February 17, 2019 — Rev. Paula Norbert
We hear today the familiar passage from Luke that is often called the Beatitudes. This reflects the beginning of his preaching and it is a summary of some of the important things that he then will live out in his public ministry and repeat in both his words and in his actions over those years. We find a similar passage in Matthew’s Gospel as Matthew and Luke drew from the same sources when the Gospels were composed. Matthew’s version has different phrasing in it and is called The Sermon on the Mount while in Luke, we call it the Sermon on the Plain. Let us pray, O God, through the ages you have called your people to live in ways that model the Kingdom that Jesus often spoke about. Help us to work to be builders of that Kingdom and to believe that we are all a part of your great plan. Amen.
With the presidential election kicking off already, we’re beginning to hear what we often call a Stump Speech from the various candidates. It reflects a summation of all that the candidate wants to say and what will distinguish him or her from the rest of the field. We might say that this famous Sermon is a summary of the important things that Jesus will say in the Gospels. Jesus was able to put together some very important sayings about what he stands for, key sayings about the Kingdom of God or the reign of God. These sayings were collected over time and kept together in a document that researchers eventually called the Q Source. The writers of Matthew and Luke both drew from Mark and from that document as they composed the Gospels, and while there are many similarities, there are also differences in phrasing, different things that were accentuated. And the beginning of the Q document is the Beatitudes. Luke’s is straightforward in a way, Blessed are you who are poor, while Matthew will say, Blessed are the Poor in Spirit. It sounds counter-intuitive to hear these words, “Blessed are the poor; blessed are you who weep and moan.” When someone is suffering, it certainly doesn’t feel like a blessing. It is challenging to hear this language. Jesus isn’t saying that it is a blessing to be poor or grieving or suffering, but rather that God is with those who suffer through such experiences, that God does not want us to live like that, that God is particularly focused on the pain and suffering that we experience in life, both physical and emotional.
In the reading today, after a time of prayer up on the mountain, Jesus has gathered his disciples and brought them down to a place accessible to many people, many different people, including even Gentiles and the crowds of people who have been marginalized because of disease and unclean spirits.
The text says that he heals not just a few but all of those who come to him, hungering in so many ways, for dignity and acceptance, for wholeness and health, for forgiveness, freedom and hope. (Rev. Kathryn Matthews)
This difference in Luke’s account – with Jesus speaking on the same level as the crowds, rather than from above, up on the mountain (as in Matthew’s Gospel) – is significant, Commentator Renita Weems notes, as Jesus addresses “people with very little to offer beyond their enthusiasm and their devotion. But they are the beginnings of his new movement who, despite their poverty and need, recognize the presence of something new and powerful happening around them.”
It must have been a moment fraught with possibility and hope, even for those who have felt hopeless and abandoned. According to Weems, there is even significance in the way Jesus addresses the crowd, using the second person rather than the third – “Blessed are you,” not “those who” – because Jesus is speaking “intimately and compassionately to the crowd” and “identifies with the crowd by standing with them rather than above them.”
Last week, Rich and I happened upon a wonderful piece on Maine Public television. I wonder if any of you happened to see it. If it runs again, I would highly recommend watching it. The documentary was called “The Road to Dawn, Redeeming Uncle Tom: The Josiah Henson Story.” It was based on the book by the same name by Jared Brock. This told the amazing story of the life of a slave named Josiah Henson whose life was one of those of several slaves who inspired Maine’s own Harriet Beecher Stowe to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Josiah Henson (1789-1883) was born into slavery in Charles County, Maryland. As a child, he was sold to Isaac Riley, who later appointed him superintendent of the farm at an unusually young age because of Henson’s strength and intelligence. At age twenty-two Henson married a slave woman whose name remains unknown. They had twelve children, four while enslaved. Henson showed extreme loyalty to Riley who, in turn, entrusted him with exceptional responsibilities and allowed him to become a preacher in the Methodist Episcopal Church. However, when Henson attempted to buy his freedom, Riley cheated him and made plans to sell him south. Fearing separation from his family, Henson fled north with his wife and children in the summer of 1830. After passing through Ohio and New York, they settled in Dresden, Ontario, Canada. Henson became a preacher and a leader in the Afro-Canadian community, and he traveled back into the United States to help other slaves escape. He founded the British American Institute in 1842, an Afro-Canadian community and industrial school intended as a refuge for escaped slaves. Henson also made several trips to England, where he was received by high society, and he married a Boston widow following the death of his first wife. Henson died in Dresden, Ontario, in 1883.
