The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
One thing that we know for sure about Jesus: he knew how to gather a crowd. We find these words “crowd” and “multitude” a lot in the Gospels and we see that at least once he preached to a throng of 5,000 and biblical scholars tell us that number did not include women and children. And many of them were troubled and in need of healing.
In addition, there were lots of people who had heard about him but had not made any decision about his authenticity or what response they might make to him. There were Jews and probably some Gentiles in the mix. They were men, women and children, people of means and the poor, the elite and the marginalized and I suspect this crowd came in various shades of skin pigment. There were likely at least a few Pharisees who were hostile to Jesus and maybe a few like Nicodemus who were curious. This was likely a very diverse group.
All we need to do is look around us at the many and varied aspects of creation and we will see that diversity was God’s idea first.
We have grown up with familiar clichés such as all human beings are created equal, give me your tired your poor, all are welcome to participate in this fulfillment of life.
Yet we know the truth. History has not been able to deny or suppress it. Whole populations have been oppressed and marginalized because of how they are different. Ask Native Americans, African-Americans, or women or people with disabilities. Ask the Chinese who were imported to build our first railroads or the Italians or Irish or Polish who came here for a better life. Ask the Pakistani behind the desk of a local gas station or ask lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans folk. Or ask any person who has been the brunt of racial profiling.
Yes, differences are a big thing. If we recognize the strengths they bear, we will realize that they are a well of creativity and new possibilities and keep society alive and vibrant. When Jesus preached to those multitudes who came to hear him, I’m sure he was aware of the diversity of the crowd as well as the degree of separation between the “haves” and the “have nots.”
So he gave them—he gave us—not a set of commandments but a set of “Be-attitudes” or “Attitudes for being” –characteristics of the “blessed life,” the dream of God for us and our life together. The beatitudes are for all of us—for the multitudes. For we are all poor in some way or another; we all hunger for love and validation; we all weep when we have experienced loss; we all know the pain of rejection.
Jesus’ teaching is a pronouncement not an instruction. He never uses words like “ought” or “must” in this text. Jesus announces the way things are in God’s kingdom—not necessarily the way they are in the world we know—but the way God’s dream for it would have us live together with all our differences and in our diversity.
Today we also remember someone on our church calendar who represents that diversity and also knew that experience of rejection, of oppression. Absalom Jones was born into slavery in 1746. His master was Benjamin Wynkoop and Jones's siblings and mother were property of Wynkoop as well. When Jones was around 16 years old, Wynkoop sold off Jones's mother and six siblings, but retained the teenager and took him with him to Philadelphia, where Wynkoop had a store. Jones worked in the business, and even went to a school set up for African Americans for a time. He joined St. George’s African Methodist Episcopal Church.
On a Sunday in November of 1787, Jones and others knelt for prayer in a newly constructed gallery of St. George's. Some white members of the congregation, however, felt that the black members should be confined to the balcony, and the sexton collared Jones and tried to pull him to his feet during opening prayers. Appalled, Jones and others walked out, and set to work on forming their own group as they left St. George's that morning in disgust.
Jones was supported in his search for a new church community by William White, the Episcopal bishop of Philadelphia and co-founded, the African-American Church of St. Thomas. Absalom Jones became the first black American to be formally ordained in any denomination. And this past week, on her birthday, we remembered the Right Reverend Barbara Harris, the first woman and African-American to be consecrated bishop and who died in 2020. She was asked to wear a bullet proof vest at her consecration and continued to receive death threat.
The power of the Beatitudes depends on where you are sitting when you hear them. It’s really not much of a stretch to compare the crowds on the mountaintop in the first century to the multitudes of the 21st century. History may have changed but humanity has not. In a reflection, Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister writes:
“The same emotions, assumptions, values and attitudes in one century simply keep appearing in situation after situation because they are endemic to human nature. They are the stuff of human growth—and of human deterioration, as well. The same feelings, fear, desires and aspirations appear again and again, sometimes to the glory of the human race, sometimes to our shame.”
I wonder if the world laughs at the values Jesus gives us in the beatitudes. To some they may even seem ridiculous. Too many people have it too good to think otherwise. Sadly, too many people have it so bad that they may not even be able to imagine a world in which the values Jesus offers would ever become reality for them.
There is another way—a way that recognizes God’s values and God’s blessings are different from those that society worships. Jesus says we’re blessed when we spend ourselves for the sake of others and blessed when we share what we have with compassion, kindheartedness, dignity and respect. That is the dream of God for us.