November 6, 2016
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
17 He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. 18 They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19 And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
24 “But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
25 “Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.27 “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.
Jesus sits alone in the dark and still night on a mountain side.
It is early in his ministry, and he has begun the hard work of traveling, teaching and healing.
He has just begun to gather around him those fellow travelers, disciples, whom he will teach and nurture and send out into the world carrying on his message.
This is one of those precious times when he has slipped away from the crowds to pray to God alone.
As he waits for the sun to rise, he prepares to say what God needs him to say.
He has been traveling around, meeting all kinds of people from all over, eating with them, listening to their stories.
He has met women and men, wealthy and poor, Jews and Samaritans and Gentiles, Roman oppressors and the people they oppress, he has met slaves and servants, the traitorous tax collectors and the religious elite. He has met fishermen who barely catch enough to live on, children, farmers, landowners. He has met the disabled and the mentally ill and the adulterous.
He knows that some of these people are so desperate for change that they are willing to join in a bloody revolution, some of these people are terrified of change in the status quo, some have been crying out for justice all their lives, some have been waiting for a savior, some have lost hope, and some are hopeful again. Jesus has proclaimed to all these people the good news of the kingdom of God – this is what he was sent to do, and the good news of the kingdom of God is not just about what happens at some point in the distant future when God makes everything right, but God’s kingdom is what happens today.
As the sun rises Jesus prepares to walk down the mountain, gathering his closest followers around him and names them apostles, and then he addresses a gathering of people from Judea, Jerusalem, from the coast of Tyre and Sidon.
In this crowd people speak with different accents, they have different political affiliations; here, remarkably, the clean and the unclean are together in one great crowd.
And Jesus begins to teach about what it means to live together in God’s kingdom, and he talks to them about one of the hardest things to do in our common life.
Jesus knows that the people have divided themselves up – they have put people in boxes and labeled them friend or enemy. And we have done the same thing.
And Jesus gets a little political here, going back to root of the word political from “polis” meaning city or citizen. Politics involves what is means to be a society of people, what it means to live together with purpose.
And Jesus says, in order to live together, you have to love one another, and you cannot simply love those who you agree with or those who love you back. You must learn to live together without revenge or retaliation.
Scott Anderson, who directs the Wisconsin Council of Churches, tells the story of traveling to the USSR in 1984 as part of a 30 year effort to rebuild relationships and create dialog with America’s soviet enemy.
During the trip he learned about the incredible suffering of the Russian people during world war II in which 25 million Russians died, one in four citizens.
On that trip Scott learned about the faithfulness and resilience of the Soviet people in extremely difficult circumstances.
Scott said what surprised him was the support he got from a member of his congregation, a retired colonel who had served with the Tuskegee airmen in World War II. The retired colonel said to him, “Given the horrific consequences of armed conflict, love for enemies calls out for a different kind of courage than the kind demanded on the battlefield. Yet it is quite realistic and practical. It requires, first and foremost, the slow and tedious work of relationship building. To love your enemy you have to know your enemy.”
This is what makes Jesus’ words so difficult. To love your enemy you have to know your enemy. It is nearly impossible to love people in the abstract; but it is entirely different when you know one person’s story.
As we look to the week ahead, Jesus’ words are of the greatest importance to us. We have discovered over the past months that we are more deeply divided as a country than we realized. Some of us have been afraid to put political signs in our yards or on our cars, some of us have avoided talking to our neighbors and have unfriended some people on facebook, some of us are hopeful and some of us are fearful.
On Wednesday morning we will still have to live together, we will still have to be citizens together and neighbors together and co-workers together and family together and church together. In order to do that we must know each other again.
Someone here in the sanctuary service knows that I like the writing of New York Times columnist David Brooks who has been doing some really interesting public theology, and they sent me his column this week.
He points out that we have spent a lot of time over many months as this election has played out, talking in monologues past each other, and as an antidote, David Brooks suggest we turn to the work of 20th century Jewish theologian Martin Buber who dedicated his life to understanding deep intimacy.
Buber writes that we can see each other in two different ways. We can see another person as an “it” or as a “thou” or you.
And this makes all the difference.
When another person is an “it” we will talk at them, we will see them as utilitarian, we will categorize them.
But when the other is a “thou” or you, we talk with them, they are personal, they are known.
So for example a doctor who sees a patient as an “it” will treat the patient as a machine to be fixed.
In a letter, published in the Times, written to the doctors and nurses that attended to his dying wife, Peter DeMarco wrote, “How many times did you hug me and console me when I fell to pieces, or ask about Laura’s life and the person she was, taking the time to look at her photos or read the things I’d written about her? How many times did you deliver the bad news with compassionate words, and sadness in your eyes?”
That is what it means to see someone as a “you.”
We have to be intentional and brave in our relationships. This is the hard stuff of our life together, but this is what God calls us to do, to always be looking for the chance to see someone else as “you” rather than “it,” to do the slow work of knowing each other again, and to love even when it is difficult to do.
Today we are celebrating All Saints Day, remembering those we have loved and lost this past year, commending them to God’s care and embrace.
As we stand on the eve of what feels like a momentous time in our history as a country, it is good for us to pause for a moment and remember that there are things that are temporary and there are things that are eternal, there are things that are perishable and things that are imperishable.
In the face of what feels like great and either welcome or unwelcome change, we gather together to worship God who is constant.
We need God’s Word to remind us that we not in control, but that God is. Amen.