Monday, January 15, 2018

Sermon: "Do God's Will"

A Meditation on Matthew 5:1-16
For the Weekend of Celebration
Around Martin Luther King's Vision and Legacy
Peace United Church, Santa Cruz


Blessed are you poor in spirit, Jesus says to us, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are you poor in spirit: you brokenhearted, you fragile and vulnerable.  For yours is the kingdom of heaven. 

And blessed are you grieving souls, Jesus says to us, for you’ll be comforted.  Blessed are you grieving souls: you bleeding hearts, you mournful human beings.  For you will be comforted.

This is just the beginning, of course, just the beginning of Jesus’ greatest teaching, his most provocative preaching, the sermon on the mount.  Blessed are you poor in spirit.  Blessed are you grieving souls.  But what a beginning!  The kingdom of heaven, he says, is a community of the brokenhearted, a community of the fragile and vulnerable, a community of grieving souls and bleeding hearts.  Start there, he says, and you’re close.


So I went on line this week and found a recording of Martin Luther King’s last sermon, his last speech, preached in Memphis on the last night of his life in 1968.  And if you haven’t heard it in a while, it’s worth your time.  Especially this year.  Especially 50 years down the line.  He talks about the struggle and the price we have to pay for that struggle and for freedom from tyranny and racism.  He talks about the dignity of those sanitation workers in Memphis, and he says that their struggle for decent wages and fair treatment is his struggle.  He talks about the long, long road to freedom, and how he’s seen it and he’s seen where it’s going.  And he talks about the possibility that he might not make it to the end with all the rest of them, but he’s seen it, and that’s enough.

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life,” Dr. King says in Memphis.  “Longevity has its place.  But I’m not concerned about that now.  I just want to do God’s will.”  What I hear in Dr. King’s voice—and you’ll hear it too, if you listen—is a stunning mixture of fragility and determination, a holy brew of grief and gratitude, an inspired combination of pain and power.  Blessed are you poor in spirit.  Blessed are you grieving souls.  And blessed are you when you hunger and thirst for justice.  Dr. King understood his own pain, and the pain of his people, the pain of his country.  He felt it, he wasn’t afraid of it; and he let that pain speak through him, through his words and in his actions.  And in the very midst of all that pain, through the crucible of injustice and the long fight for freedom, he found power, deep, Godly, good power—the kind of power that can move mountains and bring empires down.  The power of love and nonviolence and decency.

And you can hear all of that in his voice.  It’s a kind of music, right there in his voice.  A holy brew of grief and gratitude.  As he commits himself to his brother and sister sanitation workers.  As he commits himself to solidarity in the streets.  As he goes all in, again, with God’s dream.

So Jesus says, “Blessed are you poor in spirit, for yours is the kingdom of heaven!”  Martin Luther King was all about that.  All about that kingdom of heaven.  On earth.


You know, Christians so often get heaven all wrong.  We really do.  We set up heaven as some afterlife—some fluffy-clouded, angel-guarded, pearly-gated afterlife—when Jesus so clearly came preaching that the “kingdom of heaven is near.”  That’s his message.  You can look it up.  “The kingdom of heaven is near.   The kingdom of heaven is close.  The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  Jesus didn’t push that other heaven—that fluffy-clouded, angel-guarded, pearly-gated thing; he came preaching another message.  “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  Or maybe even better: The kingdom of heaven is in your hands.  That’s it.  The kingdom of heaven is in your hands.  That’s the radical message of the gospel, and the whole point of Jesus’ sermon on the mount.  The kingdom of heaven is in your hands.  It’s now.  It’s on.  So live this way here, love one another here, forgive one another here, feed one another here, treat one another right here.  Because heaven and earth are all mixed up.  Heaven and earth are in your hands.

So the beatitudes are preparing us—that’s you and me—for life in the kingdom of heaven.  Not in some deep space, far off, heavenly realm far away.  But right here, today and tomorrow.  In Santa Cruz.  In Heyward.  In Oakland.  In Scotts Valley.   The kingdom of heaven is near.  It’s close.  It’s in your hands.

