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The Blessing of Meekness

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Jan 29

Texts: Micah 6:1-8, Psalm 15, and Matthew 5:1-11

Today we turn to three powerful resources from our scripture. These are all from the lectionary, long ago appointed for this fourth Sunday of Epiphany, which is to say, I didn’t cherry pick them given our current events.

First, we heard the prophet Micah crying out at the end of the 8th century BCE at a time when the “militarizing policies of the Jerusalem establishment” were imposing injustices upon the people. Intensive preparation for a rebellion against the Assyrian regime was already underway. Our passage is not so much about what God wants but about whom God wants to be part of the community of resistance. The last and most famous verse resounds through the ages as a summary of prophetic ethics.(1) What does the Lord require of us? Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God.

In Psalm 15, we shared an eerily timely list of sins and virtues. According to the Oxford Bible Commentary, a possible use for this psalm was to set out “the conditions for those seeking asylum in the sanctuary.” It may have served as an inscription at entrances to synagogues, an answer to the opening question, “O God, who may abide in your tent?” Sanctuary cities and towns that have promised to protect refugees and immigrants from deportation have been flooding the news cycle in recent days. Boston Mayor Walsh made national headlines on Thursday when he pronounced of City Hall: "If the people want to live here, they'll live here- they can use my office, they can use any office in this building." Walsh pledged to help refugees and immigrants who were targeted unjustly. Yesterday, as I was writing, refugees and immigrants with green cards were already being stopped and detained at U.S. airports under Trump’s immigration order as protests erupted across the country. Thankfully, federal judges have stepped in to challenge Trump’s unjust order and, we hope, unlawful action. The call for clear stances on sanctuary are as real and urgent as ever. As you may know, five Harvard Square churches including ours are in various stages of discernment about whether we will declare sanctuary status. Please stay for our meeting after church to join our conversation. Karin Case preached last week about the spiritual, religious and historic foundations of the practice of “sanctuary” -- from the ancient synagogues, to the underground railroad, to the hiding of Jews during World War II. I won’t say more now but I couldn’t resist sounding the echo.

Finally, amidst these clarion calls for justice, kindness, humility and hospitality, we also the heard the Beatitudes, which opens with Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount,” with that familiar sequence of two part sayings. The first part is a blessing of some present and painful reality; the second, a promise of a better future. Their juxtaposition allows the trials of earthly life to be set in a wider contemplation of a divine and eternal realm.

Quite the trifecta, wouldn’t you say?! And especially after such a week. Ordinarily, given our state of current affairs, I’d take that first “do justice” phrase from Micah and run with it. Given the administration’s bold and bombastic moves in these first 8 days, we must seek every channel we can to maintain that prophetic code of ethics, we too must be bold. Bold in our protests, bold in in our defiance, and bold as we declare God’s blessing and promise to immigrants, refugees, Muslims and other targeted populations. If your inbox looks anything like mine this week, there is an almost overwhelming inundation of invitations to petition and protests, teach-ins and trainings!

The call to “do justice” has rightly been first and foremost in many of our minds. Indeed, asking what can we do in these outrageous and outraging times is swelling movements of solidarity and civic engagement in unprecedented ways. This is a beautiful thing. This is a God thing. The time is now to show up and make your voice heard. And, I know that I’m preaching to the choir with most of you, that the message of doing justice is already registering in your marching and signing petitions and calling Congress. And, in spite of the bold actions and reactions we are witnessing, I wonder if the Spirit may have another word for us today, to help guide and stretch us further in how we go about our work of justice.

In reading the beatitudes this week, there was one line that stood out. What’s been rattling me the most is the beatitude: “blessed are the meek!” One night this past week, I found myself awake at 2 am. The refrain of these words would not let me go. I turned in my bed as I turned in my head related themes of power and powerlessness, brazenness and quietness, urgency and patience. Meekness. The word has an almost counterintuitive ring to it in this week of declarations and executive orders that are anything but, following the marches of last Saturday that were anything but. Our new President is anything but meek! Maybe that’s one of the reasons I’ve felt drawn to consider it. But what even is meekness? And how many of us have a positive association with it? It’s not humility, not quite. It’s not introversion - there are plenty of introverts we know who are far from meek!

At 2 am, I had to look it up. From Merriam-Webster: The first definition is this – check it out –“enduring injury with patience and without resentment.” Another definition is “not violent or strong!” Other dictionaries list quiet, gentle, teachable, patient under suffering. Wikipedia adds: “the quality of restraining one's own power so as to allow room for others.” Blessed are the meek!

