Imagine being in the crowd on that afternoon. Here we learned Jesus had come to town. He was on tour preaching the good news of the kingdom of heaven, curing disease, healing despair. So when he went up the mountain, we went with him; you remember. Once we got up there, Jesus looked right at me; he looked right at you; he told us we are blessed. He said, I see you. I know who you are. You who are needy, you who are mourning, all y’all who are merciful and persecuted, he told us we were blessed.
Imagine the people on the mountain on that afternoon. The first thing Jesus told them is how they were blessed. The second thing is he tells them who they are. I see you and I know who you are. Blessed are you. So far, so good. It’s what Jesus said next that surely sent a shudder through the crowd.
He looks at them and says: You know your faith, the faith you’ve had your whole life, well it’s about to get more demanding than you can imagine. Yeah, look around; [**]it’s about to get real. Your faith will change.
“Do not think I have come to abolish the law and the prophets” he tells them. I have not come to throw away the Jewish faith and begin a new religion. Exactly the opposite. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. The law is about to become more rigorous. We make fun of the Pharisees for being overly zealous in their rule-following. Well I’ll tell you, he tells them, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees you will never get into the kingdom of heaven” —you’ll never get the kingdom. Get ready to hear what our faith demands; it is harder than you thought. You will change.
Father Gregory Boyle wrote a book called Barking to the Choir in which he offers spiritual reflection on his ministry with former gang members. He makes an observation that I find stunning. He says, the opposite of clinging isn’t letting go; the opposite of clinging is cherishing. You want to stop clinging to your faith, stop clinging to the law, the answer isn’t to leave the faith and give it all up. The answer is cherishing, taking seriously the fullness of God’s dream.
You can imagine Jesus looking at the crowd through his eyes of love. Everything is about to change. The kingdom of heaven will not allow the status quo to be maintained. God’s dream for the world does not include the tyrants gaining more power while the vulnerable get trampled under the boots of the privileged. The reign of God is not about getting things back to normal. It is upsetting the system of domination that they have come to take for granted, that we have come to take for granted. If you’re serious about God’s vision for our world, you will change, Jesus tells them. You will have to. You will be the ones who change; you will change the world.
And if you find this threatening, you’re right.
In order to understand how Jesus is about to lay out these demands to this poor, unsuspecting, blessed crowd on the mountain, we need to look at what he says right before. What he tells them is the same thing he tells us: I see who you are. You will be changed by the power of God. And. You will bring transformation to this world by pursuing the fullness of God’s dream. Yes, this is threatening. Yes, this is true. And I know that because I see who you really are, he tells them.
You have more power than you think. You are the salt of the earth. You are preserving our Jewish faith even while we live under the reign of Rome. You are the light of the world. Let your light shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. Let your light shine even though doing this will matter. Jesus tells the crowd, This is what you must do because this is who you are. I see who you are.
In about two hours, the members of Church of Peace will vote on whether to adopt the proposed covenant and become officially Open and Affirming. While the welcome goes beyond sexual orientation and gender identity, being ONA is the designation in the United Church of Christ for congregations who make a public commitment to fully include lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer individuals.
After reading the book Real Good Church by Molly Phinney Baskette, the Council shared vigorous discussion and decided to form a task force to begin the ONA process. As a congregation, we have spent eight months exploring what it would mean to be Open and Affirming. I cannot tell you how the vote will turn out; I don’t know. I can tell you, I have learned something about who we are as a church.
Friends, we are not an anti-gay congregation. We do not preach that being gay is a sin. It is not. There are churches who make this their message; we don’t. That is not who we are.
It is also the case that we are not a loud and proud paint-the-dome-rainbow! congregation. Our annual fundraiser is not a drag show. We are not the epicenter of the Pride Parade. There are churches who are; we aren’t. That is not who we are.
Here’s one that kind of surprised me. We are not a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell congregation. Here you are not required to conceal who you really are in order to fit in. There are churches who practice a policy of tolerance but please let’s not talk about anything that might cause conflict; just sit next to the people and be nice. As it turns out, that is not who we are.
What I have learned is that, maybe more than anything, Church of Peace is a congregation who takes seriously each other’s vulnerability. We take seriously your vulnerability.
In these past eight months, people in our church have come out as allies for LGBTQ folks. Spoken testimonies happened in this sanctuary; written testimonies were published in the Visitor. People in our church have come out as queer. People in our church have spoken up with questions and to voice concern.
Each time a person has stepped up to speak from their own heart, the response has not been mocking or shame. I have not heard any threats thrown either at the person or at our church. Exactly the opposite. When someone stands up to tell their own story however it goes, we make it our business to honor their courage.
This is what we do. A couple of summers ago, our Adult Forum discussed the need for us to be a community who listens to veterans, who respects their vulnerability and courage in telling their stories. More recently, we’ve taken up the work of listening to those who have been in prison.
When we get this right, when we step up to speak our truth and when we fiercely and lovingly protect the others in the room who step up and speak up, what we are doing is making room. We are making room to breathe. We’re making room for us to disagree in love. We’re making room for us to be transformed by the grace of God.
Not every place you look will you find a community who makes this its purpose. Here we take seriously each other’s vulnerability. We cherish one another. And can you imagine if this becomes not just something we do as a church family, but what if this cherishing is what we have to offer the world, what if this is what we have to offer the world…
Now however the vote turns out, we could make this our mission. Go tell the people, we will cherish them. We will cherish you. Wherever you stand on a particular issue, whatever trauma you have survived, whatever you have been through that shapes your current perspective, we will make room for you. In this, we make room for ourselves to be changed by the Holy Spirit —for our faith to change, even if our faith becomes more demanding, even if it requires more courage than we want to have.
Father Boyle says the opposite of clinging isn’t letting go; the opposite of clinging is cherishing. This means the opposite of cherishing is refusing to change. If we mean to take seriously each other’s vulnerability, we are setting ourselves up to change.
Jesus looks at the crowd on the mountain. Get ready, he tells them. Our faith is about to get more demanding. And it’s not wrong for us to hear this as a threat, but it’s more than that too.
Already the promise of the kingdom is underway. There are signs that the empire’s plan of domination is losing credibility. People are working to win release for the prisoners and secure housing for refugees. See the banquet laid out for those who are hungry. See the grown-ups reading books with children. See the food hauled into the church so it can fill our neighbor’s empty refrigerators. We have a long way to go, no kidding. Already the world is turning toward love. You are part of this turning. You are being transformed by grace; we’re all being transformed by grace. Jesus is right.
He tells us, this is what you must do, because I see who you are. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. Be who you are, Jesus tells them. You will change. You will change your mind. You will change the world.
Blessed are you already. And look, if there’s ever a minute when you forget your own blessing, we will remind you. That’s what we’re doing here. That is who we are. May it be so.