And if you live that way, you’re going to find you get brokenhearted along the way.  If you live with an open heart and an open mind and deep and abiding love for all creation, you’re going to find you feel vulnerable and fragile a good bit of the time.  Because it’s hard to love that way.  Because it’s hard to see the world breaking.  Because it’s hard to see people suffering.  But blessed are you when you do.  Blessed are you when you risk living with a broken heart.  Blessed are you when you risk living with vulnerable spirit, a fragile spirit.

When you get to that point, Jesus is saying, you’re close.  When you love creation so deeply your heart breaks for climate change and polluted oceans, you’re close.  The kingdom of heaven is near.  When you see your neighbor as a brother, as a sister, and when you know the immigrant as a friend, and when you grieve injustice against sanitation workers and kids in poverty and children of God anywhere, when you grieve like that, you’re close.  The kingdom of heaven is near.

That’s what you hear in Dr. King’s voice—that last night in Memphis—you hear the kingdom.  You hear the beatitudes.  You hear the good news.  It’s not easy good news.  And it’s not cheap grace he’s preaching in Memphis.  It’s going to cost him everything.  But the kingdom of heaven is near.  It’s close.  And Dr. King exuded that in his preaching, in his organizing and in his very human and imperfect life.  The kingdom of heaven is in our hands.


Now it follows—at least I think it follows—that if heaven is here on earth, if heaven is mixed up with all of this and with all of us, then hell too might be here among us.  Hell’s not some grim, godly punishment in the distance.  It’s not some kind of fiery furnace in the underworld, either.  Hell is right here, among us, in the cruelty and bigotry that keeps us from our true calling as lovers of life.

Does this make any sense to you?  That hell is the economy that forces a mother in Chicago to choose between feeding her child and keeping the heat on.  That hell is the xenophobia that drives ICE to split families in half and the racism that pervades our country still after all these years.  Maybe hell is right here, among us, in all this cruelty and bigotry.  And maybe—see if this makes sense to you—maybe hell is in the mind of that President who calls entire races of people, entire nations “shithole countries”—and doesn’t have a clue how racist he is, how racist his policies are, how devastating and cruel they are.  He’s got to be living in some kind of hell, this man.  Hell is where he lives.  And that’s a sad, sad thing.


So Jesus is saying, just as Martin King said in Memphis 50 years ago, the time is now.  The kingdom of heaven is at hand.  Let’s get it on.  Let’s start healing folks now.  Let’s start healing our country now.  Let’s resist bigotry now.  Let’s resist poverty now.  It’s going to hard, Jesus is saying.  And it’s surely, most certainly going to break our hearts.  If we start healing folks and dedicating our churches and synagogues and mosques to justice and peace, we’re going find ourselves working through dangerous territory.  We’re going to have to risk some things.  (Like King risked some things.  Like Jesus risked some things.  Like all the other peacemakers and freedom fighters risked some things.)  And we’re going to get broken, and sometimes they’re going to turn the fire hoses on us, and sometimes we’re going to get beaten up.  We’ll weep and we’ll grieve.  And then we’ll get back to it.  We’ll hunger and thirst for justice, and then for more justice, and then for peace, and then for more peace.

But friends, there’s no way around Jesus’ message.  Just as there’s no way around Dr. King’s.  Don’t wait for heaven.  Don’t wait for the frilly heaven of Hallmark cards or even the sweet heaven of your grandmother’s hymnbook.  Because Jesus has something completely different in mind.  Jesus and Dr. King want you and me to be the kingdom of heaven, to be it here, to be it now.  Jesus and Dr. King insist that the church is a beloved community in which the kingdom of heaven is happening.  Happening.  In our love for one another.  In the songs we sing—exuberantly and defiantly.  In the courage we put out in actions for immigration reform and peace in the Middle East.  In the brave ways we resist racism whenever and wherever we find it.

That’s heaven.  There is no other.  The kingdom of heaven is near.  Close.  The kingdom of heaven is in your hands.