February 17, 2019: "Are You Armed?"

February 17, 2019                                                             Rev. Rhonda Blevins, DMIN

 

Are You Armed?

Luke 6:17-26

He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them. Then he looked up at his disciples and said:

“Blessed are you who are poor for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.  Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

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One of the things you may not know about me, because of my sophisticated, erudite accent (haha), is that I’m a proud hillbilly from the hills and hollers of East Tennessee. There’s not only a distinct accent among my Appalachian people, there’s also a unique vernacular. My beloved grandmother, Granny Johnson, loved to spin a good yarn which invariably included some hillbilly-isms that I loved and miss about her. Here are a few:

1.      “You come by it honest.” (Translation: “You are like your parents.” Note: usually not a compliment.)

2.      “Bless her heart.” (Repeat: usually not a compliment.)

3.       “Gechoouns.”  (As in: “Can I ‘gechoouns’ anything?”)

4.       “Fixin’ to.” (Translation: “Preparing to; getting ready to.”)

5.      “Over yonder.” (This is a directional statement meaning north, south, east or west, at no particular distance. Accompanied by pointing or an arm motion.)

6.      “I reckon.” (A highly considered thought. Example: “I reckon I’ll go over yonder and gechoouns some RC Cola and moon pies.”

7.      “Gettin’ above his raisin’.” (Oh my. Someone thinks he’s better than he really is. Again: not a compliment.)

8.      “Well, I s’wanee.” (We like this better than the uppity “I do declare” of other southerners “over yonder” (think: Atlanta) who have “gotten above their raisin’.)

9.       “Them’s fightin’ words!” (Translation: “Those are fighting words!”)

The reason I’m teaching you these phrases is that sometimes, to this hillbilly, these phrases are the absolute best way to convey a meaning.

When it comes to Jesus’ words in our scripture lesson today, the best way I can describe it is, “Them’s fightin’ words!”

You may wonder, “What? Isn’t this the Lukan version of the beatitudes? The beloved passage we teach to little children and use to comfort those who suffer?” My answer to that is, “Yes! It’s that and more!”

Let’s start with a little background. This passage is called the “Sermon on the Plain.” Matthew places Jesus’ delivery of these sayings up on a mountain, hence we call the Matthean version the “Sermon on the Mount.” Scholars “reckon” that Matthew wanted his readers to liken Jesus to Moses when he went up on the mountain and received the Ten Commandments. Luke has a different audience, a Gentile audience less familiar and less concerned with Moses than Matthew’s Hebrew readers. So Luke sets his shorter version of the beatitudes on the plains.

And Luke’s version differs from Matthew’s in another significant way: Luke includes the “woes.” Woe to the rich, woe to the full, woe to those who laugh, woe to those well thought of. It is safe to assume that no one who fit those descriptions was among Jesus’ hearers that day. Jesus primarily addressed the peasant class—his own people. Who were those he described as “rich, full, laughing, and esteemed?” The Roman oppressors and those in their hip-pockets.

The key to understanding the deeper meaning of this text is in the beginning: “Blessed are you who are poor for yours is (listen for it) the kingdom of God.” One of the things we’re learning in my Sunday morning class is that the “kingdom of God” was the primary theme of the panoply of Jesus’ teachings. With the distance of time and culture between us and this first-century text, you and I don’t fully grasp how subversive, how revolutionary, how treasonous this “kingdom of God” language was. Who was king for first century Judea? Caesar! To go around talking about another kingdom, “Well, I s’wanee! Them’s fightin’ words!”

Jesus’ words are often “fightin’ words.” The way the vast majority of American Christians read the scriptures—we anesthetize Jesus. We envision a white, bearded, middle class guy who floats instead of walks, carries a little lamb with him everywhere he goes, and never has halitosis. But a deeper reading of the “red letters” (some Bibles have the words of Jesus in red) reveals an often confrontational Jesus who rattles the powers-that-be. We tend to over-personalize Jesus’ message, when his message is often far more about systems. Jesus, it may surprise you to consider, is a political activist in addition to being a healer and teacher. The “kingdom of God” he preaches about is a treasonous inversion of power that envisions the end of Roman imperial rule and the subjugation of his people that comes with it.

What does this mean for us? My best thought is this: if Jesus confronted oppressive systems, then shouldn’t we, his followers?

