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SERMON PART I
John McGraw is a 79-year-old white man. He lives alone in a trailer park in Fayetteville, North Carolina. He has been married and divorced three times and hasn’t seen any of his children in over 30 years. He wears cowboy boots with 2” heals because, he says, “A cowboy can’t be only 5’ 8” tall.” It gets lonely living without a family.
Mr. McGraw is mostly retired but his Social Security income is not enough to live on so he makes leather belts, gun holsters, and wristbands that he sells at local flea markets and gun shows, places where he meets people with similar values, places where he can be with people as a substitute for having no family. When he sees cheap leather belts and buckles, he just can’t understand how anyone can buy such trash. He takes pride in his good work. “When I make a belt,” he says, “it’s made for life.” It’s an integrity thing for him. Another integrity thing for him: Before he would ever take food stamps he would work, even if it means working at 79-years-old.
Mr. McGraw struggles with the massive shifts in our nation. He does not understand gay marriage. He does not understand the rioting that occurred after the shootings in Ferguson, Baltimore, St. Paul, and elsewhere. Why would people riot and destroy other people’s property? That’s just not right. That’s not decent. These people are not behaving as Americans.
As the election approached Mr. McGraw wanted to stand up for what he believes is right, for decency, for America. He decided to attend a Trump rally.
Rakeem Jones is a 27-year-old black man. He too lives in a trailer park in Fayetteville, North Carolina, albeit a different one from Mr. McGraw. He was working at a company, taking the bus to work every day. He would pass cars with bumper stickers that read, “Kill ‘em all, let God sort ‘em out.” He would wonder if that was meant for him simply because his skin was black. He did not used to think that way. His experience was that the vast majority of people were good and that they respected the diversity of our nation.
Fayetteville, like the rest of the country, however, started heating up. Race was becoming an issue again. Mr. Jones wanted to trust that most people were decent. He wanted to trust that he could move to a neighborhood in Fayetteville and live in a house not a trailer; he wanted to trust that he could have that opportunity no matter what the color of his skin. When he saw the hateful bumper stickers he thought that these people are simply not behaving as Americans.
As the election approached, however, he felt he needed to stand and speak up for racial integration, speak against campaign rhetoric. He decided to protest a Trump rally.
As you have already seen coming, they both attended the same rally, Mr. McGraw as a supporter of candidate Trump, Mr. Jones as a protester. At this rally the protesters got to be too much for Mr. McGraw. There is a certain amount of decency that he expects from his fellow citizens, decency that he does not think is too much to ask. And it is not decent, in his view, for protesters to shout obscenities and boo a candidate for the president of the United States. That’s just not right. So as Rakeem Jones walked by him shouting and holding a protest sign, Mr. McGraw spontaneously stood up and elbowed Mr. Jones in the face. Mr. Jones went down hard. And the sheriffs escorted Mr. McGraw to jail.
SCRIPTURE READING Matthew 5:1-12 The Beatitudes
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then 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 righteousness’ sake, 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.
SERMON PART II
The beatitudes have ever captivated people’s imagination. It is almost as if they create a place in our imagination, a place beyond our anger, beyond our politics, beyond our contextual settings . . . a land flowing with milk and honey, where nation does not lift us sword against nation and human being does not raise fist against human being. They inspire a hope too complex too visualize but too real to ignore. The beatitudes create space to dream.
But they do more than that, particularly when we understand what Jesus meant by the word, ‘Blessed.’ We tend to think of blessings as gifts given and not commendation earned. “I’m blessed with good genes and know good health.” “I’m blessed to be born in the United States and enjoy the riches that this historical accident provides me.” “I’m blessed to have good neighbors, a great grocery store nearby, ski slopes only an hour away.” And I am glad to see that none of you here today are on those ski slopes right now.
When Jesus spoke those words he was addressing his disciples—people who lost nearly everything to follow him. In last week’s lesson we read, “[Jesus] saw two brothers, James and John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.” In Palestine at the time you had identity through your relationships, and your relationships were woven from your family. As one blogger wrote regarding an individual’s life then, “If you weren’t connected to others, that didn’t make you ‘your own man’; it made you nobody. That’s serious stuff, because nobody wants to do business with a nobody; being pushed out of your network of social relationships could also mean being left with nothing to live on and no way to get out of that position.” As far as we can tell from historical research, this was the case for Jesus’ followers. They were ostracized because they did outrageous things such as practice equality between the sexes, have respectable people eat with unclean sinners, and encourage individuals to choose their own marriage partners rather than have arranged marriages (I Corinthians 7). This shamed their families of origin, and their families of origin threw them out; they were figuratively dead to their families. And they became nobodies so they could live into the larger vision of humanity that Jesus preached.
So when Jesus said, Blessed are you . . . he was not talking about blessings as gifts given such as someone’s great genetics, he was talking about honoring them for their courage to walk a talk that went beyond custom and tribe and led to a vision of something greater, something more.
