Bishop WolfeThe Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, 10:30 a.m. service
The Rt. Rev. Dean E. Wolfe, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas

Blessed are you

Come, Holy Spirit and kindle the fire that is in us.
Take our lips and speak through them.
Take our hearts and see through them.
Take our souls and set them on fire. Amen.

Matthew was always my mother’s favorite gospel. “Matthew’s got it all,” she would say. And what she meant by that was that the gospel according to Matthew has a birth narrative, the synoptic parables, a crucifixion narrative, a Resurrection story, and a post-Resurrection story. Matthew is, biblically speaking, “one stop shopping.”

And, the gospel according to Matthew contains the Beatitudes. The word “beatitude” comes from the Latin beatittudo, meaning “state of blessedness; supreme happiness.”

The Beatitudes are the eight sayings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount that bring a state of blessedness, a supreme happiness to those searching to find their way. The Beatitudes are a way of being in the world. They are instructions for better living and reveal the moral compass of our faith.

In today’s lesson, Jesus “sees the crowds.” He sees them, he truly sees them, and to “see the crowds” is to see their need and their pain and their lostness. To “see the crowds” is to see through their carefully constructed defenses and to know their deepest longings.

And Jesus, ignoring the media person on his team – you know, the one who must have been telling him, “This is a really great crowd! You don’t get a crowd like this every day! Maybe we could tell them to wait and you can return quickly?” – Jesus leaves the masses and goes up the mountain, away from the crowd, where it’s cool and quiet.

He goes up on a mountaintop, where all the holiest revelations take place. And Jesus sits down. Maybe he sits because he’s tired. Maybe he sits because he wants to center himself. Or maybe he sits because that’s how rabbis teach.

But for whatever reasons, he sits and the disciples come to him. His core group of leaders draw near to be fed at the feet of their master, and the master taught them what he knew, and he taught them, saying,

Blessed are the poor in Spirit.
Blessed are those who mourn.
Blessed are the meek.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Blessed are the merciful.
Blessed are the pure in heart.
Blessed are the peacemakers.

And then, finally, an eighth saying, just one last thought.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Blessed are you. Blessed are you.

You want to know about Jesus? People always say they want to know about Jesus. Preachers always say they want to tell folks about Jesus. So, here he is, Jesus, the Son of the Living God, at his purest, most unvarnished, most un-the-ologized self. And what does he have to teach us?

The kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor in spirit. Those who mourn will be comforted. Those who are meek will inherit the earth. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled. Those who are merciful will receive mercy. Those who are pure in heart will see God. Those who are peacemakers will be called children of God.

People always tell their preachers that they don’t want any politics mixed up with their religion. I get that. You can’t preach like a partisan and explain Jesus through a Democratic or a Republican or an Independent lens and remain faithful to the texts. But as an old political science major, I remember the definition of politics. “Politics is the process by which it is determined how limited resources will be allocated.”

Now Jesus can’t be preached like a Democrat or a Republican or an Independent, but neither can one say he isn’t political, because Jesus has a lot to say about how limited resources should be allocated. Jesus is very political. Jesus has a great deal to say about who gets what. And Jesus has a great deal to say about what is right and what is wrong.

You see, it isn’t that the church is slipping into the political arena lately. It’s that the political arena is encroaching upon the church’s territory, which is the moral arena, the ethical arena, the theological arena.

For example, you can argue that torturing prisoners works. You can argue that one can get useful information out of a tortured human being. I believe it’s a poor and unproven argument, and a lot of military and intelligence professionals would agree, but that isn’t a moral argument. It’s a practical argument, a utilitarian argument. The reason Christians can’t consider torture as an alternative is that it is not what Jesus teaches. The reasons Christians can’t entertain torture as a possibility is that it is wrong.

So, you can make those claims under a variety of different flags, but you can’t make those claims under the Christian flag.

In Kansas, more than 450 individuals have been given the chance to start their lives over in safety and freedom in the United States thanks to the vision of the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas in creating Episcopal Wichita Area Refugee Ministry (which is now Episcopal Migration Ministries of Wichita.) These are all refugees who have been carefully examined and granted political asylum in the United States. They come from the direst of circumstances. They come from U.N. refugee camps where they are surrounded by barbed wire, sleep in tents, and can only dream of having homes with electricity or running water.

