January 30, 2011
Sermon for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany
January 30, 2011
The Rev. Bradford A. Rundlett
1st Corinthians 1:18-31
“Jesus went up the mountain, sat down, and taught his disciples some very unusual things like ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.’”
I was stunned by the news that Jean-Claude Duvalier returned to Haiti. I was there briefly, twice during his presidency, and saw no evidence that his government had the slightest concern for the people they were elected to help. The Duvaliers - Francois the father, and then Jean-Claude the son – ruled Haiti for twenty-nine nightmarish years. They made a fortune appropriating government funds for personal use, selling drugs, selling human beings. While the other ten million people on that crowded slice of an island struggled just to survive, “Papa Doc” and “Baby Doc” (as they were called), enjoyed an extremely luxurious lifestyle. In 1980 “Baby Doc” threw a wedding for himself and his bride; their special day cost three million dollars. At that time the average annual income for a Haitian citizen was two hundred dollars.
Baby Doc was finally ousted in 1986 and fled to France where he continued to live quite lavishly, until his fortune and his bride ran out. And now he says he has returned “to help his country.”
I find that hard to believe.
I am reminded that sometime in the early 19th century Senator William L. Marcy of New York made a statement that has become a well-worn axiom, and which seems especially fit - “To the victor belong the spoils.” History bears witness; there are winners, and there are losers. And rarely are people from places like Port-au-Prince, the Pine Ridge Reservation, Dungannon, or the Embry Rucker Shelter, in the winner’s circle.
Does it have to be this way?
Jesus said “The meek – meaning the poor, the powerless; the great multitude of people who have little or no value in this world – these will inherit the earth.” And my guess is that no one who believed his outlandish declarations. In fact Jesus had a long list of things any sane person would find very hard to swallow. He said, “If you want to be rich, give everything you have to the poor.” “If you’re looking for joy and happiness, devote your life to helping other people.” “If you want power and prestige, try serving other people like they are all better than you.” “And, if you want to save your life, let it go.”
Only a fool would fall for any of that.
But according to the Gospel, and unlike the hucksters who would gladly sell you ocean-front property in the Sinai desert, Jesus made his claims with conviction. He looked folks in the eye and promised that people who hurt so bad they’ve lost all hope of not hurting, will one day waltz into Heaven, all their suffering gone and forgotten. People whose hearts are broken beyond repair, will wake up one morning so full of joy they’ll never stop laughing. Jesus promised that people who search desperately for any sign of a good and loving god in this seemingly godless world will meet the Holy One face to face, and know that the Creator of the universe is their very best friend. People, he insisted, who work and pray for peace, will live to see and celebrate universal and everlasting peace. And we will all discover, he declared, that we are the children of God, destined by grace to inherit the Kingdom of God.
If you and I had been there to ask anyone in Capernaum or the surrounding villages; if we wee to ask any of our contemporary skeptical neighbors, we
Get an earful of how his outrageous proclamations were quite the opposite of how life actually was and still is. There’s no good reason why anyone who has marked two score or more years on this sad planet should give even passing consideration to what this crazy teacher and deluded prophet had to say . . .
. . . except, he clearly believed what he proclaimed. Of all the holy rollers who’ve ever clogged the airwaves, Jesus put his money where his mouth was.
He defied the power brokers and over turned the status quo. He befriended people who didn’t have a friend in the world. He exposed the lies we all live with, and reaffirmed the truth we need to hear. He confronted the religious and political tyrants of his day, knowing they’d flay his flesh, and nail him to a cross. He showed us how to live and how to love, without fear. He showed us how to believe in God and the victory of goodness. He staked his life on a Godly Kingdom that has no end, and in which all people are loved and welcome.
Jesus taught that God will make everything turn out right, in time. All pain and suffering, wrong and injustice, corruption and failure, will pass into oblivion. And, God’s grace and glory will go on forever, and ever, and ever.