Truth to tell, I’ve been feeling for some time now a shift in how I carry myself, how I carry my leadership, how I’m seeing my social location and holding my Christianity both in and for these rapidly changing and challenging times. For years, one of my character strategies, one of the stories I’ve told about myself to myself, is that of being this strong, steady, broad shouldered guy, calm in a crisis, able to carry my weight and, if need be, that of others. As you know, I’m unafraid to speak up in meetings or crowds, sometimes loudly! As a leader, a husband, a father, a friend, I dare say these ways of being in the world have often served me well. I like to think these traits have helped me to be there for, and to stand with others, as the need has arisen. I’m clear that this large part of who I am is not going away; it’s hard-wired, I’m pretty sure of that. But as I get older, as the world around me changes, as I grow increasingly aware of the way that my body, gender, skin color shows up and takes up space in a room, I’ve begun to sense a liability in this ‘strong man’ story of myself. It doesn’t always help others and it doesn’t always help me. When I awoke at 2 am, I found myself wondering whether a sense of meekness needed to creep in. While part of me resists it, part of me is curious. How and where do I feel meek, or for that matter how and when do any of you feel meek? For me, the answer is...not very often, or maybe not often enough is more like it. I think I feel most meek when I’m outside of my comfort zone, or when I feel powerless. I feel it sometimes when I’m the only white person in a room, or the only Christian, or when I’ve traveled and when I’m the only northerner or the only American. I feel it when I’m painfully aware, more often than not after the fact, of the advantages my white-hetero-male-American-Christian privilege brings. I grow meek when I’m reminded of how little I experience the suffering others endure just because of who they are - the daily fears, dirty looks and threats. When I feel so out of sorts, I draw into myself and feel less secure that I know what’s needed, that my strong man self can do anything to help except to show up and shut up. It's the part of me that can get in touch with all the ways that I feel weak and needy and, ultimately, on-my-knees reliant on something or someone stronger than me.

Given some recent circumstances in my life, I feel like God has been trying to beat me over the head with this lesson lately. Meanwhile, I’ve been like, ‘Now God, really?? Can’t you see what’s going on all around us? Blessed are the meek? That’s what you’ve got for me? I can’t be meek in my leadership now, or in my family, I’ve got two teenagers, can’t you see!?” Still, I keep getting the clear picture that God is rejecting my usual highly driven, strong man ways.

Sorry if this is way too much information about my inner life! As I’ve shared this with others though, there’s been resonance. I wonder… can we as a predominantly white and privileged, high achieving Christian community sense Jesus blessing us not only in our well-placed righteous anger, in our stridency, in our strong-willed resistance to the evils all around us, but in our meekness as well?

Dietrich Bonheoffer, a Christian disciple who resisted Nazi regime and who was defiant unto his death, held meekness as a virtue of Christian discipleship. Those who would learn to serve, and by extension, to minister, to feed, to care, to grow in Christian love, to resist the powers of evil -- “must first learn to think little of themselves.”(2) He continues: “they will know that it is good for their own will to be broken in their encounter with their neighbor.” Let me say that again: “they will know that it is good for their own will to be broken in their encounter with their neighbor.” He goes on: “They will be ready to consider their neighbor’s will more important and urgent than their own.”

Friends, I wouldn’t dream of giving this sermon to a predominantly African American or immigrant or Muslim congregation right now. Those I know have been patient in suffering for far too long, and they know all too well already what it means to have their own will broken in encounters with their neighbors. But to what extent do we?

More deeply, meekness, for Jesus, comes straight from Psalm 37— “the meek shall inherit the earth.” Meekness means that we can and must recognize our powerlessness, our human limits, the myth of our indispensability, trusting instead and relying on the power and promise of God. That’s where the endurance comes from, a deep knowing that God’s truth is an eternal compass, that God’s love is an everlasting bulwark over whatever evils may befall us or our loved ones or our nation! Meekness, in the Christian sense, is rooted in deep, deep faith. It is the opposite of knowing and trusting that we are right. Meekness is about knowing and trusting that God is real!

For those of you who already do meek well in a daily sense, I wonder if it’s time to recognize and celebrate and grow your strength in meekness, to step up and share it! God knows we need all kinds! A favorite sign from the March last weekend: “So bad, even introverts are here!” Amen! More power to you! Less power to the strong man. More service to God!

Consider too, though, the tried and tested blessing and practice of meekness– that capacity to endure injury with patience and without resentment – that kept black folk at the lunch counters, beating after beating, that let Rosa Parks sit poised on the bus, that let John Lewis be the front line of that first March across the bridge in Selma – a deep and quiet trust that allowed for such lasting defiance and life-risking civil disobedience! The meekness that knows, quietly and without shouting, that we are not alone, that this is God’s world not ours, that we can put our trust in God.

Friends, as we wonder, and worry about and dread what lies ahead, as we show up in mixed spaces with mixed races, as we come to terms where we do and don’t have the power to make a difference, trust in the blessedness not only of the bold, loud and proud who are speaking truth to power, trust also in the blessedness of the meek! Given the trials ahead, literal or figurative, for us and for our neighbors, the exhortation to do justice must be heeded and I pray earnestly that each of us will find our ways to contribute and participate, to join the growing movement and to make this a community of bold, bold resistance! And, I pray that we do so recalling the blessings and the strength of meekness, its faith-filled endurance, its quiet listening, its restraint of violent impulse, its willingness to break our wills and to bend our ways, ultimately to sacrifice our needs in service to and love for our neighbors, near and far!

The message is clear! Jesus says: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth!” Paul writes “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, and meekness!” James writes “welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” May we each do so with the words of scripture we have heard today, acting with courage and justice, and sharing the faith that we proclaim even now.

RESPONSE OF FAITH United Church of Canada Statement of Faith
L: Will you please rise and join in our Response of Faith.

L: We are not alone, we live in God's world.
C: We believe in God: who has created and is creating,
who has come in Jesus, the Word made flesh,
 to reconcile and make us new,
 who works in us and others by the Spirit.
 We trust in God.
 We are called to be the Church, to celebrate God's presence,
 to live with respect in creation,
 to love and serve others,
 to seek justice and resist evil,
 to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
 our Judge and our Hope.
 In life, in death, in life beyond death,
 God is with us. We are not alone.
 Thanks be to God. Amen.

1) Oxford Bible Commentary
2) From Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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