In the Thursday morning women’s Bible study last spring we started our study of the Beatitudes by sharing our previous memories of them. Some women remembered having to memorize them as children in Sunday School. (Not many of us could remember them all in order any more.) Some women remembered them being read at a loved one’s funeral. Almost all of remembered a neatly stitched pillow sitting in someone’s formal living room – at an aunt’s house or grandma’s. Or maybe it was an old fashioned sampler hanging on the wall or sitting in our hands to keep us busy in the days before widespread television programming. Most of us had some sort of pleasant memory about these beautiful, poetic verses, even if we couldn’t remember the exact verses word for word.
Yes, these Beatitudes are beautiful words to stitch on a pillow, a blessing to those who read them and meditate upon them, but as we kept on reading, as we heard in them not just comfort in times of hardship, but a call to hardship in times of comfort. We started to hear that along with the usual and familiar needlework blessings, there may be a bit of a curse in the Beatitudes - - a curse on lives of complacency, lives of quiet comfortable just me-and-Jesus faith, lives of blissful disengagement, which I think if we’re honest, is often the kind of lives we want to live.
Most, if not all of us, would rather work on a personal relationship with Jesus, strengthening our commitment to worship and serve God, read about how to deepen our own prayer life, than work on how we make room for others who might want to do it differently in “my” worship services. Most of us would rather focus on budgeting our finances to afford food, clothing, and shelter, focus on our relationships to make them safe and healthy, focus on our family than get involved in the messy world and the messy and sometimes unsafe lives around us. Or if we do want to get involved we tend to want to get involved by making the rest of the world, the rest of the worship the rest of the families look, sound, and act just like ours.
Unfortunately, this is exactly what the Christian church in this country, or at least the mainline and established traditions of the faith, has become known for. We have become known for staying out of things. We have become known for not getting involved. We have become known for working very hard to prop up our institutions that have become largely irrelevant in a world that moves much faster than we do with technology, with human rights, with valuing the people that Jesus values, the outcast, the alien, the marginalized.
And that’s the best I could say about our reputation. Unfortunately, it only gets worse than these thoughts of our ambivalence. There are plenty of people out there, maybe people you know, maybe they are your teen or adult children, maybe they are your brothers or sisters, your aunts or uncles, maybe they are your parents who long ago disengaged from the church they were raised attending out of habit and duty - - there are PLENTY of people out there who think even worse of us than we are irrelevant. They think we are insular. They think we are judgmental. They think we are bickering factions ignorant of the issues the rest of the world is facing. They think we are hurtful, hateful even.
Now this may not be how we view ourselves from the inside. In fact, I’m fairly certain it is the exact opposite of what we see. We see a congregation and a tradition that welcome newcomers in our midst with maybe even overwhelming joy! We see a family of faith that reaches beyond those who are close to serve others through meals prepared for Grace Place, financial assistance offered by the deacons, HUNDREDS (maybe we’re up to THOUSANDS?) of baby layettes given to new mothers how have NOTHING in which to wrap their newborn babies when they leave the hospitals in the Cities. We see a congregation and a tradition of diverse understandings of who God is and how God loves us worshiping together because God is so much bigger than our own understanding.
So why is the view so different? Where is the disconnect? It would be easy to say it lies in the fact that “they” keep driving by. It would be easy to blame the people who don’t walk through our doors. I’ve also heard people blame the media. Surprising, right? Everybody loves to blame the media for everything. We blame the media for giving air time to the distorters of our faith, so-called churches like the Westboro Baptist Church in from Kansas that shows up at the funerals of service men and women, claiming horrifically that God is punishing this nation by killing our sons and daughters for what they see as a lack of morality. Or maybe we just blame these so-called churches directly. We blame the pastor and congregation in Florida that spoke with hate and intolerance when they threatened a mass book-burning targeting the Koran, the holy book of Muslims. We blame individuals who go on television news programs and speak with such arrogance and confidence about how their interpretation of the Word of God must direct the future of this nation.
We find plenty of blame to go around, but maybe just maybe we need to look at ourselves, too. One night a couple of weeks ago my kids and I were looking a recent issue of National Geographic on my iPad. When you view the magazine digitally there are often videos that accompany the written articles and pictures. We were exploring the article from this summer about dying languages around the world. We listened to audio files of rare Native American and Asian languages that are going extinct. William wondered aloud, “How are voices lost forever?” I’ve been asking the same thing this summer about the voice of the mainline Christian faith, and I’ve come to a couple of conclusions.
