January 29, 2023
10A Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
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.” Matthew 5:1-12
We are here because we believe that Jesus is Lord. We believe that the Son of Mary is the Eternal Son of the Eternal Father. We believe that He is the Light that has come into the world. We believe that He is the Wellspring of Divine Wisdom.
As to the wisdom He offers, among all the words attributed to Jesus there are some that stand out and compel our most considered attention, and that invite our deepest response. The Sermon on the Mount, for which this morning gospel of the Beatitudes serves as a preamble, and the famous Parable of the Sheep and the Goats with which Matthew ends his gospel, are most certainly of this order.
Jesus bids us to listen not just with our ears but also with our hearts to these words of wisdom and to let them serve to inform our decisions and contour our lives if we want to be numbered among His disciples. They stand in stark relief against what the gospel identifies as the foolishness of this world.
Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the humble. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are they who do what is right and willingly suffer for it.” He goes on in His Sermon on the Mount to invite us to love our enemies and to do good to those who would do us harm. And, in that parable of the Last Judgment, at the end of the gospel, they asked the Divine Judge, “Lord when did we see you poor, or naked, or hungry, or thirsty, in prison, or a stranger in flight for your life and took care of you”? In response, He answered, “When you did it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters, you did it for me.”
This is the heart of gospel wisdom. The Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, and the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats mirror and bring home in the greatest specificity and the starkest relief the powerful words of the prophet Micah, contained in today’s first lesson. In response to the question, “What does the Lord require?” Micah sums it up by declaring that the Lord requires three things, “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” As a society we have moved so very far away from meeting these requirements. Rather injustice, greed, cruelty, meanness, and arrogance are the drumbeat to which we are summoned to march.
As Jesus is the wellspring of divine wisdom, He is also our source of imperishable hope. While the world can make minced meat of our optimism, it cannot best our hope. Hope is something that we come by through faith. Our hope is in the Lord alone who is always faithful and always delivers on His promise.
There are indeed times when hope can seem harder to discern and sustain. The escalation of global military violence, the appalling increase in mass shootings; the pathetic dysfunction in the halls of congress, where one party holds hostage any initiatives that would advance the common good; the failure to dismantled the obstacle course, that confronts asylum seekers; and this week’s report of five black police officers who murdered a young black man during a routine traffic stop, once again revealing the inhumanity that lives in the culture of policing – all these certainly challenge hope.
In times of chaos and crisis, when hope is put to the test, I do believe that the most important resource available to us is the grace of righteous anger. I believe that those who do not allow themselves to own this precious gift as a response to what is going on, remain at greater risk of descending into a place of hopeless desperation, and even worse, selfish, and self-serving indifference. It is not touching me personally, so why should I have it trouble my day and disturb my peace of mind.
Let me be clear about this anger business. We all grew up being taught to believe that anger was a “bad” emotion. Certainly, scripture contains many more verses warning believers against blowing their cool than verses advocating such passion. Anger that would bring us to a place of hated or to a response of violence is most certainly not of God.
But scripture does hold up for our considered embrace that anger that Word of God describes as righteous. Righteous anger is a most appropriate emotional response in the face of injustice. Both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament make space for the expression of holy anger and identify it as the divine energy that allows believers to confront, to challenge, and to act against all forms of malice, all manifestations of injustice, and most especially the exploitation, victimization, and oppression of the poor and the most vulnerable. In the words of the Prophet Isaiah, such behaviors, and the enactment of the unjust laws that enable and propel them, “Cry to heaven for vengeance.”
Yes, the words and actions of Jesus reveal to us the wisdom of God, and in the face of injustice, righteous anger is that gift and resource that can fuel a holy response.
Righteous anger is the kind of raw emotion Jesus displayed when he fashioned a whip out of rope and lashed out at people who exploited the poor in God’s temple.
While forgiveness has long been a cornerstone of Christian theology, can we not see that casual forgiveness in many contexts can be a glossing over, that dissuades people from demanding transparency and accountability, confronting the horrors of exploitation, the victimization of the poor, the evils of racism and white supremacy, and the myth, malice, and menace of Christian nationalism.
To skip over anger, to not allow one’s humanity to have a spiritual encounter with righteous indignation, is to avoid that desperately needed deep conversation about the many ills that cripple our humanity. We desperately need this conversation if we want a different tomorrow.
Our most effective response to all expressions of inhumanity is to feel that holy outrage that can move us to take whatever actions, even to the point of civil disobedience, that might make a difference in terms of advocacy or protection for those who find themselves under assault.
Seven years ago today, a group of outraged children of God, numbering about 120 strong met in our parish hall to discuss where we go from Kingston’s identifying itself as a Sanctuary City. The atmosphere in the hall was one of deep concern mixed with a passion to take some action. The meeting brought together members of diverse faith communities, and community action and advocacy groups. During the meeting I mentioned that the idea of identifying houses of worship within Kingston, that would shelter those threatened with deportation while they made legal appeals. The group voiced a need to go beyond this limited tradition to a place that they defined as “Radical Hospitality”. A few years ago, the Ulster Immigrant Defense Network morphed to embrace the hundreds of asylum seekers who have made their way here. The loving response made by our volunteers continues to be fed, I believe, in no small measure, by righteous anger at the injustice of it all.
We need love. Jesus says, “Love and do not hate your enemy. Return good for evil.” The power of transforming love is the way of Jesus. And don’t we need remember that message today when there is violence, and threats to more violence, all around us?
But to reach that place of transforming love, we also need to confront the systemic oppression of races and the disenfranchisement and dismissal of the most vulnerable among us, and all the other expressions of foolishness that the world proposes as wisdom. And for that, we need righteous anger.
We need, as well, repentance. We need to wrestle with the gift of righteous anger ― and what we can do to turn that anger into love and action. Can disciples of Jesus find joy and hope at a rebounding unregulated stock market, that allows for investments in the fossil fuels that are destroying the planet, and investments in the production of weapons of mass destruction, when climate change is fueling mass migrations and so many of God’s children have their lives violently destroyed?
Jesus comes into our lives again today to invite us, into a community to serve the least among us.
Holy outrage and outrageous, transforming love are the “Jesus Way” forward. May we embrace His way with renewed devotion.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
January 29, 2023