“The Gift of Poetic Challenge”

Session Date: 
Sunday, February 2, 2020
Bible Text: 
Matthew 5:1-12


Epiphany IV, 2020


I love musicals. Ever since my grandmother took me to Fiddler on the Roof in the theatre, and a few years later being able belt out tradition on our Jr. high stage as we performed the same show. Even in the college production of Brigadoon when the music director sniffed out my off key, or out of tuneness, or whatever it was and reassigned my one line solo in the opening number to the guy standing next to me, I have always loved musicals.


Yet as much as I love musicals, my real pleasure comes from history. Even before that Fiddler show, when I read my first biography of President Lincoln when I was about 7, I’ve been enthralled with the journey of history.


So when Mom sent this tome, Hamilton, for my birthday the year it came out, I was lov’n it. Mom knew I love to get lost in these 700 page behemoths for weeks on end.  So imagine when I finally got to see the musical “Hamilton.” Taking this book and creating a game-changing form of musical theatre. Wow!


Of course at the core of these two passions are words. The same words may surround us day in and day out. Until at one moment, someone comes along and puts them together in a way we never imagined. Shakespeare creates a sonnet of love that lasts for centuries. Hemingway tells the short tale of an old man’s solo fishing trip and fiction is changed. A rapper playwright opens the doors to American history like never before.


The preamble to the U.S. Constitution, is also a collection of words that floated in the Enlightenment air of the 18th century until a group of individuals led by James Madison, who was educated by a Presbyterian preacher, put them into a new context:  “We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”


These are the introductory words for a statement that defines the essence of our nation’s vision of itself and expresses the sort of citizenry it hopes to embody. Creating with words a nation like no other had ever existed. With similar craft and artistry Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount presents the “constitution” of the church of Jesus Christ and the Beatitudes offer us the preamble.


The Beatitudes proclaim what is, in the light of the kingdom of heaven, unassailably true. They describe the purpose of every holy law, the foundation of every custom, the aim of every practice of this new society, this colony of the kingdom, the church called and instructed by Jesus.


What to make of this strange coupling of words about the vulnerable and the holy, the blessed, who in reality seem accursed. If the destitute and the grieving, the meek and the peacemakers garner God’s favor, how do we demonstrate our allegiance to God and them?


That’s where the prophet comes in. To follow this constitution and enliven this vision, we must turn and heed the words of Micah: Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.


What might it look like in our lives? Saying and even meaning, that we want to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God does not always translate easily into our daily living. When the time comes for us to give our testimony in God’s court, will we be able to swear that we sought to do what God required of us or will we plead guilty to having squandered our blessing?


We all will be called upon to choose between doing what God requires—looking perhaps utterly foolish in the eyes of the world—or pledging our loyalty to lesser tempting and threatening powers. So what does it look like?


My friend Jim took great delight in his two sons. One the utter athlete, the other cerebral, both dashing and popular. They excelled at great universities and launched out on to good career tracks. Time to settle in and wait for the future and grandchildren. 


Then Jim felt his life fall apart when his youngest told his parents he was gay. Francine, mom, accepted it without batting an eyelash. So what, he was her son, she loved him unconditionally. Jim not so much. For months he fought his life-long stereotypes and homophobic upbringing.  He became moody and distraught. He was embarrassed to mention his son at church and our civic club. Their marriage struggled as he found it difficult to talk with Francine. We shared lots of lunches as Jim wrestled with his upbringing and his love for his son. Months went by. The struggle was multiplied when he lost his management position with his company’s periodic belt-tightening’s.


Now he was out of work, in an increasingly icy relationship with his beloved, and still struggling to re-open his heart to his youngest. Jim wrestled, prayed and talked out his feelings for over a year. Finally, he was able to reconnect with the reserves of love in his heart and re-connect with his son. Today Jim and Francine are such proud grandparents of the twin boys his son and his partner adopted that they did what many grandparents do, they moved closer to spend time with the family. And Jim speaks and advocates openly in the community about inclusivity in the community and at his church.


Bryan Stevenson, who’s story is told in the movie, “Just Mercy” and is founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, recently shared in an interview on Fresh Air shared that we must risk telling the truth for the sake of reconciliation. To illustrate, he told the story of one woman’s courage at the site of a lynching. Stevenson founded the National Memorial for Peace and Justice that memorializes victims of lynching. At the memorial there are jars if dirt from the sites where these murders occurred. Stevenson told the story of an African American woman who participated in the project.


She was on her hands and knees digging dirt and placing and placing it in a jar at one of the sites when a white man in a truck slowed down and looked at her. He drove past, turned around and stopped. He asked what she was doing. She said she felt compelled to tell him the truth, despite her fear. He got out of the tuck and asked if he could help her. She offered him a trowel. He declined and dug with his hands. Together they put the dirt in the jar.


She noticed tears streaming down his face and she asked if he was OK. He said he feared his ancestors may have participated in the very lynching she was memorializing. She cried with him. They took pictures of each other, holding the jar, memorializing a moment of unexpected understanding, hope, and reconciliation. A moment of blessed mourning, mercy, hunger and thirst for righteousness that came as a result of two people, each in their own way and time, in their ordinary lives, halting trying to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.


Jim, the fellow in the truck, the woman with the jar of dirt, all needed to rearrange the words of their lives to match the poetic prophet. Like them, the poetic challenge of our lives is that we will never know when we will be called upon to rearrange our words and our lives, putting them together as fools for Christ, to align ourselves fully and at great risk with the blessed of this world, and hence to be both blessed and a blessing.


But the reality is, in every moment, of every day we are called to do what God requires with all we have and all we are, choosing minute by minute to do justice, love kindness and humbly walk with God.