I think we’re lulled into silence because of the “curse” of the Beatitudes and other “old chestnuts” in Scripture, those about humility and turning the other cheek. It’s our placid definition of what it means to love others and who are neighbor is that we’re supposed to love. Somewhere along the line we convinced ourselves that to do all these things, to be meek, to be pure in heart, to be merciful, to love, to be humble, we have to keep quiet and just roll with the punches. We’ve believed the myth that to be good Christians we shouldn’t get involved in the contentious discussions of world around us. We should just let those things sort themselves out while we gather in here, love on Jesus, and try to convince our children that what we’re talking about matters. We’ve been lulled into silence because we have come to believe that certainly the world knows that as people of the Christian faith we don’t support mass shootings in public places, that we don’t condone violence in houses of worship, that we don’t agree with burning a religious center to the ground, that we don’t all believe the rhetoric that spews from the mouths of talking heads on news networks, that we don’t think vitriolic language in the editorial section of a local newspaper is what is going to solve our community’s problems. “How are voices lost forever?” William asked me. Voices are lost when we don’t use them. We are losing our voice because we aren’t using it.
It is time to start using our voices again. It is time to find some courage, find some strength from Jesus who spoke truth in the face of the accepted authorities, find some blessing, the promise of the presence of God, in claiming a few others of those beautiful Beatitudes - - the ones about hungering and thirsting for righteousness, the ones about making peace. Peace doesn’t come by waiting for the violent acts and the violent speech to run out. Peace has to be made. Peace has to be worked for. Peace has to be practiced again and again, over and over, until it’s no longer a foreign concept, but is something we are known for doing in our community, in our state, in the world.
And calls for peace, calls for righteousness, calls for justice have to spoken or they aren’t calls that are being made they are wished that are being dreamed. Contrary to popular interpretation of our faith tradition, we cannot keep silent and call it meekness. We cannot let everyone else do the talking and call it humility. We cannot always yield the microphone to those who anger us and call it mercy, because the blessing of the Beatitudes is in the WHOLE set. It is time to recover our voice. It is time to speak up and say things like, violence is not OK. We assume the world knows we believe that because it seems so obvious to us, but if we aren’t saying it outloud, how will they know?
How will they know that we don’t agree with hurting people because their skin is a different tone, they pray in a different language, they wear different clothes? How will the world know that we believe all people are created equally and lovingly in the eyes of God and should have equal access to the protection of the law? How will the world know that we believe education is good for ALL people not just some, that whole communities benefit from good schools not just the kids who are in them? How will the world know that we believe health living should not be a privilege? How will they know unless we start speaking up?
About two weeks ago when most of the news was covering the violence at the Sikh temple in Oak Center, Wisconsin, a story went less noticed about a Muslim place of worship and fellowship in Joplin, Missouri. For the second time in as many months, the Islamic Society of Joplin was the target of arson. The mosque’s roof was destroyed on July 4, and on August 6 the entire building was burnt to the ground in a despicable act of hate and intolerance. None of these acts is acceptable. None of these acts or unfortunately countless others large and small are in any way in line with what we believe as followers of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. And it's time we start saying so, not because people are necessarily blaming us, but because they have to hear our voice proclaiming what we know is true.
The proclamation can happen in communal ways, like when the churches and Jewish synagogues of Joplin hosted an evening meal a week ago for their Muslim brothers and sisters in faith at the end of a day of fasting in their holy month of Ramadan. It can happen in very small ways when we refuse to engage in negative speech and discriminatory joking at dinner parties and picnics, family gatherings and church fellowship and tell WHY we won't participate. All in all, it can and must happen when with courage we add our voices of love and justice, welcome and grace to the public discourse.
When we when we studied the Beatitudes last spring the author of the book we studied talked about them as a ladder - not a ladder to climb to claim God's blessing for ourselves over others, but a ladder of blessing we experience when we find ourselves in the midst of life as it is described. He talked about how those who spirits have been emptied have all the riches of the kingdom to inherit, and how when empty we have much to mourn. When mourning we find ourselves more open to resolute quiet. When quiet we notice the need for righteousness. When hungry for righteousness we are prompted to show mercy. While showing mercy we build the peace of Christ around us. When building peace, we may, we just may, upset those who don't want to hear or believe or accept the challenge it brings.
There's that curse of the Beatitudes. They may, they just may, challenge our lives, but it's a risk we have to be willing to take. If we won't take it for the sake of peace and righteousness, if we won't add our voices to the conversation around us, if we won't speak of a more loving and faithful way, who will?