I recently discovered the story of Sister Dorothy Stang who was born in 1931 in Dayton, Ohio and raised on a farm in a traditional Catholic family. In 1948, Sister Dot became a nun and taught school for a time in Illinois and Arizona. But Dorothy felt a calling to be a missionary. She wanted to go to China, but God had other plans. In 1966 Sister Dot began her ministry in Brazil.

For 40 years Sister Dorothy found her place in Brazil alongside rural workers and peasants, defending both them and the environment from those who would exploit the rainforest for monetary gain. This was not easy work. In fact, it was quite dangerous as she found herself up against loggers, ranchers, land speculators, and agribusiness—powerful forces that continue to make their almighty dollar by victimizing the poor farmers and destroying the virgin forests of the Amazon, also called “the earth’s lungs” and home to 20% of the earth’s fresh water reserves. Sister Dorothy recognized how vital the Amazon is to the future of the rural workers she ministered to, as well as to the future of the planet. For 40 years, she took up this good fight against those intent on destruction for monetary gain. Sister Dorothy is often pictured wearing a t-shirt that read: “The Death of the Forest is the End of our Lives.”

All of this good work landed Sister Dot on a “death list” created by powerbrokers in the area. “The goal of . . . calculated murders is to eliminate opposition to the clear-cutting and burning of the forest so that fields of soy beans can be planted, trees can be logged, and cattle can graze. Another goal of the killings is to eliminate those who empower and educate the peasants; and finally, the killings are meant to intimidate the farmers and keep them ensnared in an endless cycle of debt, akin to slavery. Sister Dorothy became a prime target.”[1]

On the morning of February 12, 2005, Sister Dorothy woke early and began walking on a rural, dirt road to attend a community meeting addressing the rights of the Amazon and those who lived and worked there. As she was walking, two men approached Sister Dorothy, stopped her and asked, “Are You Armed?” To their surprise, Sister Dorothy reached into her bag and pulled out . . . her Bible. According to a witness, Sister Dorothy began to read. What passage did she choose? The Beatitudes:

 

“Blessed are the poor . . . blessed are the hungry . . . blessed are those who weep.”

 

One of the men pulled out a revolver and unloaded all six bullets into Sister Dorothy. She died there on the road that day.

Now, if we stopped there, we would be certain this story didn’t have a happy ending. But the glimmer of light at the brutal end of Dorothy’s life is that her death has not been in vain. Three of the four men implicated in the crime have been convicted and are serving time. But more than that, her social justice activism has inspired many. And since her death, 20,000 square miles of the rainforest in the area where Dorothy worked has been placed under federal environmental protection. Her brother, a filmmaker, produced an award-winning documentary about his sister entitled, “They Killed Sister Dorothy” which has been watched by countless individuals.[2]

Sister Dorothy Stang is an exemplary model of someone who followed Jesus’ lead by confronting oppressive systems. It’s what got her killed. It’s what got Jesus killed too.

When we think about Jesus and Sister Dorothy and acknowledge the high bar they set, it’s easy to dismiss the call to take up the fight with and for oppressed people because we believe we can never give as much, or we can never have the kind of impact that they did.

But let me remind you of something. When Sister Dorothy was asked, “Are you armed?”—meaning, “Are you prepared for this fight?”—remember what Dorothy pulled out of her bag? Her Bible. She read the provocative “fightin’ words” of a man named Jesus from Nazareth. Lest we think we don’t have what we need to pick up the fight for the poor, the marginalized, those oppressed by systemic injustices in our own land, let me remind you that we have the exact same “weapon” that Sister Dorothy had. We have the word of God, “sharper than any two-edged sword.” (Heb. 4:12)

My charge today is to follow Jesus and take up the good fight. Become a warrior for justice, recognizing you have everything you need to do your part in the fight for the coming of the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. But don’t take my word for it. Hear these words from the book of Ephesians 6:10-17:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.  Therefore, take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.  Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Are you armed? I “reckon” you are!

[1] Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, “Expanded Story of Sister Dorothy Stang.” https://www.sndohio.org/sister-dorothy/expanded-story. Accessed 2/14/19.

[2] Find the documentary, “They Killed Sister Dorothy” here. (Warning: graphic scenes, language.)

Shari Maxwell