutheran Community Services Northwest last February where I was shocked to learn the average time a refugee spends in a refugee camp. Does anyone want to take a guess? […] Seventeen years! Can you imagine?! A child could be born and grow up there and know no other home…and, in fact, that happens all too often!… As God’s people, you and I cannot ignore the sad irony that Friday’s executive order was issued on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and we dare not forget the fact that thousands of Jews perished because they were denied visas and turned away from our shores. When I researched this, I was shocked and saddened to learn that this decision was based on a stated policy of “America first….” And I have to tell you it gave me pause when Jesus’ words popped into my head, “The last will be first, and the first will be last….” My friends, holy Scripture and human history teach us that oppressing or scapegoating a person or group of people based on socioeconomic status or nationality or religion is NEVER in keeping with God’s will…. In fact, scapegoating is what happened to Jesus: Those who perceived Jesus as a threat to their power had him put to death on the cross in an effort to put down the Christian movement he was leading…. To say it another way, fear led to hatred, which led to our Lord’s death on the cross….
Dear friends in Christ, “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.” Nobody goes to the cross of their own accord, but as one called by Christ, I will go to the cross and claim its power in order to speak out, to call out injustice where I see it, and to stand with my sisters and brothers who are being cast down and cast out…. I will stake my life on the cross for the sake of my neighbors, because my Lord has staked his life on the cross for my sake. As Jesus himself says, “No one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” and “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another….” Sisters and brothers, today I urge you to “cast all your anxiety on [God], because [God] cares for you.” Don’t live your life out of fear; instead, live in light of God’s never-ending love for you. Dare to trust that you were created out of God’s love and that you are forever held in this love that is stronger than death…. Indeed, God’s love for you is the only thing that can set you free from fear: free to live a wholehearted, Christ-centered life that gives life to others….. Thanks be to God! Amen.
 Leviticus 19:33-34.
 See John 2.
 See Matthew 14:13-21.
 Genesis 12:2.
 Matthew 28:19a.
 See Galatians 5:22.
 Genesis 1:28a.
 Matthew 20:16.
 1 Corinthians 1:18.
 John 15:13.
 John 13:34b.
 1 Peter 5:7.