Monday, November 6, 2017

Sermon on Matthew 5.1-12

The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews
St. Joseph-St. John, Lakewood
All Saints Day, Year A
Matthew 5.1-12
November 5, 2017

Listen. Close your eyes if you need to,
            and listen.
It’s 1906.
A Black couple gets pregnant before they’re married,
            and the mother, Sarah, runs away.
The father, Coalhouse Walker, a brilliant jazz musician,
 buys a car, stops taking tour work,
            and goes to visit her every week.
He wants to get back together,
            and he wants to get married.
She refuses to see him for months.
Finally they are reunited
            and share their dreams for their baby —
                        dreams of a world
where the poor in spirit
receive the kingdom of heaven
                                    and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
are filled.
Coalhouse dreams of a world
where people of color get justice.
On the way home from this dream-filled picnic
            the Irish fire department destroys Coalhouse’s car
                        because they can.
Coalhouse seeks redress in the courts,
            but there’s no justice.
He complains to the city of New Rochelle,
            but there’s no justice.
He calls off the wedding.
He wants justice.

Sarah thinks that she can appeal
to President Teddy Roosevelt,
                        who is running touring the United States.
She goes to see him,
            shouts her hopes, and says
                        “I’ve got a son!”
The police shoot first
            and ask questions later
                        certain they’ve either seen a gun
                                    or heard her say she’s a got a gun.
So quickly Coalhouse and Sarah
            have gone from dreaming about the Model-T
                        taking them safely around the United States
                                    to a destroyed car
                                                and a mother,
dead at the hands of the police.

Act I of the musical Ragtime
            ends with Sarah’s funeral.
At the Fifth Avenue Theater,
            a cast of about fifteen
                        looks like forty
                                    in procession to Sarah’s grave.
They are dressed in black,
            and lights give their silhouettes a life of their own.
These people, and shadows of people, move to the grave,
            mourning Sarah’s death,
                        moaning in grief.

Here is Sarah,
            a poor black woman
                        who just wants her child’s father’s car restored
                                    so she can get married.
Here lies Sarah,
            a meek woman,
                        who is dead without a trial
                                    and not ruling the earth.
Here lies Sarah,
            pure in heart.
Has she seen God?
In her death,
            Coalhouse loses his mind in anger
                        and seeks his own form of justice.
Her friends though,
            know the dreams that Sarah had
                        and that those dreams don’t die with Sarah.

This is what Jesus is teaching his disciples and the crowds on the mountain today.
These are a people under oppression,
controlled by violent rule
with unchecked military action as policing.
They know the reality of seeking help 
and winding up dead.
They know the reality of feeling like strangers in their home land,
            never having been in power
                        yet despised for merely existing.

Then Jesus speaks blessing into existence.
Like at creation, Jesus’ saying it makes it real and true:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
"Blessed are those who mourn,
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
"Blessed are the merciful,
"Blessed are the pure in heart,
"Blessed are the peacemakers,
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake,
May I live to see,
When our hearts are happy
And our souls are free.
Let the new day dawn,
Oh, Lord, I pray.
We'll never get to heaven
Till we reach that day.”
A day of peace.
A day of pride.
A day of justice
We have been denied.
Let the new day dawn,
Oh, Lord, I pray...
We'll never get to heaven
Till we reach that day.

for they will be comforted. 
"Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth. 
for they will be filled. 
for they will receive mercy. 
for they will see God. 
for they will be called children of God.
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

Jesus is talking to a crowd of people
            who are already poor in spirit,
already wearied by the changes and chances of this life.
These are a people who mourn daily,
who have been forced into meekness,
who long for righteousness to flow like an endless stream
            and justice to roll down like waters.
They are trying to have mercy on their family members
            who sell out and become tax collectors
                        or sell their bodies to make ends meet.
The crowds following Jesus
            are pure in heart
                        because maybe this one,
                                    maybe this Messiah,
                                                will be the one who frees them from Roman rule.
In Matthew’s writing,
            these are people who will be disowned not just by family,
                        but whole communities —
persecuted by culture and empire —
            for following Jesus.

Jesus tells them that they are all blessed,
not they will be blessed.
Jesus says they are blessed,
            and for many of them
the Kingdom of Heaven is already theirs.
These people follow this wandering rabbi.
Then he dies.
Some people remember when he told them
            they were blessed,
                        and some of them hide figuring their lives are over too.
Jesus rises from the dead.
He’s already made it clear
            that unlike Coalhouse
                        he won’t be leading armed revolt.
But his resurrection demonstrates
            that not even death wins.
The meek have inherited the earth.
The merciful have received mercy.
The peacemakers are children of God.

These beatitudes, these blessings,
            aren’t directions for how to live
                        so you’re rewarded extra.
These beatitudes are promises of hope.
They are promises of resurrection.
They are prayers that life won’t always be like this.
Even remembering Jesus’ death,
            and writing about Jesus’ life,
                        Matthew is dropping gems of hope for
Jesus’ followers in the future and in every present.

As the mourners make their way to Sarah’s grave
            one of her friends refuses to accept the terrible reality
in which she finds herself, in which she has always lived.
Even as her friend lays dead, her friend sings,
“There's a day of hope
May I live to see,
When our hearts are happy
And our souls are free.
Let the new day dawn,
Oh, Lord, I pray.
We'll never get to heaven
Till we reach that day.”

We’ll never get to heaven till we reach that day.
Even at the grave, she makes a song not unlike,
            Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
As Sarah’s friends who are mourning her
            call for hope in the midst of their strife,
                        Coalhouse makes a prediction:
People of color being beaten and killed by the police
            will happen again.
And again.
And again.
He’s shot with his hands up,
            trusting the human promises of a fair trial.
At Sarah’s funeral Coalhouse essentially predicts his own death.
He predicts the deaths of
Mike Brown and
Philando Castille and
Sandra Bland and
Charleena Lyles
Even in his anger, fear, and desperation, Coalhouse is able to say
Give the people
 A day of peace.
A day of pride.
A day of justice
We have been denied.
Let the new day dawn,
Oh, Lord, I pray...
We'll never get to heaven
Till we reach that day.

With all the canonized saints we celebrate today,
             and with those from among our friends and families,
                        and Sarah’s mourning friends who somehow have hope,
we remember Jesus’ words of blessing.
We remember Jesus’ promise
            that the world isn’t as it seems

                        and that the Kingdom of God is at hand.