Matthew 5:1-20

From the  Denver Post:  “Hundreds of Vanessa Collier’s friends and family gathered [earlier this month] at New Hope Ministries, sitting before an open casket that held the woman they loved, when suddenly the minister overseeing her funeral stopped the service.

The memorial could not continue, Pastor Ray Chavez said, as long as pictures of Collier with the love of her life, the spouse she shared two children with, were to be displayed.

Chavez said there could be no images of Collier with her wife, Christina. There could be no indication that Collier was gay.

Outraged, those who loved Collier, 33, picked up programs, flowers and eventually the casket itself, moving the service to a mortuary that — thankfully, they say — happened to be across the street.

“It was humiliating,” said Victoria Quintana, Collier’s longtime friend. “It was devastating.” ”

Blessed are gay, lesbian, and bisexual persons when they are cast out from their homes, workplaces, and churches because of who they love …for they deserve better.

From NBC Miami: On a Saturday morning last month Sgt. Valerie Deant, who plays clarinet with the Florida Army National Guard’s 13th Army Band, arrived at a shooting range with her fellow soldiers for their annual weapons qualifications training.

What the soldiers discovered when they entered the range made them angry: mug shots of African American men apparently used as targets by North Miami Beach Police snipers, who had used the range before the guardsmen.

Even more startling for Deant, one of the images was her brother.  His mug shot was among the pictures of five minorities used as targets by North Miami Beach police, all of them riddled by bullets.

North Miami Beach Police Chief J. Scott Dennis admitted that his officers could have used better judgment, but denies any racial profiling.”

Blessed are African-American men who are assumed to be violent thugs and criminals on first sight for they deserve better.

From Time Magazine:  Many are calling the Jan. 7 attack on the office of Charlie Hebdo an attack on freedom of speech, or even an assault on Western values as a whole. Yet elsewhere in the world, those same values are being threatened by other extremists who want to spread fundamentalism. Boko Haram, the terrorist group in Nigeria that kidnapped 276 schoolgirls from their dorm last spring, murdered up to 2,000 civilians in Baga [just three days after the Paris attacks] (although the bodies have not yet been officially counted), and over the weekend used a 10-year old girl as a suicide bomber to kill at least 16 people at a market (two other young girls wearing suicide vests killed three people in a separate attack.)

No major dignitaries showed up in Abuja to support the Nigerian government after the Baga attack. In the week [following] the attack on Charlie Hebdo, the French terror plot [had] been the main headline in the national edition of the New York Times every day, but the most recent Boko Haram attack hasn’t appeared once on the front page. It wasn’t on the cover of the New Yorker. Nobody wore #IamBaga buttons at the Golden Globes.

Blessed are those who are abandoned by the Western World because we have trouble identifying with them for they deserve better.

Last October, the 700 former residents of Long Island, where Boston’s largest homeless shelter had been operating, were forced to leave the island when officials condemned the only bridge leading to the refuge on Boston Harbor.  The city has still done little to create new shelters or find homes for those who have been displaced.  Mayor Marty Walsh dismissed the use of ferries to transport the homeless to the shelter as too expensive.  However, plans have surfaced to use the island for an Olympic shooting range if the city wins its bid for the 2024 games.  The proposal states that ferry service would be available to bring spectators to the island for the games.

Blessed are those who are without shelter in one of the wealthiest countries in the world where the amount of empty homes outnumbers the individuals who need one for they deserve better.

From The Daily Dot: “Leelah Alcorn’s three-year struggle to assert her transgender identity in a staunchly Christian household came to an end on December 28, when she was struck and killed by oncoming traffic on I-71 near Cincinnati.

Before she died, the 17-year-old left a heartbreaking note on Tumblr detailing the depression and increasing hopelessness she had experienced since attempting to come out to her parents after first learning the word “transgender” at the age of 14. Though she wrote that she initially “cried of happiness” when learning there was a name for [what] she had felt her whole life, her joy was short-lived:

I immediately told my mom and she reacted extremely negatively, telling me that it was a phase, that I would never truly be a girl, that God doesn’t make mistakes, that I am wrong. If you are reading this, parents, please don’t tell this to your kids. Even if you are Christian or are against transgender people don’t ever say that to someone, especially your kid. That won’t do anything but make them hate them self. That’s exactly what it did to me.”

Blessed are trans* persons who struggle to find their true identity only to be persecuted in the name of Jesus.  For they deserve better.

