by Ellen Sims
A long time ago in an empire far, far away, a dispirited people were governed by a king who accrued power and wealth for himself and his family while the people grew poorer and the world more unstable. Some people did decry his unjust edicts that, for instance, mercilessly taxed the poor, The most famous radical who led a resistance movement against the empire was, like the others, a nobody, a peasant, but he challenged not with armed attacks and clandestine plots but with a vision, a sacred dream he shared of an alternate kingdom that prophet Micah had announced—where justice, mercy, and humility would reign.
This peasant man admonished the rich but spoke words of blessing to the lepers, the beggars, the disreputable, the discarded. He preached hope, healed sick bodies and traumatized minds, and drew a ragtag unarmed following that he taught about another way to live in this world, a way that could usher in a kingdom that was the very opposite of the one that oppressed the many for the benefit of the few. Strangely, this peaceful movement threatened the Bully in Chief and the Caesar to whom he answered. So although the nonviolent young leader of this moral movement—-which you might call a Poor People’s Campaign—-posed no physical threat to the king of the earthly kingdom, he did expose the king’s injustices while lifting up the stories of poor people and promising them that in God’s upside-down kingdom, the downtrodden would be handed the keys to the kingdom. In that not-here-yet but coming-ever-closer kingdom, the mournful, meek, and merciful would be blessed, he promised; the peaceful and persecuted would be embraced and encouraged, honored and elevated.
Many say this kingdom never really got off the ground. Its leader was arrested and crucified, many of the key leaders of the movement were also executed. And, as is patently clear, an idyllic realm of justice has yet to be established on this earth. But the visionary who was crucified lives on in the life of God and in the lives of those who believe the kingdom of heaven was bigger than one point in time and place, and more significant than a destination after death. The Kingdom of God is a reality we must continue to work toward in the here and now, a spiritual state that can change the physical/socio-political state of things if we follow this man, this man Jesus, this son of God.
But to this day the Kingdom of God that Jesus promised and prayed for is a hard sell to potential followers. Its slogans—like “take up your cross and follow me”—need more than a little tweaking to gain broad appeal. Who would respond to THAT recruitment tactic? I understand why Jesus’s courage and compassion compel us. So many over the centuries have followed him because of his love, and some glom onto him because they believe just naming him as their “savior” gives them reserved seating in the Kingdom of Heaven they believe to be a place of eternal bliss. But why in heaven’s name would we be willing to emulate Jesus by working sacrificially and taking so great a risk for the kingdom he believed was God’s aim for this earth right here and now?
Let me try to answer that question by asking the opposite question. It’s a question that I’ve been asking myself a lot lately. Why do people follow leaders who, unlike Jesus, gain a following by ridiculing those on the margins, playing to our fears, lying unabashedly, using their office for personal gain? Why are people attracted to bullies? Why do we willingly serve bullies? Why are we impressed by the power of force and might rather than by the power of kindness and service to others?
Psychology, sociology, political science, evolutionary anthropology and other disciplines have answers to that question. But I’ll share now one man’s take on bullying from his experience playing in an orchestra. Over a year ago Arthur C. Brooks shared in a New York Times op ed his understanding of the power of bullies based on observations of conductors who bully members of the orchestra. He zeroes in on perhaps the obvious explanation: people are attracted to bullies. Why? He says social science research shows that people who “complain about political dictators and tyrannical executives” nevertheless “nearly always remain loyal [to them] out of a primordial admiration for power and need for security in an uncertain world.”
We worship power. We act out of fear.
Brooks then illustrates this point with the following joke from the orchestra world:
“There was a viola player who for years is singled out for abuse and torment by the conductor. One day, he comes home from rehearsal to find his house burned to the ground. The police on the scene tell him that it’s arson and that there is evidence that the culprit is none other than the conductor. Asked if he has any questions, the violist thinks for a moment and asks, softly, The maestro came to my house?’”
Brooks continues: “Bullying is a demand-driven and inaction-driven phenomenon: It requires an eager audience or neutral bystanders. The problem is that we are becoming a nation of cowards and voluptuaries, either egging on or sitting passively as abuse and contempt take over our political discourse.”
He urges: “If you hate it, stand up. I saw that happen only one time in the orchestra. A guest conductor was browbeating us in rehearsal and singling out individuals for abuse. An oboe player finally stood up and said, “With all due respect, Maestro, I think I speak for all of us when I say that the problem is not us, but you.”
The conductor kicked him out of the rehearsal. For the rest of us, he was a hero.”
Jesus stood up to a bullying system. And the beautiful beatitudes before us today illustrate the antithesis of bullying. Jesus cared nothing about power and everything about the powerless. Rather than trying to impress the bully, he was blessing the bullied.
As Brooks explained, you and I are complicit in a bullying culture—bullying of LGBTQ persons, racial minorities, women, the differently abled, the poor — if we are not actively speaking up for their rights and dignity. Or as the author of Matthew’s gospel would say, when we fail to BLESS those lives.
We enter Black History month with an intention to honor the lives of those who worked and sometimes died to be treated as human beings. And to BLESS all who continue that justice work today. BLESSED are those who work for justice, we can say with our words, yes, and in our own efforts to see where God is at work for justice in this world and to join in that work. Blessing another’s courage in the face of bigotry and blessing another’s engagement in projects of justice are ways we become living beatitudes. Matthew’s beatitudes are not Jesus’s sweet sentiment about being nice to folks. They are a radical call to stop bullying and start blessing the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted.
Consider now what you tacitly bless. Sometimes it is in wordless ways that you and I bless behavior that is not worthy of Jesus followers. Will we be like silent members of the orchestra who let the conductor berate us and others? Or will we be the oboe player who called out the maestro on his disrespectful behavior and was then kicked out of the rehearsal as a result? What do we bless with our words or actions? How can your life bless those Jesus blessed?
The Beatitudes were not intended to be cross stitched by grandma and framed as sweet sentiment. The Beatitudes were not passed down for 2000 years to become a meme we might “like” on Facebook. The Beatitudes guide us in the Jesus way.
This is a dangerous calling, friends, because in the upside down Kingdom that Jesus preached and founded and inhabited, there is a cross. As Paul admitted to the Corinthians in a passage we read earlier: “The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). Jesus followers participate in the unseen kingdom of God and in an ongoing process of being saved from the things that are not of God by following the man who was crucified by the bullies because he he refused to bless cruelty and injustice.
Standing against the bullies can have serious consequences. Standing with those who are bullied and blessing them takes courage.
Nothing about Jesus’s upside-down kingdom sounds more ridiculous or more dangerous than the cross, the cross that the Empire intended for discrediting his preaching and frightening the followers, the cross that silenced him with death but was defeated by resurrection, the cross that was intended to expose Jesus’s insignificance and impotence but actually, ironically, astonishingly, demonstrated the power of God and exposed the foolishness of the wise.
Right here and right now, a dispirited people watch foolish leaders accruing power and wealth for themselves as the world grows more unstable. The beatitudes of Matthew’s Gospel are antithetical to the world’s ways and wisdom, but they continue to hold out our true source of hope. Their purpose is to reorient us away from politics as usual, equip up with lovingkindness, prepare us to be reviled, steel us against persecution, and fit us for the now and coming kin*dom of heaven that can be manifest here on earth.
“Blessed are you who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.” Blessed are you, dear friends.
I want the chance today to speak a blessing to each one of you, individually, as you come forward to receive holy communion. If you wish, pause for a moment after you receive the gifts from Christ’s table as I touch your shoulder and speak a blessing to you.
PRAYER: We pray for your blessings, O God, but most of all we pray to be a blessing. Amen.