The film describes some of the details of the escape Henson and his wife made from slavery. Typically, slaves would attempt to flee alone, because it was too dangerous to travel in numbers, but he would not leave his wife and children alone. So, together they walked, Henson carrying the two smallest children in a bag on his back, from Kentucky to Ohio, fighting exposure, exhaustion, and hunger. They were aided by Native Americans in the Ohio wilderness as well as sympathetic boatmen who carried them across Lake Erie to Buffalo, New York. From New York, the family traveled to Canada, where Henson found work on the tenant farm of a Mr. Hibbard. He resumed preaching, and his oldest son, Tom, was able to attend school. Henson was proud of his son’s learning, and it created a moment of crisis and growth for him as well. He described a pivotal moment in which he had to admit to his son that he couldn’t read the Bible from which he draws his sermons. Tom generously offered to teach his father to read. Eventually Henson would learn to read and write and much of his story is drawn from his writings about his life. “I was delighted with the conviction that my children would have advantages I had never enjoyed,” he admits, “but it was no slight mortification to think of being instructed by a child of twelve years old. Yet ambition, and a true desire to learn, for the good it would do my own mind, conquered the shame” (p. 64).
In Canada, Henson worked to organize the Afro-Canadian community and becomes involved in several projects that emphasized independence from white patronage. His work included the purchase of land for an autonomous Afro-Canadian community and the establishment of a school for Afro-Canadian children. His great wish was to help create a community with self-sufficiency, and Henson closed his narrative with an expression of gratitude for his liberty and faith in the future of his community:
He wrote, “I will conclude by simply recording my gratitude, heartfelt and inexpressible, to God, and to many of my fellow-men, for the vast improvement in my condition, both physical and mental; for the great degree of comfort with which I am surrounded; for the good I have been enabled to effect; for the light which has risen upon me; for the religious privileges I enjoy, and the religious hopes I am permitted to cherish; for the prospects opening to my children, so different from what they might have been; and, finally, for the cheering expectation of benefiting not only the present, but many future generations of my race.” (p. 76). (From his autobiography.) (Documenting the American South)
Josiah Henson is but one of the millions who were forced to live in slavery during the 350 plus years that slavery existed in our nation. In his personal story, one hears of untold suffering, both physical and emotional, despair, sorrow, heartache and fear. And, his story is known to us today only because he managed to escape to Canada and was able to create a life such that he became known through his work and his writings.
I thought of his journey as I read once again the beautiful words of the Sermon in Luke. How those words must have meant so much to him and others trapped in slavery over those years, and how those words still mean so much to people who find themselves in incredibly difficult circumstances in their lives. I witnessed first-hand what they meant to people living in extreme poverty in places in Central America that I visited. They recognized themselves in those words and took heart that God indeed was blessing them.
It certainly appears that Jesus was turning the ideas of his time as well as our time upside down. Jesus was laying out the vision of what God’s Kin’dom will look like and emphasizing that it will, in fact, include all those who find themselves suffering and struggling and feeling like they have been left out of the blessings that we often think of here on earth. For this former slave, Josiah Henson, a life of freedom and some measure of education and opportunity in Canada brought him a life he never imagined and he sought to share those opportunities with as many former slaves as possible, both by inviting them to be part of this community and by his own travels south to help accompany others to freedom.
We, too, hunger for a message about blessing, and love to hear about God’s grace freely showered upon us–but we may not appreciate hearing about woes at the same time. We may not want to hear warnings about what will happen to those who have too much while others have not enough. We may not want to hear “a theology of reversal,” when God finally makes everything right for the people who find themselves on the bottom of every heap. But this week’s reading reminds us that Jesus spoke in ways that his mother had… about the hungry being filled and the rich going away empty. As we read the passages from Scripture about Jesus calling the disciples and speaking to crowds that hunger for good news, we hear this underlying lesson in this Epiphany season. We are shown who Jesus is, God’s own Beloved; we hear the Good News he shares, and we are invited to listen carefully, and to follow in the way of blessing, not woe. How we respond, how we live, what we do, matters. While God blesses us all, of course, and God’s grace is poured upon us all, rich and poor alike, we might pray for the grace to participate in the “reign of generosity” proclaimed throughout the Bible. We might come to understand the difference between God’s abundance and our excess. And we might be strengthened in our commitment to do all of this if we continue to hold close another important lesson that Jesus also shared often in his travels: “Do not be afraid.”