I can, of course, go on and on with other stories; a long list of those who are in need of God’s blessing.  It’s a list where we sometimes name names but, too often, we leave the spaces blank because it’s easier for us to do so.

30 years ago, the United Church of Christ began the Open and Affirming movement calling on churches to declare a specific, extravagant welcome to gay, lesbian, and bi-sexual persons.  As congregations have entered the ONA process one of the most asked questions has been “Why do we need to name any specific groups?  Can’t we just say that all are welcome?”

A similar question has come up with the recent protests and conversation around the deaths of African-American men due to police shootings.  As protest signs and chants and hashtags declare that black lives matter, they are met with the question “don’t all lives matter?”

This list of blessings that Dave shared with us this morning, known to many as the “Beatitudes,” could easily have been crafted as a universal message instead of listing specific groups.  Jesus’ message that day could just as easily have been “everyone is blessed.”  “Blessed are all.  Amen.  The End.”  I think that would have been consistent with Jesus’ ministry.  His message of the good news of God’s love was one, I believe, that was meant for the entire world.  My understanding of God’s intended peaceable kingdom on Earth is a community where all are welcome and where all lives matter.

But, instead of giving a simple message that “all are blessed” Jesus is more direct and more specific.  Blessed are the poor and the hungry and those who mourn and the meek.  He begins to put names in some of the blank spaces that we often leave unfilled.  Jesus takes the time to explicitly name groups and individuals.  He calls our attention to others who need our blessing and to the characteristics in ourselves that thirst for God’s love.

If we are among those who mourn or who are merciful or who hunger for righteousness, Jesus offers us a blessing.  If we feel persecuted in our work, as many of his first followers were, Jesus assures us that God is with us.  And Jesus promises a reward in heaven for everyone that he’s named.  But I don’t believe that it’s enough to say everything will be fine after we die.  We need to do better at creating a world where God’s blessing is felt and lived out by everyone, but especially by those who are often left out.

The early followers of Jesus were often ridiculed, arrested, and even killed for their faith.  What happens when Christians have become the persecutors?  What happens when a teenager is being told that her true feelings are against God or a young lesbian mother’s funeral is halted in the name of following Jesus?  What happens when we turn our backs on those who are truly in need because they live on a forgotten continent or because we can easily excuse their homelessness as somehow their own fault?

If we are truly to call ourselves Christians, if we are truly to believe that we are called to follow Jesus, we need to do better.  We need to hear that God’s blessing is upon us to do Christ’s work.  We need to hear the good news that all are welcome in God’s world but we also need to do the work to understand what that means, taking the time to have separate conversations that address specific issues.

In 1996, Memorial Congregational Church became one of the earliest congregations to become Open and Affirming.  Our ONA statement states “We welcome into membership all people who would share our faith journey. When we use the word “all” we specifically and implicitly include gay, lesbian and bisexual people, and others who have experienced rejection.”

In 2013, we realized that there was a blank space on the list.  The ‘96 statement lists gay, lesbian and bisexual but not transgender.  So after a series of talks and conversations about what it means to be transgender and how we should respond as Christians, we voted to amend the ONA statement to include “transgender persons and persons of all gender expressions and identities.”

Both statements hang on the wall of our sanctuary.  Both allow MCC to be a light on a hill, shining God’s love, explicitly stating that we are followers of Jesus and that we welcome the LGBT community in a way that is against the popular stereotype of Christians.

As we continue our journey of following Jesus, we should keep returning to that wall.  Keep learning about specific groups of God’s children and discovering how we are being called to welcome and to serve them.  What can we do to provide for individuals and families without a home?  How can we raise our voices to show solidarity with Nigerians living in terror?  How do we speak up for the mentally ill? That’s how we can follow the one of the greatest commandments – to love our neighbor as ourselves.

We each have a long list of people or things who we care about, who we feel deserve God’s blessing.  And each of our lists also has blank spaces ready to be filled.

What blank space on your list can you fill?  What person or group of persons in the world is someone that you don’t know much about?  Can you name them specifically and explicitly and make a commitment to finding out more about them?  How can you bring God’s love to them – not by forcing your religion on them but by living out God’s blessing through your actions?

Jesus spent time on that hill naming and blessing many who needed a sacred sign of God’s love.  May he bless us in our work, as we do our best to be his disciples, to follow his teachings, and to offer a blessing to all of God’s children.

Blank Space

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