Sermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, for Harvard Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service.
"Blessed are those who are persecuted…"
Jesus lived in a world marked by violence. He lived under the constant threat of terror. The centuries on each side of the the first millennium were unstable in ancient Palestine. Times were rough. The future seemed uncertain.
There was political oppression. Rome was in control of the region. Around forty years before the birth of Jesus, the emperor Caesar appointed Herod “King of the Jews.” Herod was a puppet of the empire. His lavish building projects paid homage to Rome. He increased taxes on the peasants. He seized land from small farmers. His gilded greatness was built on the backs of the poor.
This is why far from being Herod the Great, most knew him as Herod the Horrible. He was little more than an insecure, megalomaniac. Herod was paranoid. He was thin-skinned. His fragile ego needed constant attention and affirmation. He even sentenced his wives and sons to death when they disagreed with him.
To put his craziness in context, we are talking about a man that before his death concocted a scheme to ensure national mourning. Herod imprisoned beloved Jewish leaders throughout the region. At the moment Herod passed away, jailers were to execute these men. The collective outcry would prove to Rome that the Jews were struck with grief at his passing.
So, despite his claims to greatness, we see that Herod was a tiny man. The late great preacher William Sloane Coffin may have said it best. Ego does not make us big, it diminishes us. “For there is no smaller package in the world than a man all wrapped up in himself.”
Along with political oppression came religious insecurity and ethnic conflict. History has proven one perennial fact. Whenever people feel the crushing weight of oppression from above, it’s easier to point the finger of blame at those below. The socially insignificant make for reliable scapegoats. It would be treason for Temple officials to point to imperialism and resource inequality as the source of human suffering in Palestine. That might make those in power upset.
I can hear their conversation through the porthole of history. Religious leaders saying, “We don’t want to offend those in power. That would be unholy and impious of us. So rather than offend, maybe we can ingratiate ourselves to the rich and powerful. Let them know that we are good religious folk.” This is how religious and ethnic divisions are fueled.
Can’t you hear them? “We are the Pharisees, we are good. We are disciplined. But those Sadducees believe in weird theology. They are dangerous. They must be defeated.”
Can’t you hear them? “As Judeans, we are law abiding and upstanding. But those Galileans—they are ethically questionable and morally compromised. Their neighborhoods are crime infested. They make us all look bad.”
Group after group plays this game. Thus, they begin to engage in what psychologists call the narcissism of minor differences. We accentuate the differences between ourselves and others, in order to make ourselves feel superior. In the process, we lose sight of the ways so many of us are so similar. Most are just trying to live positive and productive lives. Yet its easier to attack the humanity of another. In the process, however, we destroy the most valuable part of ourselves—our capacity to empathize.
This is the context in which we enter today’s text. A context of political oppression. A context of religious insecurity. A context of ethnic strife.
If we use history as our guide then we know that whenever oppression, insecurity, and strife are combined, we end up with a Molotov cocktail of destruction. It’s not the rich and powerful who ignite first, but rather those who are already most vulnerable. These are the people who flocked to Jesus. These are the folk who sought out Jesus in search of a miracle.
Many already knew about this man who had antibiotics in the hem of his garment. They heard about this man who was an effective gynecologist and an experienced dermatologist.
Excitement surrounded Jesus. He was a proven pediatrician and an insightful psychologist. He was a lawyer who never lost a case and an undertaker who never buried a body.
These are the reasons why the crowd gathered around him. These were the people, the most vulnerable in ancient Palestine, who were in search of a miracle.
Simply ordinary folk in need. I doubt any of them regarded themselves as revolutionaries. To be honest, these were probably the same type of people who would have told Moses, “Dude, take us back to Egypt.”
They were not those who would have stoned a prophet. This is probably because they probably didn’t feel their voice made a difference anyway. Ordinary folk. People with problems like you and me. But since they were from the lower classes, it’s easier to view them as problem people.
Miracles were for them. Tales of miracles were for them. This is what we should understand about the gospels. When we read the miracle accounts, they were stories of the incredible that made points about the political. Miracle accounts represent a revolt against the status quo. Miracles are forms of symbolic protest.
Does anyone here remember a woman with an issue of blood? The Bible says that she was bleeding for twelve years, and doctor after doctor took her money, but rather than get better her condition worsened. One might read this tale as a revolt against gendered purity politics. Priests would not let her near the Temple. She was ceremonially unclean. Women like her were religious pariahs. So, when we hear a story of Jesus healing this woman, we hear a story about a God whose love for the most vulnerable among us outweighs our concern for law and religious custom.
Does anyone remember the story of the blind beggar? The Bible says that this man was born blind. This led Jesus’s disciples to ask, “Who sinned? He or his parents?” But when we hear about Jesus reaching down into the dirt in order to make a healing ointment, the point becomes clear. This story is not as much about his sight, but rather how you and I see sin and suffering.
