Nov. 5, 2017: All Saint's Sunday
All Saint's Sunday
Zion Lutheran Church, November 5th, 2017
Guest Pastor Jason Chestnut
In the spring of 2002, in the midst of a catastrophic civil war in the African nation of Liberia, one woman set out to protest and to reform.
Her name was Leymah Gbowee, and she was, can you believe it, a Lutheran. She and her allies targeted the deeply religious in Liberia — going to the mosques on Friday, the markets on Saturday, the churches on Sunday, with their powerful voices and a stirring message. Their flyers read:
“We are tired! We are tired of our children being killed! We are tired of being abused! Women, wake up — you have a voice in the peace process!”
From this simple beginning, Gbowee eventually found herself speaking to the government head, (future war-criminal) Charles Taylor, on April 23, 2003. At his stately executive mansion, Gbowee spoke for the women of Liberia. She made sure Taylor saw her, but she, bravely, powerfully, spoke directly to the only female government official at the time, Grace Minor.
“We are tired of war,” she cried out in the prophetic tradition, sounding reminiscent of women who had gone before her, like Esther and Deborah.
“We are tired of running. We are tired of begging for bulgur wheat. We are tired of our children being raped. We are now taking this stand, to secure the future of our children. Because we believe, as custodians of society, tomorrow our children will ask, ‘Mama, what was your role during the crisis?’”
Even with people dying around her, these Liberian women refused to let death be the end of their story. To remember them, to light candles and say prayers, and then to do something.
Leymah Gbowee went from passive hopelessness to an active, fierce faith in something new.
This movement from passive hopelessness to active justice is at the heart of Jesus’ enigmatic Sermon on the Mount. It’s a shift that changed the world as we know it.
The so-called beatitudes we heard this morning have become such a hallmark of Christian theology that we often look upon them as Halmark cards - as in, they’re nice to read, and might make us feel warm and fuzzy, but they are quickly forgotten.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” we hear, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
I can hear the crowds now, giving Jesus some major side-eye, wondering silently and aloud what, exactly, he’s talking about. “I don’t see any kingdom of heaven here,” they whisper to each other.
That’s because the beatitudes aren’t descriptive - they aren’t naming the reality of the world right now.
Look at Jesus’ audience — the “meek” aren’t inheriting anything. They are living under the largest Empire the world had ever seen (to that point), with absolutely no rights whatsoever. They’re without documentation. They’re oppressed by both the Romans and their own people.
Those who “mourn” aren’t being comforted. They are left without a loved one - and, if they’re already on the margins, like women and children, they are left without something else: hope. They are now even more at the mercy of the society that cares little for them in the first place.
But I would argue that the beatitudes aren’t prescriptive, either. They’re not telling us what’s going to happen.
No, Jesus is giving us invocations today. Jesus is invoking a reality for his audience. We Christians normally use the word “invocation” to talk about calling the Holy Spirit into our midst. It’s a powerful notion.
These invocations are moving reality. We are being moved today, people of God. And it’s not just something that happens today because Pastor Eric and Pastor Anke invited this crazy pastor (who doesn’t even speak German!) to your pulpit.
It’s been happening for hundreds of years - 500 years, to be exact. Because when that German monk named Martin Luther used the social media of his day, the printing press, to spread a message of protesting a reformation, a shift was happening that would change the world as we know it.
And there was one phrase that the reformers kept repeating, a Latin phrase: semper reformanda - always be reforming.
This was as radical a statement as we can find throughout Christianity.
Always be reforming. Always be changing. Always be moving. “See, I’m doing a new thing,” God speaks through the prophet Isaiah. “Don’t you recognize it?”
Now…this is a difficult concept in our Lutheran churches of today, I know.
It’s that joke, an oldie but a goodie, are you ready? How many Lutherans does it take to change a lightbulb? … … Change??!!??
So, back to those beatitudes. When we continue to hear them as Halmark-cards, they lose their power. They become sing-songy, and we glide through them without the words ever entering deep.
The theologian Matt Valler translates them in a new way — in probably the most stunning way I’ve ever heard them.
Recognizing that translating from Greek to English is never easy — and remembering to see these verses as invocations, as calling forth something amazing and holy into our midst — Valler translates Matthew’s 5th chapter like this, taking “blessed are” with the more active verb, here come:
Here come the depressed,
they own the future.
Here come the grieving,
they will be comforted.
Here come the enslaved,
they will have the whole earth.
Here come the ones who are starved of justice,
they will be filled.
Here come the gracious,
they will be shown grace.
Here come the uncorrupted,
they will see God.
Here come the peacemakers,
they will be protected.
Here come the oppressed,
they own the future.
Here you come, you oppressed, you wrongly accused. Take heart, they did this to your heroes whose ghosts will not die.
Do you hear that difference? Do you feel it? Instead of a passive “blessed are,” this is an active “here come.”
I can picture Jesus now, looking out over the huge crowd on that Mount, pointing to them, opening his arms, saying, “Here come the depressed. It’s you. And you own the future. Right here and now.”
Because here’s the key. That last beatitude. Jesus shifts his attention and his wording. It’s not “they” anymore, but “you.” He’s been talking to us the entire time, y’all.
Here you come, you oppressed, you falsely accused. Take heart.
Jesus looks out over us, in this society of the rich getting richer and the poor demonized for their lot, and says, “Here come the oppressed. You own the future.”
Jesus looks out in a world of mass incarceration of brown and black bodies, and says, “Here come the wrongly incarcerated. You will be vindicated.”
Jesus looks out in a country of Nazis marching in our streets, and says, “Here come the protestors. You will be heard.”
Jesus looks out in a society in a crisis of militarism and materialism, and says, “Here come the peacemakers. You will be protected.”
Jesus looks out towards a future where the hungry are fed and children have healthcare and climate change is taken seriously, and says, “Here come the truthtellers. You will be trusted.”
Jesus looks out over a church that too often turns a blind eye to racism and white supremacy and says, “Here come to agitators. You will be amplified.”
Jesus looks out over a Lutheran church that celebrates 500 years of Reformation and yet is still rife with worshiping nostalgia and bowing down to colonized theology, and says, “Here come the Lutherans…you will do better.”
Leymah Gbowee now travels the world telling her story. She often connects her fight for justice with her Lutheran faith. How very REFORMATION of her.
Here in this place, with your unique German history, I believe you are called to the very same thing. To say the words first spoken in Liberia in 2003: “Because we believe, as custodians of society, tomorrow our children will ask, ‘Mama, what was your role during the crisis?’”
“Here come the Lutherans,” Jesus might say today. “You will change the world.”
May it be so.