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Beatitudes for the 21st Century

Marching with thousands of joyful, passionate people at the Women’s March in Seattle last weekend and seeing all the causes their signs supported – health care for all, diversity, respect and equal rights for all people, I realized the ultimate expression of all the things we were marching for would look, to me anyway, very much like the Culture of God; like the “Kingdom of Heaven” described by Jesus in the beatitudes. At the march in Seattle and marches around the world, people were intent on creating what they might call a better world, or a world of peace and justice. And if Jesus is right, if the excluded will be blessed by inclusion in the culture of God; if those who take action to make this world more like the culture of God will be blessed for their efforts, then with all due respect to Jesus and the original recorders of his words, I’d like to offer some beatitudes for the 21st century.

Blessed are the marginalized, for they are extravagantly welcome in the culture of God. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.” But if we think of heaven solely as some cosmic afterlife, aren’t we telling those who are suffering to go on suffering, hoping for something better after they die? I don’t think that when Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God, he was talking about some otherworldly, post-life experience. When he said, “The Kingdom of Heaven has come near,” I think he was saying that the Culture of God is all around us if we are willing to take part in making it happen. From the earliest descriptions of nomadic tribes of Israelites in the Hebrew Scriptures, hospitality has been a hallmark of the culture of God. In the desert, if you don’t offer hospitality to people, they can die. Again and again, scripture urges God’s people to care for the orphan, the widow, and the stranger. Jesus made it his life’s work to seek out and lift up the “poor in Spirit,” those on the margins. In the UCC, we call it extravagant welcome. We say, “no matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. Blessed are the marginalized, for they are extravagantly welcome in the culture of God.

Blessed are those who care for the earth, for they promote a healthy, dynamic ecosystem that cares for us all. The idea of heaven as otherworldly also does a disservice to God’s creation. We are the stewards of creation. We ignore that responsibility at our own peril, and the peril of every living thing on this earth. Thankfully, people of all faiths and many who don’t follow a spiritual tradition are awakening to this peril, putting everything from their money to their lives on the line, like Ken Ward and the other valve turners we heard about this morning. Unfortunately, as we know, there are those who refuse to acknowledge the threat, making it imperative for those of us who do to step up. Those who care for the earth are truly blessed, and they are a blessing to all.

Blessed are the bold, for they see the culture of God manifest before their eyes. Blessed are the meek, Jesus said, the humble, the gentle, for they will inherit the earth. Gentleness and humility are wonderful traits, and it’s my prayer that those who display them will cease to be exploited by the boastful and belligerent; that they, the deserving, will inherit the earth. But doesn’t that beg the question, what kind of shape will the world be in by the time they inherit it? We need to gather in the hundreds of thousands who are passionate about peace, justice, equal regard and equal rights for all. We need to make our voices heard every chance we get. We need to act boldly to create the change we want to see in the world. In taking up this challenge, we will see the culture of God manifest in ways large and small before our very eyes.

Blessed are the empathetic, for they heal the brokenness of the world. To heal the painful divisions of our world, to ensure that everyone has their basic needs met and mutual respect is the basis for all human relationships, we need to move beyond sympathy and compassion to empathy.

We need to be willing not to judge, but to understand each other’s condition from their perspective, to place ourselves in their shoes and feel what they are feeling. Empathyhas been demonstrated to increase prosocial, helping behaviors. Maybe you read the profile piece on Janet Jones Preston in the Seattle Times Pacific Northwest Magazine a couple of months ago. She volunteers with the Black Prisoner’s Caucus, a group of inmates at the Monroe Correctional Complex who search for solutions to end what group leader Anthony Wright refers to as “the preschool-to-prison pipeline.” From serving as a family support worker and supervisor in Seattle Public Schools to taking in a 13 year old girl who she now considers a daughter to mortgaging her house to fund a school her son started in Ghana, Janet has spent her life working and volunteering to make children’s lives better, to give them hope and a future. She says her own struggles have deepened her empathy for others, recalling the shame she felt when she became pregnant with her son at age 18. “I wanted to quit going to church because church people were so mean, you know. They’d ask me questions they knew the answer to, and, you know, I was just a kid,’’ she says.

Refusing to consider that another person’s situation is something that could happen to us, putting everyone who is different from us in the category of “other” allows us to diminish and disregard them. On the other hand, author Jeremy Rifkin presents the concept of an “empathic civilization through solidarity.” If we saw fellow humans and creatures as an extension of ourselves, society might become more unified and see a reduction war, bullying, crime and violence. Blessed are the empathetic, for they heal the brokenness of the world.

