July 19, 2020

“The Blessing of Persecution”

Matthew 5:9-12

A sermon for Hawaii Kai UCC by Janice Ogoshi

July 19, 2020  (Pentecost +7)


Have you ever noticed that people in a family often share certain idiosyncrasies, like the way they talk or the vocabulary they use, or the way they stand or walk?  Little kids look up to their parents, and want to be like them, so they do what their moms or dads do.  When you spend enough time around someone, sometimes their habits rub off on you.


It’s the same in God’s family.  We love and appreciate our relationship with God.  We have been adopted into God’s family by grace.  And we respond to that grace by doing our best to share it with others, mimicking God so that our neighbors will receive God’s grace and become family members too.  As children of God, we take on the characteristics of God.


“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”  When we work for peace, shalom in Hebrew, it is a response to the peace we have received from God.  We have been reconciled to God through Jesus Christ.  We know that God loves us and has forgiven us and wants the very best for us.  The natural outcome is for us to proclaim the good news, to tell others about the reconciliation we have received and is available to them.


The Apostle Paul wrote about how grace flows from Jesus Christ to us and then through us to others in 2 Corinthians 5:17-20:

 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 


The ministry of reconciliation holds up a vision of shalom, of peace.  It is right relationship with God.  It is more than just an absence of war or conflict.  It points back to the goodness of creation in Genesis 1 and 2, in which all life flourished because it existed in harmony with God and with the rest of creation.  


But sometimes when we advocate for shalom, when we take up our ministry of reconciliation, we make others uncomfortable.  When we share God’s vision of shalom, others may be threatened because they are confronted with their sin—their selfishness, their disregard for others, their violence toward creation, their waywardness from God.  And sometimes people don’t want to face up to their sin.


This was true for the prophets God sent to Israel, and they were persecuted because of the call to repentance they proclaimed on behalf of Yahweh.  And it is true for those who take up the ministry of reconciliation, of God making God’s appeal to the world through us.  So Jesus warns us to expect persecution when we live in response to God’s grace and love.


“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (vv. 10-12).


This doesn’t sound like blessing or good news.  Jesus is being real here.  He understands that his followers will face resistance and persecution, and he wants to prepare them for it.  He himself endured terrible persecution and suffering and ultimately, death, because of his ministry of reconciliation.  But God raised him from the dead, a decisive action bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth, to us.


As children of God, we can expect resistance and persecution because the kingdoms of this world are fighting against the establishment of the kingdom of God.  But we have the assurance that Jesus reigns, that Jesus is Lord over all, and that God’s kingdom will come to earth, as it is in heaven.


The blessing is not in the persecution, but in our vision of God’s shalom, and in our resistance to all other visions.  We see and experience abundant life, we flourish in relationship with Jesus.  And when we do our part to love our neighbors and to love all of God’s creation, we see glimpses of God’s shalom.  The blessing is in the life of righteousness—not self-righteousness, but the right relationship with God that we have been given by grace.


Unfortunately, many people and forces in the world are entrenched in the world’s values, in the world’s power, and they will resist.  And as a result God’s children, those who are imitating Christ are persecuted. 


On Friday, Congressman John Lewis, a longtime civil rights leader passed away.  As I read several obituaries, I saw that Mr. Lewis lived the beatitudes that we are focusing on today.  He was a peacemaker, seeking justice for black Americans and reconciliation between races.  He was committed to nonviolent protest in working against racism.  What kept him going was the vision of what he called the “beloved community,” a term he adopted from the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Mr. Lewis worked to build this community that was without poverty, racism or war, the kind of community which God created us all to live in and thrive.  This vision and his efforts to see it formed cost him dearly.


Katharine Seele, a reporter for The New York Times wrote:

“Mr. Lewis led demonstrations against racially segregated restrooms, hotels, restaurants, public parks and swimming pools, and he rose up against other indignities of second-class citizenship. At nearly every turn he was beaten, spat upon or burned with cigarettes. He was tormented by white mobs and absorbed body blows from law enforcement.” He was also arrested numerous times protesting racist policies.


Seele quoted Mr. Lewis’s 2018 Twitter, which many have posted on social media in the last two days.  He tweeted, “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

Katharine Q. Seele, The New York Times “John Lewis, Towering Figure of Civil Rights Era, Dies at 80”  July 17, 2020.

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/17/us/john-lewis-dead.html?action=click&module=Top%20Stories&pgtype=Homepage  Accessed 7-18-2020.


Mr. Lewis was blessed with a vision of God’s creation, and did what he felt called to do to make it more visible in our country.  And he got into a lot of good, necessary trouble because of his efforts.  


Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.  Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of God.


We may not ever experience the persecution that John Lewis endured in his lifetime, but we know that living as children of God and proclaiming reconciliation can and will bring resistance and persecution.  


The resistance may even come from ourselves.  We have a hard time being reconciled to our loved ones and neighbors.  Forgiveness is hard work.  But I have witnessed it among members of our church.  We know we need to forgive, and it’s hard, but we do our best, asking God to give us courage.  And when we are reconciled to each other, there is great joy, for then we have experienced the beloved community, the kingdom of heaven.  And we give the world around us a taste, a glimpse of the kingdom of God.


The Beatitudes reveal the kingdom of God as being very different from the world around us.  Jesus assures those who seemed to be on the downside of life that God was truly with them, and saw them in their plight.  He wanted them and us to know that our efforts to make more visible the kingdom of heaven are not in vain.  We are truly blessed when we catch glimpses of the kingdom of God, and we are encouraged to know that we are on the right path.


Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted.  Though the world may view you as losers and even cursed, in God’s eyes, you are blessed.  You are God’s beloved children, and you look and act like your heavenly Father.  God is working in and through you to make God’s kingdom come and God’s will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.  Thanks be to God.