a sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany [Year A]
The first congregation I served was in a borough of Pittsburgh that had a large Roman Catholic church in it and therefore a fairly heavy Roman Catholic presence. Pretty soon after arriving there I got used to being mistaken for a priest whenever I was wearing my collar out in public. To be quite honest, this really didn’t bother me, and in most cases I could get by with just a wave and a smile on the street without being drawn into a longer conversation where I’d have to explain myself. Occasionally I would end up saying a quick prayer on the sidewalk for healing or something of the sort, and those were holy moments.
But one day I was drawn in and unable to escape or explain myself. I was at lunch with my new bride, Melinda, at one of our favorite places to eat: an authentic Neapolitan pizzeria that was rather new to our little borough and trying to get established. The owner was a first generation Italian who had learned his craft in Naples and had originally owned a shop in Manhattan. That day during lunch, before our meals had arrived, a young man working there apparently caught sight of my collar and bolted out from behind the counter and came right up to our table. He said, with eyes wide with hope and expectation, and in broken English with an Italian accent in front of all of the other guests, “Dear Father! Today is my first day on the job here. Will you please bless my pizza-making career?!”
Frozen, I couldn’t get out of it, especially because he was most likely going to be making our pizza. I thought to myself: I must have been absent on the day in seminary when they taught us that prayer. I didn’t know if I was supposed to stand up and put my hands on his head or if I was supposed to go back in the kitchen and bless him there. I didn’t want to let the young man down, and I didn’t want to get drawn into a long dialogue about how I wasn’t technically Roman Catholic and so he might be mistaking me for someone, so I took one of his hands, and I said something like, “Dear Father, please bless this man’s pizza making career. May he toss the dough with ease, and make many delicious pizzas that are very round and hearty. In Jesus’ name, Amen.” He seemed satisfied, and went back behind the counter.
I don’t know whatever happened to that guy. The pizzeria closed about a year later, never to reopen. I hope he is out there still making pizzas somewhere. I can’t say I’ve ever blessed anything like that before or since. On his first day in the neighborhood, Jesus goes to the top of a mountain before a huge crowd and blesses people who have never been blessed before. The poor in spirit. Those who mourn. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. The peacemakers. I mean, if I thought it was awkward to come up with a blessing for a pizza career in front of a whole restaurant, think about how strange it must be for Jesus to stand in front of hundreds and bless the meek and the merciful. These are the types of people who never get blessed, who labor away in the soup kitchens funeral parlors of the world, who suffer often silently in the margins and rarely see their names in lights. Think how strange it must be for the crowd around Jesus to hear things like this, to have these particular words be the first things that come from his mouth in his much-anticipated first sermon.
A few years ago during the pandemic we were looking for a children’s book on the birth of Jesus that we could give to kids who came to our live nativity. Tricia Stohr-Hunt helped us narrow a few options down, but we looked at dozens. One in particular stood out mainly because of the illustrations, and I went ahead and ordered it. It’s just called Nativity by Cynthia Rylant. Unlike many of the other selections, its text is taken straight from Scripture, using the birth story that everyone knows from Luke’s gospel. What’s so peculiar or unique about it is that it doesn’t end in Bethlehem. After we are told Mary ponders these things in her heart and after the shepherds leave, glorifying God, you turn the page and read, “When the babe, who was called Jesus, became a man, he stood one day on a mountain before a great multitude of people and he said, ‘Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” And the book continues with most of these blessings from Matthew’s gospel.
I have never seen any type of literature tie the birth of Jesus so directly to this first teaching of his, to see a natural culmination of his birth in what we call the Sermon on the Mount. But perhaps we should. For those who first heard Jesus’ sermon, and for those who first shared news of it, I bet there was a clear line connecting his humble birth to these words. A Messiah who was born to an unwed mother and laid in a manger and visited by shepherds would be the one who could bless the overlooked and undervalued.
That’s just how ground-breaking these blessings are. With them Jesus literally breaks ground on a new creation where everyone, and especially with those starting with those at the bottom, has a place. This is a new world brought about by his love, by his mercy, by his sacrifice for you and for me. It will be born as Jesus teaches us to treasure and value people differently than what the world tends to. It will be born as Jesus acknowledges that those who are farthest away from power and privilege almost always have the best understanding of how God is a true help. This new creation will be born by Jesus’ unquenchable desire to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. It will take shape in our very midst. Like the enchanting illustrations in Cynthia Rylant’s Nativity book, his word brings life to this new world, and he invites us to live in it too.
There was a story in the news just a couple of weeks ago about some young school children in Minnesota who looked around and saw that during recess time their classmates in wheelchairs and mobility assistive devices had nothing to do. The playground wasn’t accessible to them because it had no adaptive equipment. This bothered some 5th graders at the school who asked their teacher why they couldn’t just buy better equipment. How could their disabled friends be included in the fun each day? She told them the price tag was staggering: $300,000 for playground equipment that could safely accommodate wheelchairs and scooters.
You can probably guess what happened. The 5th graders were seeing and understanding the new creation that Jesus spoke about, where the mourning are comforted and the meek inherit the earth and the children left on the sidelines inherit the slides and swings. The 5th graders themselves raised all $300,000 within a matter of months. The children in the wheelchairs love playing on their new playground but say it was the seeing the loving effort their classmates made in order to obtain the equipment that was best of all. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness like a kid at Glen Lake Elementary, for you will be filled.
You see, the poor in spirit, those who are mourning, like the family and friends of Tyre Nichols, the people who strive for peace when the world wants strife, the meek, the gentle, those who are harassed for standing up for what is right—these kinds of folks all have one big thing in common. They are more prone, because of their position in the world to have a better concept of just how powerful and loving God really is. People in their positions are more liable to have an honest assessment of their own weakness, their own foolishness, their own lack of agency unlike those who have lots of wealth, or status, or health, or power. And it is a blessing to know you need God! It is a blessing to understand and believe that Jesus speaks for you, that Jesus has come to die for you. It is a blessing to know and receive that love.
I received a letter this week from a former Epiphany member who moved away last year to a new city in a distant state. She was writing to send greetings and to let me know how she was adjusting to her new home and that she had finally found a new church after much searching and prayer. She was writing to request that we transfer her membership to that new congregation there, even thought it is hard, she said, because she loved Epiphany so.
She said the first Sunday she finally geared up to worship there they happened to be paying off their mortgage and were preparing to call a permanent pastor. The lady behind her in the pew greeted her warmly, then asked her to join them for coffee hour. She was then introduced to a woman who headed up the congregation’s sewing ministry. Of all people to meet Caroline Wake, who was a faithful member of our sewing ministry! And, wouldn’t you know it, Caroline had loaded her car that Sunday with fabric donations. The women helped her bring it in to the church where they will meet on the second and fourth Thursdays of each month to make items for Newborns in Need and quilts for Lutheran World Relief. Caroline, apprehensive about a new worshiping community, but bringing donations with her anyway. Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” If you know Caroline, you know how that fits.
So as we walk the streets, may we all carry around with us with donations of some kind at the ready—donations of extra kindness, mercy, justice. May we all look to the newcomer, the stranger, and introduce ourselves with warmth and welcome. May we all look to the edges of the playground, or the lunchroom, the neighborhood, and notice just who Jesus has started to pull front and center.
May we all, blessed with love and forgiveness by this new preacher from Nazareth, run back to the counters where we work and play and live with our hands ready to make peace and beauty, and ready ourselves for the new world that is taking shape.
Blessed are you.
Blessed are you.
Blessed are you.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.