Here’s a funny story.
When I was a teenager, and first considering the priesthood, I didn’t take it seriously.
I thought it would be too easy.
Let that settle in for a second.
In my slight defense, this was in the late 1990s. It was a world of budget surpluses, Ally McBeal, and the end of the Cold War. Basically, another planet to where we currently live. And in my small, 16 year old brain, I thought representing the church in those times would be easy.
Fast forward to Saturday afternoon, when I alternated between writing this sermon, and calling my senators from an Anaheim hotel lobby, in the wake of the president’s executive order banning refugees from Syria, and immigration from 6 other Muslim countries. We at St. Paul’s host a Sudanese refugee mission parish, so I texted my rector to see whether any of our people had been caught in the travel ban.
Yeah, none of this is easy.
Here’s what I said. (You can also go to St. Paul’s FB page and catch the livestreamed version here.)
Rev. Megan L Castellan
January 29, 2017
I am an unabashed religion nerd, and so please do not judge me too harshly when I tell you that I have several–and by that I mean many–copies of the gospels on my bookshelf. Different translations, different annotations. Including that weird, Jesus seminar one, where the scholars re-translated the greek text, and voted with different colored beads as to whether they thought Jesus really said it. (It was a fad in the 1970s.)
And so, it is from those sources that I can tell you with some authority that the word here translated ‘blessed’ also usually means ‘Happy.’ Happy are the poor. Happy are the merciful. Happy are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Happy, happy, happy.
Happy. Like a room without a roof.
On some level, Jesus telling me that happiness is a result of being poor, or merciful, or a peacemaker, is a harder sell than Jesus telling me that those characteristics will make me blessed. Blessed, I can buy. Blessed seems within the realm of possibility. For me, at least, ‘blessed’ conjures up images of some far-off spiritual place where I will be rewarded, I will be blessed, for sticking to these choices now, but IN THE MEANTIME, it’s just going to be miserable. And I should expect no less.
That idea of blessedness being spiritual is pretty common, did you know? Especially among mainline Protestants in the Western World. When Dietrich Bonhoeffer, our favorite, went to seminary in New York, he did some writing about how the beatitudes weren’t actually intended to be kept at all. Because how could you? How could you, a good patriotic German, be truly merciful, be a peacemaker, in the rising tide of nationalism and imperialism and war fever sweeping the country? Really, you couldn’t do it. So most Lutherans at the time thought that these verses were there to remind people how very sinful they were. Christ wanted us to live in one way, and we just couldn’t because of original sin, and our innate brokenness, and so we needed God’s grace. Classic law and grace dichotomy.
Then, Bonhoeffer went to New York. And while there, he encountered the idea that Jesus was serious about the beatitudes. That Jesus did want us to do these things. Here, and now. First from a Swiss classmate, and then from the African American churches he attended in Harlem, who fought against lynching and segregation in the mid 1920s. It was through their eyes that Bonhoeffer first understood that Jesus was serious about peace, serious about mercy. Serious about being persecuted.
And we know what happened to him from there. Once ‘blessedness’ shifted from a lovely, distant spiritual reality to a present imperative, his whole life changed. And the church gained a saint.
I bring this up, because this tension between ‘blessed’ and ‘happy’ is real. It is a question that pulls at us, like it pulled at Bonhoeffer, every moment of our lives.
Do we believe that to follow Christ it is a spiritual choice, or do we believe that following Christ requires daily, concrete choices about our actions and place in the world? Do we believe that to follow Christ makes us blessed in some distant, spiritual way? Or do we believe that following Christ in the here and now yields true happiness?
And, before I answer this hypothetical question of mine, I want to acknowledge something. For many of us, this is a terrifying question. For many of us, ok, for most of us, maybe, these are terrifying times. But there are, in that large, petrified group, I believe, who perhaps haven’t had to wrestle so deeply with these questions before. There are those of us, perhaps, who, til now, have rested secure in the belief that the powers that ran the world were–if not good, then at least benign, and would protect them, would listen to them.
For those of us in this category, this belief is now breaking apart. And for the first time, we all must confront the idea that we are, in a new way, outside of power. Those who control the levers of power do not care. They do not. Concern for the common good is not what has driven the decisions of the government this past week. Adherence to Christian ideals of loving your neighbor, caring for the foreigner, the stranger, the immigrant, the sick, and the suffering–these were abandoned by those in the halls of power this week.
And in times like these, in the face of this fear, and this sort of abandonment of what we are explicitly called to be–being ‘blessed’ just won’t cut it. It won’t. I cannot find hope in Christ’s promise that one day, I might find a spiritual peace if I find peace on a spiritual level. Blessed doesn’t cut it.
Because people are suffering, now People will lose access to healthcare now. People will be turned away from our borders, now. Our Sudanese brothers and sisters, beloved, are in jeopardy, now. Their family will remain stranded in the Sudan, now. They cannot wait to be blessed, in their souls, in their hearts. They are suffering now.
And so, I hold to Christ’s promise of happiness. Happiness. That when we are merciful NOW. When we make for peace NOW, when we are poor, when we grieve NOW, we will be happy. Not just blessed. Not just righteous, but happy. That our decision to follow Christ in concrete ways, when we choose to take the Beatitudes seriously in the here and now, we will make for happiness for all creatures.
Not that it will be easy. Jesus didn’t throw in that last one about being persecuted for dramatic effect. Right now, to follow the beatitudes, and demand that we all uphold them will get us persecuted. Full stop. It will. We will go on some list, we may go to jail, we may become unpopular. We may even walk into danger.
But here is what I know. I know that millions of faithful people have been here before us. And it was in following Christ’s way that they found their joy. It was in resisting a world that sorted people into desirable and undesirable that they found hope. It was in fighting back against a system that sold human beings for profit that they became truly happy. Not fleetingly comfortable, but truly, incandescently joyful. When they joined their footsteps to Christ’s, they found happiness. When they joined their hearts and their minds to Christ, they found joy.
Because here is the other thing I know–when we stand up for the Beatitudes in the here and now, when we embrace the idea of true happiness in these values, there Christ is. Christ is in the face of the merciful. In the feet of the poor. In the hands of the grieving. In the arms of the despised. And it is when we embrace these, when we stand up and fight for these, that we embrace Christ and we find happiness, like so many have before us.
We won’t be comfortable, we won’t be sedate, or popular. But like Bonhoeffer, like King, like Dorothy Day and Romero before us, will we be happy?