Blessed are the inclusive, for they see through the eyes of love. It is characteristic of human beings to shape our identities and our communities as much by what we are not as by what we are. We set ourselves apart by not demonstrating beliefs and behaviors that other groups do. Those Canaanites worship multiple Gods –we’re not like them. Those Catholics genuflect and pray to Mary and celebrate the Mass each week – but not us; we’re Protestant. Perceiving differences and similarities is a valuable survival skill. It helps us understand which plants to eat and which to avoid. Which strangers might welcome us, and which might attack us. But like many survival skills, its evolution lags behind many other areas of human development. Just as the vast majority of humans no longer need to eat every ounce of sugar and fat we can get our hands on because we don’t know when we’ll eat again, the vast majority of humans no longer need to fear everything unfamiliar as a threat. Yet these outdated survival strategies continue, even when they hurt us instead of helping us. We have to be awakened; we have to let go of fear and insecurity and the scarcity mentality in order to see through the eyes of love as the Buddha did, as the Christ did. When we expand our repertoire of responses to the world beyond fight or flight, we open ourselves to the possibility of seeing everyone through the eyes of love.

Blessed are those with integrity, for their hearts, minds, words and actions are one. When we are in right relationship with God and one another, when right intention leads to right action, we are integrated. Our words and actions match our thoughts and feelings. I don’t know about you, but for me this is a fleeting state of grace that I experience only sporadically. Most of the time I am conflicted. I lack the courage to take the action I think is right. I think things I would never say out loud. But those moments when my thoughts, feelings, words and actions are aligned feel sacred, holy. The word holy is derived from an Old English word meaning “whole,” used to convey a sense of being sound, healthy, entire, complete. I never feel more whole, I never feel more open to the Divine Presence, than when I feel integrated in thought, feeling, word and deed. Or as Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

Blessed are those who commit themselves to peace, for they disarm violence. Violence is a commonly used tool of oppression and conquest. When people are oppressed and persecuted, when their homes and rights are taken away, they respond with anger – righteous anger, justified anger, but anger that often leads to retaliatory violence. From the time of their slavery in Egypt, God’s people expected a warrior-king, an anointed one who would avenge them and secure their freedom by any means necessary. No wonder they found Jesus puzzling…no wonder people were confused about whether he really was the promised Messiah, the anointed one sent by God to liberate them. Like other great leaders throughout history, Jesus understood that violence only begets more violence. He called peacemakers blessed, and only by committing to strategies of peace can we end violence.

Blessed are those who organize, struggle and sacrifice for freedom and equality, for they bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice. Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition of the sudden erosion of the safeguards that protect our personal rights and freedoms with the great man’s birthday; perhaps it’s the inspiring Women’s March on Washington and sister marches all over the world, but I can’t seem to stop quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. this month. He’s the one who said the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. He may have based it on words from a sermon by Unitarian Minister Theodore Parker who in 1853 wrote, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but a little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.” Our eyes reach but a little way. We cannot see beyond the horizon to confirm beyond certainty the arc is bending, little by little, towards justice. Sometimes our current trajectory seems like a path that will hurtle us past the point of no return. You’ve heard it said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.” That is why those who organize, struggle and sacrifice for freedom and equality are blessed. If we want to live in a just world we must all do our part, we must all throw our weight against the levers of power to bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice.

Finally, to live fully into the culture of God we need to realize that we are all blessed. All of us are beloved children of the divine source as we express and understand it. Blessed are we in the amazing diversity of our ethnicity, age, ability, and orientation, for we make visible the glory of Creation. For in the glory of Creation we don’t just have “tree,” we have Beech and Aspen and Maple and Walnut and Oak and Cedar and too many others to name. We don’t just have “bird,” we have Owls and Finches and Sparrows and Orioles and Wrens and Flamingos and on and on and on. We don’t just have “human,” we have black, brown, white, blond, gray and red hair. We have green and blue and brown and gray and hazel eyes. We have skin colors from palest peach to darkest brown. We have a multitude of ways to love one another, be family together, be in relationship with one another. What better way to show gratitude to the source of all life than to embrace and affirm all persons for their unique selves, to love all our siblings as ourselves, to look upon the endless variety of creation and declare with God that “it is good.” Amen.

Visit Rev. Becky Withington of Pilgrim Congregational Church’s Pastor Messages

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