“Blessed are you who want things to be right” he insisted “because someday things will be right.” “Blessed are you who do what you can to make things right” he promised “because your efforts really do make a difference, and one day all your hopes and prayers will be fulfilled.”
It sounds like pie in the sky, wishful thinking, a “Happy ever after” fairy tale with no more truth to it than the claims of street corner charlatans selling snake oil. At best, many would say, Jesus gave us a crutch to lean on when the victors of this “dog eat dog” world have done their worst, and the more fortunate of us walk away with a permanent limp. To many people, Jesus was just another self-deluded savior who would discover soon enough that the winners write history, and no one would remember a peasant preacher from Nazareth.
“Was Jesus just a myth”, “a legend?” A lot of people would say “Yes.” And we’re tempted to think this sometimes too. Common sense suggests there can’t be more than a grain of truth to any of the stories about him – that he was God Incarnate, that he walked out of his tomb, ascended to heaven, and rules the world. It’s all just too good to be true, and inconsistent with the real world we live in. The Gospels offer false hope for hopeless people; that’s all.
Believing in Jesus, believing what he taught and demonstrated, seems utterly foolish doesn’t it?
And yet . . . I’ve seen people not acting in their own best interest, and often at great risk, like Jesus supposedly did.
I’ve seen people with broken hearts putting their hearts on the line again and again, certain they’ll find love and joy, and that it will be well worth the pain.
I’ve seen people with every reason to give up on God, stand up on Sunday morning to profess a faith they can’t explain, a faith that holds onto them when they’ve lost their hold on it.
I’ve seen people who’ve said a final good bye to loved ones, loving them still, trusting they will see them again, that God will wipe away every tear, and all the suffering and heartache banished forever.
I’ve seen people who were by all accounts out for themselves alone, who turn out to be the most thoughtful, compassionate, and generous people you’d ever hope to meet.
I’ve seen people with dignity and courage all out of proportion to the difficult hand they’ve been dealt.
I’ve seen many of you give up your free time to work in the Jeannie Schmidt Free Clinic, The Closet, the Embry Rucker Shelter, Reston Interfaith, Link, and other such places, though there’s no more benefit to it than the simple satisfaction of helping someone.
I’ve seen many of you give up your vacation time to work in Dungannon or Pine Ridge. And I’ve heard some of you say that you’re ready to go to Haiti. When our sisters and brothers there are ready for us to come and share their burdens, we’ll tell them, in person, “We have not forgotten you, and we will not turn away from you.”
I’ve seen changes, for the good, in some of Haiti – Cange, Peligre, Montrouis, Mirebalais. Where massive relief efforts have stalled or fail, the Church, the people of God prevail. We’ve been there, and we will remain there, as long as needed, as we vow in our Baptismal Covenant – we will “proclaim by word and deed the Good News of God in Christ”, “serve Christ in all persons”, “love our neighbors as ourselves”, “strive for justice and peace”, and “respect the dignity of every human being.”
I see, every day, here in this building, people who are invisible to this community – individuals who suffer from the disease of addiction, people who are marginalized because they are different; men, women, and children who are homeless. Jesus treated these people like honored guests and valued friends. And so do we.
I see miracles, I see manifest evidence that what Jesus taught and how he lived, was and is good, was and is true, because his beatitudes, the blessings of God, unfold in St. Timothy’s and in you; because the love and promises of God in Christ are realized here and now.
God has told us, the prophet Micah declared, what we are supposed to do. Jesus has shown us, Paul insisted, what is good and right - “Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God.”
And keep on doing this until justice, kindness, and humility prevail throughout the world, and all people are blessed.
Micah, Paul, and Jesus challenge us to proclaim, live, and spread the blessings of God and God’s Kingdom, throughout this community, this state, this country, and the world.
So, my friends, go with the Spirit of Christ, go with the power and wisdom of God; go in peace to love and serve the Lord.