We should look for a God whose ways are not like our ways. You and I may seek simple answers to complex questions. You and I may need to rationalize and justify somebody else’s pain. But this miracle tells us that God’s amazing grace exceeds our finite comprehension and limited understanding of the world.
Or does anyone remember the ten lepers? Ten young men who came to Jesus in search of healing. Maybe they had this dangerous, contagious disease. Or maybe the disease was just a metaphor. Leprosy was a metaphor to describe ten young men whose bodies were always and already marked as dangerous. Their bodies were always and already marked as a plague on our society.
But look at Jesus. Jesus’s healing teaches us an important moral lesson. We judge the physical appearance where God looks on the heart. We worry about the color or condition of one’s skin, yet God measures the compassion in one’s soul.
This is why everyone is crowding around Jesus. These were just well-meaning folk in need of a miracle. Well-meaning people who want to be well-adjusted. They wanted a quick fix. Yet it seems Jesus had something else in mind.
Rather than providing a quick panacea to solve their individual problems, Jesus decides to take an alternate course of action. Jesus sits down on the hill and offers what has become one of the most famous sermons the world has ever known, the Beatitudes, a term that literally means blessing.
Here Jesus provides the people with more than an instantaneous change. Jesus provides the man with an alternative view of how they might see themselves. Jesus provides an alternative view of how they might see their world.
Most of the people assembled had accepted Caesar and Herod’s vision of the world.
Blessed are the rich, for Caesar Augustus is God.
Blessed are those who boast, for this is how we make a name for ourselves.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for power, for this is how one gets ahead in life.
Blessed are the strong, for they can crush the weak.
Blessed are the warriors, for they shall be called children of the Empire.
Like so many of us, these people were tempted to embrace the worldview of those in power. Like many of us, these people were compelled to compete on the field of somebody else’s values. If they can just fit in with those in power, they might be blessed.
Jesus flips the script. He tells them they are already blessed. They are already full of honor. Why? Because God’s kingdom provides us with another vision of prosperity. God’s kingdom gives us another ethical path toward living a productive life.
The beatitudes provide a blueprint. Do you want a miracle? Do you want to be blessed? If so, change your frame of reference.
Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called Children of God.
You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. If you are in search of a miracle, then you need look no further than the person sitting right beside you. Care for them. Honor them. Celebrate them. For when you and I embrace the blessings of God — care for the poor, a demonstration of mercy, working toward peace — we are actually living into our own miracle.
I must admit, these are some of the lessons that I have learned over the past year. Working with the architects, engineers, and construction crews on the Memorial Church renovation project, they have taught me some things. They have taught me much about life.
First, they have taught me the importance of having blueprints in order to execute a plan. In a major renovation, nothing ever goes quite as planned. It is easy to get distracted. It’s tempting to take short cuts. Yet when you have a clear articulation of the task at hand; when you have a clearly defined picture of what the end result ought to be, it is easier to remain calm. It is easier to remain focused. It is easier to remain disciplined in the face of the unexpected.
This is what the Beatitudes offer us. Just like the prophet Micah that served as the Old Testament lesson today, both Micah and Jesus say, stick to this vision of what is good. I don’t need your theological sophistication. I don’t need your elaborate sacrifices. I’ve already gave you the blueprint of a good life, “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before your God.” If you’re searching for a miracle, then follow this blueprint of life and build your miracle.
The second thing this renovation process has taught me is the importance of collaboration and cooperation. Once you have your blueprints in place, then it is time to start coordinating the many actors involved. It is time for us to work together.
During a period when we are seeing parts of our nation at its worst, I would come to the Church and see our beautiful country at its best. I witnessed the power of diversity. Everyday people from vastly different worlds came together. Some were from Harvard. Others were from private firms. Others were from local unions. Yet with their eyes on the plans, they would work together to build, not destroy.
I had the privilege of getting to know some of the principal players. I watched people of Italian, Polish, Greek, and Mexican descent rely on one another. Some told me of how their parents entered two generations ago from Europe, and others entered when they were teenagers from Mexico. I’ve discussed construction blueprints at my table with Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Some people on the job were gay. Others were straight. Others we had no idea. The most pressing question each day seemed to be about who was picking up the coffee the next morning.
I’ve also watched people celebrate one another. They recognize birthdays. They attend their kids’ weddings. They cheer for each other’s kids on the basketball court. And from this beautiful quilt of diversity, they worked from the same blueprint. In collaboration, they produced something beautiful. Together they built a miracle.
This is what I believe God desires from us and for us. Stop searching for an individual miracle. But rather let’s heed God’s blueprint for our lives. Do justice. Show mercy. Walk humbly. Care for the poor. Be a peacemaker. Stand up for righteousness. And in doing so, we might just end up, together, building a miracle from which we can all benefit. Peace, justice, and equality for all.