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Try That In a Small Town
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing to you, O Lord, my rock, and my redeemer, and may you see fit to use me as a vessel from which you pour out your Divine Word.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.
*This morning’s scripture is Matthew 5, is interspersed throughout the message, and comes from the New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition.
What’s your fear? Can you name it? Do you have more than one? Sitting here in this simulated ivory cabin in the county gazing at the rising sun on this Sunday morning, I realize I have lost count of all the things out there that people fear. Massive crowds of people with shared fears … crowds growing so large for each thing feared, it’s beginning to get hard to tell which crowd fears which fear.
You can spot the most fearful, though, because they’re the loudest, the most likely to beat their chests and tell everyone else how they’re going to deal with those things they fear. They not only beat their chests and holler, they make threats, they write songs, they present themselves in an over-romanticized … or maybe over-inflated version of themselves … movie where they are or portray themselves in the “hero/savior” role, and just to make sure your attention is captured, they deflect from the real dangers and work overtime to make you think the only dangers are those bad guy characters in their song or movie.
Try that in a small town, they sing or say …
Some people today say the folks in that crowd are projecting when they bluster and blow and point their fingers, and perhaps they are. But I would offer that, in projecting, they are simply acting out of fear of being outed or caught themselves.
And all this not only creates massive divisions in this world, it sustains and perpetuates systems of supremacy and privilege that other fearful folk have put into place and creates pockets of “cultures” … cultures that work to cancel one another. Cultures that are nothing more than social constructs created by man so that man does not have to see themselves in others, let alone see others or even themselves as created in the image of God … in the Culture of God.
Jesus represented the Culture of God and spent his earthly adult ministry trying to teach us about it, even spoke the blessings of it over us …
“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he began to speak and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Rev. Becky Withington of Pilgrim Congregational Church, after attending a march in Seattle in April of 2017, wrote the following: “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.”
Standing up for a cause that benefits all others … try that in a small town.
Rev. Withington then went on to offer some additional 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.”
Paraphrasing Rev. Withington, At Union Grove UMC, we call it Open Minds, Open Hearts, Open Doors … radical hospitality. We say, “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. Y’all means all. Blessed are the marginalized, for they are extravagantly welcome in the culture of God.”
We decided to try that in a small town.
She went on: “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.”
Again, paraphrasing Rev. Withington, we see that four years later we are so fearful of change we continue to ignore the plight of this planet, the damage we … humanity … have caused, as we cling to the convenience and comfort of “the way we’ve always done things” and/or the profits made from our mismanagement of it. Far too many of us 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. Taking action to do as much as possible to stave off the effects of humanity on this planet, to become true stewards and lose the whole “I’m the boss of this” domination attitude … yes, please God, try that in a small town.
“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.”
I’d like to insert a note into Rev. Withington’s message here … in order to act boldly, we also have to both shed our own fears and be willing to shed and permanently eliminate the social constructs we’ve built as shields for those fears … we have to be willing to stand up to those fears in others and liberate the others from their fears as well.
Standing up to the bullies not just for yourself, but for others … again, try that in a small town.
“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. Empathy has been demonstrated to increase prosocial, helping behaviors.”
Rev. Withington tells about Janet Jones Preston. Ms. Preston 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.”
Again, inserting a note into Rev. Withington’s message, this 21st century beatitude brings to mind the current “atrocities” being volleyed back and forth on various social media platforms and, I’d hazard a guess, the counter at the local Waffle House or Coffeehouse or office watercooler. Empathy is not writing a song about what not to do in a purported small town … that wasn’t “home truths” reflected in that song. It was fear. Fear of change, fear of other, fear of not seeming manly or tough enough if you actually empathize with the whoever the other is.
Empathy … try that in a small town and watch your small town blossom.
“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.”
Inclusion and acceptance … try that in a small town and watch your small town grow and the diversity it creates help it to prosper.
“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.”
Before you say not everyone in that “small town mindset,” when you share gossip, misinformation, conspiracy theories … think back to the accusations against people like Emmett Till. Think about what political candidates say that you repeat.
Community wide integrity … try that in a small town.
“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.”
Richard Rohr wrote, “There is always a linkage between the inner journey of contemplation and our ability to work against violence in the world, in our culture, and in ourselves. As long as we bring to our actions a violence that primarily exists within ourselves, nothing really changes. The future is always the same as the present. That’s why we have to change the present.
We have to begin within and allow ourselves to be transformed. Then the future can be different than the present. Otherwise, we have no evidence that we’re going to do anything different tomorrow, next week, or next year. We’re going to react next week to the violence that emerges in our wider culture, in our institutions, and in our families just as we react right now. And so we always have to return to what I have often called “cleaning the lens.” Authentic spirituality is always on the first level about us—as individuals. It always is. We want it to be about our partners, our coworkers, or our pastors. We want to use spirituality to change other people, but true spirituality always changes us.”
Going on with Rev. Withington’s beatitudes for this century: “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.”
Or, as I am prone to say, quoting St. Francis … Preach the gospel. If necessary, use words. And speak truth to power even if your knees shake.
Rev. Withington concludes her message with this: “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.”
Jesus had a few more things to tell us in that famous message, that “what God wants you to do in a small town” message. You see, he believed in us. He had faith in us that if we would listen to and hear him, heed what he taught us in those precious three years, we would find ourselves living in the Culture of God, the kingdom on earth … not worrying about later, but focusing on the now … He told us, “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. People do not light a lamp and put it under the bushel basket; rather, they put it on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
He said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder,’ and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment, and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council, and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire … “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
He said, “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you: Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”
He wasn’t talking about cussing. He was talking about making an oath, a promise, or swearing that something was true or happened that was false or didn’t happen.
He said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you: Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also, and if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, give your coat as well, and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to the one who asks of you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”
Try that in a small town. Please, try that in a small town!
He said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
And I will conclude with this … what if, instead of beating chests and talking about what not to do in small towns … or for that matter medium towns or large towns or massive cities or states or countries …
What if we try this in a small town … To love one another as we are loved … by God, by Christ, by Spirit, and by ourselves. Yes, let’s try that in a small town. Let’s try all of this in a small town …
Blessed are you, for you shall be a bringer of salt and light in a small town.
- Unless listed below, all works cited within the text above.
- Portions of these messages were taken from:
- Beatitudes for the 21st Century, Rev. Becky Withington, Pilgrim’s Congregational Church, April 2017 as published on ProgressiveChristianity.org
- Fr. Richard Rohr, Richard Rohr Daily Meditation: Nonviolence Begins Within
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