As some of you may have heard on Facebook, a member of my congregation and her Iranian husband have been stranded in Tehran by the President’s executive order barring travel by Muslim residents of certain nations. The husband, a legal permanent resident of the US (a green card holder), would not have been issued a visa for entry, possibly not even allowed to board a plane headed for America. His wife, an American citizen, could have traveled without him, but this would put his immigration status in jeopardy, as well as his job in our community.
They at least have an apartment in Tehran, so they’re not stuck in an airport somewhere, but obviously, the situation is not good. As my congregant points out, it cost her husband about $2,000 the last time he got clearances for the green card. And because there is no American embassy in Iran, he would have to go to another country for the “extreme vetting,” adding costs of time, airfare, food and lodging. Meanwhile, there are the bills to pay in Wisconsin. They’d set enough aside for the time they were to be gone, but again, if he’s away too long, he could easily lose his job in the US. And then what?
I did make some phone calls on their behalf to Wisconsin’s Senators and to the office of Glenn Grothman, our Congressional Representative. As of press time, Grothman’s staff hadn’t returned the call, which is fine, it’s the weekend. I couldn’t even get through to Johnson’s office: his voicemail is full, as it always is. But a member of Baldwin’s staff did call me this afternoon (thank you), and they’ll start working on the case on Monday.
I laid all of this out to the congregation this morning. You could have heard a pin drop. On carpet.
My original plan had been to discuss it during the prayers, but in the end, it seemed like the sermon would make more sense if I began with the news. So I gave them the rundown, and then I talked about how I understood that they might not be comfortable with me talking about a political situation in a sermon. But sometimes, the outside world does intrude into our life as a congregation. Then I told them something I’ve said before, which is that the problem with American politics is nobody thinks the government works for them. From the poorest all the way up to the very richest, everybody thinks the government’s on somebody else’s side.
In fact one of the big problems of modern life is that we feel so helpless. Big forces outside our control are constantly at work on us. We respond to this by trading off governments, thinking that this time, surely, those SOB’s will work for me. It never does quite work out that way. The result is that we find ourselves in a situation where if the government works for me, it can’t work for you, and vice versa. I worry about these things.
But I know most people come to church to find a sense of hope and strength to get through the week or pass on some values to the kids. It just gets harder to do that every time you turn on the news. It’s tough to feel a sense of hope when you feel helpless. As a parent, there’s not much worse than trying to keep your kid’s chin up when you don’t feel it yourself.
In response, we are often tempted to think the smart thing to do is to give up hope, to be pessimistic and cynical. We all know the way the world works, don’t we?
When I get this way, I think about Jesus, and the kind of people he came from. It’s hard to describe just how desperately poor someone from Nazareth really was. They worked all day, every day (except the Sabbath), from sunup to sundown. If you look at the archeological sites from this time, you won’t find a lot of clothes or toys or even cups or bowls. Why? Because they didn’t have very much of that kind of thing, and what they did have they used until it was completely worn out. Jesus’ people had nothing. They were perpetually one step from going hungry, and that’s if they could keep the soldiers from showing up and expropriating an extra load of grain—and killing them for resisting or just for the fun of it.
So when Jesus said, “Blessed are the…” he knew what he was talking about. We hear the beatitudes these days as instructions to be or to do a certain way, but there’s reason to think they announce whose side God is on. You who are poor [broken] in spirit? Don’t worry, God’s got you covered: some day, the kingdom of God will belong to you.
You who are mourning right now? God’s going to comfort you.
And so it goes on down the line. Jesus blesses the meek, meaning the humble people, the powerless.
And those who hunger and thirst for righteousness—or maybe just hunger and thirst, as Luke says.
Blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart—the people who do the right thing.
Blessed are the peacemakers: those are the people who turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, give to those who beg.
Blessed are the persecuted and reviled. All you people who suffer right now? You’ll be rewarded in the end, because God loves you.
I want at this point to emphasize to you how utterly and completely screwy all of this is. We all know, don’t we, that the poor don’t get rewarded. We all know the rich and powerful get the rewards, and the ordinary people get bupkis, as they say in Yiddish. Yet, here we have God coming down on the side of the ordinary and lesser people. As I put it to the congregation God is on the side of the people we work with at the food pantry—meanwhile, the rest of us have gotten our rewards. It makes no sense by the world’s standards, yet here’s Jesus saying exactly that. God blesses all you people who are poor and struggling and suffering for doing the right thing. God is on your side. The rest of you? Well, you’re doing okay as it is.
Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount are his audience’s source of hope. For the first time, an authoritative leader with some mysterious connection to God says: Take hope. Things are going to get better. It’s a radical message, and for the original listeners, almost without parallel.
Out of all those people Jesus talks to, though, he ends up with twelve. So many people hear that word of hope, but there’s no evidence that any of them were converted by Jesus’ preaching. In the end, the only people he can count on are the same twelve poor men just like him who he started out with. They’re the only ones who can take in the message of hope and live from it.
And they change the world!
It doesn’t happen right away—in fact, it takes centuries—but eventually, Jesus and his disciples turn their society upside down. They change the very course of history. Just twelve nobodies and their nobody teacher send shock waves through the world that continue to resonate today.
As Paul says, this is just utter idiocy. It doesn’t work this way! Yet, through Jesus, God chooses the weak, the low, the foolish, all to show that:
God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
That is the message of the cross: that in weakness God finds strength, and that in foolishness, God expresses wisdom. Which means…what, exactly?
It means: the source of our hope is not how well things are going, but in the assurances of Jesus that God blesses those who suffer. That may seem stupid and counterintuitive, but it’s the truth. God is on the side of the poor, the humble, the suffering. That’s where our hope and values come from.
A few years back, during Congressional midterms, I asked MSNBC’s Christopher Hayes if he thought liberals were super-screwed that cycle, or just the regular screwed? His answer was: just ordinary, in that fighting for the victims of injustice is always an uphill battle. Right. Life isn’t about how you and I feel. The source of life’s hope, its meaning and values, lies not in success but in its participation in the story of God’s tender and compassionate love for the poor, the humble, and the persecuted. Your blessing is in being called to be a part of that story. Call that foolish if you will, but to my mind, it’s still the smartest thing around.
P.S.: I did ask the congregation to think about possibly joining a group visit to our elected officials’ offices to do a bit of advocacy work. During the last hymn, a gentleman who recently lost his mother asked if he could say something before the benediction. He told the church that Catholics have a tradition of asking the faithful departed to intercede with God on their behalf, a practice often frowned upon in Protestant churches. But, he reminded us, his mother worked with the mother of our member in Tehran for many years to build up the church. If there was ever an appropriate time for prayer to the saints, he said, this would be it. And he will come with us to see our representatives.+ + +