You can make an argument that no one should be allowed into our country who is a Muslim, or who comes from a nation that is predominantly Muslim, but you can’t say all Muslims are evil. Of course, all the terrorists who have carried out attacks on the United States have been born here in the U.S. or came from countries like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, which are not included in the current Executive Order. And by the way, this Executive Order is an action opposed by most Catholics, Evangelicals and Episcopalians, parts of the Christian faith so diverse that they agree on little else.

These decisions may be politically popular, but you cannot say the Christian faith is a basis for these decisions.

Craig Barnes, the president of Princeton Theological Seminary, wrote in The Christian Century, “I spent 10 years as the pastor of a large congregation in Washington, D.C., and learned how to speak on issues that divide the nation. The goal, I now tell my students at the seminary, is to preach into the cultural divisions in a way that transcends the competing political platforms. I still believe that.”

But he continues, “How does one be a pastor-preacher in a time of cultural division? … There are times when a preacher has to echo [Martin] Luther in saying, ‘Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me.’ This is one of those times.”

Who can be silent when torture is discussed as an effective national strategy, when people legally entitled to enter our country are stopped at its border, and where the dream of a morally superior America is becoming jeopardized? Says Barnes, “All of that is anathema to the gospel of Jesus Christ’s love for a world he was literally dying to love.”

Friedrich Gustav Emil Martin Niemöller was a Lutheran and a German theologian during World War II. I didn’t know this until recently, but he had been a veteran of World War I, where he was a German submarine captain. He was dismissed from the German Navy for his refusal to meet the terms of the World War l armistice and turn over his vessel to the British.

His deep nationalism led him to become a Nazi sympathizer in Hitler’s earlier years, but as time went by, he came to understand the dangers of the Nazi movement and began to actively oppose it. He was eventually arrested and placed in a concentration camp at Dachau.

He famously wrote, “First they came for the Communists. And I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the Socialists. And I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists. And I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews. And I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me. ”

The words we heard earlier from the prophet Micah fairly ring out in these moments: He (meaning the Lord) has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.

It was roughly 80 years ago when Yale Divinity School theologian Richard Niebuhr spoke of a growing belief in a “God without wrath (who) brought (people) without sin into a kingdom without judgement through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”

In the Christian faith, there is no God without wrath, or people without sin, or kingdom without judgment, or Christ without a cross. Those don’t exist as recognizable categories for orthodox Christians. And in these days, God is not mocked.

Over the course of my episcopacy, I have visited eight countries, four continents, gone through four Chevies, traveling nearly half a million miles across the diocese and across our nation. By my own estimation, I have attended some 3,000 meetings, and according to the official records, I have confirmed 1,759 people, received 330 more and ordained 26 priests and 45 deacons. I’ve made roughly 450 parish visitations, helped raise $5-6 million, and stared down the loss of our largest parish on the eve of my consecration and the largest economic downturn since the Great Depression. I was elected Vice President of the House of Bishops at the invitation of two Presiding Bishops, and on behalf of those Presiding Bishops met with two different Archbishops of Canterbury.

And, in all these years, I’ve never missed a visitation due to illness or weather, an achievement I may be just a little too proud of.

So, now I have come to the end of one road, as I prepare to follow another. In the 14th year of my consecration as Bishop of Kansas, I come to the conclusion of this shared ministry with all of you, and I will now embark upon a new ministry in a strange and faraway land called New York City. Toto, we’re really not in Kansas anymore!

It has been a great privilege to have served as your bishop and to have preached from this grand pulpit and to have worshiped in this beautiful, sacred space. I have always appreciated this cathedral, but never more than on Christmas Eve when it is candle-lit and filled with the joy of the Christ Child. Or on Easter morning when the flowers are so plentiful and the Spirit so intense that it feels as if our Risen Savior might just burst through that Resurrection window after all.

But it is now time to allow someone else the privilege of serving as the Bishop of Kansas, and I pray we will not lose even a half step during this transition. We have come such a very long way over these past 13 years, have we not?

I like what Richard Bach once wrote: “Don’t be dismayed by good-byes. A farewell is necessary before we can meet again. And meeting again, after moments or lifetimes, is certain for those who are friends.”

After moments or lifetimes, we will meet again. Blessed are you. Blessed are you.

May the Lord continue to richly bless us and keep us all. Amen.