‘Honored are the poor in spirit, . . . .
‘Honored are those who mourn, . . . .
‘Honored are the meek, . . . .
‘Honored are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, . . . .
‘Honored are the merciful . . . .
‘Honored are the pure in heart, . . . .
‘Honored are the peacemakers, . . . .
‘Honored are those who are persecuted . . . .
Jesus honored the people who took the risk to love and live in this new way, honored them, and welcomed them into a new family.
The beatitudes from the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, not directly translated but rather as rendered in dynamic equivalence by Clarence Thomas in The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew.
The spiritually humble are God’s people, for they are citizens of God’s new order.
Those who are deeply concerned are God’s people, for they will see their ideas become reality.
Those who are gentle are God’s people, for they will be God’s partners across the land.
They who have an unsatisfied appetite for the right are God’s people, for they will be given plenty to chew on.
The generous are God’s people, for they will be treated generously.
Those whose motives are pure are God’s people, for they will have spiritual insight.
People of peace and goodwill are God’s people, for they will be known throughout the land as God’s children.
Those who have endured much for what’s right are God’s people; they are citizens of God’s new order.
You are all God’s people when others call you names, and harass you and tell all kinds of false tales on you just because you follow me. Be cheerful and good-humored, because your spiritual advantage is great. For that’s the way they treated people of conscience in the past.
SERMON PART III
St Francis of Assisi once said: “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” Mr. McGraw and Mr. Jones together learned to preach the Gospel, both with and without words.
At Mr. McGraw’s sentencing hearing (he pleaded ‘no contest”) the judge asked him if he had anything to say before he was sentenced for his assault on Mr. Jones. Mr. McGraw said he was sorry. He said that he had never been so ashamed of anything he had ever done in his life. He felt he was a decent man and the newspapers’ labeling him a racist hurt him deeply. The judge asked Mr. McGraw to say that to Mr. Jones. Mr. McGraw turned to Mr. Jones and told him that it didn’t have anything to do with race. Mr. Jones replied, “Not one time throughout this whole six months have I mentioned race,” The courtroom went silent. “As far as race, it’s not my concern. I got hit by a man, period.”
Mr. McGraw said, “I’m extremely sorry this happened,” and then took a step toward Mr. Jones. “This was between two men. You know what you did. And I know what I did. I’m not going to say you were wrong or I was wrong. You and I both know what occurred, and I hate it worse than anything else in the world.” He stepped closer to Jones and raised a finger. “We got caught up in a political mess today.” His jaw began to tremble. “And you and me, we got to heal our country.” After a moment Mr. Jones said, “All right, man,” He reached out to pat McGraw on the shoulder, who seemed surprised by the contact. Mr. McGraw put out his hand. Jones grasped it, and, as a few claps in the audience grew into applause, the two men embraced. The next day Mr. McGraw showed how serious he was: he called Mr. Jones just to see how he was doing.
This story is not over, because it also our story; it comes down to each of us. We are each Mr. McGraw. We are each Mr. Jones. And this leads me to say that I have confession to make to all of you today. You see, after they left court, each to return to his respective trailer park, the article I read went on to write, “What he got when he returned to the trailer park that day were outraged messages and online comments. As news spread, more people started calling him a sellout . . . .” I had been reading the article too fast. As soon as I read about the outraged messages my prejudice-my prejudice—kicked in. My prejudice because I thought the article was talking about Mr. McGraw and that it was fellow Trump supporters castigating him. Then I kept reading, “As news spread, more people started calling him a sellout for forgiving McGraw. They told him he was wrong to shake his hand, that he was wrong to hug him.” No, it wasn’t the Trump supporters who rejected forgiveness.
‘Honored are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you. Rejoice and be glad, . . . for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
I am really ashamed to tell you that about me. I am doing it in the hope that if anyone else in the sanctuary—liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican—has the designed blindness of unconscious prejudice, that you have the blessing of it slapping you across the face and pulling you up short. Then I hope that in the future you will hear Jesus say to you, “Honored are you . . . .”
Personally, I want to be like Mr. McGraw and Mr. Jones when I grow up. I want to have their courage to live the beatitudes in all their practical messiness. I want to learn to talk to people who disagree with me, not talk at them, listen to what they say not assume I already know it. I want to be part of the healing. God knows, we can’t rely on Washington for this. It’s up to us.
This is too important, everybody. The time for sitting on the sidelines is past. And the beatitudes are our guide. They are not just pretty words. They are our way out of this mess.
‘Honored are you peacemakers, for you will be called children of God.’
January 29, 2017 – Rev. George Anastos – Meeting Head On / It Starts With Us / Seeing With New Eyes
January 8, 2017 – Rev. George Anastos – O Rest Beside the Weary Road
December 24, 2016 – Rev. George Anastos – The Giver, the Gift, and the Gifted