Carolyn J. Sharp: Witnesses to the Kingdom

Note: We are rerunning this program with the Rev. Dr. Carolyn Sharpe from 2020.

On the holy day of All Saints, it is our joy to sit at Jesus' feet as he speaks of the kingdom of heaven. In the Gospel of Matthew, our Savior's first discourse is the Sermon on the Mount, a foundational teaching in which Jesus shows his disciples the radical good news of blessing for all who struggle. [As Ulrich Luz observes, “The Sermon on the Mount is the first extensive proclamation of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. For that reason alone it has a foundational character. It is the only discourse of Jesus that almost exclusively contains commandments of Jesus.” Reflecting on 28:20, Luz finds that the Sermon on the Mount is, for Matthew, likely “also the central content of the Christian missionary preaching.” See Luz, Matthew 1–7, Hermeneia (trans. James E. Crouch; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007), 176–177.]

Jesus has been traveling in Galilee. Word is, he's curing every affliction and illness the people have! Folks in village after village have come out to see for themselves. Smaller groups join larger groups; soon there's an enormous throng of people coming to see the healer from Nazareth. Parents with sick children walk next to elderly widows; at the edge of the road, some move slowly because of the pain wracking their bodies. Here's a man who's been stunned into silence ever since he got back from the battlefield: he stares off into the distance at atrocities only he can see. Over there's a young woman, her head lowered in shame - something must've happened when that Roman battalion went through her village. She won't meet anyone's gaze, but she walks on with determination. They all do. They want to see Jesus. [See John 12:20–26.]

Rumor has it, Jesus is teaching that the kingdom of heaven has come near. "Really?" cynics murmur. "Not likely. The Romans have a stranglehold on the Galilean economy, and they'll crucify anyone who dissents. Be serious - the kingdom of heaven does not look like this."

But those healings! Everyone knows someone who's been healed - a man doubled over from intractable pain can now stand upright; a boy who had seizures ten times a day now plays happily, without those exhausting muscle spasms. A woman who'd been on her deathbed is now back to her old self, singing as she cooks for her family. Everyone who comes to Jesus has been made whole! [Matthew is emphatic about the comprehensive nature of Jesus’ healing ministry. See Matt 4:23–24: “curing every disease and every sickness.... all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics.”]

Now thousands follow Jesus wherever he goes. Doesn't matter what he's saying - he's making people well! The crowds bring their anxiety and their pain, their tears and their barely suppressed rage at the brutality of the Roman empire. And they bring something else, too: the fragile hope that a new thing might be happening - something that could turn their mourning into dancing. [As the Lord promises to a covenant people whose spirit had been colonized and broken by the Babylonians: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:19). “Mourning into dancing”: Ps 30:11.]

Seeing the throngs, Jesus goes up the mountain, calling his disciples to come and see the magnitude of the ministry that lies before them.

"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 those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,

for they will be filled!"

The kingdom of heaven has come near, and these people, with their anguish and their fragile hope, they are the sign.

The disciples look down the slope at the crowds. They can hear sounds of laughter and excited voices, and a few groans of pain. Someone calls out, "Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!" [Mark 10:47–48; Luke 18:38–39; see also Matt 9:27, 20:30–31.] Jesus turns to see who called to him. The disciples' eyes widen as understanding dawns: the lives of these suffering, oppressed people matter!

Now, these peasants mean nothing to the Roman enforcers of law and order - jackbooted thugs who know only the "law" of domination and the "order" achieved by forcing Palestinian necks under the yoke of Roman supremacy. The Roman soldiers harass the people every day, bullying them and cutting them down in the street at the slightest sign of resistance. But Jesus is saying, the struggles of these people matter. Their lives matter.

They've come out here to Jesus because they persist in claiming the healing that is theirs. Refusing to be silenced by pain or crushed by poverty, refusing to be dehumanized by the Romans, they march with persistence toward the flourishing that is their rightful inheritance in the kingdom of God. [See Matt 5:5: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” In the face of systemic oppression and violence, claiming your community’s right to flourish is both a holy act of resistance and an expression of faith.]

Blessed are they...

poor in spirit,

mourning what they've lost,

yearning fiercely for righteousness:

blessed are they!

These people are witnesses - a great cloud of witnesses testifying to the hope of shalom, the wholeness that is theirs by right in the kin-dom of God.

Blessed, oh, blessed are they, in every generation! And blessed are we, when we follow the teaching of our Savior, Jesus, the Lord of Life who urges us to see the crowds, to see the poor and the oppressed, and to stand with those who struggle. Blessing means solidarity - we're called to resolute presence with all who suffer and all who grieve.

These are difficult times. The COVID pandemic rages on, leaving tragedy in its wake: well over 220,000 dead in the U.S. alone. [As of this writing, the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation of the University of Washington projections for November 1 are staggering: 257,000 COVID deaths if health mandates are eased; 254,936 at the current mortality rate; and 226,956 in the unlikely event that masks become universally mandated across the United States.]

Death stalks the land, menacing the elderly, those without health insurance, folks living on the streets because they're afraid of getting COVID in shelters. This cruel pandemic threatens every single person being treated for cancer, heart disease, or a lung condition.

And we face other challenges. Decades after the Civil Rights Act was passed, the vote is still being suppressed in low-income communities across our nation. Violence against black and brown persons continues unabated, with far too many precious children of God gunned down by police or lost to years of incarceration. [On the epidemic of mass incarceration and disproportionality in the sentencing of black and brown persons convicted of crimes in the U.S., see Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2020); James Samuel Logan, Good Punishment? Christian Moral Practice and U.S. Imprisonment (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).]

On this Feast of All Saints, many in our congregations will be worshipping remotely, singing the hymns through tears as they remember all they've lost. With the pandemic, social isolation, and the bitter divisions fracturing our public life, many feel like they're alone in a grim apocalyptic landscape.

Church: we have to share the good news in every way we know how:

They are not alone!

The kin-dom of heaven has come near, and we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses [Hebrews 12:1], throngs of saints who testify to God's mighty grace.

I think of Augustine, the influential African theologian who taught us that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God. I think of Julian of Norwich, the English anchorite who shared her magnificent visions of divine love. [Julian of Norwich, Showings, The Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1978). To delve into the riches of the mystical tradition, see the magisterial series by Bernard McGinn, The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism, 7 vols. (New York: Herder & Herder, 2002–2017)].

Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., Óscar Romero, Pauli Murray - countless saints dance at the throne of the Lamb, singing the good news, amplifying the healing, justice, and mercy that are hallmarks of God's kingdom.

Blessed are they,

and blessed are you.

[Mirrored here is the surprising turn in the Matthean Beatitudes (5:11) toward the disciples who risk everything for Jesus’ sake, in solidarity with the crowds of those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and so on.]

Saints of God, each and every one of you,

sanctified in the struggle -

blessed when you tell the Gospel message of peace,

and blessed when you teach someone they are worthy of love;

blessed when you claim healing for every one of God's children,

and blessed when you persist in trying to get to Jesus!

This is our shared work of ministry. And friends, we are not alone. We are surrounded by saints, and we walk in the light of Jesus' promise, "I am with you always, to the end of the age." [Matthew 28:20]

Let us pray.

Gracious God, fount of every blessing: we praise you for the magnificent promise we have in Jesus Christ. We rejoice in his assurance that those who mourn will be comforted and those who yearn for righteousness will be satisfied. Pour your blessing upon us, that in all we do, we may tell the good news of your healing and justice. In the name of the One who is mercy unbounded and love incarnate: Jesus Christ, to whom be all honor, glory, and praise, now and forever. Amen.