Kahu's Mana‘o

Keawala’i Congregational Church
United Church of Christ (USA)

Fourth Sunday After Epiphany

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Micah 6:1-8 & Matthew 5:1-12

“A Vision of Wholeness”

Rabbis chanted mournful prayers and Christian clerics also prayed as many gathered last Thursday at a monument to victims who died in the death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. As darkness fell voices were heard reading the names of those who were murdered.

The recitation seemed long but actually included only a fraction of the more than 1.1 million Jews and Gypsies, political prisoners and Soviet prisoners, lesbians and gays, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others who were put to death in the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The ceremony itself was one of several that were held around the world on what was designated by the United Nations in 2005 as the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, marking the 66th anniversary of the liberation of those imprisoned in all of the death camps of World War II. We know that by the war’s end more than 6 million men, women, and children were exterminated.

In Berlin the German parliament convened for a special session to commemorate those who died during the Holocaust. Norbert Lammert, the Parliament speaker, said, “To label people as unworthy and order their destruction and finally, to systematically murder millions in an industrialized fashion – that is unique in human history.”

Whenever we think of the Holocaust there is a tendency for us to insist that it was a “unique”
occurrence in human history but Lammert also said, “The memory of those events and aberrations obliges us to respect all people equally . . . and to confront violations of human rights in Germany and everywhere else in the world.” (The Maui News, Friday, January 28, 2011, D4) Lammert’s remarks remind us that every generation appears destined to face its own atrocities.

For the first time, a survivor representing Gypsies addressed the German parliament pointing out that practically every family has been affected by the Holocaust. Romani Rose, the Chairperson of the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma, warned that since 2008 at least 11 Hungarian Roma or Gypsies have been killed. The push in France to expel all Roma has led to a rise of violence against Gypsies in that country.

In other parts of the world we have come to realize that the systematic murder of millions in an “industrialized fashion” occurs when laws are enacted that allow for death to be the final solution. Uganda is on the brink of passing a law making homosexuality punishable by death. Although the law has not yet been passed that did not prevent the murder of David Kato, an equal rights activist. He was beaten to death in his home on Wednesday.

Time and time again we have witnessed in our own lives the enormous suffering we are capable of inflicting upon one another as human beings. I suspect most of us here this morning would like to think of ourselves as compassionate people.

We may find great comfort in the words of Jesus: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” and so on. We may see ourselves among the blessed and so we look out upon the world with rose-tinted glasses.

But we know that Jesus’ words were not intended to only be a source of comfort. They were meant to also compel us to see how the good news challenges our views of the world and turns them upside down.

Douglas John Hall taught theology at McGill University in Montreal, Canada for many years. He is the author of a number of books including The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World and Lighten Our Darkness: Towards an Indigenous Theology of the Cross. Those who know Hall well say he was a sharp critic of institutional religion. He took aim at churches that seem to avoid the reality of suffering in the world.

There “is a positiveness that is phony and ridiculous,” he said, “a bright and happy message that has all the depth of a singing commercial.” (Christian Century, Chicago, Illinois, January 11, 2011, page 3) John M. Buchanan, the editor of the magazine Christian Century, said of Hall: “His critiques sting, but I have always found them to be honest and to spring not from self-righteousness but from a humility grounded in the mystery of God and in a hopeful longing for the church to be the body of Christ on earth, doing the things Jesus did.” (Ibid.)

In our reading from The Gospel According to Matthew, Jesus calls the disciples together. They travel throughout Galilee teaching and healing and sharing the good news that God’s realm is breaking into the world. It is a message that the people desperately need to hear.

Matthew was written to a group of new Christians in a time of great turmoil. The temple had been destroyed and the people had scattered. Jesus was no longer with them.

What laws will govern their life together now? What will the community look like? What is the good news for those trying to be faithful in a world that is hostile to them?

Matthew wants to show us that Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s experience. In our reading, Jesus is shown as the new Moses, teaching from the mountain as Moses did when he gave the law to Israel.

What appears in our reading this morning is the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount. It begins with what we have come to know as the Beatitudes. It is a teaching that Jesus directs to the disciples and to the larger group of men and women who accompany him. In the same way that Moses gave the law to Israel, Jesus offers the Beatitudes as the way of life for those who commit themselves to follow him. His vision of God’s reign on earth is a radical vision of wholeness for all people.

There are a series of sentences beginning with the word blessed. In some translations the word happy is used. But the teaching is not so much about happiness as it is about blessedness. To be blessed is not simply to be happy but to know that God is always with us.

Blessings come to those who are “poor in spirit” or humble of heart; to those who are gentle and show mercy; to those who hunger and thirst for God’s ways. But Charles Cook, Professor Emeritus of Pastoral Theology at the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas points out that “we live in a time when the blessings given are to those who succeed, often at the expense of others. To be poor in spirit, peaceful, merciful, and meek will get you nowhere in a culture grounded in competition and fear.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, Bartlett & Taylor, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 2010, page 308) He adds, “Perhaps that is why most references to the Beatitudes imply that in giving this instruction, Jesus was literally turning the values of the world upside down.” (Ibid.)

It is tempting to turn the Beatitudes into a bright and happy message. But we know that the world in which we live is filled with pain and suffering. It was no different in Matthew’s day and it is no different in our own. How are we to live in such a world?

Douglas Hall offers his words of encouragement in Lighten Our Darkness when he writes: “The theology of the Cross declares God is with us – Emmanuel. (God) is alongside (our) suffering. (God) is in the darkest place of (our) dark night. (We) do not have to look for (God) in the sky beyond the stars, in infinite light, in glory unimaginable. (God) is incarnate. That means (God) has been crucified. For to become flesh, to become one of us, means not only to be born but also to die, to fail.” (Christian Century, Ibid.)

Rather than detach ourselves from the world’s suffering, we are called to be engaged with those who suffer. We are called to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8) and to know that God is with us. In the darkness of the Holocaust and in the darkness of our own day God is with us as we stand with all who suffer.

So it is that we rejoice. So it is that we are blessed. Amen.

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